If you read last week’s post, you may recall that I recently enjoyed my first ever sailing experience, on a boat around Thailand’s Andaman Sea. In that post I mentioned several of the joys of this form of travel: the relaxed pace; the ability to escape the tourist hordes; the ability to get to otherwise inaccessible places; the peace and quiet that comes from no phone or email connectivity.
Something I didn’t mention though, other than in passing, was a less obvious highlight of the trip: Peter, the skipper of the boat and one of the more fascinating people I have met in a very long time.
A great thing about travelling so frequently is that it allows me – or more accurately, almost forces me – to cross paths with people from all different walks of life. Many are people who I would otherwise never have got the chance to meet. Very often, it is these encounters that provide the inspiration for the stories in this blog – a taxi driver in Perth; a social activist in Munich; the lunatic brigade at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London.
But, these interactions tend to be short. The nature of my travelling means that when I meet someone interesting and wind up talking to them, it is typically just for a few minutes, after which everything but the memory disappears forever. Kind of like a camera flash, lighting up a scene and sharpening the image for a few milliseconds, but then fading quickly so all that’s left is the photo.
Which is why being on a boat with Peter was a unique experience – the exact opposite of the fleeting interactions I have got used to when travelling.
For the week we were out sailing, Peter and I were living side-by-side, in a confined space. We saw each other first thing each morning and last thing each night. We ate three meals a day together. It was a smallish boat, and so we were almost always in each other’s line of sight. Peter knew when I was napping on deck, or reading; I knew when he was having a cigarette break, or taking a shower. We knew when we each went to the bathroom, and even whether it was a Number One or Number Two, for fuck’s sake. It was unexpectedly intimate – an involuntary close relationship born of the circumstance, as if we had been locked up together in a floating prison.
At first, I found such constant and close contact with a near stranger to be slightly uncomfortable. So I dealt with it by chattering, initially more to fill the void than anything else; casual stuff, of the “where I come from / what I do” variety. But this type of talk can only last so long, not to mention that boat time is like dog-years – every day on a boat seems to be equivalent to seven on land. Very quickly Peter and I ran out of introductory chit-chat, and we had little choice but to move onto deeper stuff, if we didn’t want to be sitting there in complete silence. And by the end of the week, we had well and truly moved beyond the superficial, swapping details of life stories, showing each other family photos, discussing dreams and aspirations, and, inevitably, ruminating on the meaning of it all.
So, let me tell you all about Peter. (I checked, he doesn’t mind).
Peter is 54 years old. He has a rugged, outdoorsy kind of look: thin and muscular in a wiry way, without a spare ounce of fat on him. His skin is permanently bronzed, and he has a face made up of deep, craggy wrinkles, the product of a lifetime spent outdoors. His hair is an unruly mop, bleached blonde at the tips by the sun, but now thinning and with strands of gray running through it, hinting at his age. He smokes a packet of cigarettes a day, and needs glasses when he reads. His standard “office attire” is limited to a pair of board shorts and a leather strap necklace with a Thai good luck charm dangling from it. If he really wants to dress up, he puts on a t-shirt.
Most of all, though, what you immediately notice about Peter is his infectious smile, coupled with a real sparkle in his eye, of the sort that only deeply, truly happy people can have.
He was born in a small village in Germany, not far from Frankfurt. Until the age of 24, Peter’s life followed a trajectory not dissimilar from mine: a loving family and “normal” upbringing; school followed by university, at which he studied travel management, and then a first job, in a travel agency.
Peter found working at the travel agency, tied to a desk and executing mundane daily tasks, to be very unsatisfying. Or as he puts it: “I sent so many customers around the world; but me? For three years I was stuck in an office, dying”.
At 16 Peter had taken up diving as a recreational hobby. He had advanced to dive-master status, for which he was required to obtain a boat licence, although he never used it. Six years later, a friend of his was going on a sailing trip. At the last minute the skipper was unable to make it, the friend urgently needed someone with a boat licence on board, and so he asked Peter if he would like to tag along for a few days of sailing and diving. Peter agreed, and “from that moment, the sailing fever caught me”.
Still, it was many years before Peter succumbed fully to this fever.
Shortly after Peter’s first foray into sailing, compulsory conscription required him to spend eighteen months in the German army. After this, he returned to his desk at the travel agency: “What else could I do? I was young, and this was the life my parents had prepared me for: marry a good woman; make a family; work and work and work. But every day the same shit. Shit, shit, more shit. Until 65, then you get the pension, and then different shit, until you die. This is no life.”
I suspect Peter is not alone in having had these thoughts – so many of us have them as we “grow up” and enter the work force; certainly, they are thoughts that were very familiar to me. What sets Peter apart, however, and what made him so fascinating to me, is that he didn’t just accept as inevitable this internal sense of dissatisfaction. Instead, even though he was young he abruptly stepped off the treadmill, and chose to walk a different path. One that, although being decidedly the path less travelled, was the right path for him.
About six months after being discharged from the army, Peter borrowed 100 Deutschmarks from his brother. “He asked me ‘why?’, and I told him ‘don’t ask’. He asked when I would pay him back; ‘not any time soon!’ was my answer.” He used the money to hitch-hike to Southern Italy where he got a job in a holiday town, renting out umbrellas and deck-chairs on a beach. When the season ended he followed the sun to the Canary Islands. There he met a German yacht owner, who enlisted him as part of the crew to sail a yacht across the Atlantic, finishing in the Caribbean. And once there, Peter continued sailing for the next few years, mostly charters and short trips in and around the Caribbean.
Even then, however, Peter told me that he was unable to free himself from the nagging feeling that what he was doing was an extended holiday of sorts, and that eventually he would have to rejoin “the real world”. After four years in the Caribbean, he returned to Germany: “I went home to begin a ‘normal’ life. I lasted less than two months before I had to leave. It was then that I finally knew my life was never going to be ‘normal’. But what was I to do? – I only have one life to live, so I followed my heart”.
And thus began Peter’s permanent life at sea.
For the next 25 years, he was a professional sailor. His work mainly involved being hired by owners of high-end sailing boats, which are usually multi-million dollar pieces of kit, to move those boats safely from one place to another.
In the course of this work, Peter has travelled extensively, circling the globe time and time again, with a lifetime of stories to tell. His first long-distance solo job was to sail a boat from the Caribbean to Portugal. It took him four weeks to cross the Atlantic. His favourite jobs have been those in French Polynesia – “crystal clear water – you can see down 50 metres – with manta rays and stingrays swimming alongside the boat. It’s crazy”. The two places he has never been to but that he wants most to visit one day – the Galapagos Islands, and New Zealand.
Then three years ago, while sailing the Andaman Sea, Peter anchored the boat he was on close to a beach in northern Phuket, and went ashore to buy some supplies. There, he met a Thai lady who was running a beach-side kiosk. Instant attraction became love, and they were married in 2011. He showed me his wedding photos, at the run-down registry of marriages in Phuket Town. “It was a quick, secret wedding, and I had no-one from back home there,” he said. In his wedding photos, Peter’s hair is combed and he is wearing jeans and a short-sleeve blue-shirt, and a tie. He looked completely uncomfortable and out-of-place. I said so, and he laughed: “This is the one and only time in 25 years I have worn a tie!”
Since getting hitched, Peter has settled in Thailand and given up the life of global yachtsman-nomad. Nowadays, during the summer months he runs speedboat tours around the islands near Phuket; at peak-times and in the off-season, he continues to be hired by owners to do short skippering stints on various sailing boats, which is how he came to be on a boat with me.
As we got to know one another, it became evident to me that Peter and I were at quite opposite ends of the spectrum, to say the least. I am an Israeli-Australian banker-type living in Singapore, Jewish, forty, separated with four kids. He is a professional sailor, German, living in Thailand, Protestant by birth and mid-fifties, recently married, no kids. Indeed, when scrabbling around to find something I had in common with Peter, the best I could come up with was that we both like to finish a meal with a sweet or piece of chocolate. In short, without the helping hand of travel, our orbits would almost certainly never have intersected.
But here’s the thing: having been brought by chance into each other’s orbit for a time, and notwithstanding our quite enormous differences, we were able to get along just fine. More than fine, actually – we were able to really relate to one another, and we had many intense conversations along the way. Some of our discussions were especially memorable, and I would rush off and write down the key snippets immediately after:
- I asked Peter what his family thought of his lifestyle. “My parents, my family and friends – they all thought I was crazy in the beginning. And in the middle as well. But now, in the last eight years, many have changed. They now say I was right. They look at their own life and say: I worked, worked, worked. For an apartment, for food and drink, for a family. And mainly, for Germany – paying 40 percent tax, and more hidden taxes, all my life. And for what? My friends in Germany tell me that all their life they had to say “yes boss, yes boss, yes boss”. And then bad times came, and they lost their jobs anyway, and now they struggle to survive”.
- I asked Peter if he missed anything from his “old life” in Germany. “I miss my good friends. In Germany, I have friends who I was with as a small boy. This is something you can never replace or find again. These friends, even after 40 years, are friends I can trust blind. That I miss. At least now with the internet – email and Facebook – I can be in contact with them a lot more”.
- I asked Peter how his story would end. “I am not sure, but I can tell you my nightmare about how my story ends. When I was young, there was an old man in our village. Every day he would come to the window of his house, and sit alone looking out, with nothing to do. He would sit there all day, like he was just waiting to die. That is my worst nightmare – to be an old man, sitting at a window, looking through the glass with a pillow under my elbows, and every day asking: is anything happening today?; is anyone coming to see me today? I won’t go back to Germany. My wife is from Phuket, and she is only 40. So my arse stays here in Thailand.”
Peter speaks in a completely matter-of-fact, no bullshit kind of way, so that it was only later, lying on the front deck of the boat trying to write down our conversations that I was able to reflect back on what we had discussed and fully appreciate how deeply thought out, or profound, or challenging Peter’s views were. Certainly this wasn’t something I had been expecting from the skipper of a boat I just happened to be sailing around the islands of Thailand on.
Amongst all of our chats, however, there was one in particular that really stuck in my mind.
One evening I was sitting on the boat’s deck with Peter, sipping a coffee and watching the stars begin to appear in the early evening sky. I casually asked Peter what the longest single sailing trip he had ever been on was. He answered: “four and a half months, taking a boat from Hawaii to Tahiti”.
This was way longer than I had expected, and so I proceeded to bombard Peter with all sorts of questions that had immediately popped into my mind:
Wow – so long? “It was a time of the year when the current and wind was against me, and so it took a long time. With sailing, you need to be flexible with time. I thought the trip would take three months; I was wrong by 50%!”
How many crew members were there? “Only one: me.”
Are you serious? You were on your own for more than four months on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? “Yes”.
So how often did you go ashore during that time? “Never; I was on the boat the whole time until I got to Tahiti; I never touched land. When I got to Tahiti I was almost black from spending so long in the sun every day”.
Come on, you must be exaggerating: four months solo on a boat, and you never touched land? “Yes really – it’s true”.
So what the fuck did you do all day? “Read books, fished, sailed the boat, slept. Time just passes”.
How did you sleep if you were the only one on-board? “Good question – technically, a boat is always meant to have someone watching out. So what I did was sleep for two hours, wake up, check the boat, sleep again for two hours, wake up, check the boat, sleep again. And so on”.
You slept in two-hour bursts for four months? “Yes. Your body can get used to almost anything after a while”.
What about food? And water? And fuel? “There was plenty of long-life food in tins, and I fished every day. For water, there was a water-maker on the boat. And fuel – it was a sailing boat, remember. You don’t need fuel except for emergencies”.
What intrigued me most about this story though was the concept of human contact – or more precisely, the lack thereof. Peter told me that on that voyage he had no TV, phone, internet, or radio, and he didn’t speak to anyone the whole time. There, out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, for more than four months, he was totally and utterly alone. Cut off from the world, a piece of human driftwood bobbing along, with no human contact of any sort for about one hundred and forty long, long days.
I could not even begin to fathom what this would be like, and so I peppered Peter with dozens of questions, all of them along the same lines: “How did you cope?”; “Wasn’t it boring?”; “What stopped you from going stark, raving mad?”
He tried to answer my questions, but eventually he summed it up quite simply: “You just manage. I mean, what else can you do?” He paused, and smiled: “Although I must admit that after a while I was talking to myself in the mirror every day. You know, like Tom Hanks in that movie, Castaway”.
Seeing how fascinated I was, Peter continued: “I know that what I do might look strange to you – so much time alone, at sea, on a boat. But it is my job. You have a job. And from where I sit, there are parts of your job that I find strange. I can’t believe that you can sit inside an air-conditioned room all day, every day, and not ever breathe fresh air or see the sun. I don’t understand how anyone can wear a tie around their neck, or squash their feet into shoes, every day. It took me four months to do a job of sailing a boat from Hawaii to Tahiti. Is this so different to you spending four months preparing a contract?”
Then Peter looked me squarely in the eye: “After a while, whatever you do in life becomes normal. I chose this life, and so this is now normal for me. You have a different life, and so that is normal for you. We are made of our experiences. The good thing is that anytime, you can change those experiences. I can go back to Germany and work in an office, if I want. You can become a sailor, if you want. If you choose a different life, it will be strange at first, you must adjust, but after a while it will become normal. So I think the most important thing in life is to have courage, and to just fucking choose what you want. After that, everything else will be OK”.
Whoa, easy there, sailor: I hadn’t really been ready for a double dose of life coaching, delivered on a boat, courtesy of the sun-bronzed German skipper.
But hey, he’s right, isn’t he? And when put this way, it all sounds so simple, doesn’t it?