Friday, March 28, 2014

Relationships on a sailboat - Relationships at sea

It is easy to blog in good times. About good times.

Oh sure, horror stories are easy too. About midnight anchor drags. Or gales.

There has been no blog post in a long time because we haven’t had good times. And whatever juicy horror stories we had, got absorbed by more troubling relationship issues.

One hardly finds blogs about relationships on sailboats. That because it’s difficult to talk about personal issues in a public forum.

And yet, one of the goals I set for myself when I started this blog is that it would provide an emotional reflection of our voyage. Not just the lats and longs. Not just the wind speeds and miles-made-good each day. I wanted it to be about the feelings evoked by voyaging.

When it came the raw strife of mismatched wants and bungled emotional arguments, I clamed up. Who wants to air their dirty laundry in public? What kind of way is that for friends and family to find out we were having hard times? How could I be objective? Would writing about problems make them worse, because once they were stated, they were presented as fact, rather than just vague feelings which might change or even dissipate with the morning tide?

In late August last year, we were docked next to a boat and the couple on board was chartering for a week.

“What’s it like, as a couple, to be living on a boat for that long?”

Unbeknownst to them, they had poked their finger right into the beehive. It wasn't the first time we had gotten that question. People want to know. Especially other sailors. And thus the need for this post.

The short of it is: One of the things Jennifer and I lost overboard during our Grand Voyage is our relationship. We are divorcing.

During the last months of our voyage, our disagreements deteriorated into that reluctant realization that we had (to use the descriptive yet deficient term) irreconcilable differences.

Among all the great expectations you have as a couple when casting off on Le Grand Voyage, one of the destinations you don’t expect to explore on that voyage is your relationship. Yet that is exactly when you end up.

Voyaging is less about living on a boat, than living in a relationship. When we crossed the Atlantic, all that surrounded us was water. Once the crew left us, it took us a while to realize, that all that surrounded us was just ... us.

Besides ports which changed, virtually nothing else did. We spent 24/7-365 with each other. When we talked, we talked to each other. When we walked, we walked side by side. We knew each other’s jokes. We could predict each other’s comments to articles, or reactions to people we had met, or just sitting at breakfast and knowing what the other was about to say. Even phone calls were via Skype, where everything was overheard.

In a land-based life, you have other input. You both spend time with others. Work, friends, even alone time in traffic. You can come home and if you are in a bad mood, you can blame your boss, something your friend said, or that jerk in the other car. Or vice versa: You can talk to co-workers and friends about something your spouse said. “How should I take that comment?” “Can you believe he did THAT?”

On a boat, the bad mood must be dealt within a contained environment. The shouts during the last maneuver must be apologized for and forgiven with little opportunity to “just walk away from it.”

That is, actually, a good thing. There are benefits to such confinement. You are forced to be more open and immediate. Nothing can stew. That’s good.

But sometimes, it can be claustrophobic.

Oh sure, I know what you land-based people are thinking: Just take a walk alone in the port. Take a phone with you to call someone. Take a row in the dinghy.

And yes, those are good options and believe us, we used them. But it’s just not the same. Because in Europe we didn’t have a phone. We had to use Skype for calls, which required finding a cafe with WiFi where you would have to vent your anger to a friend in a public place. Often we were not in a port. We were at anchor. And please: row in a dinghy when it’s blowing whitecaps?

All of this sounds horribly claustrophobic and it can be. But most often, it is not. It is nice to be together moving through the world. To know each other so well that we can predict what the other is thinking. There is comfort and security in that. That is why we seek out relationships. We want to bond.

Jennifer and I had adopted a goofy mantra from the visual instructions provided by Ikea for furniture assembly. In the diagrams it shows a single person with an unhappy face, and then two people assembling together with happy faces. “Two is better than one,” Jennifer and I would often repeat.

So choosing to spend time alone, in OUR relationship, would have been (and was) interpreted as an aggressive answer to an unresolved conflict. It was uncomfortable for both us.

Instead, for our “alone” time, we learned to create “invisible curtains.” The computers helped. We would both be at the salon table, clicking away at our computers and it was understood that it was parallel alone-time. Thus we could vent our frustrations via email, or we could get lost in internet rabbit holes to worlds far away from the boat ... and each other.

By far, the most difficult aspect of sailing is the relationship. No one tells you that. I’ve read just about every book on sailing and none of them talk about it. I’ve found only one blog that is brave enough to tackle the topic. It’s called “Harts At Sea.” One of the side-tab categories is “relationships at sea.” For me it was a relief to find this blog in the midst of my despair.

Here’s what I want to say to you, my fellow sailors: Everything I described above can be seen as good and as bad. During our best of times, we thought the constant living together, the constant companionship and the constant interaction was good and beneficial to our relationship. The conditions deepened our understanding and appreciation of each other. I don’t believe that it was the voyage or the 24-7 condition that led to our relationship’s demise. It would have come to this in any case. Even in a land-based life.

It’s just that when it comes to the end on a sailboat, it is different than on land. You have less of a support group around you to help you through it.


As for the voyage itself, it continued from Corfu up to Montenegro. We highly recommend Montenegro. If you pull into the Porto Montenegro in Tivat, they will most expeditiously handle all clearing procedures for you (if you spend a night or so in their expensive luxury marina.)

Island of St George in Kotor bay, Montenegro.
From Tivat, sail into the inner bay of Kotor and visit the medieval city there. It is a little marvel. More scenic and “real” than Dubrovnik. There are few residents left in Dubrovnik. It has become a Disney world attraction. Kotor is still a vibrant city in its own right.

A square in Kotor, Montenegro. In the background you might be able to see the city walls extending to the top of the mountain ridge.
A supporting facade arching across an alley in the city of Kotor, Montenegro.
From Montenegro we sailed Croatia’s coast and plethora of islands. It was the most beautiful sailing of all the Mediterranean. If you go, don’t miss Miljet, Korcula, Hvar, Lastovo, and Vis. And for heaven’s sake, don’t miss going up the “fjord” to Skradin and visit the waterfalls.

Looking northwest from a mountain top on Miljet. Just like many of Croatia's islands, Miljet was once a military zone up until the civil war of 1991. Since then, the government has been converting them to national parks with well marked hiking trails.
Looking northeast from the same perch. You can make out Phoenix's mast in the far left corner of the bay. Beyond are the mountains of Croatia.
We rented a car and visted the Bosnian city of Mostar. This had a profound effect on us because we (as in the world) has forgotten the civil war fought there 20 years ago, but the bullet holes in walls are as fresh as the post-traumatic rebuilding the Mulims and Christians are struggling through to this very day.

The Mosar bridge. The entire left side of the city was decemated during the war, along with the bridge. It has all been rebuilt and is a thriving tourism center.
The riddled and the rebuilt in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina.
Perversely enough, the very remnants of death are the source of revitalizing the tourism in Mostar. "It help us remember and it helps us to take power and control over these things," said one resident.
The waterfalls of Skradin. We suggest you hike out there and take the ferry back.
Phoenix anchored in just the sweetest bay ever in the island of Lastovo. We hiked to the other side of the island to a small village that was still mostly untouched by tourism.
The stunning city of Ragusa, Sicily.
An alley in Ragusa, Sicily.
We spent two months in the Adriatic and it wasn’t enough. We didn’t get higher than Sibenik. We made our way back to Montenegro and put Phoenix aboard a freighter to Palm Beach, Florida.

Loading her was a repeat of all the anxiety and problems we had during the loading on the way over. Why doesn't SevenStar, a company which specializes in yacht transport, rig their cranes with a travelift-type of equipment that can articulate forward and aft slings? I wrote the company and never received an answer. 
We motored up to Port Salerno, Florida and put her up on the hard, while we both returned to Vermont and began the painful process of emotional separation.

I am now back in Florida. Some maintenance and improvements have been completed on Phoenix and next week, she will be splashed again. Then I will single-hand her up the Intra-Coastal Waterway; slowly, following the summer north back to my home waters of Lake Champlain.

As sailors, sail we will. It isn’t always easy. It isn’t all as romantic as imagined. It is simply a different kind of life. Complete with as many rewards as trials and tribulations that challenge us to become better human beings.


Gremlins Hammer said...

I feel your pain. Only a year ago my wife and I separated. I echo your thoughts on 24/7 co-existence. Fortunately the solo cruise I made from Boston to the Carolinas over the last year helped with healing. Just remember, This to shall pass.

S/V Gremlins Hammer

Steve Garlick said...

Thanks for your courage in sharing. I guess we just keep voyaging through the storms. You both have our best wishes, we are thinking of you.


S/V Pavlov

Yu and Frank said...

Thank you for your candidness in sharing at this difficult time. We have many blogs and sailing books and none of them even touch on the difficulties in maintaining a healthy relationship while living on a boat. There have been times when I have felt utterly alone in my feelings. You are right, there is no support out there, especially since this is a unique lifestyle and friends and family can't always relate. I'd be lying if I said that our relationship has not had its fair share of tribulations, and I applaud you for saying it out loud and getting it out there. If you pass through St Augustine on your way up north, we'd love to grab a drink (or several) with you.

s/v Moitessier

Anonymous said...

Good luck to you both.
David and Elaine

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing what can only be described as a very personal experience.

Our hearts go out to you both.

Shannon McMullen and Denise Henley

s/v Soulballadeer