My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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Sailing. Sunshine. And Surprises.

My husband and I just returned from a sailing trip through the British Virgin Islands (another sabbatical voyage!). We chartered a 45-foot monohull, invited friends Jack and Kathy to come along, and headed out for island hopping. It was an adventure, that’s for sure.

Taken from our boat moored at Anegada Island, an island which never exceeds 28 feet above sea level.

Taken from our boat moored at Anegada Island, an island which never exceeds 28 feet above sea level.

The sailing was spectacular, weather cooperative, water inviting. But, the real surprises were the people we encountered. Here are a few of the highlights:

  1. Katie. We met Katie early in our week. We had picked up a mooring ball at the Cooper Island Beach Resort, a small restaurant/hotel on a teeny private island. We hopped in our dinghy (a small rubber raft that you have to drag behind your sailboat all week if you plan to get off your boat) and putt-putted to the dinghy dock. We tied up, scooted through the sand and found ourselves seated at a lovely little open-air eatery. Katie was our waitress and while this sounds incredibly corny, she truly was a beam of sunshine. Katie is Welsh, thrilled to be working on a remote island and beside herself with the culinary offerings from which we would choose. Mahi Mahi? “Oooh, my second favorite thing ever!” The tuna? “Yes, that’s even better!” “The carrot soup is delectable! It’s so simple! You’ll love it!” She might be the most optimistic person ever and the four of us were clearly smitten. We ate our way through the menu, oohing and ahhing through it all—I think, in part, to please Katie. Even though a service charge was included (the food, like everything in the BVI, is expensive), we all agreed that Katie deserved more. We talked about Katie all week long. How would she like her job a month from now? How long will she last on the island? Will she stay with her boyfriend?   Will people be nice to her? While this is far-fetched, you have to believe me when I say we almost returned to Cooper Island on the sail back to Tortola just to check on Katie. We were invested.
  2. Barry. We came across Barry about 30 seconds after running aground at Anegada Island. It wasn’t our fault. Some dorkhead decided that the bay could take another round of mooring balls. Trouble was there was only about 5 feet of water there. Our boat required at least 6. We just barely got stuck and quick as a wink, Barry pushed with his dinghy and helped us get free and find deeper water. Then he charged us for the mooring—and handed us a menu from his beachfront restaurant. Opportunist? Or just a really nice and helpful islander? We discussed this at length. But the bottom line was Barry was so happy, it was impossible not to go along. He was thrilled to be living on a remote island. And he really wanted us to eat at his restaurant. Of course we did. We sat outside, in plastic chairs on the beach, which sunk a few inches into the sand every time we squiggled. We watched the sun set, the moon rise (it was a full moon and spectacular), we listened to music (apparently every island in the BVI has the perfect music list for 50-60 year olds. Wherever we went, it was Aretha, Beatles, and Ronstadt.) Barry was in no hurry and neither were we, but we were also hungry. We eventually got our food. We listened to him sing (not all that well). We watched him dance (better). This guy was just plain content with his lot in life. And he was determined to share his contentment with us.
  3. Thomas. Thomas was one of the last people we met on our trip. He was part of the family that was trying to make a go of a small hotel on St. Thomas where we stayed the night before heading back to South Carolina. Thomas fixed our clogged sink, explained why the chef had decided not to come to work that day, brought us a corkscrew, walked with us through the winding streets to explain how to get to a restaurant. He was confident, had ideas, and was clearly working hard to improve the hotel. Turns out he had spent most of his life stateside and had graduated from Georgia Tech with a computer degree. His dad died so he needed to come home to help with the family hotel. And he did. Clearly this was not an easy life for Thomas, but he didn’t show an inch of resentment.

When you go on a weeklong sailing trip, you have to be over-prepared—but ready to throw out your plans and go with Plan B. Or C. Or D. Sailing is fun, but it’s not easy. It takes muscle to raise the sails on a 45-foot boat. (I never thought I would admit this, but I actually quite enjoyed the electric winch for the mainsail that came with this model!) It takes balance to hang over the side, trying to retrieve a mooring ball or letting out anchor rode. You have to be willing to do math and know the difference between longitude and latitude. It’s helpful if you can tie a few appropriate knots. (After sailing for over a decade, I’m still barely squeaking by with my bowline knot.) And you have to be willing to obey the captain (in this case aka my husband). Always. Not always intuitive for this independent woman.

A sailing adventure like we took is a break from the world. It’s difficult to remember what day it is, let alone what time of the day it is.   Since I’m on sabbatical and already fairly rested up from administrative mayhem (after all, I’ve been away for almost a year now!), I began the week raring to go. Maybe that’s why I was more observant of the people we encountered on this trip. Or maybe I was ready to think about my life in relation to theirs. Or maybe I was just more interested in others for a change because I’ve gotten my head out of the administrative sand long enough to look around and see the delights around me. Who knows? But one thing I do know is that I loved my week in the BVI. We got in some terrific sailing, I got to spend a solid week with my husband (all my other sabbatical trips have been without him). And, I crossed paths with some incredible people who call the British Virgin Islands home. Just ordinary, joyful, calm, self-assured people. Plenty to think about as the new academic year looms around the corner. Jibe, ho!