By Jackie Leavitt
A couple months ago, I was Skyping with my sister, Vickie. She was sitting in her hotel bed in Hawaii, having just finished months of sailing from New Zealand while working on an educational tall ship. I was sitting on a palm tree–lined beach in Martinique, sipping a beer while the sun made its lazy journey toward the Caribbean’s watery horizon. We hadn’t talked in about three months, when she was in New Zealand and I was about to depart for the Dominican Republic to meet up with my friends, Lars and Travis, aboard their 38-foot sailboat, Bueller.
Sounds pretty unreal, right? Two sisters, thousand of miles away, both having spent the past three months sailing to islands that many people visit for their once-a-year week-long vacation. Literally sailing and living through paradise.
But it doesn’t have quite the rosy glow after you haven’t seen land in four weeks, as Vickie recapped from her crossing to Hawaii. While going slightly crazy from constant ocean, she got sick, then a second-degree sunburn, then her period, before the real kicker:
“Oh,” Vickie practically shouted at the screen. “I got fucking lice.”
Somehow, both of us had eluded these dreaded creatures when we were kids. But now, at 28-years-old, there had been no escape for my big sister.
I grinned at the screen, and we both laughed. We were both thinking it: Life on a fucking boat. I got it. For the first time I really understood what Vickie’s time sailing had been like, as I was about to hit my three-month mark living aboard a sailboat.
Before joining Bueller in March, my sailing experience was limited to small boats for afternoon adventures. I enjoyed several golden camp summers cruising away on Sunfish and a brief stint on my university’s sailing team, where I learned I much preferred casually drifting along on the lake rather than racing. And I had romantic conceptions about what it would be like to live on a boat, as I’m sure everyone does if they haven’t done it.
The facts are true, and they sound pretty damn rosy: sailing long-term with your friends on a boat they own through blue ocean to tropical islands far away from home.
But when there’s a fantasy, real life is usually just around the corner, waiting for you.
Life aboard a boat is still life, with the good and the bad and the grime — even if it’s in a location people usually go to for their honeymoon. And at some point, even the extraordinary becomes ordinary if you do it often enough.
“At some point, it’s like, oh look, it’s another fucking palm tree,” Vickie said, half laughing.
She echoed something I had been thinking to myself more frequently this past month. As Bueller pulled up to new islands as we make our way down the Caribbean chain, I have become slower and slower to pull out my camera to document the arrival. I thought to myself, will I actually be able to tell the difference between islands in my pictures? Same with snorkeling the coral around the islands. Will I actually see anything new? Sometimes you do. But things begin to mesh together in your brain. They lose the sparkle and excitement they had initially. It all begins to feel the same. Or as Vickie would say: Another fucking island. Another fucking coral reef.
Are we becoming jaded? Too many beautiful beaches? Too many vibrant sunsets? Too many fucking palm trees?
But that’s the thing. An island is more than its beaches. It’s more than the palm trees. It’s more than the water surrounding it. What makes islands different from each other is what’s inside the island. The people. The culture. The land. If you never make it past the beach or marina, it’s like thinking you’ve understood a book by reading only its front and back cover.
But it’s also important to hold on to that romance you started with, but perhaps with an added dash of humorous reality. That way you can call the very tight quarters “cozy” rather than “cramped”. And swapping daily showers for daily ocean dips (plus a real shower every five or so days) can be seen as a natural cleansing system rather than unhygenic. And getting head lice stops being horrific, but turns into a reminder and opportunity to buy yourself your own awesome sun hat, instead of raiding the lost-and-found. Some things are better when lost.