It’s love

Sometimes I wonder what my parents would be like if they were born in Australia. Would they still be essentially the same people if they didn’t go through a collapse of a country, loss of all their savings, jobs, security, life as they knew it, queues for bread, tiny apartments? What if they didn’t have to worry about money or food for their children or rebuild their lives again and again?

I can imagine my Mum being a Sydney North Shore mother (vividly depicted by Liane Moriarty in most of her books) talking about organic food and sleep training, hotels in Fiji and involvement in school life, confident and proper but not immune to other people’s opinions, and it just makes me long for my actual mother with her ultimate comfort dishes full of hearty meat, her lying down with me every night to help me sleep and singing lullabies I am now singing to my daughter. No matter what disagreements we had throughout my life (and we have had plenty) I still can’t imagine having a different mother even as I long for an easier life for her, and imagining her as a financially secure woman from affluent suburbs creates in my mind a Frankenstein of sorts, a phantom combined of everything that I feel makes me – not my mother but me – different from those women.

It’s harder to imagine my Dad being Australian except maybe he would’ve liked a good barbie. He doesn’t speak any English and he’s not big on phone calls either. I’ve heard that some Aussies like DIY but I haven’t met anyone who is quite like my Dad, not just skilled but inventive in a way that was no doubt influenced by the necessity to be that way.

Mum loathes a lot of the things she had to do for years – make do with little, cook when groceries are scarce, sew because it’s almost impossible to buy nice clothes for kids, clean and serve food because my Dad believes it to be a woman’s job – she’d gladly not do any of it for the rest of her life. It’s different with Dad. A lot of his DIY stuff was also from not having much but there is so much more to it. He grew up in the countryside, far away from where we lived, and we visited his parents every summer. There was always a project for my father there, whether to do on his own or assisted by my uncles. There were fences, decks and bathhouses to build, furniture to restore and my Dad seemed to enjoy all of it. Our own little apartment had much less space to build but there were still interesting geometrical paintings on doors and a portrait of a woman on glass on the bathroom wall, there were fridge shelves fixed with a melted old toy and much later a bed frame he built in a garage. He was never quite as much into DIY at home as he was at his parents’, much to my mother’s frustration, and only much later in life did I realise that just like my mother cooked comfort food and sewed for us and stopped immediately when there were no more children at home, my father found much more enjoyment in DIY for others – it’s very much his own love language.

He tried to use that language (in the absence of the actual English skills) when my parents stayed at my in-laws, cleaning and sweeping outside, offering to restore an old table; but it didn’t quite create a bond and he stopped offering. While my husband was on his way to Hobart my parents stayed at our place and Dad took complete control over our courtyard. I was in a bad state of mind for months before their visit, trying to get over a hard year and sometimes randomly weeping for no apparent reason. As he moved slowly through the courtyard sweeping and cleaning up, getting rid of weeds and redirecting the water flow from our neighbours balcony outside our courtyard, I sometimes sat outside watching him and I wanted to say, “I love you too, Dad” and the peace that I was feeling while looking at our usually messy courtyard was more than what I experienced in months.

Not my Hobart… once again

My husband is doing the Sydney to Hobart race this year and I really hope he makes it to Hobart this time. We have two unfinished Hobarts between the two of us. Mine was interrupted by a rudder bearing when we barely made it out of the habour. James’s boat made it half way there before a decision was made to abandon the race for numerous reasons including a ripped mainsail. We probably owe our entire relationship to my failed Hobart as we hadn’t talked much before it, and sailing is something we will always have in common.

Except this year I did very little sailing (mostly twilights) and he got an opportunity to get on a boat that’s going to Hobart. I am excited for him, and the decision not to sail much was entirely mine, yet sometimes I feel acutely that something’s missing in my life and I ache for it, all of it: the sea, the sails, the friendly banter on board, the scramble during gybes, even the tiredness after the race. The club and the beer. Admittedly, I miss offshore sailing much less than harbour races; I would even say I don’t miss it at all except for an occasional twitch of regret which goes away as I remind myself of seasickness, the cold at night, the seemingly never ending hours of staring at spinnakers.

James serviced my PFD for his own use and bought a new PLB. He got some new wet weather gear. All his offshore stuff is scattered all over the floor of our daughter’s bedroom and when I tell her that Daddy went sailing she just assumes he must be fishing, too, which is an activity she really enjoys.

Meanwhile, I got several reminders that my Sea Safety and Survival certification expired so I’d have to do it again if I decided to go back to offshore sailing. And somehow it seems even further from me than the first year when Riley was a newborn and I was trying to figure out how to survive day by day with a tiny (and often unsettled) baby.

Yet I don’t really have any regrets. Yes, I miss sailing, more than other things I don’t really do any more (such as staying out late or going away by myself for too long or even getting drunk) but it’s also the right thing for me to do right now.

This year has been tough in many ways. Early in the year I found out I am slowly going blind in one eye. Riley broke her leg. And not that long ago I had a miscarriage, something almost nobody talks about as if it’s something shameful even though it’s pretty common and completely out of control of the woman who goes through it.

And right now our beautiful state of NSW is on fire. We are in severe drought which makes fires so much worse, and the smoke is so bad it makes air toxic when Sydney is covered with it. The air quality in Sydney has never been as bad as it was this week – they even had to cancel the Big Boat Race due to lack of visibility in the harbour.

Yet when I think of the year that’s almost gone I also think how everyday life has been beautiful and enjoyable in a lot of ways. I did a lot of thinking and reading, some relationships developed further, I feel more comfortable in my own skin at work. But most of all, I think of Riley, how funny she is now, how much we talk, of simple things but also some more complex things, how we play “tunnel” while “shoo fly” is on repeat. And I think of my husband who constantly forgets why he went to the kitchen and loses his wallet but who’s also been most caring, easy-going, supportive man. And I laugh because after spending a lot of time on self improvement, study and work I found myself agreeing with all those annoying people who say that having kids is the most challenging but also the most rewarding thing you can do with your life but also because it’s easy to step away from something you love when you find something that you love even more.

How to clear your head

“Reef the main!” – Joris shouted. I got to the halyard while he leaped to the other side to the reef lines. The main sail started coming down, flapping wildly in the wind.

“Stop!” – yelled Marco. “The slug! The slug is out!”

I looked at the main. The middle part of it was out of the track. We were screwed. Did it just show 35 knots on the wind instrument? The rain was belting down so hard, it felt like hail. Or was it actual hail? It hung in the air like a semi-transparent blanket so we could barely see the land in front of us and some boats a few metres away. We were all totally drenched, not a single offshore jacket between us.

“Let’s drop the main,” – said Greg and started the motor.

“It’s not coming down unless I climb the mast!” – said Marco.

It was a Friday twilight, another relaxed social race after a long work week. Only this time it turned out to be slightly less relaxed than normal.

It started off as a beautiful sunny afternoon but as I was getting on the boat at the club we were staring at the horizon. “Some interesting cloud formations over there,” someone said as another lightning struck. It was clear we’d get soaked at some point of the race but none of us minded that much.

The race committee (or rather our old mate Dave, the manager) chose the shortest course, and it was shortened even further after we started. It was dramatic enough for us from the start. A shorter course means that the division with biggest and fastest boats that starts last quickly converges with previous divisions. In the limited space between islands of the West Harbour it turns into dodge’em cars. Our troubles started even earlier though. As we were beating up to the top mark in a very fresh breeze, a boat above us seemed to bear down on us despite our yells.

“Watch your rig!” – our skipper yelled as their mast leaned further and further towards ours.

As we lost height, we got close to the mark and it turned out we had no room with two boats on top of us. There was nothing to do but bear away and do a 360. The two boats above us seemed to keep yelling at each other. We were now well behind everyone.

It started raining soon after and hush fell over the water. No wind. We adjusted sails and moved crew weight around and we crept forward. Then the storm hit us.

Nobody panicked. We had experienced crew that night and people knew what to do. It felt surreal to experience this kind of weather at a twilight but I caught myself grinning ear to ear. We sailed normally for a while, water collecting on the main and landing on my head on top of the torrential rain. Then we got even more wind and heeled more and more, it became clear we had to reduce our sail area – hence the call to reef the main.

We did manage to get both sails down somehow, radioed the club and motored back. I looked at the blisters on my hands and thought of nothing but sailing. The raging flood of thoughts and helplessness that didn’t let me sleep the night before and gnawed at me all hours of the day that week, was gone. I looked at Chris’s 20 year old daughter who was a guest on the boat that night and smiled at her.

“That was scary! I thought we were going to capsize” – she said in her English accent. As I explained to her that capsizing a sailing yacht is not that easy, I kept thinking that I wasn’t planning to do much on the boat that night as we had plenty of experienced people but ended up doing my regular job anyway with no debate from anyone. What a difference from when I first got on that boat all those years ago when it was a privilege to be a sewer rat who helped getting the spinnaker down through the hatch. How I fretted that I lost all my muscle strength, all my trimming knowledge while on maternity leave. None of it mattered that much in the end.

I could breathe again. I could sail again.

Gateway Drug

I did my first twilight race for the first time in almost 3 years. The club – probably the friendliest sailing club in Sydney, the place where I started sailing – has changed a little: there’s more open space and the facilities are much improved. There are still a lot of familiar faces around. Some have new boats. The boat that I used to own lost a mast a few months ago and still requires a lot of work. The main thing is that the place has the same wonderful welcoming atmosphere. It’s still very easy to get on a boat. There is always someone to chat to. The food is simple but satisfying and so are the drinks.

I was on a boat I used to sail a lot on (and helmed on a Lady’s day race once). When I messaged the skipper, I wasn’t sure what I would be allowed to do during the race, seeing that I haven’t sailed for a while and the boat has always been quite competitive. Turned out that there were a couple of experienced people on the boat, a bunch of complete novices and a French guy who claimed that he knew how to sail but could not understand any of the instructions in English so I ended up doing most of the headsail trim and strings.

Breeze is always temperamental in Balmain. It bends around islands and changes speed and directions in ways that make it tricky to predict what’s going to happen next sometimes. The forecast was for 20 knots yet it died completely towards the end of the race (that’s when the entire fleet caught up with us as we were sitting in a hole).

I loved it all. The unpredictable wind, the feeling that I know exactly what I was doing, using my muscles, joking around, having a beer on a downwind leg (it’s thirsty work!), chatting after the race. The breeze itself. That my foot got wet. That I was asked to do the rest of the season and then asked to crew on a dinghy again.

It’s easy to see the appeal of twilight sailing – it’s social, mostly relaxed (although not without its own dramas) and it’s great to be on the water on a nice summer day. Sunsets are spectacular. All in all, it’s a perfect way to wind down after a week at work. For me it was also a gateway drug to more serious sailing that requires more skill and commitment and longer offshore races with their sleep deprivation, seasickness, lack of showers, risks of serious trauma or (if you’re very careless or/and unlucky) even death. When trying to explain the appeal of offshore racing (which could be very similar to explaining the appeal of climbing icy mountains – “because it’s there!”), I could only mutter something about the sense of accomplishment after you’ve finished the race while in reality I was mostly craving more of what I was getting at every single twilight: the feeling of mastery of a complicated skill, letting go of everything but the race, breeze on my face and the feeling of belonging right here and now, on this boat and with this crew. It’s unlikely I’ll be doing offshore racing any time soon (life is too busy!) so it’s great comfort to know that twilight sailing is still here for me. And it’s still magical.

Year 2018

This year is almost over and what a year it has been for me. So incredibly tough at times yet I feel like I’ve grown for it and learned a lot in the process. Much of the learning was self-discovery.

Around mid-year my dear husband who was worried for a while that I completely lost my identity while looking after our daughter, practically forced me to commit to doing winter series on a boat I sailed on (and absolutely loved it) previously. He was right in a way; I enjoyed the training and the first few races immensely and felt like I could recapture the magic that sailing has always been for me. I am grateful to him and to my in-laws who were looking after Riley as we both raced on different boats. Yet by mid-season we both realised that it was too hard to commit to it every Sunday. I missed my daughter and I was also physically tired after disrupted sleep at home and slightly disappointed by the dynamics on the boat at times where I wasn’t fully trusted to do my job (perhaps for a good reason). So we finished the season and decided not to commit to any other series for a while.

Both my daughter and my work required extra attention this year. The year started with Riley’s surgery to remove her adenoids after a sleep study late last year and while the operation is quite minor and the recovery was fast, general anaesthesia is a terrible thing for a one year old and her parents. After the surgery she stopped waking 20 times an hour and by the end of the year started occasionally having nights when she only woke up once or twice (every two hours is still the usual).

A week after the surgery Riley started transitioning to childcare while my mum was packing up to go home after a three month stay. I can honestly say that was almost worse than the surgery and I cried every day, doubting everything. She adjusted and grew to love her childcare and the carers. She’s known to be very confident, engaged and vocal at childcare and also very happy. Dropping her off there is still the hardest thing I do all day.

She also went through a period of severe separation anxiety towards the end of the year; refused to sit in the pram; grew into a very independent but affectionate little girl. She’s an absolute delight most of the time and still very active and funny.

I, on the other hand, started feeling way more confident and competent as a parent and stopped doubting myself all the time. I can honestly say that parenting taught me more about self regulation, patience and respect than anything else I lived through. Not that I think that I have it all figured out, in fact I often feel overwhelmed still but I now think that it’s normal for parents in general. We also finally gave up and got a cleaner.

At work, I started a new role and it was not the easiest transition; it took me a while to get into the swing of things and find my own path for a number of reasons. I had a period of severe bewilderment about some things I saw around me; I was also told that some of it was part of a 3 year crisis of being at the company. I continue to be very grateful for opportunities within the company and I’m overall happy and optimistic now, at the end of the year, and very keen to see how different things work out and what I can achieve within the boundaries of the role. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that I immensely enjoyed working with one of our incredibly bright graduates.

A few friendships really deepened and flourished this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. The place we are renting got sold to an investor with minimum of fuss so we are cautiously hopeful we will be able to continue living there until we are ready to move on.

I tried to read deeply not widely this year and I started writing occasionally again. I also found an online community I find a tremendous value in. One of my favourite places online, the forum that inspired me to learn English properly back in the day, was shut down by its owner which caused quite a bit of controversy for a month or so. By the end of the year I also took the plunge and deleted apps for Facebook and Instagram off my phone and every time I do check Facebook I realise it was the right thing to do. I do miss seeing my friends’ news but I’m also less distracted and spend less time arguing with imaginary people in my head after reading a silly article in my feed or thinking why I wasn’t invited to an event (which I probably wouldn’t be able to go to anyway).

I hope all of you who happen to read this have a wonderful holiday season and have some time for reflection, laughter, rest and time with your loved ones. Here’s to a great year 2019.

The race that was not abandoned

Sydney winters are an interesting time to sail: an “average” day of 10 to 15 knots is rare but you get a lot of extremes – days with almost no breeze (and at times some sunshine to compensate but that’s not a given) and days with so much of it that races are on the verge of being cancelled.

Race 2 of the Winter series had us sitting in a hole for ages as our entire division caught up to us and then overtook us; the forecast for the next week looked like a complete opposite: gusty 20-30 knots and rain. Race 3 was also on Mother’s Day.

We had a long and very warm summer and autumn this year so the first cold days came as a complete shock. I generally find myself unable to complain about the cold too much because even after living in Australia for over 10 years I still hear that a Russian person, let alone a person from Siberia, can’t possibly feel cold in 10 degrees. I just glare from under my fur hat. Just kidding, I just sit there with my eyes closed.

Inshore races generally get cancelled when there is a gale warning and I’m not going to lie, I was waiting for that warning with almost the same trepidation I feel as I wait for my toddler to start sleeping better. A cancelled race, some restful sleep and being able to read all by myself with a cup of hot tea were the only things I really wanted for Mother’s Day, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be getting the last two things. So when the committee announced that the race would proceed it was a blow.

I saw no possibility of cancelling and just not showing up either. Sailboats really need crew on windy days (especially heavy crew so you should have a big breakfast if it’s blowing outside) and pulling out on a windy day is bad form. So I cursed and put a lot of layers on myself and used my Russian glare on the Uber driver who thought I was a tradie wearing some kind of work clothes when he saw my wet weather gear.

And man, did we had some fun that day. I got to sail with a couple of people who I haven’t seen in a few years, people I really like, and all the usual suspects. We didn’t break anything. There was a lot of grinding involved and a lot of splashing but I managed to stay dry. We forgot the only spinnaker we could’ve used (a fractional symmetrical kite). We put a reef on and then shook it out. I was shouting “weeeeeee!” through every gust of 35 knots. We rounded up a few times and we had to crash tack because of a boat that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. I lost another hat. And after the race tea and red wine tasted better than they ever did before.

Turns out I don’t mind an inshore race in 30 knots, after all. Thanks Bureau of Meteorology for not issuing a gale warning and thanks CYCA for not cancelling the race, obviously you know better than me what’s good for all of us.

I’m back. Kind of.

A new generation of sailors finding their sea legs

I had a long break from sailboat racing, from the early days of my pregnancy until my daughter was almost a year and a half. Partially it was because becoming a parent turned out to be an all-consuming task not leaving time for much else, especially in that first year (babies generally like having their mothers close by at all times and I was happy enough to oblige), but there was also a bit of fatigue involved.

My boat ownership was a mixed bag of exhilaration at its best and frustration and hopelessness at its worst. The older boat required a lot of patient investment of time and money culminating in a replacement of the keel and while I got some help from friends I was never competent enough to do any repairs myself and wasn’t cashed up enough to delegate them to someone else entirely. What was even more painful, even with experienced crew I never got to the point when I felt confident enough as a skipper of a sports boat – every time a race came around I would be obsessively checking the forecast worrying that I would lose control of the boat and smash into someone else or that something would break and hurt people in the process (de-masting is not all that rare even inshore). I had an experienced crew, by far more experienced than me, and sometimes it felt like I was an impostor on my own boat. I suspect that if I had enough time and persistence to stick with it and maybe forget about being competitive for a bit and concentrate on the basics instead of overthinking everything, I’d eventually get to the point when sailing my own boat would entail more fun than fear. As it happened, the boat sat on a trailer for a bit until I finally got the keel replaced, got back on the water… and then I got pregnant and sold it. My consolation is that the new owner is taking better care of the boat than I could and yet regret lingers.

My experience racing on other people’s boats somewhat changed, too. I lost my desire to prove myself to everyone and started concentrating on the actual sailing with people who already knew me. I can’t say I’m the best trimmer out there but I can do a decent enough job and did so on a few boats. I didn’t entirely lose my competitive streak and sometimes I did wonder if I could sail on a bigger boat – yet the effort required to strategically socialise with people to claw my way in and then try to prove my worth was too big in my head to even try.

My break from racing changed it even further. I got back on a boat that I sailed on for a while previously and I love the owner and his partner as well as the crew, old and new. It might not be the most competitive boat but it’s also entirely free from politics. There’s no “easing” off the boat, no power struggles, no blaming or shaming, no desperate drive to win at all cost and do everything within your power or else feel like a failure – it’s just fun. Easy-going banter, trying out ALL the sails, laughter and booze. We will get more competitive soon I’m sure but for now I am just enjoying the feeling of sea breeze on my face, the camaraderie and being back on the water – that’s what it’s all about, after all.