If you had told me when I was a ragtag tomboy kid from the poor side of Birmingham that one day I would go sailing in the Caribbean, I would not have even known what you were talking about. It was inconceivable. Yet that opportunity came along recently, and I spent a week on a sailboat with four other women. Our boat was a 45 foot monohull named “Southern Wind”. I came home inspired! Here are a few random takeaways, in no particular order and certainly in no way meant to imply originality. They’re just thoughts that crystalized with me as a result of the experience.
Keep room for the “inconceivable”
Life is filled with opportunities, and just because we can’t see it yet does not mean it cannot happen. When we stay open, allow ourselves to dream, be hopeful, we’re more likely to then see opportunities as … well… opportunities.
Find a way to say “yes"
When the opportunity does come along, we need to be prepared. As Louis Pasteur said “Chance favors the prepared mind”.
Pack light - Take only what you need
On a boat, the rule and necessity is “a place for everything, and everything in its place”. One cannot waste time looking for the winch handle during a tack or change in wind direction. That item is kept in its pocket. No exceptions. Also, there is limited space on a boat. You have a few small lockers that serve a single purpose. There is no extra space, no garage, storage unit or otherwise to keep extra “stuff you think you *might* need”. You need a toothbrush and toothpaste. You need sun protection and a few other essentials. You do not need more than three of any category of clothing; e.g., shorts, etc. Packing light means economy of movement, less burden of weight, easier travel, less time looking for items. And the one that surprised me the most is: it’s liberating! I packed lighter than I ever have. It still could have been less, but I felt so free. I had fewer choices, which (studies now prove) resulted in greater happiness. Freedom is a thing, and now I get it, so I am learning to lighten the inventory.
Focus on what you can control
Obviously, we cannot control wind. Wind is the fuel - the essential ingredient in sailing, yet we have no control over it. What we can control is how we respond to it. The sails are adjustable in all kinds of clever ways, and we use them to manage the wind that fuels our journey. Knowing how to respond and focusing there (rather than trying to control what cannot be controlled) is a powerful concept. How many life lessons can we name here? We must stop fretting over events we can’t control and work on the things we can, using whatever comes our way to fuel our journey. In life, that journey is growth, healing, accomplishment of goals and desires.
Chart your course
On a boat, maps are never called maps. They’re “charts”. Who knew?? So the person who is in charge of getting us from A to B sits down and charts the course. Unlike driving a car, where gasoline fueled acceleration controls the motion, the captain makes use of the wind and current to chart the course. An important distinction is, navigation does not mean we go where the wind takes us, though it’s tempting to think of it that way. Instead, navigation is deciding where we want to go, and using the sails to take advantage of whatever speed, shape or behavior of wind and current in order to arrive at point B safely. On land, we might complain about how things are. On sea, we adjust and use it to reach our destination. I like that, philosophically, practically and otherwise.
Exhale like you mean it
“Prepare to tack”, says the captain. “Ready!”, the crew responds. The captain uses the rudder to turn the bow through the wind, and the crew works hard to adjust the foresail so as not to lose momentum in that tricky process. When the boat has finally tacked, the hardworking crew exhales. The strength of the exhale, from what I could tell, directly corresponds to the amount of energy put into pulling and tightening the jib sheets. It’s hard physical work and really gets your heart rate up, so when we exhale, we slow the heart rate, which is satisfying and highly recommended! You can do it right now. While you’re doing that, ponder the fact that, it’s the exhale that stimulates the vagus nerve, which in turn slows the production of cortisol, soothing our stress. Thank you, modern scientific research; you’re always so helpful.
Balance is key
Sailboats are designed to keep the hull in the water and the mast toward the sky. Otherwise it would be a disastrous endeavor and no one in their right mind would risk it. Similarly, the sailor’s job is to stay on the boat and keep the vessel and crew safe. Much of this is a function of balance. When we learn something new, we’re often overcompensating until we land on nuance. Think of learning to ride a bike - the handlebar would go far to the left, then far to the right until we found balance. Our lives need balance. Balance is the opposite of over- or under doing anything. We need to move and work; we also need to rest. We need to eat and nourish our bodies; we also need to stop eating and digest. We need time to ourselves and time with loved ones. And so on. The longer I was on the boat, the more I understood the need for balance.
Happiness is being fully present
Truth be told, when you’re sailing, you’re thinking about sailing and not much else. It is, by necessity, quite consuming because conditions change constantly, as it is in life. Most of the time, when we’re fully present with what we’re doing, we’re also happier. We’re not wishing to be somewhere else, we’re not obsessing, wandering into black holes about the past or what other people think, etc.
Finally, a crew that works together learns quickly how much they can depend on, and appreciate each other’s contribution. Gratitude is the cornerstone of a joyful life.
Positive is How I Live
Island culture is infamous for “don’t worry” and “every little ting’s gonna be alright”, etc. St. Johnnians, like other islanders, truly embody this lifestyle. They’re friendly, generous, kind and easygoing. These are all wonderful traits, depending on how you feel about running late for your ferry, or your mail getting lost. But I digress. Many cars there are decorated with stickers sharing positive messages. My favorite is “Positive is How I Live”. I told my taxi driver how much I loved her sticker, and she gestured a fist bump and said “No Nega-TIV-a-TEE”, BAY-BEE! She smiled from ear to ear and I fell in love with her. Now here I am, stateside in 2020, and everywhere I look, I see negativity. The news is focused on what’s wrong. We’re pointing our fingers and republicans or democrats; we’re finding fault with each other and getting addicted to the negative, at the expense of all that we could be enjoying. I’m going to change my course for a bit, adjust my sails and practice positivity, focusing on the things I can actually do something about.
You can take the girl off the sailboat
What I realized I brought home, besides my certifications and happy memories, is the key to living a good life. I’m going to travel lighter, use only what I need, lose a little weight and emotional baggage, focus on the tings I can control, adjust for the conditions, practice being fully present. I’m working toward being positive, generous and kind.
Replace worry with planning. One thing I learned from Captain Linda is “plan 2-3 steps ahead”. Anticipate what could happen and what you would do about it. Worrying doesn’t solve much. Planning and preparing are a far more effective use of our cognitive resources. There’s that lesson about chance and the prepared mind again.
My life is so enriched from this experience. I’d like to shout out to Captain Linda Dunbar Thompson of Gulf Breeze Sailing for her expert instruction and inspiration. I would not trade this experience for GOLD. It’s far more valuable.
Jeannie Ingram is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, speaker and workshop presenter in private practice in Nashville, TN. She has a Bachelors Degree in Psychology and a Masters in Counseling from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy from Capella University. Using this training, along with decades of experience, she helps couples and individuals heal and live more intentionally. In addition, she is a candidate for Clinical Instructor for the International Imago Training Institute. She is certified to present Getting the Love You Want and Start Right, Stay Connected Imago couples workshops across the Southeast. She loves cooking, writing, hiking, backpacking, kayaking, and sailing. Most of all, she is dedicated to helping couples and individuals find joy, meaning, success and connection through the practice of mindfulness and purpose in their lives.