It’s not often that you get to lose a month. Thirty full days of no obligations. Get off the planet. Off the grid. Jump ship. Away.
This happened again. And as I look back on my life, I’ve managed to make it happen quite a few times.
But this one was a weird one.
I’d been working on a new product brand for a couple years and it looked like it was going to pay off. Some investors had caught wind of it and told me to hold off on signing the offer I had in hand. A term sheet came through and it looked pretty livable. A nice chunk of cash now in exchange for equity and a few years on contract as the head of brand development.
Why not. Sign it, wait a month for the lawyers to have their wicked way. Take that month to get off the grid. Walkabout. Jump into the void with just enough plan to get there and home again.
I’ve done a lot of walkabouts in my life. Maybe a dozen so far from weeks to months. Road trips, sails, walks, trains, planes and everything in between. For this one, my 23 year old son, Maxx was ready, willing and able to go so I looked at two concepts.
One… Get on a sailboat and do a delivery or be part of a crew. The world is full of boats going from one place to another and many need crew. Some pay, some want money, some just looking for bodies to hoist sails and batten down hatches.
Two… Walk. Maxx and I had taken a literal walkabout a few years back on The Appalachian Trail. I went for a month and he kept going for around 1600 miles. Six months of living in the woods and hiding dinner from the bears.
I posted notices on some sailing forums and got a few responses. And I started looking at warm places to walk. This was starting in March and I knew most of the major US trails were too damn cold. It turns out Florida has a series of long trails that would be perfect in March. We decided on the Suwannee River Trail. The logistics of getting there and home were not easy to figure out, but it was doable.
We were packing our backpacks and gathering up the equipment from the last hike when an email came through from one of the sailing forums.
Captain Jean was in Ft. Lauderdale and looking to spend a month sailing the Exuma Islands in The Bahamas. It’s a string of 365 islands and cays (as in little uninhabited islands) with perfect turquoise water and white sand beaches.
We booked the flight, packed up ocean going gear and left.
The boat belonged to a retired language teacher from Canada. It was small by ocean crossing standards, but who cares. Three guys on a 37 ft. sailboat. We’ll make it work.
The boat was docked at the back of a long canal and we took several days preparing. Fixing oddball little things, laying in supplies and finally, waiting for the right conditions to cross the Gulf Stream.
It seems that everything revolving around sailboats takes longer. You just live with it. You are not the master of the universe, the universe is the master of you and if you’re going to sail successfully, you figure that out quickly.
The wind is everything. You wait on the wind. You dote on the wind. You pray for wind or pray for less wind. As it turns out, the winds between Southern Florida and the islands to the east is rather predictable. Not as in, you know what it’ll do tomorrow, but you know you’ll have to wait a few days for the right wind. Making the crossing across the Gulf Stream is a very touchy thing. It’s 50 or so nautical miles, but the stream flows north at a fast clip, and if the wind is blowing the wrong way, it’s brutal. Big seas, wind blowing you the wrong direction. If you’re in a massive yacht, you don’t care. Just punch it up to 11 and blow right through it. But in a little sailboat, it’s a miserable experience and a dangerous one too.
So we waited a few days. We did some shakedown runs on the boat, getting everything working. Or at least working well enough.
We did a big Walmart run for supplies.
Best visual at Walmart, and there were plenty… Two very obese girls, probably early 20’s, riding around in the Walmart scooters picking out giant containers of junk food… Hot dogs, get the five pounder… Ritz Crackers, mega box.
It was a new Walmart and Maxx pointed out, by the crowds and clientele, that it would do just fine.
We took a lot of Uber’s.
Great concept. Had some interesting conversations with some drivers. My favorite was Jose or something like that. He grew up in the Dominican Republic and had, wait for it, 52 brothers and sisters.
Yes, 52. Fifty-Two. Not a typo.
This was with 12 different women. His dad must have been the world’s most charming man. So figure each woman had 4 or more kids to hit 52.
He was in shipping. When the hell did he have time to ship anything.
So back to the boat.
Finally had everything ready, packed away, ready to roll. We had a good wind and it was time to split.
Then the weird began.
The boat had issues. Meaning every day I was digging through the tools to fix something. There was no way to take a shower. There was no fridge, just an ice chest. Water? Buy it in bottles before you go or go thirsty. Want to see at night, strap a flashlight to your head.
It was sea camping.
But why not, it’s a journey. Rough it. Go feral. Sleep in your clothes. Be salty. It’s just us guys. Stop shaving. Smell like you did on The Appalachian Trail. You’re pirates now, living under the law of the sea. Forget the details, you’re sailing with paradise ahead.
Going feral is easier than you think.
When you cut loose all the bounds of your daily life, your sense of priorities changes dramatically. You start to forget about time or days. You wake up with the sun and sleep early. Because the boat is one ongoing gymnastic test, your sense of balance gets better by the day. And because your environment is constantly moving, you use muscles you’d long forgotten.
I do love being at sea. I’d spent a couple months back in my misspent youth on a sailboat crossing a big chunk of the Atlantic and loved the absolute focus and intensity of being alone on the ocean.
But things on this boat started getting genuinely iffy.
Turns out Captain Jean (who introduced himself as Captain Jean to everyone, prompting Maxx and I to start referring to him as “First Name Captain, Last Name Jean”) was kinda making it up as he went along. So many things on the boat were broken, missing or badly repaired that I was daily chasing down issues. And the main cabin was so overcrowded with junk that in any sort of sea, mountains of it ended up on the floor.
My favorite example… There is a mount for a ladder on the starboard side of the boat. Just unclip the safety line (OK, use a pair of rusty pliers to unclip the safety line which you couldn’t actually use for safety because it was loose) and you latch the ladder in and climb gingerly into the water. The mounts were two stainless brackets that were actually mounted backwards so when you climbed up or down, the ladder was loose and threatened to dump you and itself into the sea.
I pointed it out and he said no, it’s fine.
I took a screwdriver and flipped the brackets.
Now the ladder stayed locked in correctly. No more dumping users into the ocean.
Then there were the circles.
The circles the boat went in.
Some were small circles, a kilometer or two… Some were big circles… One day we ended up 30 nautical miles off course. We spent a night at anchor off the creepiest place on earth. Our first landfall… Greater Isaac Cay.
Basically, it’s a lump with a few trees, waves crashing on rocks and an abandon lighthouse and a dozen shacks.
No humans, not for a long time. We dropped anchor on the lee side of the rock and spent the night being thrashed by tides.
The anchor had dragged so we were heading to the rocks ourselves and had to pull the damned thing up by hand because the windless (electric motor thingy that pulled up the anchor) wasn’t working.
Next landfall was Abaco Island. We dropped anchor (by hand) and just jumped in and swam ashore. White sand beach. Little boatyard with a bar. We drank ice-cold beer on the beach… This must be what heaven is like. We made it. We lived. Oh the glories to come.
Next stop, New Providence with the main city in all The Bahamas, Nassau.
We couldn’t make it to Nassau so we dropped anchor in a bay on the west end of the island. But we dropped anchor at high tide in a part of the bay that at low tide, was too shallow.
In the middle of the night we were on land. Stuck. In. The. Sand.
Spend the day now trying to get out of the sand. Finally someone living in the bay got tired of looking at us and helped tow us out on his speedboat.
We ran back into the sand again.
And again, he towed us out.
Now ON TO NASSAU.
But we keep overheating… kill the ancient diesel engine and sail. Fine with me. It’s a sailboat.
Make our way to the great harbor and see the massive cruise ships… Pull down the sails and motor in… Over heat… Kill the engine in the harbor… Not smart… Let it cool down… Motor into the closest dock… Tie up… Let it cool down and find the problem.
Turns out the boat had been overheating for a long time and I discovered why. There was a plastic bottle in the engine bay that allowed coolant to expand as it got hot, then it’d flow back into the engine when it cooled down. A coolant overflow bottle.
Well, this bottle was years past it’s prime and just spit coolant everywhere when the engine got hot.
Get a new one say’s I. He heads off the next day to hunt one down.
He comes back that evening with the same old bottle. A new one was $150 and he wouldn’t spend that much. Make this one work. Duct tape. Straplocks. Plumbers Teflon tape.
Lay in more supplies and we’re good to go… Head out of the harbor and it overheats…
Back to the docks. Must be the impeller… Buy a new one… put it in… Leave the next day and it overheats…
Back to the docks.
I’m starting to see a pattern.
We pull back in our fourth time and the kid who works the docks struggles to get us tied in strong winds. Kid works his butt off to keep us from crashing the docks and I tell Captain Jean he better tip him. He gives him two dollars, which in The Bahamas will buy you exactly half of one beer.
I argue. I get ten bucks out of my wallet and hand it to the kid.
Now he’s calling the kid on the radio demanding a hose to wash out the intake, which is obviously clogged from running aground twice.
I tell him that’s why you tip the help. If your success depends on their talents and grace, you show them your appreciation.
He blows up… He starts cursing me and the world in general.
I start to walk away. Too much invested and too much at stake, but then the switch flips.
Right then I realize the party is over. Even if the motor is fixed, one more minute on this boat with this guy is too many.
Maxx, start packing, this is a mutiny and we’re jumping ship, right here, right now with no plan and no certainty of what’s to come. I ask Maxx is he’s OK with this as the captain is yelling and cursing… “Hell yeah, let’s get out of here…”
It’s not pretty. I honestly thought there would be those cool looking Bahamian Police getting involved in their stylish uniforms and white pointy hats.
But we pack, grab everything as quickly as we can and go. We leave all the food we’d just bought but the bag of cold beer and rum. He can have the onions and sausage.
We go, both knowing he’s going to be stuck there because while is was nearly unable to sail the boat with us, he was certainly unable to sail it by himself.
No longer our problem. We’re leaving.
Up at the dock office, we run into Captain Sawyer. He’s got a boat docked a few feet away and he’s got an eye patch.
Yes, an eye patch.
He’d overheard the ruckus and came to lend a hand.
Captain Sawyer had grown up on the island and was a master captain. He’d taught for years and even ran his own institute for teaching seamanship and boat safety. But right now, his offer of coming onto his boat and having a beer and some rum was all that mattered.
We drank beer and rum… Pretty much the rest of the day.
We realized at one point that Maxx had left his guitar onboard so he walks back to get it. I realize I’d better go along and Captain Sawyer follows.
I get there and Captain Jean is arguing with Maxx about the guitar staying on the boat…
Then I show up…
Then Captain Sawyer (with that fricken eye patch) show’s up.
He eyes us and see’s Captain Sawyer casually leaning against a dock post. He asks Captain Sawyer what he’s doing there…
“Just admiring yu’r boat mon…”
The guitar is handed over.
And did I forget to mention the copperhead snake?
Doesn’t every story of seafaring mutiny have a copperhead snake?
Just as we’re about to leave the dock that morning, I get a call.
Loree (as in my wife Loree) calls.
She’s in the hospital. She was walking down the stairs to the backyard pool last night and stepped on a copperhead snake. They wrestled. They fought valiantly. The snake bit her on the foot and slithered off under the deck.
Now she’s in the ICU getting anti-venom and her foot is very unhappy. We talk quite a while, Captain Jean ready to head out… I say I can pack up right now and head to the airport and come home. No, she’s doing fine. It hurts but they say it wasn’t a really bad bite and she’ll be fine… Blood work came pack positive… You’re sure… I can come now… Maxx can continue sailing or come home too…
No, she says. Keep going. She’ll be fine and how can she miss us if we don’t go away… So we get back on the boat for that last fatal hour.
Maybe I realized that when I asked Loree to marry me on a deserted Lovers Beach in Cabo San Lucas back in the distant 80’s, I knew she was the only woman on earth that could actually live with me AND fight a copperhead to a draw. The snake probably had a couple dozen broken ribs and a bruised ego. Somewhere deep inside, I knew she’d won the battle as few of us could have. My faith in her ability to rise above anything is total and complete. There are no woos’s in the Greta family. For her to say she’ll be fine and we should keep going was something few outside this family could possibly understand, but I got it.
After we mutiny, we check back in with her and she’s OK. Keep going.
Somehow during the haze of beer and rum with Captain Sawyer, we drag our stuff to a smarmy little motel across from the docks and book two nights to think this thing through. I meet Captain Sawyer for coffee the next morning at Starbucks.
There’s always a Starbucks in these seafaring mutiny stories isn’t there?
He knows everyone on the island and recognizes Captain Sir Jon at the next table (who was actually knighted by The Queen at one point in his life).
Turns out Captain Sir Jon manages a house on Rose Island just seven miles from Nassau. It’s empty now and the cistern is dry, so there’s no water and it needs some work… Paint, broken windows and such. If we’ll do the work, we can have it cheap for the next couple weeks.
Sometimes things fall in your path and you just go. Life is full of coin flips and if you’re smart, you keep the change handy and see where the quarter lands.
Again, lay in supplies and hop on the skiff and away we go.
Rose Island is 11 miles long and in some places a hundred yards wide. The windward side is rocks and the leeward side (north side) is beaches. Beaches and rocks. And more beaches. The house we were moving into for the duration is on a bluff overlooking the windward side. Awesome house, huge surrounding porch, second story loft full of windows and you could throw a rock into the sea from the porch.
It was amazing.
No cars on the island. No roads. Sandy paths everywhere and no single path from one end to the other. If you can walk 11 miles of beaches, knock yourself out.
Because there’s no water in the cistern, we load up a dozen five-gallon bottles from the hose at the docks. That’s what we’ll drink, wash dishes and flush the toilets with for the next few weeks… Unless it rains. No matter. There is a fridge and lights all provided by a stylish solar system and a bank of big manly batteries.
And there is a wheel barrel to haul everything up the hill to the house.
We settle in for island life.
The walking path is a click away from what we came to call Ellis Island. The nearest beach was maybe a half mile long crescent. Palm trees, white sand and bright turquoise water.
And one house on the end. Ellis is the house keeper/manager/grounds keeper/live in only guy there for the last ten years.
It doesn’t take us long to be great friends with Ellis. He’s Haitian and it takes a while to understand his thick patois, but soon we’re having great conversations about life, the sea and this wonderful little island. We walk there daily to the amazing beach to fish from the rocks and dive to hunt fish and lobster with a Hawaiian sling. He comes by our place and we eat and play guitar.
I have a list of chores which actually are a nice distraction from the utter lack of distraction.
The first thing I do is drill the deck uprights to accommodate my hammock. The front corner of the house has a wide, open covered porch and a perfect location for a hammock. Watch the ocean, sunsets, birds and more from the hammock… Coffee in the morning in the hammock… Rum punch in the evening in the hammock… Big chunks of the day in the hammock… I think it could actually be the center of the known universe, that hammock.
Paint the deck railings. No problem… Fix the windows upstairs, no problem. Walk to Ellis Island to dive the coral reefs every day… No problem.
With a lot of practice and a lot of TINGS as the Hawaiian sling hits the rocks instead of the fish, we get better. Find a metal file at the house to file the tip back to a point (we tried with rocks and old chunks of coral, but no luck…)
But we get better and bring in fish for the BBQ.
This is my idea of paradise. And as it turns out, it’s the idea for a lot of people.
Wake up to the sound of the ocean. Have coffee… Make some breakfast. Lay in the hammock till you feel like diving a reef and dive till you spear dinner. Clean it and bring it home and cook it. Walk everywhere and don’t hear man-made noises. Just the ocean, wind, birds and lizards scurrying through the jungle underbrush. Palm trees arching over your sandy path. Flowers. Coconuts sprouting.
Realize at some point that you always have a knife in your pocket. Mine was a heavy duty black dive knife that cleaned fish, cut line, sliced cheese and bread and onions and potato’s and solved a dozen problems a day. And then realize life is much more interesting when you always have a knife in your pocket and you use it to solve problems all day.
From mutiny to this… This is pretty much perfect.
But then again, nothing is perfect.
There are tiny, invisible demons. Flying jaws. They eat chunks of your skin and vanish, laughing. And at night unless you are covered in some sort of medication and drugged with Benadryl, you scratch yourself into a coma.
Mostly the locals don’t notice. Maybe they donate a pound of flesh to the Bug Gods every year without a worry. But my fresh tourist skin was a strange and wonderful treat. They devoured us.
There is even a tree on the island called a Tourist Tree. It’s reddish trunk is peeling with thin layers of skin. The flora and fauna mock us.
And water. Appreciate water. Thank water. Love water. It is your friend and when you can turn a shiny lever and have it magically appear in your abode, thank the great spirits of H2O for their grace in visiting you so easily.
With no water other than big bottles you carry up a hill, you get cranky. You once again go feral. You go thirsty. Dishes go unwashed. Toilets become a distant memory. Showers a mythological goddess of yore.
It wears on you.
Nothing was easy. The entire venture was high risk, high misery and high reward.
A Feral life.
And eventually, it’s time to head home.
The product deal had fallen apart. Not sure exactly why, but the original offer was cut to 10% of what it had been on the term sheet. Forget it. Not interested. I’m pissed off for maybe ten minutes.
Then it hits me.
The mythological offer and it’s promise of don’t worry about a thing money just a month away was the reason we left. It’s all going to be OK, so get off the planet (or jump ship if you will).
But when that mythical money vanished, I realized the real pot of gold was the journey. Going feral with my son for a month was worth a lot more than any check. The money was a nice thought, I visualized a new car, some cool things done to the house, a newfound relaxation… But in the long run, none of that really matters. Money is an illusion. One we all need but one we should keep at bay.
Time is the only thing we will ever own and we only get so much of it… And we generally waste it on worthless pursuits.
The time Maxx and I had to do this whole crazy venture was far more valuable than any check could be. And if it weren’t for the promise of that money, we’d never have gone.
So thank you mythical offer.
We make it home finally and head straight to our favorite Austin haunt, Guero’s.
We get easy parking, we get my favorite sidewalk table and I get another call on my product line. Another company wants to do it. It’s a very different offer, but it’ll be a lot more fun and probably more profitable in the long run.
Many things transpired that won’t change the universe, but will change Maxx and myself.
First, Maxx met a couple crews from luxury yachts on the many days we were docked in Nassau from all the engine troubles. He loved them. He lived their life. They loved him. Now he’s heading off to get his crew certification… Fire training, first aide, docking procedures, marine safety and protocol. He’s heading to the East Coast to get a job on the big yachts.
Each yacht may have from five to fifteen crew full-time. It’s hard work but pays well. Everyone gets their own cabin and a full schedule of duties on guest charters, but time off in ports of call all over the world. He’s all in. He’ll wear a sharp white uniform with those things on the shoulders and be swabbing decks, polishing teak and taking wealthy guests fishing, diving and exploring some of the most amazing places on earth.
It very well could be the perfect job for a kid that can be comfortable anywhere on earth. We’ve fished the Amazon, driven a vintage French car cross-country, walked the mountains and sailed with Captain Bligh and he never breaks a sweat. No matter what you throw at him, he makes the best of it and comes through the other side.
He worked hard on this journey, whether it was having to learn navigation to keep us from a reef, to painting and hauling water in the heat. I have no doubt that this new journey can take him places most of us can never even imagine.
For me, I came back with a new perspective on life.
It’s short. You get to choose how you live it and you actually CAN get off the planet if you want.
At one point in the journey, I talked to an old client about a possible project when I got back. The talk brought me back to the hundreds of meetings I’ve had in countless conference rooms with countless business terms thrown around about countless business processes.
I realized it’s just part of the dance. It’s not ALL the dance. When that business music starts, jump in step but realize the song is short and when it changes, move on to something else until it starts again.
It’s temporary. Business is what we do to get to do other things. Be good at it. Do great work. But in the long run, it’s only part of your story. Love the people around you. Be kind to strangers. See the world. Make people smile and sleep well at night.
Now I’m back in full swing, talking with clients, reading the new contract and still scratching the bug bites. My Topsiders still have sand in them and even thought I should have burned the clothes I brought back, they’re in the washing machine for a second go-round.
An odd thing kept happening throughout the month. I kept realizing that that particular scene, in exact detail, had happened before. Maybe a dozen times a distinct deja vu feeling washed over me. There was no mistaking it and the times it happened were so unique that there is simply no explanation for it. I’m not the woo-woo, pre-ordained, this-was-meant-to-be kinda guy but these scenes kept replaying themselves. Make of that what you will.
The Feral Life is out there. Waiting to claim me again when the time is right and I’ll embrace it fully. Wisdom, I think, is knowing when the time is right…
And then jumping ship.