Natural Departures. Heading Back to Shore.

“You can do something completely new, a total u-turn from anything you’ve enjoyed before, and decide that you love it and to carry on doing it for the rest of your life. Or you can try something once and then never do it again. Or you can do a bit of both. You can run around a country then decide you’re happy just being a weekend-and-holidays runner. It’s all fine. You are under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.”

Elise Downing – Running Around the Coast of Britain – Life, Love and (very) Loose Plans.

Today is an anniversary day and I have certainly found with this blog that anniversary days are a good motivator to publish, because anniversaries are temporal markers of all that’s come to pass…or not as the case may be.

It’s two years this very day that Clipper notified all crew that the race was being aborted in Subic Bay due to the sudden arrival of a global pandemic. Click here for the announcement they made on the 17th March 2020, just 4 weeks and 2 days before I was due to join my crew in Seattle and step aboard CV25.

The pandemic rather changed the course of my planned adventure, as well as dragging the whole episode out to 5 years of my life, in a direction I could never have predicted. So, given how much time has come to pass, I do need to remind myself these days about why I even signed up to the race in the first place! Thankfully, I had scribbled in a little A5 notebook back in the summer of 2017 that my motivations for signing up to the race were:

  • To write myself a new story
  • Start an exciting journey of new skills, experiences, people and places – Self-discovery!
  • To feel alive and brave (rather than restless and underwhelmed in life)
  • To overcome career frustrations by doing something extraordinary; beyond academia and despite the financial demands, lack of sailing experience and Crohn’s disease
  • To seize the opportunity for such an adventure, having no dependents and a supportive husband
  • To get fit
  • To learn to sail, thus fulfilling a long-held dream.
  • To create new opportunities and doors to pass through

One of the things that I very quickly fell in love with about sailing was that it was an instant way to cultivate a mindset of wonder. I would sit on deck in amazement at the sky or could stare for hours at the wake hissing inches from my nose or laugh at the unpredictability of rogue waves as they undermined my balance. I think that’s also why I love hiking long trails and camping too. They’re all quick ways to get into another mental state and be awed, immersed, and inspired by all around you – even the driving rain, damp fog or screeching wind. I notice details in the natural world far more easily than I do in my house-bound, desk-bound life. The transcendent power of being outdoors, in nature, and feeling tiny in a vast, timeless universe. Yes, that’s definitely a major factor that motivated me to sign up for the Clipper RTW yacht race 4 years and 6 months ago. I cannot believe it’s been that long, and I still haven’t actually raced!

When Clipper suddenly started communicating that the aborted race would be resuming in early spring 2022 I realised I had a very tough decision to make. It made for an unsettling winter. I prayed and hoped that New Year 2022 would bring resolution. It came as a personal email on the 6th January 2022 from one of the race directors offering me a partial refund on my outstanding race fees ahead of the race resuming this month in the Philippines. It was a very tough decision and one I struggled with for a few weeks, but by the end of January I knew what was right for me and I formally accepted to not be a part of the resumed race. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would, though there is a sadness I carry. Still, I felt it was canny again that the week I made my decision and my refund came through from Clipper I met with 3 race crew for a day’s walk and pub lunch in Cheltenham. These 3 women are precious to me, as I got to know them early on in my race journey and our respective journeys have taken us on different paths. Two of them I have written blog posts about before as I went on an eventful sail with them on May bank holiday a few years ago that resulted in the RNLI being called to rescue. They were both round-the-world sailors on other teams. One is returning to the race to complete what she started, the other is walking away having felt like she’s already got out of the experience what she needed to. The other woman was a legger, like me. She got to complete her leg (5) and had a thoroughly positive experience and I never got to race my legs at all. But I have made my peace with it. It felt like a natural departure for the four of us to meet for a walk on a glorious winter’s day and chew the fat over all things Clipper. I am very grateful for that.

Fabulous female crew racing in the 2019-20 edition of the race, all of us on different teams. Only Su, on the far left, is returning to the resumed race to complete her circumnavigation aboard Sanya.

All I know is that I am not the person I was when the race got suddenly postponed in Subic Bay back in March 2020 and I feel no obligation to pretend that I am. Indeed, the world is not what it was 2 years ago. The landscape of our lives has changed irrevocably. Like many people, after two years of working from home and the prolonged closure of sports clubs, I am definitely not the strong, muscular person I was back then. After a protracted period of unemployment following having to leave my job to be available to race, I finally resumed academic employment in May 2021 on a challenging 30-month policy orientated research project – Voicing Loss – interviewing bereaved people who have tragically been through coroners courts and attended inquest hearings. I also grieved a lot during 2020-21 over the ‘what should have beens’, yet I feel I have finally come out the other side, so emotionally cannot give any more to the race.

Even so, I am painfully aware my teammates are about to embark on completing the race at the end of the month, and were I to have joined the resumed race, I’d be very busy right now getting ready to fly to Seattle in April. I am considering going to London to wave the fleet across the finish line on the 30th July. But for now, I am happy for CV25 to slip her lines and release me from her mooring in the process.

I always knew that signing up to the Clipper race would be a risk – in fact, involve numerous risks; loss of life, injury, financial and work-related losses to name a few, but despite the fact the race of my life didn’t turn out as I expected, I still, almost 5 years later, feel that the risk was worth taking for the sake of it. Why? Because there is something so very enlivening about expanding our ideas of who we think we are and what we’re capable of. Taking risks, expands our self-definition by granting self-empowerment by choosing to sign-up to and commit to a challenge. Successful challenges, beget successful challenges. So take baby steps in the direction of your dreams, because there’s something so very freeing and exciting about it. Or put another way, whatever you think you can do, or believe you can do, begin it, because action has magic, grace and power in it. An accomplished sailor who I have drawn much inspiration from over the years is Mike Perham, who I think is conveying the same truth when he writes in his autobiography:

“There was something very special…about putting yourself into situations that once inspired you as a child or had left you in awe of the experience of others.”

Mike Perham

It’s been a fabulously rich journey, but also a long, drawn-out four-and-a-half-year emotional rollercoaster. For this resumed race I am happy to be left on shore, rooted within myself and grateful for this ending to usher in new adventures.

And a new adventure has already begun this year, as Dave and I are now urban goat herders and share the responsibilities of a herd of 25 goats grazing on derelict agricultural land near the M32!

Since January we have been going to Bridge Farm to do a weekly milking duty and I also commit to one morning a week feeding them and cleaning out their shelters. We are terribly slow, tentative milkers, but in time, hopefully we’ll get faster and be able to use both hands. What delights me, aside from the sweet smell of hay and the intelligence of the goats, is that I have found myself leading two goats to a dairy right beside the M32 and its constant hum in order to get down a pail and sit beside the flanks of Lillian and Betty and milk them. It’s such a bizarre contrast! But I am giddy every single time I leave the dairy shed with my litre bottles full of warm goat’s milk. The alchemy of turning it into goat’s cheese pleases me immensely. It is a process of care, patience, and nurturing. A beautiful place to arrive at having followed the trajectory of a dream, that hasn’t landed with a splash and holler of “man overboard”, rather a bleat from an animal in my care as I gingerly learn how to milk her. The journey is always the arrival, and as the soil warms up I am hopeful for the new seeds being planted.