To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea...“cruising” it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about.
- from Wanderer by Sterling Hayden
The voyage I wish to tell you about took two years to complete, and though I've described bits and pieces of it before in short articles, some 25 years have passed before I got around to telling the tale in more detail. My story takes place between 1984 and 1986 when I was in my mid-twenties, as close to broke as I dared to be and hungry for the adventure that is only provided by a long voyage.
The basic premise is not so unusual: a young man on a quest for adventure, knowledge, romance, his fortune – strikes out to see the world. It has taken me these many years and thousands more miles under the keel to give me a more balanced perspective on that life-changing first voyage alone around the world.
The nature of cruising in sailboats has changed dramatically since 1984. Today's sailors are typically older and retired, their ventures well-financed with larger and more expensive boats. For both better and worse, new labor-saving devices and safety equipment, at more affordable prices, has reduced the physical and technical challenges of voyaging, and reduced along with it, the rewards gained by hard physical work, self-sufficiency, and the heightened awareness of risks inherent in true adventure. Perhaps most disconcerting, the popularity of world cruising has made the search for unspoilt islands more challenging than ever.
I write this narrative now, in part, to provide a glimpse into a style of exploration to which the modern traveler may not have been exposed, and to remind them that, for the most part, they can still voyage now, as I did then, living close to nature and filling their lives with discovery, on their own terms. Compared to a simple boat, a backpack and my boots, the thought of fussing around with airlines, taxis, buses, hotels, restaurants and all the other trappings of typical tourist travel, leave me as uninspired as a purposeless voyage.
The point of my journey was not to be first or fastest in any category, but to venture beyond my old world and self. When I began, I didn't realize that along the way my growing commitment to walk across each island and climb their highest peaks was to be as big a part of the adventure as the sailing. Like a richly lived life, as a voyage unfolds it evolves and carries you where it will.
Twenty-five years after that voyage I find my life has changed. The sharp edge of my hunger to explore has been sated somewhat by the banquet of decades of roaming under sail. I awoke recently to discover I'm fast becoming an old sailor, and what better task for an old salt than to share his stories before they're forgotten.
While reading my saltwater-stained journal and tattered log book, and flipping through the faded photo albums, it seems almost as if it were someone else's life depicted there. Was I really so rash that I set out across oceans possessing only a few hundred dollars, on a boat with sails so old you could push your finger through them? Surely it was not me that had been so dimwitted to walk into a dark cave in New Guinea and tumble into its deep, black pit? Was it foolish and selfish to seek the love of an island girl when I knew I would soon sail away from her forever?
While there turns out to be no perfect plan, I learned some things on this imperfect voyage that shaped my life in the best ways possible. Beginning with a world-view as small as my boat left me with no room for passengers. Alone on the oceans, I learned how to live in isolation. Hiking across the islands with near-empty pockets and well-worn boots, dependent on the generosity of the inhabitants, taught me how to live in society. What richer reward for a passage of two years?
There is room, now, to bring others aboard for my journey.
May you also avoid a “routine traverse.”