Cedar & Pearl

At sea

By John Piotti | Apr 23, 2018

At the time of this writing, we were about 200 nautical miles west southwest of Gibraltar, our 10th day out of Port Everglades, Florida. It’s Susan’s and my first time on a cruise ship, a step we were willing to take because it is a transatlantic passage, a way to get to Europe (where I have a meeting) without a long flight or jet lag.

We are sailors. We have sailed the Maine coast extensively in our own boats over many years. And I’ve skippered rented yachts throughout the Caribbean and Mediterranean. (Before we had children, we took friends on Caribbean sails frequently.) Yet because we are sailors, we’ve had to overcome a mental barrier to step aboard a cruise ship, to enter a world that appears to equate more with being at a resort than with our own experiences on the water.

Yet a transatlantic crossing is not the same as a stay at a Miami Beach Hilton. There are distinct qualities to any extended time on a boat, regardless of the size of the craft — or whether your berth is turned down each night by a smiling steward.

At sea, you are in constant motion. The motion may be far less noticeable on larger vessels. But even on a cruise ship, when you are in the North Atlantic, you are clearly not in Kansas. And in no instance is your footing what it is on land.

At sea, you simply can’t ignore the great outdoors. It quite literally surrounds you. Now as a sailor, I’ve had fearful moments on the water, overwhelmed at times by the forces of nature. Yet those are rare. During most of my time at sea, I feel at one with nature. I appreciate the beauty and majesty of my surroundings — the waves, the clouds, the light. (I’ve never felt that at a Marriott.)

At sea, time passes differently. I am super cognizant of time when on the water — not in the way I keep track of my schedule at the office, thinking about my next meeting or deadline, but in a deeper and truer sense. Each moment at sea seems more momentous. The common becomes uncommon, to be savored.

When I’m on the water, I really taste my coffee and cherish each deep breath of sea air. If I sleep through first morning light, I feel a bit cheated. Yet when I linger on deck in twilight, all is right again. I’m invigorated by sharp winds and chill air that would pain me in other settings. I linger in bright sun that at home would lead me to complain and then move into the shade.

In short, being at sea changes my mindset — for the better.

I’ve become accustomed while on the water to these sensations and sympathies, because they are experiences I’ve had time and again over many years. And in that way, this voyage is no different from many others I’ve had on boats.

But in another way, this trip has had a totally unexpected outcome: It has changed how I view cruise ships. You see, there’s a part of me — as an experienced sailor — who looks down on any boating activity that is mass-marketed during the Super Bowl.

Don’t get the wrong idea: I am nothing less than awestruck by cruise-ship captains. (I am in awe of any master of an oceangoing vessel, let alone one who simultaneously succeeds as a hospitality host.) But I was skeptical about being on such a cruise. I had preconceptions about the nature of it — what I envisioned as Vegas-like entertainment, and a ship full of landlubber passengers, who for some reason I assumed would all be elderly folks, mostly from middle America and Florida.

Well, in truth, the ship is full of elderly passengers. And some of the evening entertainment, though fun, does border on hokey — with singers and dancers and comedians and lounge pianists who take requests.

But a cruise is, like everything in life, what you make of it. And Susan and I have enjoyed the passengers we dine with and the evening entertainment we’ve gone to almost as much as we have enjoyed the sea and air and the quiet time in our cabin where we read and write. (Susan keeps a journal wherever we travel, while I often play with words on paper in the same way that I play with shapes and proportions on paper — I’m frequently sketching a new house or boat.)

My primary reading during the crossing has been a book entitled "American Dreamer," a biography of Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s progressive secretary of agriculture and later vice president. In 1944, through the actions of the big city bosses who disliked Wallace’s liberal views, Truman — not Wallace — became Roosevelt’s running mate. In the game of “what ifs,” it’s easy to imagine how Henry Wallace might have succeeded FDR — and what a profound difference that might have had on our world.

I knew little about Wallace beforehand. I’m embarrassed to admit that. After all, I not only pride myself in knowing something about political history, but I work professionally with farmers — and thus should know about the most influential secretary of agriculture in American history. But I won’t make excuses. I’ll simply say that, in reading the book, I have now taken steps to correct my inadequacy. And how much I have learned!

Often, you learn the most — and enjoy the learning more — when you are big enough to jump into something completely new.

If all goes well, our ship will be passing the Rock of Gibraltar about 3 a.m. tomorrow. Susan and I will be on deck, hoping to see it silhouetted against a starry sky — a milestone of sorts, marking 10 days at sea — and many new experiences.

John Piotti is president of American Farmland Trust. He splits his time between Waldo County and Washington, D.C. His column appears once a month.

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