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Take the leap – Life as an Ocean Gypsy - Part 1

by Kristen Anderson on 14 Oct 2017
Commitment 2016 – where it all began, the wonder of arriving on the Antarctic Peninsula Kristen Anderson
In February 2016 I was lucky enough to set sail aboard Team Mowbray’s 60’ yacht Commitment, on a voyage from the southern tip of South America to the magical world of Antarctica. This ‘journey of a life time’ introduced me to both the wonder and terror of ocean cruising. Exploring the treasures of the Antarctic peninsula, with our agenda governed only by the weather and leaving the smallest of footprints, was a dream come true. I embraced the rhythm of ocean crossings and fell unreservedly in love with living life at the pace of a sailing vessel. But, of course, sailing to this dream destination is not for the faint-hearted, and we were not spared the ferocity of this infamous stretch of water.

One might think that a heavy knockdown in these latitudes would serve to crush any normal person’s newborn love of ocean sailing, but for me it brought quite the opposite. “Life is short” is simply a much-quoted cliché, that is until you find yourself thrown violently upside down in the Southern Ocean, fully at the mercy at Mother Nature at her most malevolent. Amid such fear and chaos that commonplace little adage became a mantra. Life could indeed be very short…So what, I asked myself, did I want to do with it? Little wonder then, that returning to the daily grind of the working world failed to hold the slightest appeal.

Fast forward 12 months to February this year and I had resigned from work, rented out my home, put my possessions in storage and, wet weather gear and seaboots in hand, boarded a plane on a one-way ticket to Chile. Was I completely insane? Perhaps. But I was listening to that loud refrain and trusting my instincts, and I was about to do some serious living. Throwing caution to the wind, taking a wild leap, I joined Tony Mowbray to bring Commitment back home, north through the Patagonian channels, and then across the vast South Pacific to Australia.

Wonder or terror? Of course both, and every sensation in between. In an extraordinary four-month journey covering more than 8,000 nautical miles, I not only experienced adventure and new horizons, but also found courage I wasn’t sure I possessed, and revelled in the pure joy that comes with complete and utter freedom - to be the real me, and to live fully immersed in the here and now. And I think, just maybe (although I probably should check with Tony), that I became a real sailor! Most of you will know or have heard about Tony Mowbray, legendary in sailing circles and a larger than life character in every regard, and I am incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunity to learn all aspects of seamanship at the feet of such a master. My previous sailing experience was all gained from racing, and as race crew my role is predominantly trimming, with the occasional stint on the bow if the rest of the crew is largely geriatric!

Helming opportunities had therefore been limited and my confidence on the wheel, particularly in heavy downwind conditions, was not high. Well, 7,500 ocean miles, and more than a few bollickings later, I can safely say that that has changed. If someone had told me at the start of the journey that I would be surfing Commitment down eight metre waves in 40+ knots I would have told them they had the wrong girl. But I did, and I can, and more importantly, I experienced nights when being on the helm, alone in the middle of the vastness of the universe, brought me to tears of the deepest happiness, so thank you Tony (even, or especially, for the bollickings)!

‘So how did all this come about’ I hear you ask? I am not one of those fortunate people who was sailing before they could walk, nor do I own a yacht, nor am I independently wealthy! I have worked all my life, in high pressure roles in the steel and mining industries, whilst raising my daughter as a single parent. The hours were long, life was busy and adventure was only to be found in four - week stints every second year. Then, eight years ago, with my daughter off at university and in the aftermath of a relationship breakdown, I wandered out to a local sailing club on Lake Macquarie and declared an interest in learning to sail. It was race day and the yachts were all out, multi-coloured spinnakers wonderfully vibrant on a breezy Saturday afternoon. ‘Stay and have a drink and I’ll introduce you around’ I was told.

Then as an afterthought, ‘Can you sail?’ I mustered a big smile as I answered, ‘No, but I’m keen and I learn fast’. “No worries, help me time the race finish, stick around and I’m sure we can get you on a boat’. And get on a boat I did, and I have never looked back. Whilst I wasn’t a sailor at that point, I have always been someone who, in all aspects of life, just says Yes. So when Brian, my first skipper on his Northshore 33, asked could I start next week I said yes. And when he asked would I do the bow, I said yes (hilarious but true, and yes there were many spinnakers hoisted the wrong way up and untold twisted and tangled sheets!).

As the youngest and lightest on the crew I was hoisted up the mast to run halyards, as the only female on board I was plonked at the helm for lady skipper’s races (still barely knowing port from starboard!), and I just kept saying ‘sure, why not?’. Week in week out I turned up, brimming with enthusiasm if not skill, and came off the water battered and bruised and grinning from ear to ear. And when I had the opportunity to take my first short jaunt offshore, of course I said yes and have been hooked on bluewater sailing ever since.

By the time I said an emphatic ‘I’M IN” to the Antarctic trip, I had graduated from the lake and had been racing regularly offshore with Newcastle Cruising Yacht Club for just over four years. My just say yes attitude had delivered some fabulous opportunities and I had raced in both Hamilton Island and Airlie Beach Race Weeks, the Australian Women’s Keelboat Regatta in Melbourne, several Sail Port Stephens Regattas and Sydney to Gold Coast races and, in what was a serious ‘pinch me’ moment, I had just been invited to crew on the 2015 Sydney to Hobart Race.

So it wasn’t out of character for me to embrace the chance to cross the South Pacific. What was out of character, and more terrifying than any ocean crossing, was walking away from a perfectly good job…turning a determinedly blind eye to the mortgage and just – for the first time since commencing work at the steelworks at the tender age of 17 - chucking it in. ‘I’m taking a gap year’ was how I put it to my horrified daughter, who couldn’t quite accept that that was a normal, rational thing for her hard working and mostly responsible 54-year old mother to do. But as I so often claim, ‘what is ‘normal’ and who defines it’?

And what an astonishingly liberating thing it is to reclaim your life, to live it for yourself instead of a corporation, to unchain from the grind of the working week while you still harbour dreams and your body is still fit and agile and strong enough to make them a reality - to close your eyes and simply leap.

Did I enjoy every minute? Of course not, who would enjoy being drenched for days on end, repeatedly smashed by wild conditions, constantly deprived of sleep and physically and mentally tested? But would I do it again? Definitively yes! The moments of discomfort and fear were far outweighed by those of sheer joy, perfect freedom and the intense high that is living life outside your comfort zone. And have I gone back to the corporate world? NO. So what now, and where to next? Back in Australia, living on a boat, fit, tanned, relaxed and outrageously at peace with myself and the world, I am contemplating the practicalities of how to indefinitely extend this gap year, and whilst I’m at it, give a little bit back to this sport that I love. So I will try to share it, and I hope that when you read about my ocean gypsy experiences, you too can slow down to the pace of a sailing boat, breathe in those sunsets, feel that salt spray and jump out of your own comfort zone with me.

Life is short. Take the leap!

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