Sailing the Seas of Expat Life

Our choices

„What makes a good sailboat captain?“, I asked my husband while we were sailing last week. „Good assessment of the circumstances and making the right choices.“ How strong is the wind? How high are the waves? How fit is the crew? How reliable is the boat? Safety first.

He has always had very good judgement and I trust him 100% when it comes to sailing or navigating with me through our family life together. I am returning from our family vacation on the Baltic Sea with many reflections on the metaphor of navigating life like navigating a sailboat. Here is the first one that I would like to share with you:

The first thing you learn on a sailboat is respect and humility for the forces of nature. I will never forget the moment when my father in law (who is a strong, tall man and an experienced sailor) arrived in La Coruña after four rough days of non-stop sailing through the Biscaya with my husband, taking 4-hour shifts of steering/sleeping and only eating cold ravioli directly from the cans… The first thing he did when he set foot on land was head over to the chapel nearby and light a candle. It dawned on me just how rough the trip must have been.

When you experience a heavy storm, high waves or dense fog on a sailboat, you are immediately reminded of how small we are in this universe and that there is something way bigger than us. And you realize just how much you can and cannot control.

We have absolutely no control over the weather. The direction and the intensity of the winds change without much warning, sometimes in our favour and sometimes not. The same thing happens in our lives, there are always circumstances that are beyond our control.

At the same time, there are many things that we can control: We can get proper sailing training and practice. We can assess the chances and risks and prepare accordingly. We can build resilience and decide if we let our attitude shift towards courage or fear. We can learn to monitor the weather forecast, plan the route, adjust the sails and ride the waves as they come. We can have a backup plan and turn on the motor. We have a choice whether to leave the safety of the harbour at all. We decide which boat, which sailing area and the crew we would like to sail with.

What does this mean for our daily life?

Don’t waste too much of your energy on the things that are beyond your control.

Yes, they can be very unfair and painful and need processing. By becoming aware of the what these things are, you can make a realistic assessment and the right choices. By being flexible and adapting to the circumstances, you will be able to focus your energy on the things you can influence and thus move forward towards your destination.

Where are you sailing to?

Most sailors plan their journey by defining their final destination as well as a rough route with daily stops along the way. This route might be altered slightly according to the direction of the winds, but the destination remains the same.

You might also find a sailor who has no concrete destination. He wants to explore the world and go whereever the wind takes him.

„I am searching for happiness! I don’t know yet what that looks like but I trust that I will know it when I find it.“

I admire him for his adventurous spirit and his openness to seize the day and simply enjoy the ride. I actually see my younger self reflected in this! But what I have experienced myself and from what I observe, this comes with a price. It goes along with an eternal notion of restlessness and feeling lost. When this sailor finds a beautiful place where he feels happy, he stays for a while. But as time goes by, the happiness fades and he questions himself, is this really it? Or can I find more happiness in another place? And the cycle begins again.

Before you start looking for answers out there on the sea, first look for answers within yourself. Who are you? What do you want? How should the place be where you are finally happy? If you know that, your search might still take a while, but at least you know what to look for. And that’s the most important part of your search!

Let me know if this resonates with you and your expat life! Serial expats and Adult Third Culture Kids, how do you feel about this reflection? If you feel resistance, just as I did earlier in my life, write me your thoughts.

Sailing into the unknown

Did you know that the Polynesians are said to be the biggest sailors of all times? As much as 5000 years ago they built sailing canoes and started exploring the South Seas, covering an area of approximately one third of the earth’s surface. But how did they navigate without sextant, compass, maps or GPS? Without knowing their destination?

The Polynesians set out on their journey trusting that they will reach their destination without knowing the way. They had good sailing and observation skills, they were able to forecast storms and changes in the weather, read stars and currents. I find it fascinating that this wisdom was passed on from generation to generation only by their songs.

So they just set sail and sailed from one island to another, without knowing what was waiting for them in the end or where they would end up. They knew that the journey counted just as much as the destination. They concentrated on their observations, gained new insights, increasing the options on how to stay on course. New opportunities would come up along the way, allowing them to make new choices, change their world and broaden their horizons.

And sometimes it’s the same in times of crisis. The big goal is either not yet visible or still unreachable. Instead of being paralysed, get unstuck, free yourself from the current situation and sail off – relying on the resources you already have. On the way, opportunities will open up, you will cross other people’s paths and discover new land that will help you to leave this crisis behind.

During a crisis like Covid-10, we have no clarity on how things will develop, the uncertainty is big and it is real. If in the midst of such a crisis you cling onto your original goals and hustle because you absolutely want to achieve them, you are already weakened from the start. Instead, consider taking your eyes off the goal for a while. That doesn’t mean you’re aimless, but shift your focus away from the goal towards the things you can create, shape and design.

Creativity can only happen in the here and now, not tomorrow or a near future. This is the art of Polynesian sailing.

Try to sail Polynesian for a day yourself! Often a small impulse can create a big shift and goes a long way. Let yourself be drawn to the indefinite future, recognize and use your creativity and trust that you will reach your ideal goal, even if you don’t know what that looks like just yet.

Polynesian Sailing is a coaching metaphor created by Gunther Schmidt and was brought to my attention by a German podcast I regularly listen to called “Coachingbande”.

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