Solo Voyaging - The Price, The Payoff
By William Yates
This piece first appeared in Sail Magazine

It's three o'clock on a chilly, raven-black morning.  Morro Bay, my hometown and homeport, lays three miles on the bow, its white breakwater light flashing and its horn honking, welcoming me.  The lights of the tiny coastal city twinkle, pulsate, like a bright, star-filled sky.  A commercial fishing trawler--her deck illuminated under bright working lights--passes to port, diesel rumbling, heading west, off to the fishing grounds.

This is the first land I've seen in 35 days, the number of days it has taken me to sail from Honolulu.  Since leaving Morro Bay four-and-a-half months ago, I have spent 91 days alone at sea.  These numbers strike me for the first time, now, here, in my very last hour of a voyage nearly conquered;  the culmination, realization of a life-long dream, and I reflect on them.  Ninety-one days.  Alone.  Thirty-five on this leg.  That's five weeks I've lived, alone, aboard my Cheoy Lee Offshore 38, Obsession;  five weeks since I last saw land or another person.

Ninety-one days altogether.  Three months.  Both sound equally long, particularly in the context of solo sailing over a four-and-a-half-months period.  The voyage was done in four legs:  four days, 24 days, 28 days and 35 days.  The time has passed quickly, as time has a way of doing.  These past 35 days have felt more like a couple of weeks.  It wouldn't faze me a bit if I still had a thousand miles to go.

I love it out here.  I adore the ocean.  I revel in the way it constantly surprises me.  I love the solitude.  I love the challenge(s).  I love the day-to-day life:  the navigating, the constant sail trimming, the deck work, writing in my journal, the sea life, the always-changing sky, preparing my meals on a stove that swings with the boat's motions, all of this to the accompaniment of music--rock and roll, blues, soul, jazz -- that continually fills the air of my isolated world.  I feel alive, really alive, out here.

It's not been all perfect, though.  That's for sure.  I have been through two storms, each lasting two-and-a-half days, one sixty-knotter, one fifty knotter, both with solid-water, freight train-moving, breaking seas over twenty feet.  These storms were encountered on my first attempt to sail home from Honolulu, the 28-day passage.  I had damage to the rig -- a broken starboard spreader -- and had to limp back to Honolulu on a port tack to save the mast.  There was other damage, too;  Obsession had taken a beating from King Neptune, and she was black and blue and bloodied.  It was misery.  It was rough, like hanging on atop the bull riding machine in Urban Cowboy, and it’s turned on high.  It was wet, dark, noisy, dangerous, torture.  This was in late February.  Every person at the Hawaii Yacht Club, every book, had advised against making the passage at that time of year.  But I didn't listen.  Mr. Macho Man.  Hell, I'd sailed to Hawaii in January, for Christ's sake;  had a flawless sail--except for the gales.  Small inconvenience.  I know my boat;  I know what I'm doing;  I can take it.

I'll never be cocky with the sea again.  There's a big difference between a gale and a storm, a big difference.  It's funny, though. While I was furling the sails off of Waikiki after the 28-day storm loop, I was smiling, telling myself I wouldn't trade those 28 days, that experience, for anything. I conquered it.  I kept myself sane, alive, and healthy;  I brought the boat back unharmed, and I did it well.  Therein was the payoff.

There is a price I have had to pay with my family.  I'm 49 years old.  I have a wife and five children, three still at home.  I have a business, responsibilities, an ailing mother.  Even though I was a solo sailor when I met my wife 23 years ago, even though it has been known by my family that I have harbored a life-long dream to make a significant solo sail, even though I have owned Obsession for 12 years and bought her with the sole intention of solo sailing her to Hawaii, even though she has waited patiently on a mooring for the day to come, even though I had attempted this sail previously, even though she is named Obsession for a reason, it came as an electric shock (an understatement) when I announced a year ago that I planned to sail, alone, to Hawaii and back the following January.

My mother lambasted me with disapproval, as only mothers can do.  My wife punished me in a multitude of small ways, my in-laws too.  It was clear as plate glass that my proposed voyage did not have the approval and blessings of my family and many of my friends.  The disapproval or support among the community was split down a gender line.  The men all supported me.  Most confided to me that they also had the same dream, and told me they admired me for having the courage for doing it.

The women were angry.  They felt it was an extremely selfish thing for me to do.  They confronted my wife, Lindsay, scolding her for "letting me get away with it."  They feared, I guess, that I was setting a bad example for their husbands, that these husbands might, because of my cruise over to Hawaii and back, become obsessed with solo voyaging, run out and buy a boat, learn seamanship and sailing in a few months, and then leave the family standing forlornly on the pier while he sails away in some sort of mid-life crisis fantasy.

Not very likely.  And if it happens, I deny any responsibility.  But, clearly, the family pays a price when husband/father/brother/son sets out to make the "big solo sail."  It is (1) leaving the family, leaving the children without their father for several months, putting the entire children/home/business load on my wife's shoulders, leaving her void of my emotional support.  It is, admittedly, selfish, doing what I've done.  It is an unattractive trait of a Ulysses Factor guy, those of us obsessed with having some genuine adventure in our lives.  And adventure, by my definition, means risking your life.  No risk of life, no adventure.  Which leads to (2), the danger element.

People who have not spent any time at sea do not understand it.  To most people, a man getting in a small boat and sailing across an ocean, alone, is undertaking something very dangerous, something akin to, say, walking over the Grand Canyon on a tightrope with an upright piano strapped to his back - and no balance pole.  The first words out of my doctor's mouth when I told him of my plan was: "You know, you could die out there."  I came up with a snappy, clever, original retort:  "Yeah, and I could be hit by a bus walking across the street."

No one in my family sails;  no one likes the ocean.  Just me. So they don't understand. They know lots and lots of stories about lots and lots of people who have died at sea.  I tried to explain to Lindsay that I was (a) an excellent, experienced sailor, (b) had a seaworthy, well-equipped boat that I knew as well as I knew her, (c) was planning properly, and (d) that way over 99-percent of solo voyages conclude successfully.  Piece of cake.  Nothing to it;  nothing to worry about.  None of this had any impact on her.  None.  Zero. Zip.

I understand this: my family didn't want me to die.  I didn't want to die on this voyage either. We have agreement on this one.  But it is the black cloud that hangs over every solo voyage.  No amount of reassurance makes this one go away.  It is there, and it was resented that I would intentionally put myself in peril.  But I was obsessed.  I wasn't getting any younger.  I was determined.  I had tunnel vision tightly focused on the goal:  making this voyage happen.  The nine-month preparation is a story in itself, but I, and my family, got through it, and we got through the emotions, the resentments, the financial drain, the anger.

They knew nothing was going to stop me, so, having no choice really, they supported me.  When confronted with the selfishness question, Lindsay would respond: "Well, it would be selfish of us not to let him go."  Having experienced this, I think of other solo sailors who have families who have undertaken significant solo voyages.  Don't believe, when you see the pictures of wife and children kissing solo sailor good-bye at the dock, that an emotional toll hasn't already been painfully extracted from all parties.  Don't believe it for a second.  Like encountering storms, it is part of the price.  I have put my family and friends through emotional stress, and have suffered emotionally enduring it.  I have put my family financially in the hole to make this voyage happen.  I have endured extreme, long-term discomfort at the hands of the elements.

The payoff, for me, has been worth it, and that's admittedly a selfish statement in itself.  If the anguish I have sustained is a minus three, the joyousness I have experienced is a plus twenty.  Trying to put this all into perspective, trying to intellectualize why I have been driven to act out this emotionally, financially, physically high-cost adventure, my mind smiles.  I have experienced nature as few have, for nature off-shore is unique.  My mind has been free to explore, to ponder, to re-live my entire life, to frolic.  That has been a gift.  Except for the storms, I have savored every day.  I missed my family painfully, but I cherished my solitude.  My relationships with the sea and with Obsession have deepened.

The breakwater is abeam now, and I'm overtaken with an immense, throbbing feeling of accomplishment.  Another payoff.  In the end, though, what this voyage -- the absolute aloneness, the mental freedom, the adrenaline, the peace, the matchless sailing and the thousands of inconsequential-yet-extraordinary experiences -- and some big ones -- renders down to is this:  It's fun.

That's it in a three-letter word.  Solo voyaging is fun in a monumental way.  Next to Lindsay and my children, the voyage has been the best experience of my life, hands down, and I'm a man who has been blessed with many great experiences. But this voyage tops them all. And I'm proud of it.

I can't wait to go again.   (See more photos!)

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