My Boyfriend Is Sailing Around The World

Bram Van Damme
Bram Van Damme

I’m tired of starting stories with, “my boyfriend is sailing around the world.” I’m sick of giving the run-down of his itinerary — they left from San Francisco, they’re in Baja, in Mexico, they’re going South ‘til Costa Rica, then crossing to the South Pacific, then getting to New Zealand by storm season. I’m bored of the two reactions this statement gets: “That’s SO COOL!!!!” or “Oh my god, you pooooooor thing!”

I’m sick of feeling like my boyfriend is the most interesting thing about me. Like, there’s no upstaging a circumnavigating-by-sailboat, these days. But every time I begin, I can’t help the prideful smile creeping across my face as I describe his dashing exploits. I’m tired of apologizing for feeling jealous, and angry. And worried, sometimes, that he can be having so much fun without me. I’m really fed up with those who offer me “perspective” even if it is well intentioned: my parents were apart for two years! Your grandparents were separated by a WAR, and all they could do was write letters! Good point, they were separated by a war — there was a draft. My boyfriend chose to leave.

And yet, I still do start the story that way, I do run through the itinerary and thank people kindly for their understanding. I allow myself moments of hurt and competitiveness — fine, leave me for a boat, just wait and see all the great things I’ll do without you! I do it because I have to, because some adventures are too great not to think about or talk about.

My boyfriend is sailing around the world.

*****

Alex moved onto a 32-foot Valiant sailboat named Saltbreaker with his younger brother in September 2011. They planned and saved for this for years; they quit their jobs and prepared to go for as long as possible. I miss him. I’m happy for him. I’m angry at him. I’m proud of him. I could go on. But, what it really comes down to is that saying, “You can’t choose whom you love.” (That’s a saying, right?) I’ll bet whoever said it first loved a sailor.

We met in a standard setting (San Francisco, bar, happy hour) in a decidedly un-standard way. I spotted him first, noting his height (6’5”), his smile (full-faced), and his t-shirt, featuring the name of my favorite band (The Black Keys). Instead of, oh I don’t know, saying hello, I stared him down for the next hour while making excuses to my friend who insisted I approach him. “He’s probably gay. He probably has a girlfriend. I’m hungry, let’s go get noodles!” Finally, tired of my nonsense and a few dirty martinis in, she took the initiative, marched up to him and declared:

“Hi, I think my friend Lauren is your soul mate. Can I have your card?” I, shy girl that I am, sprinted out of the bar, and proceeded to email him from across the street on my then-Blackberry — shockingly, everything was spelled correctly, and was charming enough that he suggested we meet for a beer. We talked for three hours and well, that was that.

What’s shocking is that I’d managed to spot a person who, in a sentiment straight out of the Chicken-Soup-Soul series, brings out some of my better sides. My friends say, “He makes you more chilled out.” Or as my mother puts it (a touch more bluntly), “He makes you nicer!”

But one of the major things that drew me to Alex, part of the reason I love him, is his taste for adventure. His ability to get an idea in his head and actually make it happen shows a hunger for exploring and learning that simultaneously manages to be boyish, adorable, and impressive. His laid-back demeanor is deceptive —  behind it lies someone passionate enough to sail around the world, and smart enough to do it right. I may have noticed him for his music taste; I fell in love with him when I realized that he could care about music, about so many things, as much as I did.

About six months after meeting, we were out at a quiet beer bar in San Francisco. I was planning to move to New York for graduate school, which already presented some questions, but we were in the tenuous early stages of love where most anything seems possible. Or at the very least, we were in denial. That’s when he said, “So, my brother and I are planning on sailing around the world. We’ve been planning it for a while. We’ll be gone… a year? At least.” I sipped my beer. I pondered its taste, which the menu described as “barnyard.” I looked at him. “Huh,” I said. “Interesting.” I drank a lot that night.

The trip hung over my first year in New York through which, against some odds, our relationship survived (a long distance warm up, if you will). He and his brother looked at boats, and purchased Saltbreaker in January, 2011. Discussions of, “should we stay together? Can we stay together?” happened every couple of months or so, both of us stumbling over our words as we tried to sort out feelings (me) from reason (him) from want (both). The impending trip dominated a summer spent together in San Francisco, where I made half joking, half bitter comments about taking second place to a boat. And then, it was September 18, 2011, and I was standing on a dock at Pier 39, weeping and smiling all at once, watching my lanky, grinning sailor head out into the great blue yonder. We would stay together. He left his Black Keys shirt with me, and I would sleep in it every night.

*****

“How do you talk?” is pretty much the first question everyone asks. And most are disappointed when I tell them that no, there are no messages in bottles (he did write me a love letter for my birthday, though). But yeah, it’s kind of a bizarrely 18th-Century problem to have. Who falls for sailors, these days?

Thank goodness for the internet, when it decides to be agreeable. When the boys have it, he can email, call, or Gchat me. Or we can Skype. Or he can text me. But all of this is dependent on those wiley internet gods, who sometimes like to toy with my emotions by having him call, and render his voice too garbled by the shady connection for me to understand a word. Not to mention, birthday gift aside, Alex isn’t exactly the love letter type. He’s more likely to stick his tongue out at me as a sign of adoration than to spout off poetic musings.

When they don’t have internet, they can send and receive emails, very very slowly, through their HAM radio. I can give you no details as to how… I prefer to assume it’s magic. Of course, that only works if the radio gods are on board — recently, their messages weren’t going out because of sunspots. Sunspots! When’s the last time that was a problem in your relationship?

Of course, even when there is a reason for the lagging communication, not hearing from him can lead me to have some pretty cyclical conversations with myself: I’m not hearing from him because he doesn’t miss me. He doesn’t miss me because he doesn’t love me. He doesn’t love me because he loves his boat. Or met a lanky, tanned sailor girl. And on, and on until I’m clutched by panic and pain and desperation. I’m an expert at driving myself insane, and have found myself tangled in my sheets, unable to sleep as I attempt to curb the crazy with reason.

Once, after a two week stretch of not talking, I was mid meltdown and finally, we connected. I had been planning on keeping it cool, to greet him with a cheery, calm “Hey!” Instead, gasping, I opened with, “OH MY GOD IT’S SO GOOD TO TALK TO YOU FINALLY, FINALLY!” Alex handles these downward spirals, in his quiet way, like a champ. He’ll hear me out and, after a pause, will simply answer: “Of course I love you. Of course I miss you.” I’ll take a deep breath, regaining my equilibrium.

But I must say, communication-based angst aside, I get it. I understand why this trip was such a dream for him, and how incredible it is that he has been able to make it happen. And I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I kind of dig Alex’s sailor spirit — his taste for hearty adventure, and discovery, and whiskey. That’s certainly a part of what Alex was seeking when he began dreaming up this circumnavigation.

So far, he hasn’t been disappointed. They’re documenting their trip on their blog that features stories of turquoise water, of 100-dolphin escorts, of drinking champagne and diving over the equator. Photos show Alex, tanned, bearded, and smiling, holding a freshly caught yellowfin tuna or standing atop a breathtaking tropical vista. He starts most days by diving off the edge of the boat — it’s their rule that you have to go for a swim before you get coffee. And then there are the places they get to go — they’ve hiked across dusty Mexican landscapes, snorkeled with sharks, and skirted monkey attacks. They’ve explored tiny islands inhabited by one or two families, who invite them into their homes and feed them a freshly butchered meal.

Their stories warm and break my heart all at once. First I smile. Then my stomach knots and my chest clenches; can he really miss me when he’s having the most incredible adventure imaginable?

I sometimes feel this need to compete with his trip for his love and his attention, because I’m afraid that no matter how much he loves me, I can’t compare to the wonders his boat has allowed him to see. It’s because I’m afraid he’ll never come home. But I take it a day at a time, loving him because of and in spite of his voyage.

For now, all I know is that I’d rather be with this boy on a boat than anyone else. And that I will continue to scan flight deals for Nicaragua, or New Zealand, or Bali… I am already mentally packing my bags. I know that I cannot wait to see his tanned face break into a huge grin at the sight of me as I board Saltbreaker to join his adventure.

Of course, it already is my adventure. TC mark

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