I guess this post needs to start with an explanation of some sailing terms and physics.
Let’s say where you’re trying to go is straight into the wind. In buoy racing, that’s always the case, since that’s how they set up the course. In life, it’s often the case, because… life is hard? A sailboat cannot sail directly into the wind. Some boats do better than others, but a good general estimation of your best ability to go towards the wind is 45° to the wind. So, you sail at a 45° angle to where you want to go for a while, and then you tack. Tacking is turning the boat through the wind, so the sails are now on the other side of the boat. So you tack over to the 45° on the other side of the wind. You do this, back and forth, until you get there. This is why sailors drink!
As stated before, tacking is the action turning the boat through the wind, so the sails are now on the other side of the boat, but the word tack, can also be used to describe what side the sails are on. You would say a boat is on Starboard Tack when the wind is coming over the starboard side to fill the sails.
When you get a wind shift that will let you sail more directly towards your upwind destination on the tack you’re on, you call that a Lift. When the wind shifts so you now have to sail less directly towards that upwind destination, it’s called a Header. If you’re already sailing on your perfect course as close to the wind as you can sail, a lift will allow you to ease the sails a bit, and sail a bit faster. A header will make you have to change course.
Now we’re going to use that as a metaphor for life. Sometimes the fates shift in a way that’s helping you out, a Lift. Sometimes the fates are shifting in a way that is setting you back, a Header. In both sailing and in life, a Lift is a beautiful thing, and a Header can really suck.
This year has DEFINITELY been the year of the Header! That metaphorical wind keeps shifting to a disadvantage. Taking me further away from where I want to go. I have a feeling this has been the same for most people I know.
So what do we do when we’re getting a Header? We tack. In sailing, that is just a 90° turn through the wind. In life, it’s shifting to a new direction.
For me, this year of Headers started back last fall. I was working on a WAY TOO TIGHT schedule, trying to get a boat ready to sail to Mexico, while also planning much of the trip as the Captain. The boat had many problems, we started working on them late, and new problems kept coming up. I left for the first leg of the trip, working until nearly midnight, with us getting up to set sail at 4am the next morning, and with many issues put off to fix in San Diego before sailing into Mexico. While it did mellow out a bit, that’s how the trip went… for 2 months. Highlights of that would be badly spraining my ankle in San Diego right before we left for Mexico. A stuck jib halyard that make it so we couldn’t take our light wind sail down and change it out for a sail suitable for heavy winds as we are trying to get out of the way of a named tropical storm bearing down on us, and were in a port where we weren’t going to have any protection. The windlass motor burning out, and me having to fly back to Tijuana, cross the border, and then smuggle a new one back, traveling all night to have it back for customers hitting the boat for a 10 day charter 4 hours after I returned.
That set the tone for my year. I survived it. I got it all done. But it was definitely a fight to get there. The sprained ankle turned out to be a broken heel bone, which I had walked around on from the start of November to the start of February, and the day I was set to go back to work from time off to heal the ankle (although still in a CAM boot), was the day shelter in place hit in the Bay Area.
Both the ankle injury and then the shelter in place were driving me WAY off course. They were huge shifts in the winds of fate, taking me further and further away from where I was trying to go.
So I only had one option. Tack!
I had to put myself onto a new course, reassess the situation, and make sure that the new course I was setting for myself worked for me, worked for the future I want to have, and worked for what is going on around me.
And I’ve kept having to do it. Education I needed for my career started becoming available online. Tack! My wife’s business can re-open. Tack! My ankle is healed up enough to safely go back to work, and opportunities for working on boats start opening up. Tack! My wife has to shut her business back down. Tack! And so on, and so forth.
And you know what? I’m now on a course that actually works better for my life, and what I want for my future.
In voyaging by sail, when you get a big header, you don’t just tack. You reassess where you’re trying to go, and maybe you tack and still head for the same destination, and maybe you don’t. You might find another destination is just as good, and now easier to get to. Sometimes you get really lucky, and a destination that you previously thought was going to be too hard to get to is now within reach.
That has been this year for me. Get knocked back, then reassess and change direction. Sometimes even with the new direction being one that wasn’t an option before.
Driving to a meeting with my wife a couple days ago, I was struck by an idea; the idea that this is a year of violent transition. Transition for me, for my family, for my friends, my community, my country, and for the whole world. In that transition, you are either going to change to mesh with the new world or you’re going to fight it. If you fight it, the world is just going to keep knocking you down until you change.
For me, so far, my solution of tacking and reassessing has worked well. I hope it continues to do so. I have no illusion that this time of violent change is coming to an end. If anything, I think this is only the beginning, and the hardest times are yet to come. But maybe, this is a good way to cope with all this change. Have a destination in mind, and a course to get there. When life gives you a header, then reassess that course, and maybe even the destination. A new course may be in order, and a new destination may be needed. Maybe that new destination will be better than the one you originally had in mind.