How long have I talked about building a boat and sailing away? I know I dreamed about it in college. During my sophomore year I told my girlfriend (now my wife) that I wanted to sail down the Intercoastal Waterway in a homemade craft. She was not very enthusiastic. Allergic to fish, she was suspicious of everything related to fish, include seven tenths of the earth’s surface. Also, she grew up in Iowa, which limited her maritime experiences. Her lack of enthusiasm dampened my enthusiasm.
But the fantasy quietly persisted, especially when I was most dissatisfied with my life. When I grew bored with my career and tired of domestic hassles—failing septic systems, weedy gardens—I placed myself on a sleek sailing craft, far from shore, with nothing but a small bunk and a compass pointing south. At those moments, I felt powerfully drawn to the dream and would spend hours looking at boat plans on the Internet and eavesdropping on boat building forums.
But my bouts of self pity were short lived, so the fantasy would fade. Busy with children, I had no time for sailing through my 30’s. With three little children, it was hard enough simply getting out the door in the morning. A major outing involved getting everyone to the local playground without a tantrum.
Strange things started happening to me once I hit middle age. A week after my fortieth birthday, I started studying classical guitar. I had no master plan; I just found a teacher and started practicing arpeggios. That fully occupied my free time for a couple of years, but then, a few weeks after my forty-second birthday, and entirely out of character, I started swimming laps at the local YMCA. Again, I don’t remember making any announcements or resolutions; I just bought a Speedo and got in the water.
I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I see now that I was taking action on long, and long dormant, checklist of experiences that I wanted to have and skills I wanted to develop before I died. They were always there, but at midlife I unconsciously realized that it was either now or never. Music? Check. Physical fitness? Check.
Sensing a trend, I watched carefully when I hit forty-three, wondering what I would do next. But the year passed uneventfully. Still, I knew that something big was brewing. By the time I hit forty-four I felt positively pregnant with midlife agitation. I was going to do something dramatic, I could just tell.
My August birthday passed; autumn came, then winter. The economy was getting worse and my energies were focused on my work as a writer. I took every job I could find, worrying that each would be the last. I was tired, overworked, yet vaguely bored. I floated some “let’s move abroad” balloons, but they went nowhere. We had lived in Mexico for a couple of years when the kids were young, but now, as teenagers, they have no interest in travel. I was stuck here, in this life, and there was nothing I could do about it.
In January, we took a vacation to Florida and somewhere around St. Augustine I found myself staring at all the pretty sailboats bobbing in a marina. I saw myself on one of these boats, I saw the horizon, I pictured a sunset. I lost myself in reverie for several minute before shaking my head and sensibly moving on. I didn’t need a boat, I told myself. Boats are big, expensive, and entirely impractical. I didn’t even know how to sail anything larger than a Sunfish. It’s important to know the difference between fantasies and reality.
We drove home and life moved on. And then, one day in February, I woke up and knew, with complete certainty, that I needed a boat. It was the next item on my checklist, and it could not be denied. Not only that, I had to build my boat. I needed to fulfill the complete fantasy—building, launching, sailing away. That’s all I knew, but it ended a lifetime of procrastination.