How I Got Punched in the Face

Photo by me

Photo by me

One of the strangest days on my life happened about two and a half years ago.

It was a weekend, and a mate of mine invited me to crew on a boat he was sailing on. I didn’t know much about the boat except that it was quite competitive and fast. To be honest, I was somewhat intimidated. I didn’t have much experience back then and I didn’t know the people I was supposed to sail with. In my nervousness I got to the club an hour early and sat on a chair listening to the sailing school’s instructor explaining points of sail to a bunch of students wearing life vests. Listening to him was quite relaxing as I already knew everything he was saying. I felt a little smug. I had real sailing gloves as opposed to those rookies and I also had a ride on a fast boat.

Finally, the boat and my mate got to the club, too, and we took off to the start line of the race on the other side of the bridge. I didn’t know which race we were doing or what the course was. I did know that I was given an actual job though – I was allowed to let off the lazy sheet through a tack. The rest of the time I was sitting on the rail and listening to the bowman who was explaining gusts and different shapes of waves to me. The boat owner shouted once, telling us to shut up, and there was silence for a minute or two; then the bowman started teaching me again, his monotone voice taking the edge off the owner’s yelling. It was a warm day, the sun bright in the sky, and it was good to be on the water.

Then a disaster came – the handle got stuck in the winch and I couldn’t let the lazy sheet off fast enough. “That’s it, you’re off the job!” – the owner yelled and took the handle from my hands. I didn’t argue. I got on the rail, bitter and miserable.

I couldn’t tell if we were winning; I didn’t really care. The rest of the crew was sailing the boat, a spinnaker went up and then it was time to drop it. “Help me to get the sail in!” – I heard and I got in the pit next to the owner, directing the spinnaker down the hatch. We were both trying to get the sail down as fast as possible without pulling on the gentle fabric too much, and then the next thing I knew, the owner’s elbow connected with my eye.

“O-ouch”, – I said. “My eye!”

We finished the race soon after that, all shouting stopped. Beer was out of the esky. “Sorry, did I get you in the eye?” – asked the owner, visibly concerned. I nodded. “You should put ice on it.. Or at least a cold beer,” – someone said. The bottle was cold against my skin and I thought that nobody would probably believe me if I told them that I got punched in the eye. I also thought that I didn’t want a black eye. There would be too much explaining to do.

That night I met up with friends to go to a free opera. Australians love the outdoors, they are so down to earth (quite literally) that a picnic blanket is much more comfortable to them than a chair in the famous Sydney Opera house – which doesn’t mean that they do not enjoy an opera every now and again. There were hundreds of people on the grass, eating cheese with crackers, drinking wine and listening to the opera. My friends were reading the subtitles on the huge screens next to the stage and giggling; I just lay down on the blanket and looked up in the sky.

It was getting darker and the sky was dark blue. Groups of bats were flying overhead every now and again. The voices were majestic. I remembered my seven years of music school: my choir practice and piano lessons, hours of listening to classics and the metronome ticking as I was trying to get another piece right. I hated opera back in music school but that night I could finally feel the magic. I filled my lungs with air as if I was singing together with the opera singers, and my head was spinning a bit as their voices flew higher, full and powerful, the air trembling with music.

It was beautiful. It touched strings inside me I wasn’t sure I even had. And the absurdity of being elbowed in the eye and then being transported into this higher state of mind, appreciating fine art, was not lost on me. I didn’t get a black eye, after all, but I vouched to never sail on that boat again – it was more about the shouting and taking me off the job than about damage to my face.

Two years later I was back on the same boat with different people, and one of them complained about a handle getting stuck. I remembered the day when I was taken off a job for the same thing, then the elbow and the opera, and I thought that I wasn’t that dead set against getting punched in the eye as long as there was something beautiful to make up for it. Like music. And a story I could get out of it.

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So Many Stories

Sunset at Balmain after a twilight race, March 2014

Sunset at Balmain after a twilight race, March 2014

I am a sucker for a good story. That is one of the main reasons why I love reading; but listening to other people’s stories in real life is a special treat. A story that is told personally feels like it’s been born in front of your eyes, no matter how many times it’s been told before. I still stare in a wide-eyed wonder at a person who can tell a good story and I listen in fascination, like a kid who forgot about going to sleep, too engrossed in a good-night tale. I like writing; but I still enjoy listening to other people’s stories more than telling my own.

When I was growing up, my favourite nights were when the electricity went out. It didn’t happen that often but when it did, the entire family would gather in the kitchen. There would be candles, my sister and I would make a half-hearted attempt at doing our homework and then at some point Dad would start telling stories about his childhood in the countryside. He grew up in a place right next to the Mongolian border and spent a lot of time riding horses and looking after his father’s bees. One of my favourite stories was about his collection of old coins half of which he lost while riding a motorbike, coins slipping out of the bag in his pocket one by one. I tried writing some of those memories down once but I couldn’t quite catch the magic, so I gave up, frustrated.

One of my best friends in university was a master story-teller; something would happen to her or both of us and she would find a way to turn a fairly minor event into a polished anecdote, most often with a sarcastic twist. Then I met a man whose stories from his own life were so various and at times outrageous, they made me want to live a bigger, more interesting life. Since then I moved to another city then to another continent, changed careers and started sailing; I’d like to believe that enough interesting stuff happened to me. Yet it still fascinates me to listen to others.

When you sail on different boats, you meet lots of people – and they all have stories to tell. Sometimes the stories are pretty personal. I’ve heard of two different divorces, painful memories retold in a matter-of-fact way to a stranger who just happened to sit on the rail next to them. That is not a regular occurrence though; most of the stories I heard on boats are about sailboats and sailing and people who sail. They can be funny or tragic, and some of them are as polished by being retold many times as my uni friend’s anecdotes; and I can never get enough of them.

There were a few about naming boats; a boat called “BOOTS” because the letter refusing the registration of a boat with the original (fairly offensive) name started with the words “By order of the secretary…” and a boat called “Gomez” because someone yelled out “Go, Mez!” when the owner took the boat out for the first time. There’s other stories that turned into jokes (like the exchange between a port on a starboard tack and a boat with a steel hull; the triumph of a boat that is hard to damage over the boat that has more rights during a race) and there are personal accounts of impersonating a kangaroo or racing in pyjamas in a regatta, both after quite a few drinks.

And wherever you go, there will always be stories about sailing mishaps. Sailing can be easy; and it can be incredibly complex. It’s easy to get into trouble when you depend on the elements so much, and there are many things that can go wrong. I’ve heard of a mast touching the water because someone put a knot on a spinnaker sheet; a mast collapsing completely because the skipper of a small catamaran doing over 20 knots got distracted for 30 seconds and ran smack into a wave (the skipper ended up with a broken arm, lucky to be alive); boats running into reefs rendering people unconscious; boats sinking… These are things that happened to people I know, and my own somewhat embarrassing memory of ending up on the rocks in front of an entire fleet because a running backstay was put on too early, pales in comparison.

Stories are fun and there is no doubt some educational value to some of them. I will never put a knots on a spinnaker sheet after hearing the story from the Whitsundays so many times – just like I will always check for lines in the water before putting the motor on after something that happened while I was on the same boat in Sydney. Yet, the most compelling stories are not just cautionary, they make you look at things in a different way. I might forget about a funny name of a boat but I will never forget a story about a power boat capsizing, not just because it was dramatic, but because the girl who told it also said that you never know how you will react in a situation like that. She told us about a boy who stumbled in a pool, hit his head and floated face down, unconscious – and her first instinctive reaction was to run away, despite her first aid training. That initial reaction stayed with her long after she helped the boy, it made her wonder and reflect; and when the power boat capsized, she knew to look out for the first inkling of panic in herself and stifle it successfully.

I’ve had time to think why stories like that are so compelling, the self-awareness of the story-teller probably as important as the event itself. And that’s the way I want the story of my life to be, not full of drowning boys but not just a sequence of amusing anecdotes either; a story reflected on and lived fully, even thoroughly, a story that will stay with you for a very long time.

How To Make Your Dreams Come True

When I tell people that I dreamed about sailing when I was a little girl growing up in landlocked Siberia, they are usually impressed. It is a good story, not in the least because it’s true. I sewed a ridiculous looking sailor’s hat for myself and glued pictures of boats into a special notebook. My Dad brought books about sailing from his business trips and built impressive tall ship models for my benefit. The books I read were about adventures and high seas and boys who loved sailing, and I would go to sleep wishing that I saw the ocean in my dreams. These days, 20 years later, I live in Sydney, Australia, and I go sailing one or two days a week (yes, my weekends are pretty full). It’s a dream come true, and people who are patient enough to listen or read to the end of my sailing story usually tell me, that’s great, keep manifesting your dreams!

That’s not the whole story though.

When I was seven, I knew nothing about modern sailboats. I had never heard of Sydney to Hobart or America’s Cup or a Voyage for Madmen; when I thought of a sailing boat I imagined a square rig and a bunch of frivolously dressed pirates. Women on a boat were supposed to be bad luck (these days sailors seem to object to bananas much more than to women). I had never seen a big body of water so my imagination was pretty vague on the subject of wind, waves and my reaction to them. Being able to regularly sail a dinghy (like a couple of boys in one of my favourite books) seemed inconceivable, a privilege for much luckier people than me. To be honest, I never thought it possible that I would be sailing for real.

On the other hand, it didn’t make me unhappy and it never stopped me from dreaming.

I had other dreams when I was little, too. First, there was my love for music. I insisted on learning to play the piano. My singing never failed to tug at adults’ heartstrings and they encouraged me to sing the sweetest and saddest songs I knew. Sometimes when I sang for myself I imagined that a world expert in singing would be walking past our apartment’s door by a pure coincidence and he would suddenly stop, stricken by the sheer power and magnetic quality of my voice (which was not, alas, that powerful in reality). He would ring the doorbell and tell my proud parents that I am extremely talented. I wasn’t quite sure what was supposed to happen after that. The funniest thing is that I sang in a choir until I turned 14 and was not particularly interested in singing solo. These days I do tend to hog the microphone when we have a karaoke night but I am reluctant to say that it has anything to do with manifesting my dreams.

Another fantasy of mine was being a reporter on TV. I would be standing in one of those famous Soviet queues with my mother and would imagine holding a microphone and commenting on everything around me to amuse and educate a captivated audience. Too bad I don’t remember any of my commentary. Many years later when I had a chance to choose between specialising in TV/radio or newspapers/magazines for my degree in journalism I didn’t hesitate to pick the print media.

I also wished I could draw but even then it didn’t seem like I was any good at it.

And of course my biggest dream was about writing.

Here in Australia I talk to good surfers and sailors who seem to be light years ahead of me in terms of expertise (if I try really hard, I can probably catch a small wave by myself. On a pretty big board. If I’m lucky). They all tell me that they started surfing/sailing when they were pretty small. It is about as much use to me as telling me that inheriting money is a good way to get rich. I did start writing as soon as I learned the alphabet though. First I started keeping a diary and I regularly consulted my parents on rules and traditions of writing in a journal. For example, I was reluctant to mention the diary in the diary itself (I wasn’t a big fan of recursion). After a while I tried my hand at writing adventure novels (never finished) and stories about perfect families (so that my parents could learn from example. I read a magazine about bringing up children on a regular basis and couldn’t help feeling that my parents could use some of my newly found wisdom).

These days I am still writing and still having troubles finishing my novels.

My point is, I had plenty of dreams while growing up. Some of them came true, most of them didn’t. I at least tried a few of the things I dreamed about. I also tried a lot of stuff that I never imagined doing while growing up – like moving to another country all by myself, speaking a completely different language, surfing, joking with a recruitment agent, driving a car on the left side of the road and parking it in a giant shopping centre. And I enjoyed almost all of it (except parking).

And I think that ultimately this is an even more compelling story.

It’s impossible to realise all your dreams, every single one of them. Dreams are evasive and they tend to evaporate when you look at them too closely. The more dreams you have though, the better off you are. At least one of them might come true one day – and be even better than you have ever imagined. At least that’s true about my sailing.

And it also makes sense to try new things. You can never do everything but you sure can enjoy whatever the hell you have the opportunity to experience. And as long as you keep your heart open, you can find something that is worth dreaming about when you least expect it.