The Monster

We nearly didn’t go to the inspection of the house. I was pregnant with twins and nauseated by the drive; Riley wasn’t that interested in the places we looked at. And James was about ready to give up after both houses we had seen that day turned out to be not what we were looking for. We had some time before the third, the final inspection for the day and we sat on a bench gazing at the lake and considering just going home but then eventually James said, well, we might as well have a look since we are so close anyway.

The house was huge and it appeared even larger to us after our cramped two bed unit. There were a lot of people looking but what I remember the most is the garden: the lemon tree full of ripe lemons and a mandarin tree and flowers everywhere; and a tiny golf area behind the house. I remember white walls and white shutters and the fireplace which I knew would excite James (and – secretly – myself) but probably would be a hazard to the unborn babies in my belly. The back room would be good when my parents came to stay with us, the whole COVID business hopefully behind us soon enough. The huge amount of space and the lemon tree; relatively close to the beach and the lake but not so close that floods would be a threat. We started calling it a beach house before we even put in our application.

Only after we got approved we realised that the place didn’t have a dishwasher. “I’ll just do the washing up myself in the sink”, James said, ever an optimist, but I knew we’d struggle, especially once the twins were born. So we talked to the agent and then directly to the landlady who didn’t hesitate to just drop in at any point of the day; she sent a handyman in who cut a hole under the sink to put the dishwasher in. “I don’t mind,” – she said. “When I move in I can just slide my own dishwasher in there!”

That gave us pause. Our lease was for a year but we assumed we’d be staying far longer that that; I was slightly panicked at the thought that we’d have to move when the babies were so little. It was too late to cancel on the move. We paid for the installation and bought a slimline dishwasher as a bigger one wouldn’t fit in the provided hole; the plumber commented that the pipes were very old and would cause trouble eventually and I told him we were renting and wouldn’t be replacing the pipes.

The house was ancient, minimal repairs done for a quick sale. The gardens around it were majestic and covered in spider webs. The bathrooms smelled of mould and we immediately changed the old toilet seat which stank of urine no matter how much bleach I put into the toilet bowl. It was a stark contrast to our previous place with a fully renovated bathroom and the beautiful deep bath I spent hours in while pregnant with Riley. We told ourselves we could make the place our own though; I had a cleaning schedule going and got a cleaning appliance specifically for the ancient wooden floors. When I got too pregnant to move too much, James kept up with the cleaning as best he could. I put removable stickers in Riley’s room and got her a star projector; she finally started sleeping through in her own bed. It was getting cold and we had the fire going making the whole place cozy and welcoming and as much as I missed our old neighbourhood sometimes I also started to enjoy my daily walks to the waterfall and looking out in the garden and the clothesline outside that made laundry so much easier. We found a tiny playground just around the corner and Riley was always excited to go there on her bike as I tried to keep up, huffing and puffing and holding on to my giant pregnant belly.

James investigated and it turned out that the landlady’s other property was for sale. He called her and she said she was going to move in to the house once it sold. That made us anxious once again but our neighbours told us not to worry too much – the place had been for sale for ages so who knows when it would sell. We had no choice but stay and we chose not to think too much about it for the time being.

We had enough on our minds regardless – first preparation for the arrival of the twins and then their actual arrival. Life became a blur of feeding, newborn naps and cuddles, Riley’s adjustment to being a big sister. Christmas and New Year were strange that year, with our neighbourhood the only area in the whole country to be in lockdown. We ordered Christmas takeaway (Riley, the pickiest of eaters, had none of it). When James went back to work after the holidays I was all consumed with caring for the twins, a never ending, overwhelming task, as the house fell into a messier state.

And then one day our landlady showed up, as was her custom, unannounced, and told me that she sold her other place and that she’d be most obliged if we moved out by the end of March.

It was a shock. Not only because it was barely 10 months since we moved in (the agent told us we were actually safe in the house until the end of May), not just because the market suddenly went crazy and it was insanely hard to find a family house to rent. We were struggling to keep afloat with our everyday life caring for three little kids, how on earth could we possibly find a new place, pack and move? And who rents a place to people expecting twins only to yank it away with barely a thought while the babies are so young?

Despite all that, we started looking straight away – the house was poisoned to us and all the little things that we shrugged off or laughed about before turned into massive sources of irritation growing into something reminding hatred. The ancient cupboards and pantry with doors that never stayed closed. The creaky floors and lack of any sound proofing so you couldn’t clean up the kitchen after the kids were asleep as it was too noisy. The spiders everywhere you look, outside and inside. The mould in bathrooms and seemingly starting to grow everywhere. It seemed like the house was suddenly possessed by a monster who spread its mouldy tentacles around everything. The landlady kept calling me suggesting we move to an apartment with a view or a two bedroom house (she told the gardener I was too picky when we declined).

The citrus trees were still there; and so was the space. Riley still played outside in the yard sometimes. But I couldn’t wait to leave. And we were lucky enough to find a different house a few weeks later despite the crazy market. We even moved out in time to make it easy for the landlady who moved in the moment cleaners left. We now live a 5 minute walk away from the house and I walk past it with the pram daily. James told me he felt weird when he looked inside one last time: it was our place and we were booted out of it. But when I think of it I only remember the monster tentacles; the stink and the mould and the feeling of dread while the wonderful memories of the cozy fire and the tiny twins we brought there from the hospital belong to us only and are fully divorced from the place that was once our home. The new place is smaller and it doesn’t have a garden, just a small backyard but it’s full of light and it has newer bathrooms and kitchen. And while we are not enchanted with it we also expect no monsters to show up.

Growing pains of parenting

When Riley was between 3 and 4 months old I woke up one day to the loud noises of tradies preparing to trim the palm trees outside our apartment.

The sounds of them laughing and yelling out instructions filled me with a mix of helplessness and rage.

At the time I felt trapped. It was a very hot summer, 40 degree days interspersed with tropical downpours and even if I did manage to get out of the house Riley hated our brand new expensive pram and started screaming before I could reach the nearby park. I also struggled to reverse our car out of the narrow car port but that didn’t really matter because Riley hated the car most of the time, too.

She was a very alert baby who did not go to sleep easily; I couldn’t encourage her to go to sleep by rocking, bouncing, shushing, patting her bum. The only thing that worked most of the time was breastfeeding her in bed. She also liked the baby carrier but mostly when James carried her, not me.

So when I heard those loud noises I realised that sleep would not come easily that day (not that it was ever easy with Riley). I tried – but understandably Riley was very curious about all the commotion and had no interest in sleeping whatsoever and I was sure she was headed into the dreaded territory of overtiredness. I eventually loaded her and the baby carrier into the pram and walked towards the park taking the opportunity to glare at the tradies who so inconsiderately ruined my day.

As I was walking, I was seriously contemplating writing a short story called “The worst day of my life”. Some part of me did think it was slightly ridiculous to call it the worst day of my life even back then. I lived through the collapse of a country, my parents losing all their savings, queues for bread, a death in the family. I moved to another city then to another country by myself, survived crappy relationships and worked for an employer who didn’t give a hoot about me, overcame depression that was mostly caused by my personal choices. Yet it really did feel like the worst day at the time and I could feel myself cracking at the seams.

I wasn’t sure I wanted another child for a long time after Riley was born. Her sleep was terrible for ages and she never stopped being a fairly intense kid. Eventually though James convinced me to start trying. For a while it didn’t look like it was going to happen, then came the shock of a miscarriage and then I found out that I was pregnant with twins.

While remembering my early days with Riley I promised myself that I would not be calling James in tears this time, that I wouldn’t be a blubbering mess, that I wouldn’t doubt myself nearly as much. I have since broken that promise. Only James knows how much I struggle some days.

Riley is not the challenge she was when she was a baby. Sure, she has her moments but there are also wonderful times. She is now four and says the funniest things. And she sleeps! She tells me she’s tired and climbs into her own bed and asks for cuddles. She adapted easily to new daycare when we moved and made friends and tells me what they do there every day and she’s an absolute angel with her grandparents and it’s not rare at all for us to have great moments when we are both giggling about something silly while making cookies or just horsing around.

At the same time, when your family grows from 3 people to 5 in one go, there are inevitable growing pains. Babies need to be kept alive and happy; the older kid wants as much attention as she used to get; parents are outnumbered at all times. We now have not one but three kids to put to sleep and for some reason they all want me. Some days there is just not enough of me. We have had all three kids crying at the same time a few times. I grieved about losing my exclusive relationship with Riley. I yelled at her in the fog of my exhaustion. Yet most days we manage alright. James is a much more involved father, not the guy who called me 10 minutes into my first walk alone after Riley’s birth (she was 6 weeks) telling me he couldn’t stop her crying. He now knows that if I don’t spend some time alone during the week I’ll be in a bad mental space and it will affect the entire family. He’s looked after all three kids by himself plenty of times. I have changed, too.

For a lot of us the desire to be a good parent who goes beyond the basics of physical care means that we also have to confront our own demons: our hidden triggers, insecurity, anxiety. If you don’t have kids you might never be pushed to your limits. People seek enlightenment in extreme sports and silent retreats but you might learn a lot of (unpleasant) things about yourself when your preschooler screams “Yucky Mama!” because she can’t wear the dress she peed on the morning after a night of multiple feedings of newborn babies and the said preschooler wailing that she doesn’t want to be by herself. You will discover that you feel angry when you’re screamed at, even by a little child with an underdeveloped brain or a tiny baby. You might find out that the never ending work of parenting does not feel rewarding at times. There are no promotions or breaks. And you might judge yourself harshly for anything that you perceive you are doing wrong.

I’m sure my kids won’t remember or think much about the years of breastfeeding and night wakings and managing tantrums and illnesses – not until they have their own kids. Not sure I even want them to. Let them be happy and well adjusted, surrounded by love and interesting challenges. I’d prefer them to hang out with me when they are older because I’m fun and because I’m the ultimate place of comfort for them, not out of the sense of obligation and filial duty. And I want them to remember me as a happy person throughout their childhood, a gentle source of support who doesn’t get easily overwhelmed herself.

There is a lot of messaging out there to ask for support if you’re struggling. I’m a little skeptical of it. For once, the reason you even need to tell people to ask for help is that asking is somewhat frowned upon and seen as a sign of weakness. We are surrounded by pictures of happy families and immaculately dressed babies and toddlers surrounded by wooden toys; yes, there is also a plethora of mummy blogs about the struggles of motherhood but a lot of the time it swings too far in the opposite direction with copious amounts of wine for the mother and nuggets served for all meals to the kids. Then again if you do ask for help what if you don’t get it? Nobody owes us help and especially not specific types of help; struggling mothers are routinely sent to Tresillian and other sleep schools that might work for some and terrible for others, well meaning bystanders often offer what seems like terrible advice (mostly about decreasing responsiveness even though it’s been shown again and again to provide best outcomes in the long term). What do we do when sleep deprivation and changing nappies all day are not the biggest problems, when the biggest problem of all is staying content among it all without daydreaming of abandoning your family to live in a cave where nobody ever needs you ever again?

There seem to be a lot of resources about productivity and hustle yet not enough about dealing with everyday challenges and our mental health; I’m not sure the skill of staying on an even keel through tribulations of life is taught routinely to anyone. With time I found resources that were helpful to me: some Facebook groups and books and real people who were happy to talk about their own struggles too. There is the most wonderful Possum Education clinic with its free tips for parents with babies and a book by one of its founders. She also refers to another wonderful book called “Becoming Mum”. I found ACT (as in acceptance and commitment therapy) hugely helpful and wish I got into it way before becoming a parent. I would also recommend the podcast called “The one you feed” to anyone who struggles (it’s not parent specific).

As a process of improving my own mental health I finally realised that feeling my daughter’s pain is not helpful. I was very attuned to it when she was a baby and as a result often found myself overwhelmed. I could not go down the same path with three kids instead of one. Plenty of people proudly call themselves empaths these days saying they feel other people’s pain acutely; that’s very similar to what I felt with Riley. Yet there’s research that shows that feeling other people’s pain actually prevents us from helping them – we just try to avoid people in pain. These days instead of getting upset myself when Riley has one of her intense reactions I try to separate myself emotionally to an extent and really listen to her and not my perceived impression of what’s happening; what I find a lot of the time is that when what we call “empathy” is in fact projection. And if you really listen instead of trying to stop someone’s extreme reaction the situation often diffuses itself and your connection with them is restored much faster. It works with babies too. You can’t stop them from fussing sometimes and there are few things more frustrating than trying to calm down a baby who doesn’t want to calm down. Their cries sound like the worst performance review of your life. It takes time to really feel it in your body that it’s not a reflection of you – you are the source of comfort for your children but they are still separate people who will inevitably react the way they want, not the way you expect them to.

I’m far from having found the way of perfect parenting, I still struggle. Yet now the sting of anxiety has been removed sufficiently from my everyday life for me to enjoy my babies when they are not fussy and to react with humour when they are (most of the time anyway). I now trust James to do his own thing with the kids as I go for a walk. I’ve taken all three of them for a walk by myself. And when I’m having a shit day it doesn’t cross my mind that it’s the worst day of my life anymore as there’s always a moment of two that I enjoy. And I know that after a while the photos of that day will most likely make me miss the times when my babies were little and needed me very much, so much that I used to daydream about running away and living in a cave somewhere.

Adventures in the night

The twins woke me up at midnight for a feed. It was an uncomfortably warm night and I was parched. I shook James and whispered, “Can you get me a glass of water please?”

“Yes”, he said in a very sober voice. I waited a second. He was asleep again. I kicked his shin and said, “Bring me water!”

He stumbled out of bed and as he headed towards the bedroom door I hissed “Water!” again.

I heard him open the tap in the kitchen, filling a glass of water then drinking it. Then there was silence. The twins were feeding contently while I was straining my ears.

Where was my husband? He could be in the back bathroom. He could be in our older daughter’s room where he slept while I was pregnant. Or he could be on the Moon, I thought darkly.

Time passed. The twins finished eating and went back to sleep. I seethed.

Finally, my dear husband appeared at the base of the bed, empty handed.

“Where is the glass of water I asked for half an hour ago?!” – I hissed. He looked startled and injured in the semi-darkness of our bedroom. A minute later he finally brought me a glass of water which I gulped greedily while glaring at him.

He climbed into the bed and curled on his pillow.

“I am very upset,” he said and immediately fell asleep again.

15 minutes later Riley, our older daughter, woke up sobbing “Mummmmmy!”

After some persuasion James went to see what was wrong. Nothing was wrong except Riley didn’t want Daddy, she wanted Mummy (again).

“I don’t want to sleep by myself!” – she wailed.

It’s hard for me to understand her struggle with being by herself because I would like nothing better right now than sleeping a whole night by myself. It seems like a dream that will never come true. An uninterrupted night in a big clean bed with no other hot bodies in it… any time by myself is precious but at night especially.

After some whispering and cuddles Riley went back to sleep. I realised I needed the bathroom.

As I tried to get to the bathroom door opposite our bedroom I felt the unmistakeable horror of a spider web on my face. It was a terrible déjà vu I realised as the exact same thing had happened to me the night before but I somehow blanked it out of my memory. At that moment I was far more awake and I saw the culprit, a big spider, on the wall.

Once again I woke James up and hid in the other bathroom. The offending spider wasn’t even a huntsman (which are quite common inside houses in Australia), it was an orb spider which are all over our garden. A harmless thing really, except when it’s on you at 1 am in the morning.

Last time James decided to get rid of a spider in a humane way it didn’t end well. He caught a big huntsman in a takeaway container, walked out of the gate and let it go. It scurried toward the road only to be hit by a passing car.

“It would rather be dead than captured,” I said.

“Must have been one of those Japanese spiders from World War II”, – said James.

This time James didn’t try to do the right thing, killed the orb spider with a thong and disposed of it in the rubbish bin after wrapping it in a paper towel. No spider can escape a paper towel, right?

Miraculously, all three kids slept through the commotion and I spent some time after listening to everyone’s breathing and trying not to think of spiders. Then I slept too.

Tan Lines

A few years ago when I was sailing a lot, sometimes up to 4 harbour races a week and offshore ones when possible, I used to get very specific tan lines on my hands. My hands looked white apart from the tips of my thumbs, perfectly matching my sailing gloves. We called it the Mickey Mouse tan.

The other day I looked at my hands and I realised there was a tan pattern on them now, too, a totally different one: fingers white up to the second phalanges then tanned evenly. It took me a moment to realise that the tan lines are caused by my pushing a pram every day, sometimes more than once a day. What a great metaphor of how my life changed, I thought. I used to be a very involved sailor and now I am a mother.

Some people, including my own mother, expressed astonishment at the fact that I am now a mother of three (granted, I was as surprised as anyone when we discovered that instead of leaping from one to two we skipped a step and jumped straight to three; nobody plans for twins). Some thought I was too interested in other, non maternal things like my career (or sailing), others no doubt remembered how much I struggled adjusting to having just one child. Yet the astonishment stings a bit too, as I probably invested more in being a great mother to my first than in anything else in my life and I never had any doubt I’d do my best with more than one, too.

Having three has been chaos. The twins are two months old and have already copped a few daycare colds brought home by Riley. A congested newborn is not a happy baby. I’ve listened to my oldest child cry for me in the middle of the night as I was pinned down by a feeding pillow with two newborns on it; my child who was never left to cry, used to reliably being comforted by me, was scared in the middle of the night in her own bed alone in her room and I wasn’t able to help. Sometimes all three cry at the same time. Sometimes I join in the crying, too.

I feel like I need to write about the upside of having multiple kids at this point of my blog post. How blessed we are to have three healthy kids (despite the copious amounts of snot in every single nose in this house right now), how sweet the babies are and how cute and funny Riley is. How James turned into a great father who is confidently taking all three kids out by himself while I try to catch up on at least some sleep. Mostly though we are surviving. We keep reminding ourselves not to wish time away and maybe one day I will miss this season when I am so desperately needed by all my children but right now I just keep saying to myself that the hardest days will pass and we’ll have the reward of children who learn how to play and share with others (I am sure I will regret these words in the future), who will always have each other even when they are adults. I’m reminding myself that our Christmas will be far more magical for having multiple kids, that I will be able to watch each of them grow into their own person which is my favourite part of parenting. And then I catch myself awash with the same astonishment I find so hurtful in others: how could it be that I am a mother of three?

Some people climb mountains, going all the way to the top where they are oxygen starved, freezing and in constant danger of dying where nobody will be able to retrieve their bodies. Some do long offshore races, soaked to the bone, fighting off nausea and tethered to the sides of the boat trying not to fall out. By far more people have multiple children and while some seem to breeze through that experience, a lot of us struggle with round the clock care duties, sleep deprivation and the constant terror of doing something wrong and scarring a person fully dependent on us for life. It’s not considered special by society because it’s so common yet as a way to find meaning bringing up kids can be more relentless than an offshore sailing race, more intimidating than climbing a mountain peak. We can’t turn back and so we continue on our way, clutching on to every tiny pleasure along the way. With time the relentlessness of it somewhat eases, our kids need us a bit less until they seemingly don’t need us at all – and then we’ll have to reinvent ourselves again. Who knows what my tan line is going to be then.

I can’t say I ever fully planned my life and so far what worked for me was doing my best with what I’ve got and letting things happen. And as I look into two brand new little faces all I can do is hope everything will turn out great for them, too.

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.

Blue Sails at Boracay

Paraw at Boracay at sunset. Photo by me
A paraw boat at Boracay at sunset

“We changed the block on the main to a double one so it’s easier for you to control,” – said Jony.

I was sitting in the driving seat of a paraw, a traditional boat in the Philippines. Those boats are out on the water all day in Boracay, taking tourists around the island and out to the reef. Around 4:30 pm their renting rates double as the sun starts to go down. By 5:30 the entire horizon is full of blue sails in the rays of yet another stunning sunset.

By the time I decided to try and control one of those boats my holiday was almost over. The very next day I was flying back to Australia and my parents were heading back to Russia. I missed three twilights on my own boat while being on holidays and felt very homesick every Friday from 6 pm Sydney time onwards, checking the results to make sure that my crew were destroying my handicap while I was away. They were. I am the least experienced person on my own boat so it was to be expected. The crew posted photos of the trophy glasses, rum and beer on my Facebook wall to celebrate another win. I was staring at the perfect beach on Boracay, drinking cocktails and thinking about what I left at home.

The White Beach is about 5 kilometres long and it’s covered with – you guessed it – very fine white sand. We would usually drop our towels under a beautiful big tree and go swimming or paddle boarding. The beach is full of hawkers, mostly selling sunglasses, hats and selfie sticks. Lots of them also sell water sports, including a cruise on a blue sailed traditional boat with two outriggers on each side. They didn’t call the boats “paraws”, at least not while talking to tourists (I had to look up the correct name on Wikipedia). Filipinos speak fairly good English in general but a lot of the time their vocabulary is very functional, just enough to sell whatever they are selling. I still managed to talk to a few sailing people who described capsizes around marks during races, explained divisions in regattas and talked about sponsors and money prizes.

Jony was probably the most talkative hawker and he was the one who convinced me to try to steer the boat after my parents and I had already gone on a couple of cruises. “There was this woman from Singapore who told me she’s a sailor,” – he told me. “But when I tried to get her to steer she just wouldn’t do it!” I knew then that I would have to do better than the unnamed woman from Singapore, even though I’ve been told that I was not allowed to capsize the boat.

He told me that paraws can go as fast as 19-20 knots. They certainly never go that fast with tourists on. As soon as you turn the corner away from the White Beach, the water gets rougher, the wind starts to blow, tourists get wet and slightly uncomfortable. The boats mostly reach around, avoiding gybes in too much wind. When the locals race the boats, one person steers and trims the sails, the rest of the crew (usually 4 people) move around for better weight distribution. There are no kites. The outriggers make the boat look stable like a pair of skis attached to a plane but it’s just an illusion. When one side starts lifting too much out of the water, tourists are asked to move closer to the windward side (usually with gestures). Waves inevitably find a way to make every single tourist wet from head to toe, even if they decide not to go snorkelling. “It was so much fun,” – my Mum said after our first cruise. “I just wish there was no wind.”

At the beach - photo by me
Jony was late on the day when I was supposed to take the boat out. Other people from different boats said hi to me and suggested to go on a cruise with them instead but I decided to wait. When he finally showed up, he was wearing a short wetsuit. “I thought I was not allowed to capsize?” – I said. “Just in case,” – he answered. Mum looked at me anxiously and asked me to be safe. I was pretty sure she didn’t know what “capsizing” meant and it was something to be grateful for.

When we got on the boat, both sails were already up, two local boys looking at me curiously. Jony decided to get the boat out of the busy area before we swapped places. When I finally sat down in the driving seat, I was excited but cautious. There is a rudder but no tiller on the boat – instead, you have to pull on ropes on each side of the hull and do finer control with the sails. You can’t really see the headsail while sitting down. There are knots along the headsail sheet that allow trim for a particular angle. No finer controls, no boom vang or cunningham, no lead cars or outhaul. No telltales or a windex, it’s driven entirely by feel.

First time I tried to bear away in a gust I was not very successful. The weather helm was impressive but easing the main didn’t help much. “Don’t ease, you are losing power!” – Jony said. We were reaching at around 10 knots in 15 knots of wind, and the other two boys were jumping on the outrigger making encouraging noises and yelling “Faster! Faster!” The other outrigger lifted out of the water, waves splashing over the bow. “Um, I guess burying the bow is not that big of a problem on this boat?” – I asked Jony. “No, never had a problem with it.” – He reassured. Jony lives on the mainland and catches a boat to Boracay and back every day. He asked me not to gybe.

My first tacking manoeuvre turned out to be fairly easy – I had enough momentum not to stall the boat. The second one, however, stopped midway so Jony had to backwind the jib. I wasn’t too concerned though as every single tack during our previous cruises was like that. Soon enough I was able to bear away again and we reached back with a lot of splashing and lifting.

“Do you know Harken?” – Jony asked when we got back.

“Yes,” – I said.

“If you have some spare blocks, can you send them here? They are so expensive here!”

“Not exactly cheap in Australia either,” – I said. He gave me his postal address anyway, just in case.

When I connected to Wifi, there was a bill from a rigger in my email inbox and a Facebook message from my main trimmer. “You gotta learn to sail your boat by feel,” – the message said. “That’s how you become a good sailor.” I could still feel the breeze on my face and my palms holding the main sheet without gloves. I closed my eyes. A week later I would race my own boat again.

The Race That Wasn’t Mine: a Celebration

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When my plane landed in Hobart, it started raining. By the time I got into a cab to the city, it was pouring down. “You were lucky that the plane landed at all,” – said the cab driver. “It’s a big storm so planes are very likely to be diverted to Melbourne.”

I didn’t feel very lucky. That was my first time in Hobart, and the original plan was to get here by boat as part of the 70th Sydney to Hobart race, yet we had to abandon 2.5 hours into the race due to mechanical problems with the boat. “There is always next year,” – said the cab driver, echoing numerous other people, and I nodded and smiled.

The flight from Sydney to Hobart takes less than 2 hours. The record on a sailing boat is currently 1 day 18 hours and 20 minutes. I was on a much slower boat than Wild Oats that still holds this record, a boat in the slowest division, so we would still have been in Bass Strait by the time I landed, had the circumstances been different. As it was, I was going to watch a few of my friends finish the race and celebrate with them.

Despite abandoning the race, I still had a crew pass with my name on it to get into the sailing club in Hobart but almost nobody goes there after the race. After parking the boat in the Constitution dock, most crews head straight to the Customs House Hotel across the road.

It’s a nice coastal walk from the club to the dock despite a fairly steep hill at the start of it, and as I was walking I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to see my friends finish the race. I was tracking several boats’ progress; Southern Excellence (Volvo 70), Khaleesi (DK 46), Dare Devil (Farr/Cookson 47), Pazazz (Cookson 40) and TSA Management (Sydney 38). I wished my mates who were sailing these boats well and I was cheering for them as they climbed up the IRC standings. It was still hard not to think how unfair it was that we were out of the race so fast that we didn’t have a chance to make a single mistake let alone experience the race in full. And as I read reports about other boats having issues and abandoning the race I couldn’t help being a little comforted by the fact that we were not alone; I was not proud of that feeling and I hoped to shake it by going to Hobart and by celebrating my mates’ achievements – instead of my own.

My first glimpse of the finish line was sudden. I saw a boat before anything else; then I saw the yellow buoys. The rain was over yet there were white caps and huge gusts all over the water. The boat was carrying a storm jib and deeply reefed main and it was till heeling a little too much as gusts hit it.

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As the boat reached the finish line, there was a loud horn sound from the tower and a few people gathered on the shore clapped and cheered. And I cheered too. My friends from Khaleesi were due to finish about half an hour later.

They chose the right side of the course and were tacking painfully all the way to the line; my heart was racing as if it hoped to win, too. My eyes tingled and my chest felt too full as if I breathed in too much air. I was extremely happy and unbelievably upset at the same time, the bitter-sweet combination normally alien to me. I clapped and I cheered and I ran to the Constitution dock to see the boats come in and I hugged my mates and congratulated them on what they had achieved.

They were tired and sunburnt and their lips were dry and blistering from the sun. They grumbled that they could’ve done better as I helped them pack their storm jib. They didn’t want crowds and cheering as they were rafting up at the dock. They told me there were sorry about what happened to our boat.

We were lucky that our rudder gave out when it did and not in Bass Strait; we couldn’t have done anything to prevent it. Yet all the reasonable explanations and logic fade in the face of a major disappointment, when you try to come to grips with reality; reason is just not enough sometimes.

And amid the stories of my friends being hit by unpredicted 50 knots, about owners and unreasonable crew members, about code zeros dragged behind the boat and 30 knot boat speed, amid all the drinking, rum, beers, wine, amid the crowds that felt like CYCA without non-sailing people, amid all the noise and conversations, I felt like I was still part of it all; that despite being heart-broken I could still go on and be happy – genuinely happy – for the friends who have completed the race and weren’t robbed of that achievement.

How I Got Punched in the Face

Photo by me
Photo by me

One of the strangest days on my life happened about two and a half years ago.

It was a weekend, and a mate of mine invited me to crew on a boat he was sailing on. I didn’t know much about the boat except that it was quite competitive and fast. To be honest, I was somewhat intimidated. I didn’t have much experience back then and I didn’t know the people I was supposed to sail with. In my nervousness I got to the club an hour early and sat on a chair listening to the sailing school’s instructor explaining points of sail to a bunch of students wearing life vests. Listening to him was quite relaxing as I already knew everything he was saying. I felt a little smug. I had real sailing gloves as opposed to those rookies and I also had a ride on a fast boat.

Finally, the boat and my mate got to the club, too, and we took off to the start line of the race on the other side of the bridge. I didn’t know which race we were doing or what the course was. I did know that I was given an actual job though – I was allowed to let off the lazy sheet through a tack. The rest of the time I was sitting on the rail and listening to the bowman who was explaining gusts and different shapes of waves to me. The boat owner shouted once, telling us to shut up, and there was silence for a minute or two; then the bowman started teaching me again, his monotone voice taking the edge off the owner’s yelling. It was a warm day, the sun bright in the sky, and it was good to be on the water.

Then a disaster came – the handle got stuck in the winch and I couldn’t let the lazy sheet off fast enough. “That’s it, you’re off the job!” – the owner yelled and took the handle from my hands. I didn’t argue. I got on the rail, bitter and miserable.

I couldn’t tell if we were winning; I didn’t really care. The rest of the crew was sailing the boat, a spinnaker went up and then it was time to drop it. “Help me to get the sail in!” – I heard and I got in the pit next to the owner, directing the spinnaker down the hatch. We were both trying to get the sail down as fast as possible without pulling on the gentle fabric too much, and then the next thing I knew, the owner’s elbow connected with my eye.

“O-ouch”, – I said. “My eye!”

We finished the race soon after that, all shouting stopped. Beer was out of the esky. “Sorry, did I get you in the eye?” – asked the owner, visibly concerned. I nodded. “You should put ice on it.. Or at least a cold beer,” – someone said. The bottle was cold against my skin and I thought that nobody would probably believe me if I told them that I got punched in the eye. I also thought that I didn’t want a black eye. There would be too much explaining to do.

That night I met up with friends to go to a free opera. Australians love the outdoors, they are so down to earth (quite literally) that a picnic blanket is much more comfortable to them than a chair in the famous Sydney Opera house – which doesn’t mean that they do not enjoy an opera every now and again. There were hundreds of people on the grass, eating cheese with crackers, drinking wine and listening to the opera. My friends were reading the subtitles on the huge screens next to the stage and giggling; I just lay down on the blanket and looked up in the sky.

It was getting darker and the sky was dark blue. Groups of bats were flying overhead every now and again. The voices were majestic. I remembered my seven years of music school: my choir practice and piano lessons, hours of listening to classics and the metronome ticking as I was trying to get another piece right. I hated opera back in music school but that night I could finally feel the magic. I filled my lungs with air as if I was singing together with the opera singers, and my head was spinning a bit as their voices flew higher, full and powerful, the air trembling with music.

It was beautiful. It touched strings inside me I wasn’t sure I even had. And the absurdity of being elbowed in the eye and then being transported into this higher state of mind, appreciating fine art, was not lost on me. I didn’t get a black eye, after all, but I vouched to never sail on that boat again – it was more about the shouting and taking me off the job than about damage to my face.

Two years later I was back on the same boat with different people, and one of them complained about a handle getting stuck. I remembered the day when I was taken off a job for the same thing, then the elbow and the opera, and I thought that I wasn’t that dead set against getting punched in the eye as long as there was something beautiful to make up for it. Like music. And a story I could get out of it.

The one about My First Season. And Superman

A weather front coming in. Photo by me
A weather front coming in. Photo by me

The season of twilights has just finished. It was my first season of skippering a boat. The very first post-Christmas twilight was regular enough, although not without its own dramas: I was crewing on my regular boat while the owners were away.

After the race we got to drinking red wine at the club, discussing Sydney to Hobart and a boat that one of the crew just bought for a ridiculously low amount of money. That night there was much more red wine than usual; the more we drank, the louder we laughed at Kiwi accent jokes. Late into the night Dave said, well, since you didn’t buy a boat, why don’t you enter Troy’s boat into the series and skipper it?

“Oh Troy would love it, I’m sure” – I said and looked at Troy. And Troy said, “I would let you do it.”

I am sure Troy had his doubts and regrets the next day. Dave made me promise I would do it – so I entered the boat into the series the moment I opened my laptop the next morning, my head still throbbing from the red wine. “I did it, it’s happening!” – I texted both of them. I didn’t get a reply for a very long time and all that time I was thinking, “No backsies now…”

My first race as a skipper, the second race in the series, happened to be on a very windy day. It was gusting over 20 knots. To me it felt like 50. The boat, a Sonata 8, doesn’t have lifelines – and it has a tiller, not a wheel. The night before the race I had troubles sleeping and practiced turning the boat and tacking in my head. I imagined sitting on the port side and turning the tiller away from me to turn into the wind. I was checking the forecast obsessively for five days before the race. I also organised the crew – Troy (the owner of the boat), Jo the French guy and a very nice, polite girl Nelly (not the real name).

That race was pretty exciting. We didn’t reef and started the race with number 1 headsail. The boat began to round up straight away while Troy tried to give me instructions and ease the sail at the same time. I didn’t yell – Troy was yelling for both of us. I also wasn’t scared – I suspect because Nelly was scared for both of us. A 26 foot boat with no lifelines that keeps rounding up can be a frightening place, especially when you know that the person on the helm has never skippered in a race before. We ended up reefing the main and changing the headsail after the first leg and we came last, far behind everyone else; but we didn’t kill anyone and there was no damage to our or any other boat.

I was proud of myself and said, “Sorry that it was a bit scary” to Nelly.

“No no no”, she said. “I think you were very brave and did very well in this weather.”

I beamed. How nice was this girl!

“By the way, did I mention that I have to babysit in March?” – she said.

She never sailed with me again.

That was okay; a friend of mine volunteered to trim the headsail for the entire series. It was a bit more complicated with the main. I needed someone who would be really good and could help me with the tactics; someone who could teach me to get better. Troy couldn’t make it to most of the races, and I was struggling to find someone who could help me out. That was the time for me to really appreciate reliable crew. One time after feverishly trying to find someone I got so discouraged that I was ready to give up. I sulked and even cried a little (my tough Siberian nature doesn’t always help me in the soft Sydney climate). That day I ended up sailing with John, one of the ex-commodores of the club. We came third and there was hardly anyone happier than me at the club that night.

Very gradually, I started getting the hang of it. I wasn’t stopping mid-tack anymore and most of the time I pointed as high as I could but no higher; sometimes I even remembered to bear away in gusts while going downwind. I found out how annoying it can be when the main trimmer wouldn’t do what you ask him to do (and complained to way too many people about that after the race). Another time I didn’t expect a huge knock, lost control for a second and the main trimmer got submerged in the water. Sadly, that was not the same trimmer who wouldn’t listen to me, so I had to apologise again and again.

There were a lot of windy races and a few with not much wind at all. We weren’t last anymore but I couldn’t get anywhere near that third place again. At some point the crew from my regular boat became available and sailed with me. I was still extremely tense near the start line and they made fun of my heavy breathing, asking me whether I was scared or excited. If you are interested, it was both. On the other hand, they didn’t have to point out nearly as many boats or give me nearly as much advice anymore as I was starting to evade boats before the start more or less on my own. I was also mildly annoyed when they didn’t listen to my instructions and in my turn ignored some of their – potentially useful – remarks.

Finally, a day has come when I only had one trimmer available and it didn’t look like there would be anyone else sailing with us. I cursed at the charity regatta that took away the rest of my crew. “We’ll be right,” – Tony said as we got on the boat. I wasn’t nearly as optimistic. It was 10 to 15 but gusting; I had serious doubts about the whole enterprise. The start line is fairly short and there are a lot of boats around. And Tony would have to trim both sails. We cruised like that before in 20 knots – but cruising is very different from racing; there’s normally no other boats yelling “Starboard” at you…

As I was thinking that this was a very bad idea, a rubber ducky appeared out of nowhere, and Dave told me to luff up. I would have been equally surprised and relieved if it had been Superman. I wasn’t tense and scared anymore; and I had the most amazing race in my life. A couple of years prior to that Dave had invited me to his boat and taught me stuff; that’s when I started learning sailing in honest. Somehow he managed not to be even a little bit patronising. I was very unsure of my value on a boat back then; I knew little and I was slow on the winch; not being yelled at felt like a great deal already. Someone who actually taught me seemed to be a semi-god. A pretty humble semi-god at that. Now my teacher was finally back; and I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore. We had a few closer tacks than usual that day – and we also sailed much better than usual.

We came first and I was jumping around all over the club, hugging people and telling them what a wonderful world we live in. People laughed and I laughed too, and the world WAS wonderful that night.

Now the series are over. I didn’t get a result for the last race – there was not enough wind and we finished a couple of minutes after the cut-off time. I didn’t mind that much. It was my first season as a skipper and I will always remember it. Thanks Troy and Dave and my entire crew, that was unforgettable.

So Many Stories

Sunset at Balmain after a twilight race, March 2014
Sunset at Balmain after a twilight race, March 2014

I am a sucker for a good story. That is one of the main reasons why I love reading; but listening to other people’s stories in real life is a special treat. A story that is told personally feels like it’s been born in front of your eyes, no matter how many times it’s been told before. I still stare in a wide-eyed wonder at a person who can tell a good story and I listen in fascination, like a kid who forgot about going to sleep, too engrossed in a good-night tale. I like writing; but I still enjoy listening to other people’s stories more than telling my own.

When I was growing up, my favourite nights were when the electricity went out. It didn’t happen that often but when it did, the entire family would gather in the kitchen. There would be candles, my sister and I would make a half-hearted attempt at doing our homework and then at some point Dad would start telling stories about his childhood in the countryside. He grew up in a place right next to the Mongolian border and spent a lot of time riding horses and looking after his father’s bees. One of my favourite stories was about his collection of old coins half of which he lost while riding a motorbike, coins slipping out of the bag in his pocket one by one. I tried writing some of those memories down once but I couldn’t quite catch the magic, so I gave up, frustrated.

One of my best friends in university was a master story-teller; something would happen to her or both of us and she would find a way to turn a fairly minor event into a polished anecdote, most often with a sarcastic twist. Then I met a man whose stories from his own life were so various and at times outrageous, they made me want to live a bigger, more interesting life. Since then I moved to another city then to another continent, changed careers and started sailing; I’d like to believe that enough interesting stuff happened to me. Yet it still fascinates me to listen to others.

When you sail on different boats, you meet lots of people – and they all have stories to tell. Sometimes the stories are pretty personal. I’ve heard of two different divorces, painful memories retold in a matter-of-fact way to a stranger who just happened to sit on the rail next to them. That is not a regular occurrence though; most of the stories I heard on boats are about sailboats and sailing and people who sail. They can be funny or tragic, and some of them are as polished by being retold many times as my uni friend’s anecdotes; and I can never get enough of them.

There were a few about naming boats; a boat called “BOOTS” because the letter refusing the registration of a boat with the original (fairly offensive) name started with the words “By order of the secretary…” and a boat called “Gomez” because someone yelled out “Go, Mez!” when the owner took the boat out for the first time. There’s other stories that turned into jokes (like the exchange between a port on a starboard tack and a boat with a steel hull; the triumph of a boat that is hard to damage over the boat that has more rights during a race) and there are personal accounts of impersonating a kangaroo or racing in pyjamas in a regatta, both after quite a few drinks.

And wherever you go, there will always be stories about sailing mishaps. Sailing can be easy; and it can be incredibly complex. It’s easy to get into trouble when you depend on the elements so much, and there are many things that can go wrong. I’ve heard of a mast touching the water because someone put a knot on a spinnaker sheet; a mast collapsing completely because the skipper of a small catamaran doing over 20 knots got distracted for 30 seconds and ran smack into a wave (the skipper ended up with a broken arm, lucky to be alive); boats running into reefs rendering people unconscious; boats sinking… These are things that happened to people I know, and my own somewhat embarrassing memory of ending up on the rocks in front of an entire fleet because a running backstay was put on too early, pales in comparison.

Stories are fun and there is no doubt some educational value to some of them. I will never put a knots on a spinnaker sheet after hearing the story from the Whitsundays so many times – just like I will always check for lines in the water before putting the motor on after something that happened while I was on the same boat in Sydney. Yet, the most compelling stories are not just cautionary, they make you look at things in a different way. I might forget about a funny name of a boat but I will never forget a story about a power boat capsizing, not just because it was dramatic, but because the girl who told it also said that you never know how you will react in a situation like that. She told us about a boy who stumbled in a pool, hit his head and floated face down, unconscious – and her first instinctive reaction was to run away, despite her first aid training. That initial reaction stayed with her long after she helped the boy, it made her wonder and reflect; and when the power boat capsized, she knew to look out for the first inkling of panic in herself and stifle it successfully.

I’ve had time to think why stories like that are so compelling, the self-awareness of the story-teller probably as important as the event itself. And that’s the way I want the story of my life to be, not full of drowning boys but not just a sequence of amusing anecdotes either; a story reflected on and lived fully, even thoroughly, a story that will stay with you for a very long time.