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The better part of valor

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As anyone who has experienced a period of boatlessness will tell you, being without one doesn’t mean you think about “yours” any less. It’s a little like phantom limb syndrome: Approaching storms make me wonder if I should add a few more lines; an early cold snap causes worry about whether I should haul out.

Mostly, though, being temporarily marooned ashore gives me time to think about my next boat and how to choose wisely. It’s a process that only works with honest evaluation, and I have to mind my tendency toward optimism. It’s a trait that has led me into some challenging situations, though not a single one that I regret. (On the other hand, that’s probably because I’m still here to reminisce.)

I recently caught a portion of the TED Radio Hour while driving to Saturday errands. The topic was finding meaning in work, but psychologist Daniel Ariely’s segment started by looking at mountaineering. People who have summited a great mountain and experienced frostbite, altitude sickness, fear, discomfort and general self-professed misery almost never survive the ordeal and hang up their climbing boots in gratitude. They nearly always go back for more. It’s clear they find great meaning in the challenge.

This made me think about 74-year-old Jeanne Socrates (see Page 54), who in October was about to sail, for the fourth time, around the world solo and without stopping. (Her last attempt, in 2012-13, was her first fully successful one.) I have spent enough time offshore and in southern oceans to know what part of that feels like, but I can only imagine doing it alone. Initially, it appeals. What’s more exhilarating than the watching the open ocean, changing weather, raucous sea birds and settling into a rhythm of small chores and tiny pleasures? This is 95 percent of the voyage and wonderfully addictive. The other 5 percent — battening the hatches, lashing down everything you can, praying that nothing crucial gives out at the wrong moment and girding your loins to ride it out — is completely harrowing.

I believe we mariners remember bad storms at sea as victories that tested our mettle. As with many trials we endure in life, the recollection is considerably less painful than the reality, and over time the vividness of the worst moments fades.

There are certain things I’ve done in my life that I loved experiencing but have decided I will not make a habit of: skydiving, hot air balloons, scuba diving, motorcycling on a highway. But part of me would love one more nautical challenge — circumnavigating is a long shot, but how about a solo trans-Atlantic crossing? And then I force myself to really remember the worst storm passage I’ve made and dwell on it.

Adventure comes in as many shapes and sizes as there are ways to get there. I can’t imagine being without a boat for any length of time, but that’s because I miss the happy, addictive part of being alone with the immensity of nature. And while I can think of few people I admire more than Jeanne Socrates, I feel lucky to have my minor stash of sea stories and to have found safer meaning in the mundane joys of home.

When I think of my next boat, I imagine myself out on a beautiful day, close to the water, minding the telltales and heading back to the mooring before the storm clouds roll in. Then I’ll build a fire, get a great sea tale off the bookshelf and live vicariously through the adventures of someone much braver — or at least more restless — than myself. Never say never, but I think I’m OK with that.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue.