What is it about the sailing dream? The lap-lap of the water against the hull, the whoosh of the wind filling a sail, the mainland receding from view? As I sit here on a rock in Maine, a parade of sailboats goes by, marking the end of summer as the crews head for warmer, gentler seas.
Sailors are a rarefied lot. Like horseback riders, they are wedded to a transportation system of the past. Yet sailors will chuck jobs, mortgage their house and sometimes drive their spouse crazy -- all to get on a boat and set sail.
For some people in midlife, the sailing dream is the agent of transformation as they head toward a lengthy period of good health before encountering the traditional limits of old age.
For the rest of us, the sailing dream is a metaphor for breaking away and leaving the mainland of middle adulthood behind, for flexing the mind and body to gain new skills, for exploring worlds and finding purpose in adventure.
Many sailors have harbored the dream since childhood. And then they break loose and make it a career.
Jim and Jayne Taylor left their established life in Washington -- he is an international trade lawyer, she is a caterer -- to start a sailing charter business in the British Virgin Islands. A life under sail had been Jim Taylor's dream since he was a child in Charleston, S.C. For him and his wife, the dream was about taking risks, changing course while they were in their fifties -- young enough, he explains, to start a physically demanding career, old enough to have raised their children and accomplished workplace goals. After a rocky start in the wake of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the business has become a success.
What was your dream in childhood? What did you set aside in order to raise a family and earn a living? Is there something you always wanted to do? Fill in the blanks.
For the doctor who turns to composing music after decades in practice, it's a music dream. For the homemaker who always wanted to be a figure skater and takes to the rink at 50, it's a skating dream. For the former firefighter who mentors schoolchildren, it's the service dream of giving back to others the way you were once helped long ago.
But dreams are not static. Once a lifelong dream becomes a reality, it may run its course. Sailing is no exception. Ann Doerr of Alexandria puts it this way: "In 1997, my husband and I set off to fulfill his lifelong dream: We sold the house, put everything in storage and sailed away on our 37-foot sailboat." They spent a year on the boat and wound up in Naples, Fla. But after a while, she became homesick and they came back to Virginia. "We discovered that when you do the thing you have always wanted to do, the dream eventually comes to an end and you have to create a new life for yourself."
That's the way with dreams. Sometimes they become the next career. Often they are a meaningful adventure on the way to something else. "You have to do it to find out," explains Doerr, 59, who is training to be a teacher of English for speakers of other languages. The important thing in this transition period is to start dreaming -- to loosen up and experiment with different scenarios for the future.
Some sailors change the way they sail as a way to shift to this new stage of life. Ted Weihe of Arlington has sailed all his life. "If I'm not doing it, I'm thinking about it, I'm reading books about it," he says. As a teenager, he raced on Chesapeake Bay and belonged to the Sea Scouts. As a student at Georgetown University, he sailed a catamaran on the Potomac.
In adulthood he turned to cruising. Meanwhile, he had a successful career in international development. He organized food for refugees during the Carter Administration. He promoted democracy in Chile and set up telephone cooperatives in Poland. As founder and executive director of the U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC), he was making a difference in the world.
Last year, he decided to leave the OCDC. At the same time, he stopped cruising, downsized to a smaller boat and returned to racing. "It's going back to youth -- going back to being a teenager," says Weihe, 61.
But his goals have shifted. When he was a teenager, he wanted to win trophies. Now if he wins, he gives the trophy to the crew. "I don't need a trophy," he says. "When you're younger, you want other people to recognize you. . . . When you're older, it's all inside. I know when I'm competitive." And, he says: "Being competitive is very important."
His personality hasn't changed. It's his life that is changing. Racing sailboats is a way for him to keep his competitive identity -- and do what he loves to do.
Challenge and fun. That's the siren call of the sailing dream. Or any kind of dream that gets you moving on the next stage of your life.
Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to email@example.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address below; mark the envelope "My Time."