Following Captain Clark

Continued from – “In the Heart of Queen Maeve’s Cairn”

Traveling while weary. How to build excitement and momentum from a place of lonely exhaustion? Cold and rainy never fueled my furnace. Ireland had given me rest, but it would not give me energy or excitement. I was going to have to move on without that, somehow coast with an empty tank. Just get going, build momentum along the way.

The only path now was forward through Europe. No other option made sense. Flying home felt like quitting, flying to the Caribbean meant I would be a burden. This funk I was feeling would go with me anywhere, the only way out was to slog through it, drag it along with me. 

So I lay in the dark, the new certainty relieving in that it was at least something. But still there was so much uncertainty. Where did I even want to go? What did I want to see? Would I fly? Sail? Train? Camp?

I rolled over on my side, sighing heavy into my pillow, the burnt-out sigh of overthinking, of thoughts churning endlessly into space, a pump running dry. Come on Michelle, you can always drum up some kind of plan!

A thump outside pulled me from the edge of unsettled sleep. The shadow of a cat scaled the wide gutter pipe and stretched up full length to squeeze into my louvered window. ‘I hope I know this cat!’ I thought, and recognized Mowzie as she plopped onto the bed, purring loudly and settled in the crook of my legs, curling in a self-heating coil. She rumbled her appreciation to be indoors, to be cuddled in a comfy bed. I took it as a sign of comfort and support. Animal tenderness. We drifted to sleep.   

I awoke in the morning and reached down to Mowzie, who stirred and stretched with a satisfied squeak. Company, intimacy. I rolled over and checked my phone, a nasty morning addiction. The first thing I found was a video link, a message from my dear friend Manuel.

Manuel…another story for another time. A Brazilian man, living on his boat in Panama, but still very much Brazilian. I’d met him three years before, just after arriving in Panama City on another boat with, once again, no plan and too much stuff. I wasn’t in the mood to backpack around Central America again. I didn’t even have a backpack. Just awkward duffels a surf bag and a loose ukelele. I wanted to be more settled. 

Well, actually, I wanted to sail more. Just that sailing is a bit more settled than backpacking. On the spectrum of ‘settledness’, a sailboat lies somewhere between a bicycle and a motorhome. At least there is a vessel other than yourself to carry your shit. I’ve always been one for hobbies, and hobbies equal stuff. Not ideal for a traveler, but worth the back pain…mostly.

I wanted a longer passage than the one from California. That had been a tease, motoring the 150-foot tall-ship just out of sight of land for twelve days. Even with the Papagayo winds and seas tipping the top-heavy tub to 35 degrees, it wasn’t quite adventure enough. You know when you just feel like you need some length of time, some sort of passage? I felt like I needed to be at sea for a while. Maybe months. Maybe the South Pacific. 

I enrolled in an STCW course, which seemed like the logical next step for getting on boats. The course was half the US price and one third the education. I was the only student and computer slide-shows were the main teacher. But still I walked away with an internationally valid certificate. 

Then, from a hostel bunkbed in The Ciudad Antigua, I responded to a Crewbay ad to help with surf, sail, and dive charters in Bocas Del Toro. I felt aimless without a plan, as usual. Hard to relax and enjoy myself if something is left unsorted. Manuel invited me to “Come spend Christmas with the sailboat community,” which was exactly the welcome I needed. So I went. 

I spent a magical month on his boat, surfing, sailing, free-diving, and delicately balancing friendship and seductive Brazilian advances. I found another boat sailing to Hawaii, but it was hard to tear my heart away from the the little life I found in Bocas. It took the perfect storm of emotional upheaval to break the spell of our charmed month. I quickly found myself on a ferry to catch my new ride. 

But Manuel stayed on as one of the best. One of those threads you weave into your web of spread out, cherry-picked traveller tribe. A true caregiver, who could always soothe my sadness and insecurity with some reassuring compliment. Messages reminding me (“girl”), that I belong on the ocean. (His assertive, sometimes overwhelming, usually spot-on, certainty of who I am and what I should do is also very Brazilian.) 

The video he shared that morning in Ireland was a short film by the company Patagonia, of Captain Liz Clark, promoting her new book, ‘Swell’. The ocean scenes tugged at me, warm and blue, beside deep green Pacific islands. I sunk further into my down sleeping bag and let myself drift away from the chilly stone cottage. 

I thought I recognized the woman. Who was she? A scene shifted to a cat in the cockpit, resting her paws on the swaying lines. (Mowzie stirred between my knees.) Then a scene of the woman and cat walking together down a deserted beach, then the two of them in a tree harvesting fruit.

That cat. 

I unwrapped myself from Mowzie, slid out of bed and over to one of my swollen backpacks, the one with my journals and books. I pulled out the folder with important documents, and sifted through passport copies, licenses, scraps of contact information, story ideas and notes, until I found three wrinkled pages torn from a magazine. Seemed like a frivolous thing to have with me, but I’d carried them everywhere for the past two years.

My nomad friend Gretchen gave them to me. We worked together at a horticulture therapy program in Hawaii. Each week she would put her full heart into a group of teenagers, then leave work and jump in her truck to spend the next week camping and hiking all over the island. If I was lucky, I would see her for a day. She would park her truck in front of the Buddhist temple by our house and come over for dinner, or a snuggle, or to spread out and make crafts on our cozy living room floor. She’d bring fruit she foraged, mangos she found up north, or coconuts she had climbed to chop. She never slept inside. She always went back to her truck.

In the picture, a blond woman drove a dinghy towards a small sloop anchored off lush green islands. A calico cat strode expertly on the bow of the dinghy, and the boat wore a proud peace sign on its sail cover.  

Gretchen gave me that picture on my 30th birthday, inside a small bag she had hand-sewn from a piece of denim jean. She wrote on it quotes from poets I’d never heard of, about solitude and strength. And she just knew, because she knew me, that a picture of a strong woman and her cat, driving to her sailboat, was exactly what I needed hanging over my head as I slept and dreamed and manifested my reality. According to Feng Shui, I strategically taped it on the wall of my room associated with ‘helpful people and travel’.

She gave me Liz Clark for that birthday. But for years, I had no idea she was a real person. Just some modeled scene to sell bikinis and board shorts, I thought. Either way, the image served as an inspiration, and so she travelled with me, crinkled and folded into the pages of my journals, and hung on every wall I could call mine for more than a month.

And then that morning on the threshold of a new journey, on that morning of indecision, uncertainty, and cold Irish bones, Manuel gave me Liz Clark again.

Up until then, I had been too tired to think of stepping on another boat. I felt soggy and all sailed out. The North Atlantic had done a number on me. I debated how I would get back to the states once I’d satisfactorily fulfilled my first opportunity to see Europe (which at this point felt a bit like an obligation).  

But I stepped from bed that morning and dressed for the chill with a Pacific blue behind my eyes. The beauty of the video reminded me of the wonders woven into the exhaustion of being at sea, and warmed something in me.

I went about my day on the little Irish homestead. Here. Now. “You have your own thing you are doing right now,” echoed my mother as I tried to stay present. 

As I welcomed home the dog I’d put out without tying up. Who had stared at me as I shut the door on her, crushing me with what I thought was a plea to sleep indoors. But what was actually just disbelief. “Really? You’re gonna let me just roam free all night? Maybe hunt a sheep or two?” 

As I shooed out the cats that I had unwittingly let in by leaving windows open.

As I released the rooster I’d trapped in the workshop when I closed it up the night before, and cleaned his poop from the work benches and floor.

As I chased the hens out of the conservatory when they snuck in behind me to eat the cat food. As I scrubbed more chicken shit from the front stoop. 

Then finally lounged in the brief sun on the clean cement. Before a loud buzzing drew my attention from the kitchen, where a swarm of bees had found its way to the stored honey frames through more windows I had left open. And so spent the next two hours luring them to honey covered cardboard and ushering them back outside. A day of animal mischief, a learning curve that is hard not to smile at. I needed some smiles.

Until finally in the late afternoon, before dinner, I snuck back to my room, closed the door, and dove into the other current flowing in my life. 

There would be two tracks playing side by side for the next six months. This, the Europe adventure, the journey. And that, the Caribbean home, the destination. I would have to be patient for ‘that’ in order to focus on ‘this’. I would have to compartmentalize. While the journey deserved most of the focus, the destination would still steal some of my attention, of course. 

On my iPad, I checked the daily hurricane updates. Although storm force winds had blown apart my previous vision of living and writing on a lush little island, they left me wanting to go back more than ever. That fuzzy dot of a destination sprung sharp into focus. A certainty. I would still aim for there, as quickly as I respectfully and reasonably could. 

And now three major storms lined up across the Atlantic, back to back, one cranky climate slap after another. I felt the weight of my own travel, all the flights and fuel, and a sudden sharp ethical responsibility (especially with my skills and schedule) to get back without flying.

As I gazed at the armageddon-esque image of the Atlantic basin, the line of tight spirals and defined eyes, another certainty emerged.

I would go back to the Caribbean, and I would sail there.

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