now and zen

now and zen

We sail for a lot of different reasons.  Some people like to win races, but they don’t even really like the pure act of sailing.  Some people never win a race in their life, but they just love being out the water.  Then, there are those of us for whom sailing can become an act of personal salvation.  Lee Carlson has an excellent story to tell about how sailing gave him back his life through his book “Passage to Nirvana”.

You can read the whole version of the events in Lee’s life that led up to his need to write this book, but the short version is that a culmination of some pretty negative things – a nasty divorce, his mother falling down a flight of stairs and dying, topped off by being hit by a car and sustaining a traumatic brain injury – gave the net result of his book. Somehow, Lee found the resolve to recover his life and did so largely because of the support of his fiancé Meg, and their boat, aptly named “Nirvana”.  Toss in some Zen, and you have a book not so much about Lee’s life, but lessons that can be applied universally.  Here’s a quick Q & A with a guy who has had more than his share of bad luck, but who has also had the good fortune to have the ability to turn it around. 

SA – What is your background in sailing?  Where, and on what, have you sailed?

Lee – I was born on the Navy base in San Diego when my father was on a destroyer there. I started sailing soon after I was born, going out with he and my mother in a Star. I grew up at the Buffalo Canoe Club on Lake Erie. I raced with some of the top Lightning sailors in the world, and I also raced the usual and not-so-usual assortment of dinghies and small keelboats: Tech Dinghies, Lasers, 420’s, 470’s, Albacores, Sharks, J24’s. Then I graduated to larger keelboats: Ted Hood’s fantastic centerboard one tonner “Abino Robin”,  an Ericson 39 “Warlock” on Lake Erie and LIS, Eight-Meters on Lake Ontario (changing headsails in the middle of the night in freezing 8-ft. seas while clinging to a knife-edge bow with no lifelines is not something one ever forgets), and other bigger custom keelboats. Those were the days of the SORC and I raced on the maxi Windward Passage, on a mini-maxi that was a Doyle team boat, as well as racing captain of a Dubois 46 and as crew on assorted other boats. I also cruised fairly extensively, first on my family’s Islander 37 on the Great Lakes, with a few charters in the Caribbean. My father bought part ownership of a 34-footer with a family in Miami, and we used to do family vacations in the Bahamas, before the drug scene got too bad. For my honeymoon my wife and I bareboated in the Virgins. When I moved to New York City to become a magazine editor, I raced a number of different boats on Long Island Sound, such as an Evelyn 32. Before my accident I was crewing regularly on a J80.

SA – Before your accident, what was the most meaningful part of the sport for you?  What is the most meaningful now post recovery?

Lee – As you can see from my history, almost all parts of the sport were meaningful before the accident  (Ed. note – Lee did not mention he was a great windsurfer). I just loved being on the water in a sailboat, whether it was Grand Prix racing, club racing, dinghy racing, big-boat racing, cruising far-away islands or just bumming around my home bay on a Saturday afternoon. Although I will confess to probably loving the racing end of the sport more: the adrenaline rush of a boat being pushed to it’s limits, the camaraderie and teamwork of a well-oiled crew, the precision of a modern racing machine, the excitement of a windward mark rounding in a tight fleet. 

Now the most meaningful part is just being able to step on a boat and go sailing. When I was undergoing outpatient rehab in South Florida, I was invited a number of times to go sailing, and I always had to decline. I couldn’t even get on a sailboat. The fear of banging my head on the boom and compounding the injury was very real. I had also injured the part of my brain that controls balance, so the possibility of falling and hitting my head were too great. I remember the first time I was finally able to get back on the J80, and what a jumble of emotions that was: elation, joy, fear, relief. I was crying and trying not to let my fellow crewmembers see me cry.

SA – In your darkest moments, what was it that sustained you?  How did you assemble the resources – financial, mental, emotional – to get back out on the water?

Lee – I was lucky. My injury was not so severe that I was left incapacitated for life, as can happen to a lot of Traumatic Brain Injury patients. So part of what sustained me was the hope that I would recover and lead a more-or-less normal life. But probably what sustained me most was the love, compassion and caring of my doctors and therapists, family members, friends, and especially my two boys, who were only five and nine at the time.

I was lucky to have a family that could lend me a little money to get back on my feet, and then I got a small insurance settlement. Not much, but enough to start over. One of the first things I did when I was well enough, a few years after the accident, was buy a used Nomad. It was the perfect boat at the time: roomy and safe for me, my kids and my dog, while still having just a hint of performance with a sprit and an asymmetrical. I spent summer afternoons on Peconic Bay on Long Island just learning to sail again, and it may sound corny, but it was true: just enjoying the wind, the water, that feeling of being at one with nature was enough to overcome any mental fears. I first took Meg, my fiancée, sailing on that boat, and she enjoyed it so much that’s when I knew she was the right woman for me. She has been incredibly supportive: emotionally, financially, with my kids, and also supportive of our mutual love of sailing. She didn’t grow up as a sailor, but she’s learned fast.

SA – Is racing different for you now, if so, how?

Lee – I’m just so grateful to be alive and out on the water, that–while I still have a competitive drive–if we don’t win, it doesn’t bother me as much.

SA – How has having your own cruising ketch to live on helped you heal?

Lee – A large part of the book revolves around Meg and I buying Nirvana together, fixing her up in a St. Martin boatyard, sailing her north, then spending a winter on her in Bahamas together several years later. Part of having Nirvana is a form of continuing cognitive therapy: Forcing my brain to think about navigation, seamanship and maintenance (there’s a lot of ongoing maintenance on a 30-year-old boat!) That all helps my brain continue to heal. And it’s pretty funny: at 60 feet and 30 tons, Nirvana is not exactly a performance cruiser (although when the wind blows, she will kick up her heels). She is not the kind of boat I thought I ‘d ever live on, but she is roomy, solid,  sturdy and very safe, which feels good out in the ocean. Feeling safe is important to a brain injury patient, since you’re whole world has been turned on its ear. My doctors keep reminding me that stress is the enemy, and getting out on the water is the best way to de-stress that I know.

SA – How do Zen and sailing mix together? 

Lee – They’re very similar. The steady feeling of cruising along at eight knots on a brilliant day in the Bahamas is a very meditative feeling. Even the fast-paced nature of buoy racing can be Zen-like, since you have to be totally focused, totally in the moment, totally aware, to race successfully.

SA – What words of advice so you have for others who are in somewhat the sort of predicament that you have been in?

Lee – Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, don’t give up. Surround yourself with kind, loving, caring people. Be who you are. My doctors encouraged me to get back on boats again when I was ready. "What do you really love to do?" they asked me. "What is it that will make Lee Carlson feel like Lee Carlson again?" For me it was, and continues to be, sailing and all that sailing is: being outdoors, being with family and friends, feeling the power of nature filling the sails, and just feeling the joy of being alive.

Thanks Lee. If you want to learn more about, and be inspired by, Lee and his personal Passage to Nirvana, click on this link to his site, where you can buy it in multiple different formats.  Discuss in the forum here.