My dream to sail the canals of Europe

Looking out past the breakwater at my marina. Shilshole Bay Marina, Seattle WA.

I have this little very big and wonderful sailing dream. It’s ten years off, so there’s a lot of time to plan and figure out if I can how to do it, and what’s a sailor without cruising plans, right? But it’s hard to talk about. I have fibromyalgia, I’m not in any kind of decent physical shape. I don’t know how to solo sail yet. I get exhausted after a day sail, when the winds are fair and the weather is fine. Dreaming of anything further than a trip across the Sound, would seem very unrealistic at this time. But screw it, dreams are allowed to be unrealistic. Today I was talking to someone about this, and I said, “I feel like I need permission to dream,” and without missing a beat he whipped out a little notepad and wrote, “Dear Hollie, You have permission to dream.” Then he signed it, and handed it to me. I laughed, stared at it for awhile, then put it into my book for safekeeping.

Without further ado: I want to someday sail the canals of Europe with my friend C.

The “canals of Europe” are just what they sound like: a network of rivers and canals that meander through the cities and countrysides of most European countries. Here’s a map of Germany’s canals, for example. Apparently, so I have learned, people in Europe know all about these canals and treat them like interesting vacation ideas, much like we do the Grand Canyon or any other beautiful outdoor feature. Most Americans may not even realize these canals exist, or that one can travel upon them when in Europe. I first found out about them on some sailing blogs a few years ago, but didn’t realize how common it was to wander on them, until C and I started talking about it.

To me it sounds like the best kind of adventure. I’ve seen some of Paris and much of Ireland, but that was just a taste. Europe is filled with history, languages, cultures, and a thousand places I’ve read about in books but never seen. Despite how impressive (and it’s very impressive) the internet is these days in terms of letting us armchair travel, I want to visit again in person, and see a lot more this time. And I’d love to do it from my own boat. Her mast would have to come down, but her mast is stepped in a tabernacle designed for easy removal. Most sailboats that do the canals lay their mast down, on supports. Works fine.

And Elska would be up for the challenge. She was built with offshore cruising in mind, though she has an outboard, not a diesel, which I know goes against common wisdom for long offshore voyages. You’d think that the hardest part of a dream like this would be getting the vessel, so it’d seem like having the boat already would be a huge step forward. Well, it turns out, with this dream, the biggest obstacles are inexperience and poor health. I’m 41 years old, and I want to do this when I’m 52 or so, about ten years from now (I turn 42 in a couple months). A decade is a fair amount of time to acquire experience. It’s the health that’s really the issue. If I continue on my current trajectory of gaining around a pound a month and becoming incrementally more sedentary with each passing year, then I’m on track to sail to Europe (a word I’ve mistakenly written as “Alaska” three times – is my subconscious trying to tell me something?) with basically zero muscle tone, over a hundred extra pounds, and fibromyalgia. It’d be like sending a large, weak, very bruised rock to sea in a small boat. I wouldn’t last long.

If this dream is to have a chance of ever shaping up to be a real-life voyage, I need to eat better, and figure out how to get stronger even while having fibro. This is a big challenge, but the reward of a sailing adventure is more than worth the work. I know a lot of people who run 5Ks and marathons to keep themselves motivated to eat well and keep up an exercise routine. I really miss being able to run, and would love to know again that sensation of running fast, arms pounding and breath beating out of me, without feeling like an old jalopy that has parts rattling and falling to the wayside every few seconds. I have rolls of fat that jiggle so hard when I run that after a few seconds I’m actually in pain just from the flesh flying around. But running a 5K, pounding the pavement next to a sea of sweaty and overly-spandexed humanity isn’t the right motivator for my psyche. The biggest motivator isn’t running or even a hike, it’s raising my own sails and knowing that I can lift the outboard and put her down again, that I can handle a day of sailing on my own. That to me is sweeter than any race, and even sweeter than a hike through a forest. It’s the sweetest thing. There is nothing better than sailing.

The wonderful cosmic gift of meeting C. is one I’ve been meaning to write about. A few weeks ago, I got a message from a woman in Norway. She also has a chronic pain condition, and she also loves small boats. In fact, she lives on one! She blogs about her life here. She loves sailing, she loves the simplicity and self-reliance and adventure of a small vessel, and she copes with a lot of the same frustrations around feeling ill that I do. She read a couple of my blog posts and wrote to say she’d enjoyed them.

Thus began what has become a friendship I treasure. In an odd coincidence, over the last year I’d gotten into watching some Norwegian films (The Wave is my favorite), and decided I’d try to learn Norwegian. I use Duolingo and Mondly, both apps for the iPad. So when C. wrote me, it was so fun that she happened to be Norwegian, and we’ve had a great time talking about Norway. I also happen to live in Ballard, a neighborhood of Seattle that filled with Scandinavian settlers in the 1850’s and has continued to be a haven for a large percentage of that population ever since.

It felt like such a magical thing, to have an interest in a country and its language, then to have someone from that place write me out of the blue to strike up a conversation. And then to find out we had so much in common! It felt meant to be, and I’m so grateful she took the time to make the connection.

And now we have this dream, to buddy boat Elska  and Bearish and explore the canals. Greg wants to come too, although he can only make it for the first couple months. Once safely in the canals, he’d probably fly home to work, and then return to help me get home later. In the interim, I’d be sailing solo (with C. on Bearish), and would have room open for family and friends to visit for a couple weeks at a time to share in the canal adventure. It’s a lovely dream. I have to stop myself from writing “crazy dream”. It isn’t crazy. On my end, it’s unlikely. It’s not easy. But it isn’t impossible, and that’s good enough for me.

Ten years is a good long time to prepare. And if I do prepare, and my preparations aren’t good enough, that’s okay; there are other ways to make this dream happen. I might get in shape, but never be able to reach the kind of fitness I would need for a passage. I might not feel experienced enough, even in ten years. A dozen things might happen that lead us to believe that an offshore passage isn’t a smart thing to do. In that case, we can ship Elska to Europe and fly to meet her. Or, alternately, C. could start the journey on her own, and I could meet up with her travel with her on Bearish for a few weeks. There are many versions of this dream, and they all come with differing levels of probability.

For now, I’m orienting myself to the tallest peak, that of sailing Elska there. It may not seem likely, but I don’t care what anybody else thinks about it. Focus on your own dreams. What matters is how happy my dream makes me now. I asked Greg about this, one night. I asked if he thought it was foolish to have a dream that had so little chance of being possible, or that was so likely to change. He said that he believed that any future dream that kept a person focused on the future and missing life now, was a mistake in focus. But, he said, if the dream makes me happy now, and it motivates me to live life now in a way that makes me happy and inspires me to good things in honor of that future goal, than dream away. I married a good guy.

To get to the Atlantic in order to make a passage, Elska would need to be shipped to the east coast, which is fine. She’s very trailerable. Or it means putting my little boat on a very big boat and motoring across the Atlantic as cargo. Or using a UFO tractor beam, but the mothership hasn’t been returning my calls. Or sailing down past California, through the Panama Canal, and blah blah blah no no no. If I were going to do that, I’d want to spend a year or so exploring the islands and countries of that area, and that has no appeal at this time. My feelings might change (talk to me again in December), but for now the idea of sailing near the equator sounds like volunteering to sit on a pan of water in an oven turned up to four hundred degrees. With hungry mosquitoes. The only thing that tempts me about the tropics is the idea of standing on the gunwale and leaping off into warm water, but I will hopefully be able to do that in Desolation Sound someday, so for now, meh. I’d rather see Europe.

Maybe it will happen. Hopefully it will happen. I’m going to plan for it to happen, and see….what happens.


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