3: Life Launch

3: Life Launch

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

Life Launch

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.

~Mark Twain

The kids grew up, moved away and left us in peace. Most evenings found us lying on separate couches in our living room. Television reflected crime scenes onto our skin, contrasting with our predictable home life. I’d fall asleep during the commercials and eventually stumble to bed with a book — where I’d fall asleep again.

We were snoozing ourselves into oblivion, and I feared this would continue. Our headstone might read, “Here lie the Paxtons — bored to death in the 21st Century.”

How do you fix a dull life? We’d talked about driving Route 66, backpacking the wilderness, navigating coastal waters. All just talk. Secretly I wondered if we’d ever do anything exciting again.

Then, within a couple of months, life as we knew it changed. Denny’s dad passed away, and our beloved fox terrier died of a mysterious ailment. Our daughter’s young friend lost his life, and several of our peers had bouts with cancer. We turned sixty as our marriage turned forty. Alarmed, we noticed photos of people our age moving into the obits, and we launched a series of conversations about life’s brevity.

As time slithered away, we revisited an old pipe dream and decided to buy a used boat. Experts recommended thirty-six to forty-two feet — a stretch for us kayakers — but comfortable for long trips or living aboard. In case a thirty-foot increase in boat length and twin diesel engines were not enough challenge, we acquired a puppy that needed to learn the art of polite peeing on a live-aboard boat.

Now, erase the picture in your mind of a trim sixty-year-old couple wearing captain caps, perched at the upper helm on an aqua sea. They maneuver neatly into a tropical port where dockworkers rush to gather the lines.

No, it looked more like this: “What if she refuses to pee on the boat?” asks the captain.

“I don’t know,” the first mate answers, not feeling seaworthy. “Heaven forbid she does her jobs everywhere, and it gets all stinky and such.”

First things first, we began pee pad training at home before acquiring a trawler. Puppy Smalls refused to pee on the pad. A determined sailor, I fenced in the pad and offered it at desperate moments. Success!

So began our thrilling future. Captain Paxton scoured the web for used trawlers. I scribbled numbers on tablets, wondering how long our pensions, semi-retirement jobs and pieces of our children’s inheritance could fund our dream. I had calculated one to ten years, just as my captain presented a list of twenty-five trawlers. We planned a Florida boat-hunt road trip.

Only our imaginations, our checkbook, and questionable sanity limited us. We departed the couches for west central Florida. We toured boats hugging the Gulf of Mexico, crossed the skinny state, and then boarded a string of trawlers in rivers along the Atlantic.

Stories flowed from vagabonds who had lived their sea dreams, elderly sailors now selling their dream vessels to new dreamers. “We lived aboard ten years,” said one aging captain. “They were the best-lived years of our marriage. My wife is ill now.” A tear glistened in his eye as we dabbed at ours.

We discovered our own love-boat with a brokerage in Fort Pierce and made an offer.

What next? Will we still work? How will we operate this thing? We would make it up as we went.

Back on our Iowa couches, excitement lit our faces. “This was the best trip I’ve ever had!” I said. “I don’t even care if we buy the boat.”

A month later, we e-mailed an offer and counter offers, arrived at a price and headed back to Florida, where a professional boat surveyor would inspect our vessel. Then we’d hand over the money, fix small issues and sail away.

After survey day and a glorious cruise on a turquoise river, I lay coiled in fetal position on our El Cheap-o Motel bed. “I’m so sorry I killed our dream!” I wailed between sobs. I felt I’d just inspected a different boat — or the same boat through different eyes. Whichever it was, our love boat no longer looked like a place I’d love to live for nine months while navigating the intracoastal waterways. The surveyor detected my angst and counseled us.

“You don’t have to buy this boat. If you see deficiencies you missed before, either counter offer and have the items fixed, or withdraw your offer,” said the surveyor, my new hero.

We countered. The seller declined. End of pipe dream or nightmare. End of story.

Or so we thought. After a week of whining, we resumed our quest, navigating from couch to deck so we could enjoy the sunset. Each evening, we shifted puppy and books from lap to lap as we sailed through basic boating courses. Within another week, Captain Paxton presented a new list of old trawlers and a fresh road trip itinerary.

This time we started in Baltimore and drove down the East Coast, hoping past experience would help us find a sounder vessel at a better price, and it did.

Terrapin is a classy 1984 with solid mechanics, teak interior, and expansive deck. Our dream boat bobs happily in a slip at New Bern, North Carolina. This unplanned location suits us. We will stay six months or a year to enjoy the Crystal Coast and to sharpen our seamanship skills.

Back in Iowa for Christmas, our grown kids surprised us with a pirate-themed treasure hunt. At one point we were blindfolded, our hands tied together, using our feet to pull a line with a clue up a flight of stairs. Minutes later we lay on our frozen deck, fashioning a hook from a paper clip; we tied it to sewing thread and pulled a clue basket up from the snowdrift below. In the barn we uncovered a wooden chest of boating supplies. Our captors made us down a shot of rum and sing a sea shanty.

Today, from the windows of our floating home, we have new perspective in a watery world. Our brains exercise as we explore new plumbing, new knots, and new docking maneuvers. We conquer cooking challenges in a tiny galley. Our boating community regales us with stories collected from smooth and stormy voyages. We soak it all up as we form new friendships over glasses of wine.

Adventures beckon: a trip to the pump-out station, a dinner cruise to a neighboring town, a trip to the Outer Banks. The Great Loop. The Bahamas.

As I type, Smalls slumbers on a couch in the salon. She’s exhausted from a romp with Hank, her doggy pal from Dock C. Soon she will awaken and make the rounds on her floating doghouse, stern to bow. Smalls embraces her new-and-uncertain life with a vengeance. We hope to follow her lead.

~Kristi Paxton

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