Then and Now

If you say we don’t look a day older in these two photos, in a way you’d be telling the truth. We don’t look a day older. We are—and look—four decades older. I was 26 and Eric was 27 when we set sail from England to California on Duprass in 1977. Now we are 66 and 67, and many things are different—some are vastly different—this second time at sea.

First, obviously, is the boat. Duprass was 27 feet long, weighed 3.5 tons, and carried 320 square feet of sail. She had a small V-berth, a narrow saloon with fold-down table, and a two-burner stove. Among the other cruising boats we met, we were about the smallest. Below deck, Eric did not even have standing headroom.

Corroboree is 35 feet long, weighs 9.5 tons and carries 619 square feet of sail. She has a roomy V-berth and aft cabin, a beamy saloon with a U-shaped settee and square table, and a 3-burner stove plus oven, not that this will make me a better cook. Compared to Duprass, she feels luxurious, even though we moved aboard from a 2,600-square-foot house.

Another big item is the technology. On Duprass, I typed our log on paper on a manual typewriter, corrected my typos with White-out, and mailed colorful postcards to my worried parents to let them know when we reached port. We navigated by sextant and paper charts. Approaching land, we used our hand-held radio direction finder to pick up Morse code beeps from towers on shore. Though we had a short-wave radio, for much of the voyage we were out of range of weather reports.  

On Corroboree we have laptops, smart phones, iPad and Nooks. GPS and a host of navigation apps let us electronically plot, track and display our course. On leaving port, we send family and friends a link via our Delorme satellite phone so they can follow our path in real time. The one glitch is that Internet isn’t always available in the islands. Otherwise, compared to Duprass, it’s mind-boggling. Nevertheless, we still carry a sextant as backup.

Forty years has also changed the cruising scene. At least from what we’ve seen so far, the boats are bigger and the sailors grayer. In 1977, we rarely saw a boat over 40’ long, and most of our fellow cruisers were young couples like us. In 2017, 40-50’ is average, and as Eric remarked at one anchorage, “This place is full of white beards.” Including his. I wonder if it’s just too expensive now for young people to buy a boat and take a year off work? Especially if they have college loans to pay off.

Certainly, we are financially far more secure than the first time we sailed. Though we still watch our pennies, if something breaks, we can afford to fix it. When in port, we can try some restaurants. If we want a little luxury, we can partake of a marina rather than anchoring out. For that matter, there are a lot more marinas to choose from, and the anchorages are more crowded. Everybody, it seems, is doing this. We aren’t a rarity anymore.

Having savings also buys us time. On Duprass, we had just enough in the bank to last a year before we had to resume earning a living. Now we can travel farther and take longer. If a place strikes our fancy we can stay weeks or even months. Some things don’t change however. Then and now, the wind and weather play the biggest role in determining when and where we can go.

Finally, we can’t deny the difference forty years has made in us. On Duprass we were as nimble as monkeys running around the deck. I didn’t need glasses, we never wore hats or sunscreen, and we had stamina to spare. We are still, thankfully, in very good health. You have to be to undertake a voyage like this. But as I said, Corroboree is a bigger and much heavier boat, and she doesn’t have electric winches. So while on Duprass I could hoist and handle the sails myself, raising the main on Corroboree takes all my breath and strength. It’s tough even for Eric, and we have to do it in tandem with Eric pulling on the halyard while I crank the winch.

Ditto the anchor. On Duprass, I could lower and raise the 22-lb anchor while Eric maneuvered the boat. On Corroboree, the 35-lb. anchor is beyond my control. It plunges straight down, the chain running through my gloved hands and nearly taking me with it. We’ve had to switch positions, me at the helm, Eric on the bow, and again it works.

But what if Eric were injured or incapacitated? I feel an obligation to be able to sail and operate every aspect of the boat on my own—our lives could depend on it—but although I’m strong for my size, physics is physics, and there are things I can’t lift, shift, maneuver or budge. In addition, the arthritis in my fingers makes it harder to manipulate latches, shackles and such. I simply have to hope that in an emergency adrenalin will come to my rescue.

Then again, we’re going to die anyway, and perhaps that’s the biggest difference forty years makes. Even at the glorious age of 27, you know you’re going to expire someday. But you don’t really believe it, and anyway, it won’t be for a long time yet. At 66, death is no longer a distant event. It’s a reality, it’s an in-your-face knowledge, it’s snickering at you in your rearview mirror. Especially if you’ve lost close friends and siblings not much older, and sometimes younger, than you, as Eric and I have the past few years.

The good news is that dying at 66 is far more acceptable than at 26. Had we been lost at sea on Duprass, we would have left devastated parents and missed out on a lifetime of events. Now we have a full lifetime behind us, and though we will leave grieving children, that is the natural order. There is tremendous satisfaction in knowing that we are leaving children, responsible adults with happy marriages and good careers.

So go ahead and tell me we don’t look a day older.

You don’t either.