For the last week, I've been skippering a yacht in the Whitsundays, just my husband and I and a lot of sailing. I've long suspected the power of the ocean to dilate time - for that week has felt like two very pleasant months. The trip was part holiday, part research (I'm writing a book at the moment called Great Haven, a small-town on an island story with a little hint of gothic historical ghost), and also part satisfying that urge to sail that occasionally boils to the top of my psyche. I'm not sure if that's from the weekends sailing with my Dad around Moreton Bay as a kid, or something else, but I don't question it. I just go do it. The thing with being on a yacht is that it sounds really glam, and in reality, sort of isn't. You have low headroom, so getting in and out of a bunk can involve contortions and smacking your head and feet on various objects. The beds tend to be hard (my pregnant body didn't particularly enjoy that), the cooking space cramped. Your fridge and freezer is liable to act up as soon as you're out of port. The dingy outboard will refuse to start on at least two occasions. Wires will ping against the mast and a rolly swell will keep you awake. Your shirts will be grubby with anchor rust, grease and sunscreen (just take a look at the soak bucket in my laundry right now). It's not sipping cocktails on the back deck in your white bikini - unless you're just a day passenger on a corporate megacruiser. But then again, that's not why I go.
Because there's another interesting thing that happens out there. Your worries become much more primal than you can allow in the city. You no longer care about where your career is going, what people think of you, whether you remembered to set the recorder for the Great British Bake-off. No. Anything beyond the next few hours becomes irrelevant. Your worries become about whether you've put out enough anchor chain. Is this habour suitable for the wind forecast, and can I get there before dark? Has that bloody great motorcruiser doing the run from Hayman to Hammo seen you? Is the tide going to swing so you're worried about grounding? Have I put on enough sunscreen? Was that a shark I just saw? (it was) And where did this jar of nutella come from? (answer: clever Charlotte's preplanning).
After only two days, my brain switches off all the city bullshit. I can sit for hours at a time just watching the world slide past, in a way that would drive me nutty at home (oh, more distant land and ocean!). Taking responsibility for a boat is terrifying at first, then empowering, then it becomes the framework you live around. It becomes ... serene. Not the trouble-free kind (ask anyone trying to pick up a bloody mooring in a swell), but the kind that keeps the mind in a calm place. You're a very small part in a big powerful system around you (wind, tides, waves and sun), and you do the stuff that keeps you safe, fed and happy. That's it. It's lovely.
Coming back to the city, I woke this morning not to the sound of waves, but sirens. Now, I am very grateful to have my soft bed back, and be able to walk to the bathroom without banging head and feet, for easy showers and toilets you don't worry about blocking with more than 1-ply paper. But I'm also sad that the immediacy of living out there is fast slipping away in the face of the hundred or so emails in my inbox - things to plan and live out of the moment for are all sitting there.
My body still feels like it's on the boat, though, phantom waves still there even after a night on dry land. And I'd like to think I can remember what it feels like to be in a different mental gear. Until I can't anymore, and then it will be time to sail again. :)