My life’s headlines might read like a National Enquirer front page: KILLER BEES ATTACK SAILORS IN VENEZUELAN JUNGLE; HURRICANE FLOYD SWAMPS COUPLE IN NEW JERSEY MARSHES; SOUTH PACIFIC STORM TESTS SAILOR’S SKILLS. Such splashy journalism might reflect a landlubbers view of some of the experiences I’ve weathered in ten years of open ocean cruising. I might even use such headlines to describe some of the events through which I’ve tested my abilities to be fabulously daring while sailing around the world in a 36-foot sailboat. Sure I’ve had some fearful events and lonely hours when I’ve had to find the inner strength to pull through. But the key to all of these adventures was a willingness to change, to leave my safe and comfortable lifestyle, to dare to do something completely different. And all because of a butterfly.
This story starts back in 1993 when I was a 34-year old divorcee, homeowner and landscape architect, contentedly living and working in northern California. Alone, but in a home that I loved and with a job that gave me creative independence. I had a good circle of friends and felt content in my life. I was quick to say “yes”, however, when my folks invited me to join them for a week of time-share vacation on the island of St Marten, an alluring destination in the eastern Caribbean. I was sure to find white, sandy beaches, and a friendship with my parents whom I had seen seldom since their move down south. I hoped the following week to find the crystal blue waters for which the Caribbean is famous on a solo dive adventure to the Virgin Islands.
The time share was a dream hotel with lovely, breezy rooms and a large balcony looking down on the beach of Great Bay. The curving crescent of sand was backed by a multitude of sailboats anchored in the turquoise water, There were daily activities organized Helen, a woman about my age, and she and I established a friendship that went beyond the companionship of the daily events. One night after a catamaran “sunset cruise” she and I joined another friend for dinner and drinks at Chesterfield’s, the restaurant and bar at the marina. After dinner, a rock’n roll dance beat drew our attention to the dockside bar which was crowded with a motley assortment of boatees and water-oriented locals. We sat at the bar, talking, and joining in the revelry of the funky band whose music had everyone in the mood to party. When it came time for an audience-participation number, folks were hooting and hollering, and knocking their beer mugs on the table in beat to the rhythm whenever their group was called out: “all the women clap your hands”, “all you fellows stomp your feet”, “everybody with orange hair swing it to the beat”. Or something like that ( I would have tried to memorize it had I known that it was a song that was bound to change the course of my life.)
The distinguished looking “fellow” to my left kept knocking his glass on the table, no matter which group was being singled-out. Jovially, I turned to him and asked if perhaps I should tell him when to knock.
“‘Schuldigung” he said to me. Obviously, this guy doesn’t speak English.
“Oh, sorry”, I said. “Thought you might need some help interpreting the song, my name is Karen. Where are you from?”
“My name is Horst,” he replied. “I am from Austria and I am here on my boat, waiting for the right weather to cross the Atlantic and return to my home sea, the Mediterranean.”
Our chance encounter at Chesterfields led to an invitation to sail. Of course, since this was a family vacation, my parents had to be included, too. Later, we all had dinner at the timeshare, lunch at a little Chinese Restaurant, a drive around the island in our rental car. It was almost as if Horst was already a member of the family. Sadly, our week together was coming to an end, and I was flying on to the Virgin Islands.
“Don’t fly there, let’s sail there together.”
How could I pass up an opportunity like that? We said good bye to my folks as they flew home, then set sail into the sunset for a nighttime passage to Tortola, BVI. I had sailed the San Francisco Bay a few times with friends, and had done some small-boat sailing on lakes as a kid, but I had never been out at night, out of sight of land, or with anyone who used English as a second language to command our navigation. Some things got lost in translation, but I did learn that “fock” is a German name for sail, and a “sheet” is the rope you use to tighten the fock. Horst and I laughed a lot about the misunderstandings that inevitably occurred in our mixed German-English-Spanish vocabulary, and we spent a delightful week exploring the coastline and diving the rocks and wrecks of the beautiful island waters.
When I woke in my parents house the first night home, the billowing curtains had become sails, the soft spring breeze, a Caribbean caress. But I was back in California. It was time for me to fly north, back to the workaday reality of the real-world.
Horst and I continued our romance by fax, and helped each other rediscover the art of letter writing. It’s interesting what we reveal in the written word. Horst was lonely single-handing his sailboat, but he had decided he really wasn’t ready to return to Europe. Instead, he would spend another year as a charter skipper, sailing with guests from Europe aboard his 36-foot sailboat. I was alone in a big house, working hard to maintain a life in the big city, and wondering what I was doing getting involved with an older man, from a different culture, who lived the life of a gypsy in the eastern Caribbean. Our letters to each other describe such different worlds. Nevertheless, we found ourselves growing closer and more comfortable with each other as we shared funny anecdotes about the events in our lives.
Several months passed and the stack of letters grew taller. I was turning 35, an age at which I had always envisioned myself as being settled, at least married, maybe with a child or two. Instead, I was single with a mortgage and a car that had another year’s worth of payments before it was truly mine. When Horst invited me to spend my birthday sailing the outer islands of Venezuela, I really did have to think twice. It’s not easy acting irresponsibly when you’re almost middle-aged.
I flew into Caracas. Settled high on a plateau where the Andes plunge down to the Caribbean Sea, the city was a striking contrast to the remote, sandy islets of Los Aves, a coral-encrusted natural reserve 80 miles across the sea, which was to be our sailing destination.
We shopped for a few provisions at the local “tienda”, papaya, mango, potatoes, cabbage, onions, garlic and beer. The fish we would catch ourselves. The limited refrigeration meant that anything else would come from a can. We took a long shower at the marina before casting off, because the limited water supply meant that fresh-water showers would be mostly in the rain.
We were heading for virtually uninhabited, barely charted, little specks of land across a deep sea probably infested with pirates, armed with nothing more than a bottle opener and a fishing spear. The weather report mentioned a tropical disturbance east of the area, but that kind of thing is barely noted in Venezuela, where hurricanes are only a little more frequent than snow in the Amazon.
Horst and I spent the days and nights in an intimacy that is rarely found elsewhere; two people alone together on a small, floating platform, surrounded by nothing but water, coral reefs, and an occasional sandy hill. We swam and fished, cooked and talked, made love and talked some more. Days went by without any human contact, only the radio voices that talked about the heavy, windless weather that becalmed us halfway back to the mainland.
When Horst asked if I would like to live with him on the boat, I was both intrigued and uncertain: traveling by boat could be a great way to explore the world, but would I have much opportunity if I were “crew” on a charter boat? Someone has to do all the cleaning, shopping, and cooking. Charter guests are probably interesting to meet, but do I really want to live with strangers for two weeks at a time on a sailboat? And what about when there are no guests, can I live with another person in a place where taking a walk to “cool off” means jumping into the ocean? And what about my house, my car, my job?
I settled on the foredeck of “Flow” in the shade of the sails which were beginning to fill with a freshening breeze, my thoughts filled with the contemplation of the future. What should I do? How could I set aside all that I had worked so hard to achieve for an uncertain adventure? Could I change my lifestyle attitudes to endure moderate deprivation? Our relationship is good now, but what happens when we really get to know each other? As I looked broodingly across my toes at the darkening horizon, a tiny yellow butterfly landed gently on my foot. It shook its wings, silently danced across my toes, and settled down as if for a conversation.
Suddenly, Horst came forward from the cockpit. The voices on the radio were now sounding an alarm. Perhaps, that far-off tropical depression is deepening into a tropical storm. It looks like it is going to hit Caracas. Perhaps it’s headed our way. Perhaps we’d better hurry-up and find a safe place. We started the engine and plotted a course to the nearest port, where I could eventually catch a bus back to Caracas and my flight home. Horst would hurry to the deepest lagoon to secure himself and the boat against the incoming storm.
Six months later, I moved aboard. How long would it last; six days, six weeks, six years? In twelve years we have sailed from Venezuela to Boston, Florida to Panama, San Diego to Tahiti. We’ve lived for a time in Austria, Maryland, and California, and I’ve been blessed to see the world at a truly leisurely pace. We’ve faced many storms together, both physical and personal; the life isn’t always easy, and it’s not for everyone. But I am happy I took a chance to change my life.
I’ll never forget that yellow butterfly. It said, “if butterflies are free, you can be too. Go with the Flow!”
The cruising life of sailing has taken Karen half way around the world. Currently residing in the “Middle Earth”, Karen has found a community of friends and family in New Zealand that would have remained strangers had she not decided to “go with the flow”.