Let’s face it, experiencing 2021 was like drinking bilge water. With the never ending coronavirus, social justice challenges, politics, a global climate crisis, and jam packed waterways, there were times I couldn’t muster the motivation to leave the house, let alone launch a boat. 

Society has long embraced the idea of physical health, and in the past several decades, the importance of mental health has been increasingly recognized. After all, what good is a healthy body without an engaged brain? The same principle can apply to boats: you’ve got to keep the paint, motor, and rigging in good repair; but if you don’t use your craft, your skills will atrophy. 

My boat is my mental health plan, even if it’s not covered as an eligible expense. In my darkest moments, I ask myself, if you could be cruising the Inside Passage right now, would you still be lying on the couch? To keep my mind in Bristol condition, my psychologist, Doctor Agua, prescribed a simple prescription for the 2021 blues: go sailing weekly. Never has medical advice been followed more willingly.

Sometimes I heft Terrapin, my rowboat, onto the roof of the car and trundle down to the river for a row. And while I’m only two miles from home, when I slide her into the water and float away from the dock, I’m light years from daily affairs. My focus shifts from misbehaving teenagers, global disasters, and health woes to balancing the boat. My hands instinctively know how to keep the oars moving smoothly.  Staring towards the stern, I watch the oars catch, observing the subtle wake and trail of their splashes. Aside from the occasional glance beyond the bow for obstructions and other craft, my world is condensed to a manageable 40 square feet. All the possible problems are known and routine. I row, relax, unwind. Three hours later I return home physically tired, but mentally ready.

Other times, I am cruising in Row Bird, my expedition sail and oar boat. Completely self-contained, I can stay aboard for days at a time. Off for a week to sail in the Columbia River estuary near Astoria, I sail, row or drift, watching the broad waters merge with the horizon. Because I know every bit of Row Bird so well, I don’t have to think about her operation, leaving my mind  free to contemplate priorities and peel back the layers of my life ashore. With each night out, I feel more and more disconnected from the stress of work, household repairs, or family arguments. By the third day, I am no longer thinking of anything but sailing, and it’s become clear to me what’s important, what I can let go of, and what’s just annoying. 

In 2021, I only made it out 25 times, a dip from past years; but I don’t think I failed in my resolve to follow Dr. Agua’s prescription. In fact, I rejoice at how often I managed to make it onto the water. Had I not hauled the boat out all those times, my mental state and my value to my community would have been less — and who would be proud of that?

In 2022, I’ll strive to get out more —not just to best a record, but to keep my mind elastic and strong, to beat the blues, and to stretch what is possible, so that when I come back ashore, I’m feeling healthy and ready to re-engage. If in the process, I can avoid the bilge water, all the better.