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Bidding Bon Voyage to a Boat

There's a story behind every boat, and if they could talk, we'd all be in trouble.

Boats are bought and sold all the time. Look in any sailing magazine and you will find pages and pages of brokerage ads and classifieds hawking boats of every price, size, and make. Because of sheer volume, these pages are hard to avoid and every once in a while, a picture will grab my attention, not as a potential buyer, but as a dreamer, and my eyes will linger on the boat, trying to imagine the story it would tell, if, of course, boats could talk. How many owners has she been through? How many years did each one last? Where did they go together? Why are they splitting up now? Do the consecutive owners keep in touch?

I once sold a boat and her new captain and I have since maintained contact. The other day, there was a  surprise letter in the mail from him. Tim, who bought Varuna, 13 years ago, says he is getting ready to "hang up his jockstrap," or, in other words, retire from his job of almost 35 years, to sail around the world via both capes. My first reaction upon reading the news was, "Cool! He's gonna do it!" Then, a flurry of other feelings and memories beset me in a series of unexpected shapes and forms because of the stories this particular boat could tell, if she could talk.

Fifteen years ago, as an 18-year-old, I left New York with Varuna, and sailed around the world on my own, via both canals rather than the capes. I was young, inexperienced, eager to see the world, and bound to the biggest commitment of my life. I returned to New York two and a half years older, slightly more mature, pretty darn experienced, and incredibly relieved I had made it, knowing that I wouldn't have to sail again until I was good and ready. At the time, I couldn't imagine the day when I would ever get back on a boat and when I sold Varuna to Tim, it was a tearless farewell. The split wasn't heartbreaking; I loved her and always would, but we had had our fling and the parting of ways was inevitable. There was no room in my life for the 26-foot boat that had taken me and all my naiveté on an epic adventure around the world. 

Like marriage, the relationship between boat and boat owner encompasses a full range of emotions.

In the past 13 years, I've given talks and written articles paying tribute to her and the overall quality of her make, the Contessa. I've given hundreds of talks accompanied by slides of my elegant burgundy partner fighting wind and waves, drifting in calms, and floating in idyllic anchorages. Coupled with these slides, I have my own selective lineup of mind images that include her witnessing me at my most fearful and brave, my most shameful and proud, my most vulnerable and strongest—for ours had been a trip of extremes. They will forever be the ties that bind the feelings, sensations, and moments of a first marriage that I share with Varuna alone, and thank God she can't talk. 

If and when I thought about Tim and Varuna embarking on their own future together, it was in an abstract way, sort of like how one would think idly about life going on for a former beau. I knew she was in good hands, and while Tim always meant to take off with her one day, suddenly, the reality of it happening, irrationally, makes me feel left out. Never mind that except for the 10th anniversary of my departure from New York when the kids and I joined Tim for a sail on New Jersey's Absecon Inlet, Varuna and I have been apart for years. Never mind that she and Tim have already spent six times more time together than she and I did. Never mind that he has been a devoted owner taking more pride and care over her appearance and integrity than I was ever capable of giving. This isn't the point. It's more about a passing bittersweet sense of finality that I never felt when I sold her. Now, my beau is marrying somebody else and it's really over. But, I hasten to add, what's over for me is a beginning for Tim and Varuna, and I am also happy for them.

All the miles that have passed beneath a boat's hull equate to an enduring sense of respect.
Now Varuna will show Tim the world, albeit a colder and stormier one than the one we saw together since he's determined to round the capes. I will be thinking of and imagining them in the months to come, reliving the warmer parts of my trip through them. Now Varuna will be Tim's only ally and witness. Winds will clock around, calms will prevail over, the same sun, moon, and stars will rise and set above, ahead and behind, and waves will roll under the pair as they did for me. Tim will sit in the nook of the cockpit watching the wake tarry and disperse. He will straddle the cockpit benches and clamber aft to adjust the self-steering lines. He will look up from the same spot on the bunk inside the cabin to check the compass course. He will scramble out on the pitching deck to run up the storm sail, reef the main, juggle the spinnaker pole, and yank on the halyards and up and down-hauls.

He will find himself head-down in the engine compartment, pumping the fuel-lift lever. He will be able to trail his hands in the ocean that is so amazingly close to the cockpit. He will haul in the miniature anchor line in far-flung corners of the planet only accessible by boat. He will stand on the shores of these remote anchorages admiring the pretty and tough little vessel that has made it all possible. Sailing around the world on a 26-foot boat one may be tossed between sometimes feeling like nothing more than a speck in an immense void, and at other times master of an awesome universe all one's own. From the vantage point of Varuna's minuscule, yet comfortably solid deck, Tim will watch this watery world balloon and shrink around them.

Alone, at sea, with one's own vessel there's a certain harmony that ultimately settles in.
Tim will know he is in safe hands, so safe that he is ready to take her across thousands of miles of water in the very southern latitudes. Tim has a manual of her strengths and weaknesses that I never had since they have had a very long courtship supported by a book I wrote with detailed descriptions of our years together. He has also spent a lot of time preparing, planning, and modifying, based on this collection of past experience with Varuna. The one thing he can never change, though, is her submarine nature; this will keep them both pretty wet, but never enough to thoroughly dampen their spirits and enthusiasm. They'll have a blast.

The upcoming trip couldn't happen to a nicer couple. Tim has planned for and dreamed about it for years, steadily working toward making it a reality, while Varuna patiently awaited the big day that would have her chasing horizons again. I am aware of the risk of being sappy with this marriage metaphor, but it is one that is so appropriate to describe the relationships we may have with our boats, especially when they are taking us across oceans. To survive, we become co-dependent on each other, and as with human couples, the intensity of this neediness is something we can never forget.

Tim and I have shared a mate and there's a symmetry here, with Varuna in the middle. Varuna gave me a first taste of life as half of a youthful sailing team and she helped sow the seeds of my dreams from late adolescence into adulthood. Tim is beginning his journey with Varuna at the opposite end of adulthood; they are a mature couple and he is her more experienced second chance. In the fulfillment of Tim's dream, the stories Varuna will be able to tell will become all the richer, if she could talk. In the meantime, while they're out there, I'll keep looking at the magazines, fabricating histories for pictures of anonymous boats—who still can't talk —in between thoughts of Tim and Varuna. And, I'll be waiting for the postcards. Bon voyage.

Tania Aebi is offline  
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