One Year in Djibouti: What the Desert Taught Me About Living Aboard

That big dreams are hard to chase, but everything worth doing is going to be hard work. ¬†And that’s an understatement.

In July 2013 I departed my typical East Coast lifestyle for a one-year deployment to Djibouti, Africa, with the U.S. Navy Reserves. Initially I had high hopes for compartmentalizing my life; work hard at my duties, but also focus on getting this sailing resource up and going. Build some discipline about posting regularly, maybe front-load some products. Of course I’m Superman and can do everything, right?

In the end, I spent an inordinate amount of time doing my primary duties. And that’s not bad; I was assigned a mission and we accomplished it. My responsibility was to the American tax payer, and they got their money’s worth out of this guy.

And so I begin what we affectionately call fiscal year 2015 back here in the states. Two years of web hosting in the hole. Time to buckle down and determine some direction.

Which led me to think of the subject topic. Like many people I try to deliberately take time to reflect on where I’ve been, where I’m heading, and how the in-between worked out. While living aboard my Cal 28, and while cruising on my Tartan 37, I often practiced the same analysis. What kinds of lessons were learned during the previous period? This provides invaluable support in making solid, reality-based, and challenging decisions which have a high likelihood of success.

Lessons Learned

1) This Isn’t Kiddie Soccer: One of my favorite bits of advice started that way: “This isn’t kiddie soccer; you can’t just try hard and mean well.” In our case, lives were legitimately at stake, so decision-making in an uncertain environment was a vital skillset. When I think on my sailing skills, the same thing applies. The decision to stay out and buckle down through a weather system has real consequences. The choice of type and manufacturer of essential pieces of kit are likely to become critical when truly pressed into service at the worst possible moment. And when solo-sailing, each decision provides the foundation for whether you return to shore or not. Not to say these are impossible situations, but I gained a deeper appreciation for how real the real world is.

2) Dry Your Eyes Cupcake: I worked with a great British chap who shared this statement: “That’s why I say: Dry your eye’s cupcake and soldier on.” Rather harsh response to the particular topic, but the line was catchy when tossed around with an accent. When our Cal 28 sank due to a catastrophic failure of the rudder bearing, we didn’t have time to mope around and feel bad. Time mattered, and we quickly got the boat into a safe location and promptly got a salvage crew to assist in raising her before she became a navigation hazard. When the shaft gland cover sheared off enroute from Annapolis to Charleston, in the middle of a tight schedule, and with crew who had to leave me to continue solo for half the trip, I couldn’t just sit around feeling bad for myself. Emotions will certainly happen, and grief, fear, and anxiety have the capacity to overcome us. The best thing we can do is stop, assess the situation, determine what the next action is, and get on with it.

3) If You Want To Go Far: A common African proverb we heard was “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” I believe there’s much to be said for that. Not at face value necessarily. ¬†Certainly a well prepared solo sailor may chock up more miles than a family with more shore-side baggage (not necessarily a bad thing either.) We all need help from someone. It may be words of encouragement, a helping hand with a project, or a spare set of eyes during a passage. My favorite memories of living aboard SeaWitch, and later at the marina in Guam on Persephone, was the friends I had and relationships we shared.

A year on the dark continent was certainly more than I expected to achieve in my life. It was a tough tour, and while I managed to get a stand-alone site up and going, was unable to spend the time necessary to reach my goals last year. But I hope the lessons I took away from Djibouti will continue to shape my actions and goal-setting for years to come, and be a positive influence on how I sail.