A perilous vacation teaches the healthy difference between control and influence.
What I Know Now
I don't mean to overdramatize the event, since what I'm really writing about is relaxation. However, for a time last fall I believed that the most significant episode of the preceding summer had occurred on the night I thought I might die.
I was wrong, though. The most significant episode of the summer had happened weeks before then, without my recognizing it for what it was. It occurred on the day I gave up trying to maintain control over my vacation and settled for exercising influence instead.
I was sailing. My yacht, a modest and middle-aged 10-meter motor-sailer built in Finland and acquired in Holland, doesn't justify much of a brag. Fancy she is not, nor sophisticated. Nevertheless, I had made plans to sail her from Amsterdam to the Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle on the west coast of Norway. Boy, had I made plans.
They were tabulated on my laptop and plotted on charts. They were incorporated into a schedule, with ports and dates. I had researched the average speed and direction of winds and currents along the route, working that information into the plan. The friends who would join me along the way knew where and when to rendezvous. I had prepared checklists outlining their shipboard duties. I had laid in a supply of spare engine parts and fluids. I had stocked the galley. In a spiral-bound notebook, every one of the hundreds of notes I had made about the preparation of yacht and self had been x-ed out: done and ready! With firm control -- that's how I ran my professional life, my little solo business. So not surprisingly, that's how I would run the cruise.
Imagine my aggravation then, once the cruise began, when perverse winds and engine breakdowns threatened to frustrate my tightly drawn plan. No matter which way we tried to sail to reach our next scheduled port, the wind seemed always to be blowing against us. Every time I repaired one engine part, another failed.
The more things went wrong, the harder I worked the boat and her crew, especially myself, to maintain control of the cruise -- that is, to keep to the plan. I was going to see to it that we made SvolvÆr or ... or what? Consider the absurdity of the situation. We were traveling, ostensibly for pleasure, through some of the most spectacularly beautiful land- and seascapes on earth, with no obligations to anyone but ourselves, but we weren't having any fun. I was exhausted and couldn't sleep. My patience was running short. We spent the days when we could sail trying to make up mileage that had been lost on the days when we couldn't.
Finally, when I could see no alternative, I made the best decision of the trip: I decided to scrap the plan. Instead of sailing as far as the plan said we would, we would sail only as far as we could. Implicit in the decision was a realization that certain factors -- the weather for one and unpredictable equipment for another -- were beyond my control.
Immediately, the nature of our experience changed. I relaxed. We woke in the morning, noted which way the wind was blowing, and headed for a spot that looked interesting somewhere in that direction. We began to see places, things, and people -- an 11th-century monastery built on a stone, a gathering of antique wooden boats, a restaurant where literally the whole island-town ate on Saturday night -- that I hadn't known about, hadn't imagined, and therefore couldn't have incorporated into the plan. I began to enjoy the cruise, the scenery, and my friends.
The plan, with its fixed goals and firm dates, assumed a level of control that I could never have achieved -- over the weather, the seas, the gremlins in the engine room, and scores of other factors. Further, the plan implicitly assumed that when I had drawn it up, months before setting sail, I had known of everything we might want to do once we actually arrived in Norwegian waters. Of course, I didn't. One of the chief rewards of travel is the serendipitous discovery of people and places you can't anticipate.
On the other hand, aimless wandering wasn't what we wanted either. However, that's not the only alternative to a tight travel plan. I could still exercise influence over the kind of experience we had by deciding where we could go, given the conditions I couldn't control. I could always at least nudge us in the right direction. If we didn't get as far as we thought we might, we nonetheless enjoyed ourselves along the way. Since I've gone back to work, it has occurred to me that keeping tight control might not be the best way of running my business. An eye too firmly fixed on the plan can miss a good many unplanned-for opportunities. Anyway, if I had continued to hew strictly to the cruise plan, it is possible that I wouldn't be here now to write about it.
In early August, on the homeward leg, sailing alone between crews, I departed Kirkehamn, a tiny postcard-pretty harbor in southern Norway, under a blue sky. Favorable winds were blowing about 15 knots and were predicted to remain steady for 24 hours. The plan called for me to stick close to the Norwegian coast for two more days before crossing the Skagerrak to Denmark. But as sailing conditions couldn't get much better than they were, I opted to cross that night.
After dark, however, the wind rose, and I spent a hairy night giving all my attention to the helm to keep the boat from broaching and turning dangerously crosswise to the rising seas. The night seemed to stretch on forever, and there were times when I had to wonder whether the boat and I would survive. Around noon the next day, we made port at Skagen, Denmark. I couldn't help noting the irony two nights later, when by the schedule in my plan I should have been making the crossing. The winds that night blew a full gale, and they piled up seas bigger than I could ever have hoped to handle. By not sticking strictly to the plan, I avoided fighting a losing battle with the sea -- and instead earned myself a safe night in port, a fine dinner with some newly made Swedish friends, and the opportunity to sail again.
Writer and marketing consultant Tom Richman lives in Amsterdam and has already bought his next boat.