Each year I write a letter to enclose in our Christmas cards. It encapsulates the highlights of our family’s year just ended. I’m told it’s pretty good. In fact, I joke (somewhat seriously) that all the positive feedback I’ve received is what convinced me that I should try writing a novel.
For the last half dozen years, each letter has concluded with a brief note about how we are considering downsizing our lives, moving aboard a sailboat, retiring early and heading over the horizon to see what the world has to offer.
About two years ago, I typed up some ideas on how we might actually make that happen and sent it to Rhonda. In typical two-career-couple fashion, we do much of our communicating during the day via email from our respective offices. I outlined a possible timeline in an attachment and sent it to her. It was the first time we had something on paper that stepped through the process of fixing up our house, putting it on the market, selling our current boat, shopping for a larger one, moving aboard, retiring, and taking off. I included a proposed itinerary of possible destinations for the first three years of our journey.
Putting something on paper gives it substance. It stops being an idle thought and starts becoming a strategy. But through it all, we’ve always said if, not when we go. We always hedged, because in our hearts I’m not sure we truly believed it would happen. Seeing it on paper was both thrilling and frightening, but it still felt more like wouldn’t it be nice than this could be real.
But yesterday, things just got very real. A big piece of the dream fell into place. A huge piece— probably the biggest piece necessary.
Our new boat arrived. The magic carpet that will transport us to all those places that have only been a wish and a dream.
And suddenly, I realize it’s no longer if. We’re on our way. The pieces are falling into place. The plan is becoming action. There’s momentum now.
It’s frightening. Change this large is hard. But they say if your dreams don’t frighten you, they’re not big enough. And so I’m excited about our future.
Because yesterday, I believe if finally became when.
Six short weeks ago, having just registered this domain, I sat down to figure out WordPress. My first tentative experiment was a quick post I dashed off entitled Go With The Boat You Have. It was an expression of the uncertainty we felt regarding whether or not Eagle, our 33 foot Hunter, was large enough to allow us to realize our dream of cruising. I originally thought that Life On The Hook would focus on how it would indeed be possible for two people to live well on a smaller modern yacht. In fact, this blog was originally going to be called Go Small Go Now (which as of this writing still appears to be available if anyone is interested). But something inside me, that quiet inner voice that I’ve learned to listen to, said to wait. There may be another boat out there. A bigger, more comfortable boat that would better suit our needs.
Less than a month later, Rhonda and I were walking down a dock at a marina on Watts Barr Lake in rural Tennessee. We were there to see a boat. This boat:
1997 Hunter 376
Four and a half years ago, when we bought Eagle, we didn’t realize the scope of our “unknown unknowns,” as we say in the project management world. Those things that we didn’t know about sailboats, and didn’t know that we didn’t know. We’ve learned a lot since then, as experience is an excellent teacher. And we could tell immediately that this was a good boat. Solid. Sturdy. Well suited for our purposes. From the size of the winches to the weight of the pelican hooks, this boat said “Take me to sea.”
It’s amazing what a difference four feet can make. It doesn’t sound like much. But on a boat, it’s huge. It’s the difference between having a galley that can barely fit one, and being able to have a couple work on dinner together. Between having to play Twister to pass each other in the salon, to being able to easily move around without catching an elbow in the eye. Between having to crawl into bed, and being able to walk upright in the aft cabin. In short, it’s the difference between feeling like you’re camping in a rather plush tent, and residing in a comfortable efficiency apartment. After feeling the difference in person, my only thought regarding Go With The Boat You Have is “What was I thinking?”
Did this boat hug us the way the Eagle did? Truthfully, no. There is only one first boat in your life, and when we found the Eagle, it was obvious that her owner hadn’t given her the care she deserved. She reached out to us (particularly Rhonda) like a neglected puppy that had just been offered a kind word and a loving pat. This boat on the other hand had been well cared for and clearly loved, and the impression she gave was that we were going to have to earn her respect.
We’re on the road to Tennessee to take possession as you read this. I’m looking forward to proving to her that we are worthy of her. She arrives April 25th.
Today is a big day. Today I turn 56. Today is a big day not because it’s my birthday, which let’s face it comes pretty much every year about this time. Today is a big day because I work for the Federal Government, and there’s a special significance to turning 56. It means that if you have a minimum of 30 years of service (a threshold I crossed last December) you can retire on an immediate annuity. I never thought I’d make it. But today, I did.
If I told you how generous the current Federal retirement system is, you’d probably be astounded. And possibly a bit offended, because you are paying for it after all, with your ample annual contributions to the IRS. But hate the game, not the player. I didn’t set out to exploit the benefits of this obscenely lucrative system. In fact there was a time when I considered working for the government to be the last thing in the world I wanted to do. I remember many years ago, after leaving the employ of the US Navy, having a discussion with my mother-in-law in which she encouraged me to seek federal employment. “It’s a safe and secure career,” she said. Being much younger and therefore so much smarter than I am today, I told her that working for the government would feel like being dead and just waiting to fall over. Give me the excitement of writing proposals. Chasing new contracts. Soliciting new markets and business. That’s the way I wanted to spend my work day – doing exciting things with uncertain outcomes. Not being a bureaucrat shuffling monthly reports.
A funny thing happened over the next several years. I got older. I learned I wasn’t necessarily as smart as I thought I was, although I do believe I gained in wisdom. Our contract ended, and we lost the re-compete. I tasted unemployment, with all its uncertainty and feelings of helplessness. We had a young child, and we wanted another.
So my perspective changed. The promise of a stable, secure career sounded like a reasonable tradeoff for accepting what I believed would be an unsatisfying job. I had a useful skill. The Navy had invested a considerable amount of money in teaching me how to operate nuclear reactors. Just down the road was a Naval Shipyard. They had lots of reactors that needed to be worked on. I called them and asked for a job. They asked me when I could start. The rest, as they say, is history.
But it turned out that the promise of a stable, secure career was a mirage. An artifact of the “Mad Men” era. A dated. near obsolete construct that ended just as my career was taking hold. First came hiring freezes. One after another after another. Never hiring anyone new meant never moving up the seniority ladder. Then the post-Cold War downsizing began. Budget cuts. Layoffs. And always the junior guy due to those damn freezes. And with the government, it’s all about last-hired first-fired. It took a few long, anxious years, but eventually all the support staff and lower level folks were gone. Nothing left but engineers now. Fifteen years’ service? Sorry, you’re still the low man on the totem pole.
After years of wondering whether I’d keep my job, I was finally given the answer. “Why, no. No you won’t.” In government parlance, I was RIFed. Caught up in a Reduction In Force. Layoff notice in hand, I scrambled to find someplace to land. We were living outside Seattle. There was a job in Pensacola. We were from Pensacola. Rhonda and I met and went to school there. We still had family there. Let’s go to Pensacola!
So 18 years after leaving, we moved back to our old home town. I started a new job for the Navy, working in what was then a new and exciting field—computer-based training and distance learning. This is nice. It’s good to be back in Florida. It’s good to be close to family. But then it started all over again. Budget cuts. BRAC commissions looking for bases to close. The return of hiring freezes and mandatory early retirements. For another 15 years, it was just one damn thing after another.
I say all that in order to say this—I’ve worked for the government for over 30 years now, and I’ve spent most of that time feeling like the wolves were snapping at my ass. Until just these last few years, I wouldn’t have given you odds of better than 50% that I’d actually make it to retirement.
But today I turn 56. I made it. And so if you’ll forgive me, I’m just going to bask in that for a little while. After all those years of anxiety and uncertainty, it feels good to finally slide across the finish line intact. Because that’s the ticket to achieving our goal of sailing over the horizon!
Like many, I watched the evening news cover the recent rescue by the US Navy of a family and their small children from a sailboat 900 miles off the Mexican coast. As is typical of most “mainstream” news coverage, the reporting left me with more questions than answers. I recently found some of these answers in a very interesting post on a blog that I follow by a couple that are out walking the walk everyday. As avid followers of sailing blogs (because why else would you be reading this blog? We don’t do beach vollyball photos here!) I thought you all may be interested in their perspective:
Rhonda and I were deep into our Sunday morning routine. Our stop at Starbucks behind us, lattes firmly in hand, we wandered the aisles of Lowe’s picking up pieces large and small for our day’s planned projects. Returning to the truck, I pulled onto Nine Mile Road and headed toward home while we savored our drinks and chatted about this and that.
My phone rang. Fishing around in my pocket, I finally managed to free it from under my seatbelt. I don’t know why I never remember to pull it out before I start driving. I just don’t. Consequently it’s always a small victory when I can free it from bondage and see who’s calling before it goes to voice mail.
“Well, I just wanted you to know that the other buyer rescinded his offer, so the boat is still available if you’re interested.”
While I may have been piloting two tons of steel down a busy two lane Florida highway at a tenth the speed of sound, for the next few seconds the truck was on its own. A school bus with a police escort carrying a Girl Scout troop to a charity breakfast could have pulled out in front of me, and I wouldn’t have seen it. Because my mind was in Tennessee.
Why Tennessee? Because that’s where the boat is. On a lake in Tennessee. A giant freshwater lake where boats live carefree lives far away from the corrosive effects of salt water and harsh Florida sun, which age a beautiful boat like a lifetime of chain smoking.
Now Rhonda’s pretty good at following conversations while only hearing my half. Spending over 34 years together will do that. But a quick glance told me she was confused. “We’ll have a deposit check out to you tomorrow,” I said, and hung up.
“The boat’s still for sale,” I say to her in explanation. “It’s ours if we want it.” I see the same mix of emotion that I just felt play across her face. Equal parts surprise, joy, anxiety. We already had plans to take the next Friday off and head east, check out the Jacksonville area, see what boats are available. But this changes things. We need to get up there, now.
Rhonda’s a planner and thinks on her feet. It’s only about ten minutes back to our house. But by the time we arrived, she had a plan. A grand 1,800 mile three day jaunt that would take us from Pensacola to Tennessee to the east coast and back home in 72 hours. We had four days to prepare. We weren’t taking any chances this time. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be. But you can’t just stand idly by. You have to be ready to cooperate with fate if life gives you a second chance, You have to have a plan…