Holy shit, we’re sailing around the world? (Thoughts on adventure and anxiety)

tasha hacker turf to surf sailing around the world cheeky monkey

When our Coast Guard registration papers for Cheeky Monkey finally arrive by FedEx, Ryan and I pop open some beers and dance around the cockpit while flashing our blue lights on and off like we’re some kind of floating disco tied to the Fountaine-Pajot docks in La Rochelle.

Once that silliness is out of the way, we settle down to write a final list of everything we need to do to get off the docks. Which is when my gut starts to gurgle with a familiar feeling of acid anxiety, something that always hits me before a new challenge or a big journey.

And it starts to sink in: we’re really doing this. Holy shit, this is it. Our boat is registered and, officially, there is nothing keeping us here anymore. We can leave right now, right this minute.

fountaine pajot helia 44 sailing around the world cheeky monkeyThis is Cheeky Monkey, our Fountaine-Pajot Helia 44. She is rarin’ to go.

Yet I haven’t been thinking about this trip as a reality at all. It’s been a vague dream, a hazy concept, for so long that my brain seems to have accepted that this journey would always lie somewhere on the horizon just beyond our reach.

And yet, here we are. This is happening now. We’re going to sail around the world.

Every time I say these words out loud, I shake my head a little. Because when it’s said in response to a simple question like, “What are your plans?” it sounds ridiculous and dramatic and incomprehensible. And because the reaction I get from strangers is often a raised eyebrow followed by a long pause as they try to formulate the next question, which is often something like, “But…where do you go to the bathroom?”

tasha hacker cheeky monkey sailing around the world helia turf to surfMaybe once the side of the boat is branded, too, it will sink in?

It’s moments like these, when I’m on the cusp of an enormous experience, that I feel like I’ve been sucker-punched in the head. It’s like I never saw this coming, even though we have been dreaming about this day for years. We’ve read countless books and blogs about cruising around the world, we’ve taken charter vacations in the British Virgin Islands to see if we liked cruising, then we sailed our own boat to the BVIs from New York, and we talked endlessly about where we’d go if we had the chance to circumnavigate the world. And then we sold our companies so we could do exactly what we’d been dreaming of doing all these years. So, really, the fact that this day has arrived should be anything but a surprise.

But this is the pattern of my life, which is woven from the threads of both adventure and anxiety, resulting in five distinct stages in how I pursue and deal with adventure:

Stage 1: Inspiration – I hear or read about a crazy and exciting challenge, like sailing across the Southern Ocean, running from Miami to Key West, rowing around the Isle of Wight, or anything that sounds slightly mad and/or physically difficult, and my brain goes, “Whoa, that sounds amazing.”

Stage 2: Decision – My brain says, “Seriously. That sounds amazing. Don’t you want to do that? Go on, do it!” And before I know it, I’ve emailed someone, registered through a web site or made a plan with Ryan or an insane friend to do some crazy challenge in the far-off future.

Stage 3: Denial – I mark the event in my calendar and resume my normal, busy routine as my brain says, “So, you’re really doing this, huh? Well, let’s not panic already…just kick back and forget about it for a while. No sense getting worked up now.”

Stage 4: Panic – The big challenge is soon approaching and I suddenly remember I have to buy gear, pack bags and plan out how I’m actually going to get to the start of this thing, as well as how I’m going to tackle the challenge itself. And panic starts to set in. The last-minute realization of what I’m about to do causes my emotions to spike and my brain to scream, “What the hell were you thinking?! YOU HAVEN’T THOUGHT THIS THROUGH!”

Stage 5: Thrill – I am in the middle of doing whatever crazy thing I signed up for when I was possibly hungover and not at all in my right mind, and my brain is flooded with endorphins and screaming, “Holy shit, am I really doing this? THIS IS AWESOME! WHAT A GREAT IDEA!!!”

row around the isle of wight turf to surfRowing around the Isle of Wight for 12 hours with 7 women was, in fact, a great idea.

Though the result of these five stages is often positive (except when it ends with me in the hospital) and leaves me feeling inspired to pursue other challenges, there is a short, rather intense period surrounding Stage 3 and 4 (Denial and Panic) that typically turns me into an emotional lunatic.

I blame the defense mechanism in my brain that tries to decrease my anxiety about taking on scary challenges by putting those challenges out of my mind until the last possible minute, which has the unfortunate result of leaving me stranded in the eleventh hour with a severe lack of concrete plans. And that backfires on the whole let’s-not-get-too-stressed phase by sky-rocketing my anxiety when the big challenge arrives and I am nowhere near ready and I’m scrambling to research what the hell it is I’ve signed up for, what I need to buy and how the hell I’m going to get to where I’m going.

If you could have been in my London hotel room the night before the start of the Clipper Round the World Race in September 2013, you would have witnessed me in full-fledged Stage 4 panic. There were bags all over the floor and I was desperately weighing my gear and bursting into tears when I couldn’t figure out how to fit my computer and camera gear, as well as all my warm clothing, into the tight weight restrictions on board Henri Lloyd.

Meanwhile, Ryan was neatly packed, drinking a beer and saying things like, “What are you so worked up about? Everything’s going to be fine.” But his words had absolutely no effect on the tornado of thoughts spinning around in my head, accelerated by mental images of me falling overboard, the mast crashing down in a storm or me cracking my head open somewhere on the Southern Ocean. Nothing could stop my mind from escalating the danger of what I was about to do.

It wasn’t until my boat left St. Katharine’s Docks and I watched London fade into the distance that my stomach started to settle and I could breathe easier. After all, there was no going back, so there was no point in worrying now. I had no choice but to accept my fate, live in the moment and take this journey as it comes, day by day, hour by hour.

tasha hacker clipper round the world raceI have to survive the panic in order to get to this: the thrill.

This is the part of any adventure that I love the most; it is what happens when Stage 5 finally takes over. As soon as my body is busy and moving, I relax and settle into a place where anxiety falls away and I have only the tasks at hand to concentrate on. It is in these moments when I am fully present in my mind and body, and I am tingling with the thrill of being exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do in this very moment. I sweat and I smile and I forget all about the stress of the manic stage that came before it.

So, as I am running around Cheeky Monkey like a lunatic, washing, tidying and stowing things away, while also mumbling to myself that this boat isn’t ready yet, I am aware that the next stage is the one I really want to get to. I want to feel the thrill of this journey, not dwell in the panic.

And this has me thinking about the familiar pattern of anxiety that comes with every adventure for me, as it’s not just the beginning of our round-the-world sailing journey that’s sneaking up on me in less than twenty-four hours. (I know. Twenty-four freaking hours! I’m telling you, PANIC.) But also, in less than a month, I will be taking part in a 300-mile rowing race from Barcelona, Spain to Bosa, Sardinia. And yet my brain is in complete denial saying, “Chill! Relax! It’s a month away!” Which I know is a recipe for emotional mania as the race start date grows nearer and I have hardly put any thought into what gear I need to live in a rowboat for a solid week because I’ve been so busy working out what gear I need to live on a catamaran for the next five years.

The race is a pilot, the first of its kind run by Locura Adventures, which starts in Barcelona on September 23rd and will take five to seven days of non-stop rowing to complete in a five-man/woman boat. And as if that doesn’t sound hard enough, I’ve now managed to add another level to the challenge by attempting to get to Barcelona by sail power before the race start.

locura adventures tom saltLocura Adventures was recently founded by Tom Salt (right),  former Clipper Racer and 2014 winner of the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Rowing Race along with partner Mike Burton. Crazy, right?

But as Cheeky Monkey’s departure date has been pushed later and later, delayed by our faulty Garmin autopilot and a number of other electrical problems, it’s possible we won’t make it to Barcelona, or Ibiza, where Ryan would like to hang out while I scramble to get myself to Barcelona. Which means there will be panic and anxiety surrounding the last-minute logistics of getting to this rowing race start, not to mention all the things that could go wrong on the first leg of this journey sailing around the world.

I am also aware that preparation is the key to a safe and comfortable journey, so now that we have Cheeky Monkey’s registration papers in our hands, we are delving into the details of where we want to go, what the weather is doing and what our bail-out ports are in case we hit bad weather or we need to stop for repairs before we get to Ibiza.

I’m now fully immersed in Stage 4, where my mind is going, “Holy shit, this is happening?!”

It’s making my stomach flip-flop and it’s compelling me to frantically research spots on the coast of Spain and Portugal while trying to run through a list of people I need to call and inform that this is actually happening.

There’s no point in asking the question, “When will I learn and get all this done earlier?” because it’s very possible I’ll never learn. But I recognize that there is a balance to getting the most out of an adventure. It is the right combination of planning and spontaneity that makes for the best experiences, the former of which I am desperately lacking.

Ryan, however, is great at being grounded in plans and outlines, which helps to remove some of the stress of the unknown, both for him and for me. He is good at writing and implementing action plans so that large goals can be broken down into small, digestible stages and so the task of preparing isn’t one big anxiety-ridden shock to the system.

The truth is, we are as prepared as we ever will be to start this journey. We’ve been working on and prepping Cheeky Monkey nonstop for the last month. It’s just that somewhere in the process of running around, buying food, practicing docking and installing and re-installing all our electronics, I forgot that the goal was to actually leave. So now that we’re on the eve of leaving, it suddenly feels like a colossal surprise.

cheeky monkey food provisioning turf to surfWe’ve been stocking up and working hard on getting Cheeky Monkey ready for sea.

We have a vague idea of where we’d like to sail to next — generally, in the direction of Ibiza, Spain — but we also know that the destinations aren’t the most important part of this journey we’re about to embark on. We may never reach the destinations we set out to visit; we may end up changing course completely. And it wouldn’t be the first time to happen. But we know that whatever happens next, it will be an adventure.

As the wise Ernest Hemingway said, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

ryan cheeky monkey sailing around the worldNo one is more excited to get off the docks and get moving than Ryan.