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Set Vague Goals for a Voyage

As I write this, I’m returning from the Strictly Sail boat show in Chicago. The lowest temperature recorded there over my five-day stay was -3º. Hardly time to be thinking about sailing (or, perhaps, precisely the time to be thinking about sailing).

At a forum I led on the last day of the show, Paul & Sheryl Shard, sailors who produce the Distant Shores TV show, casually mentioned how they don’t like to set very lofty goals before embarking on a sailing trip, at least not publicly. “You can never exceed yourself,” said Paul. “Either you complete the voyage, do what you said you’d do in the first place, or you come up short and fail.

His point was that by setting vague goals for a voyage, you retain the flexibility inherently needed in any voyage to make it a success. It’s an old tradition, after all, to say you’re traveling towards a port, not to it. It leaves you an exit plan should something arise en route to trip you up.

His comment reminded me of my very first trip with my wife Mia on our yawl Arcturus in 2009. We’d left the Chesapeake and traveled nearly 1,000 miles down the length of the ICW to Florida, where the plan was to refit the boat over the course of that winter and then sail to Sweden in the spring. We’d hoped to find work and warm weather – we found neither. South Florida was experiencing record cold temperatures that year, and I could only come up with part-time work teaching English as a foreign language in Ft. Lauderdale.

We returned to Annapolis in March of 2010, very humbled and quite a bit lost. My pride had taken a hit too, for I’d announced my goals to the public through my writing. By springtime, the boat was still in Florida, still largely in the same shape it was when we left Annapolis the previous fall. I was barely making enough to afford our living expenses, let alone refit a boat to go across an ocean.

It would be several weeks until Mia and my dad were able to bring it back north along the ICW. I wasn’t sure what to do. Writing about the situation would certainly be admitting defeat – maybe if I said nothing, nobody outside my close friends and family would be the wiser. But where’s the honesty in that? Plus, I had to air it out for myself, get it off my chest. By previously exposing our dreams in public, I’d made us accountable for them, made them real. And we’d failed.

When I first wrote about that failure, I couldn’t have known what the future held. The story is full of uncertainty and fear, as I read it now. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into making a claim that we’d cross the North Atlantic – heck, we didn’t even have the charts!

But we did make it. In 2011, after regrouping the following year and putting all of our energy into refitting the boat – this time in Annapolis – we set out for what became an eight-week adventure up the East Coast and on to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and ultimately Ireland. Our goals were realized.

When I first heard it, I agreed with what Paul Shard said at the forum. Don’t announce your goals, just live your own dreams as they play out. Upon further reflection, however, I don’t agree. To me, setting the bar ever higher is what motivates me in all parts of my life, and I’ll continue to do it, to push myself. What that time in my life really taught me is that failure is just a failure – there are always second chances.

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