Last October, I turned 39. The day fell in the middle of a long weekend, so we loaded up our car with duffle bags of sweaters and shorts, bathing suits and fishing rods, and with five bikes dangling off the back of our SUV, we drove to Cape Cod, reveling in the after-summer rates and still-warm air.
We spent the weekend fishing and riding bikes on the Rail Trail through a forest of bright green, a scattering of wildflowers mixed in with the brilliant red spark of withering poison ivy. We had dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, then kept the kids up late as they danced outside to a band playing covers of classic rock songs. As the sun set, a chill filled the air. We pulled windbreakers over jeans.
And there, with the last notes of summer fading, I could feel the season changing. My fortieth year had begun.
Over the past twelve months, I’ve considered what I want to accomplish in the next decade. If my twenties were about starting a career and marriage, and my thirties were about taking care of young children, what did I want my next focus to be? Did I want to return to an old career? Start a new one? Find more time for me?
Each time I asked myself these questions, I was excited by the possibilities. With my youngest in pre-k this fall, I have a few hours to myself each day for the first time in a decade. In the months leading up to this change, I spent hours imagining how I’d fill them, my old goals and interests bubbling to the surface like an awakening volcano. I started writing a new manuscript, then decided to run for public office in my town. For a while, I felt at peace. In my forties, I’d return to myself.
And then my daughter turned ten years old. It hit me hard as I watched her celebrate with her friends. She wore her hair in Dutch braids, a Starbucks strawberry refresher drink in hand, as she sat on our front porch and laughed the same laugh I remembered from age two and four and eight. And yet, somehow, the timbre had changed, its melody a little more refined.
“I have only eight years left at home,” she said numerous times this summer. And each time she did, I realized I didn’t want my forties to be about just my goals. Yes, we were done with diapers. Yes, it was time for new challenges. But with my children’s growing independence came a new opportunity for us to explore our own paths and forge new ones together.
With this goal in mind, I told my husband I wanted to buy a sailboat. I’d sailed competitively as a kid and in college, and we’d been paying for our kids to learn the sport for a few years. But a boat had never been in the budget, and we’d decided to put it off every time we’d considered it.
“One more year” had become our mantra sung every summer as we talked about it with friends. And yet, “one more summer” had rolled into a decade. Now, my oldest only had eight summers left. The window for us to sail together was closing. It was time to act.
And so, on a stormy July day, we went to look at a 25’ Catalina sailboat. Like me, the boat was approaching forty, named “Hakuna Matata,” an homage to my childhood. It had teal seats and sail covers, a well-cared-for interior, and a few cracks repaired with fiberglass. It wasn’t big, but it wasn’t small. If we wanted, we could cram into the cabin and camp out. For the first time, my dream felt within reach.
A week later, we bought the boat. Two weeks later, we were in Bridgeport at Captain’s Cove Marina, having the mast we’d dropped to drive the boat home raised back into the air. My kids and I watched in awe as a large crane picked up the mast, and a team of experts secured it into place. Already, we couldn’t wait to start sailing.
But the motor, which had worked on our test drive, wouldn’t start. Instead of taking the boat to our new mooring, we had to pay to tow it to a dock at Captain’s Cove. With dockage fees looming, we called in the expert. My dad, who for the next two days, tried everything he could to get it started. After almost giving up, he finally did.
Anxious to get the boat out of the marina, my father and I took off almost immediately for our mooring. But the engine was still faltering, unable to function well at low speeds. Still, we uncleated the bow line and threw the motor into gear. The boat took off. We almost crashed into a gas dock.
The rest of the ride went no better. It was a windy day, and despite being in the harbor, there were whitecaps. The boat pitched and heeled as we approached the mooring and tried to slow the motor. But instead of slowing, it stalled. Over and over again. Each time we’d get close to the mooring, the motor would stall, and we’d drift perilously close to the other boats. My stomach turned as I tried to stay calm, a mixture of seasickness and terror jangling my nerves.
What have we done? I wondered. Why was I so convinced we needed an old boat?
Even after we finally caught the mooring, I wasn’t sure. And for the next few weeks, whenever someone mentioned the boat, all I could think of was selling it. It was too big. Unsafe. Too much of a challenge. We’d acted impulsively.
Still, my husband was the voice of reason. “Let’s work on fixing it up first,” he said. “Then we’ll take it out on a calm day.”
Reluctantly, I agreed. We started bringing the kids to work on it at the mooring. We got the motor running (slightly) better. We spent hours reattaching the boom and lines and sails. We played music and brought happy meals with us, and every time we encountered a problem, instead of panicking, we laughed like when we dropped a much-needed screw into the ocean.
“Oh well, I guess we should order another,” I said as I ordered ten extras.
After a month, the boat felt less overwhelming. My confidence had grown. And so, on Labor Day, we decided to take it out, just the five of us. I was still terrified of the motor. And yet I remained calm as a voice inside reminded me that I knew how to sail. That we’d rigged the boat ourselves. That Hakuna Matata was going to help my family grow together. It was the fortieth birthday present I wanted for us all.
So, a month before my birthday, we left the mooring on a calm day with a soft breeze. The motor sputtered and vibrated, but it got us out of the channel. Then we killed the motor, and I pointed the boat into the wind. And staring into a cloudless September sky, we rose the sails. I held the tiller tight as they filled with breeze, and Hakuna Matata took off. For a moment, there were no worries.
We celebrated by playing our favorite country songs and clinking cans of celebratory drinks. Then, we sailed around Fairfield and Bridgeport for hours. After a while, I handed the tiller to my son while my oldest daughter trimmed the sails. Together, we worked as a team, all of us learning to maneuver a boat much larger than we’d ever sailed before. And when we returned to the mooring, we caught it on the first try.
Buying an old boat hadn’t been the adventure I’d envisioned, but it had brought us closer together as a family. And it reminded me that even when the challenges seem great, you can accomplish anything if you stay calm and keep working. It was just the lesson I needed to prepare for a new decade of opportunities and challenges.