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I Should Be Dead

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

My mother showed more than told me about the magic of letting people assume what people will assume. It was a lesson of understanding the power of engaging with the world, of walking into adventure. A lesson that taught being a part of a thing was more important than worrying whether others thought you had a right to be there.

It was a lesson about experience.

Cape Horn - Photo taken by Kathleen Tisson

In sailing, as with many endeavors, there’s a crowd of experts confounding the actual experience. A sort of babbling flood of professionals steeped in absolutes. Sailing experts that are a forum laden crowd of self-proclaimed superiors bent on knowing and, frequently, equally bent on using verbiage that insists on you knowing as well.

It’s like a language test. If you fail it, then you’re not a real sailor.

It took decades to arrive at the point where I understood that the magic of sailing is the sailing itself, not the language. Not the vast array of knots. Not the understanding of sail shape and centers of effort and knowing your J. Not the pithy catchphrases. Not the forums.

The magic is in the doing and when I say the ‘doing’, I mean the abject failures that you live to talk about.

In the late nineties I set sail down the Pacific coast in what hind sight tells me should never have come off. We, the two of us who slipped the surly bonds of Seattle Washington, should be dead. We had no business at all being anywhere near an ocean, let alone being on a sailboat more than a stone’s throw away from the professionals who could rescue us when we inevitably met with disaster. We, in a very literal sense, lived aboard our boat and had actually sailed it maybe once or twice. That amounted to our qualifications for going offshore.

What were we thinking?

That initial foray into what is best described as- ‘an activity we were not qualified to do as set down by the experts’- led me down a path that I am reasonably certain should have killed me.

According to the experts.

The nineties led into the two thousands and found me sailing along the exotic Pacific coast of Costa Rica and Panama. The place where myself and crew mate discovered that the word ‘exotic’ really means infested with biting things that are most likely poisonous. Where we also discovered that the mystery of having to constantly trim in the headsail wasn’t about the age of the fabric.

It was about the termites that had enjoyed a full feast on the bowsprit. It was about the moment when everything forward failed and we somehow didn’t lose the entire rig. It was the moment we could no longer sail but, as we said to each other, we were in Panama so at least our failure was exotic.

Exotic waters taught me that a man in a dug-out canoe, using a flowered bedsheet as a sail, can and will out-sail a 36’ ketch. And that a person really needs to think about where they’re leaving their dingy in a place with 24-foot tides, or, more importantly, where they’re dropping their anchor.

In spite, or because of all the sailing in exotic waters, I found myself returning to the states and willingly crossing the Pacific on a schooner as a part of a four-person delivery crew.

On that delivery the chain plates of two shrouds broke in half. This before a day had passed. We would spend the rest of the trip with shrouds and stays lashed, staring at the masts, wondering if they’d stay in place for the whole voyage.

About midway across the big puddle, right in the windless, glass-topped stretch of the Pacific high, a huge ball of polypropylene line wrapped around the prop bringing the boat to a screeching halt. This turned into a contest between the three men on board as to who was most qualified to jump in the water with a knife. To top off the voyage, just off the coast of California, the steering quadrant broke and we discovered that an emergency tiller is like an old piece of farm equipment that got left hidden in a field for a good reason.

After that voyage, there were a series of deliveries that had more to do with minor electrical fires, constant leaks, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, foul body odors, torn sails, inexplicable bruises and the insidious evil of dampness, than with actual sailing expertise.

There was the boat that had a poorly sealed deck prism installed directly above the electrical distribution panel. There was the boat that had exactly zero comfortable bunks except the v-berth. The v-berth that was an indoor reenactment of tropical force rain whenever the boat was wedging its way into weather. There was the boat where everything failed. Everything. The sails. The engine. The water maker. The separation of sewage from fresh water. The vacuflush toilets. The lack of buckets to use as toilets when the vacuflush toilets failed. The morale of the crew.

And then, after the years, the scars, the constant reinforcement of exactly what it is to sail; there came the world.

This is where we get back to my mother. Remember her? I started with her. I started with her lesson of ignoring what people assume about you and what you can or should do.

Until that one particular voyage, I had spent my time as a sailor doubting myself as a sailor. I struggled with knots; the bowline, the clove hitch, the sheet bend, the what have you. I had to put a hand on a winch and spin it every time in order to remind myself of its direction. I was undone by the verbiage attached to all things sailboat and sailing related. To watch me dock a boat was to watch a black comedy in slow motion that inevitably resulted in me saying- well- at least we’re at the dock and no one was hurt.

The particular voyage that changed me was THE voyage. Around the world. Around the world at the bottom of the world. And by the bottom of the world, I do mean sailing below Cape Horn. It took that size of a thing to make me finally arrive at an understanding.

That voyage? It did not make me a more adept sailor. It did not make the knots easier, the verbiage more familiar. It did not make me into any more of a sailor than I had already been. What that voyage did was make me understand the full value of simply being willing to try.

The full value of enduring through discomfort and confusion.

That people will assume what kind of sailor you are based on a series of tests and tricks and obscure bits of knowledge that have little to do with actually being a sailor? That doesn’t matter. What makes you a sailor is being willing to get on the boat.

An incredible amount of sailing is spent battling failure. Failure of equipment, failure of wind, failure of choice. There is little on this planet more debilitating to material objects than water. Make it salt water and the whole lesson gets worse. Put that difficulty into the hands of a human being, throw in an internal combustion engine for fun and then imagine the possibilities of crisis.

If you come at sailing wanting to do it right, you’ll miss the very best that sailing has to offer. You’ll miss the disasters that make you better at appreciating the experience.

In 2015 I found myself standing in the companionway of the junk rig my husband and I called our home. We were sailing down the Pacific coast. The rig itself was new. Installed just a year before and not precisely what anyone would call finished.

As I stood there, looking forward, we were sailing in messy waters with 35 knot winds. My husband stood below me, facing out the companionway. We were talking about the relative lack of fun the sea conditions were bringing to our sail.

Behind my husband, in the mix of all the other noises the boat was making, came a smack. The sound of wood hitting the cabin sole. I leaned around him and watched as a mast wedge fell out of the deck collar, followed by another. He turned and looked behind him.

His head dropped.

“Pretty sure that’s not supposed to happen.” I offered as another wedge came down.

He waited a minute and then started laughing.

“No. That’s not supposed to happen.”

The object lesson of this last story is not that minor catastrophe is ideal or what should happen and no- I don’t recommend it. It’s that being a sailor means facing the challenge of embracing your own ineptitude in a sea of discomfort while trying to minimize the damage, move forward and somehow still laugh.

It’s wanting the experience no matter what anyone assumes about your ability to make the experience a reality.

Or, as my mother would say; don’t worry about what you don’t know or what someone watching you will think. Worry more about not trying.


Kathleen Tison spends her time in the wilds of Maine watching her husband collect trees to turn into a junk-rig mast for a 22’ sailboat that will never be a sloop again. Between that, two cats and decades spent hawking all sorts of boat products at West Marine and now Hamilton Marine she enjoys running, hiking and trying to come up with the ideal craft to use in the R2AK. Because someday she hopes to bring her sailing awkwardness to bear on that race.

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