When the voice inside Jonathan Footerman’s head said, “leave your cushy office job and go learn how to sail a yacht”, Jonathan listened. Here is the first in a series of his story.
(Author’s Note: This is a retreatment from the first chapter of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about abandoning an office life to become a yachtsman. The change is still in progress—a tale from the waterside as the tide is rising.)
I told the man in the mirror that I needed another five years’ earnings to retire. He replied succinctly that I needed to stop. Dead. Or I soon would be. Dead. I knew he was right. Standing in a beautiful Paris apartment opposite the Palais de Luxembourg, the man in the mirror looked miserable, unhealthy and worn out by stress and sleeplessness. I knew how badly he was serving the company paying the rent and consultancy fees, but the more tired I became, the longer he worked to compensate. For all the pleasure we had from the location, we might as well have been lodging in a South Bronx tenement.
I played team sports as a youth, squash-rackets as a young man, swam and cycled in my thirties and forties. Past tense! In 2008, I was 55 years old, 5’4” tall and 280 lbs round, my back kept giving way in strange hotels, and sex was as dangerous as a rock that covers at mid-tide. I was an independent in De Gaulle’s land of 246 cheeses, and if it were in my nature to sustain a sports regime alongside the food and wine, I would have done so. Instead, I would pat my belly and tell colleagues that if they considered me half French, it was the front half. I was profoundly bored with myself. It is no special insight into the male psyche that my 120 lbs of excess baggage began right there.
No more half-measures. I owned an average London flat which I could sell in extremis, an inadequate pension fund and enough to live for a year or two. I finished the assignment, returned to London, and stopped. No more conferences, calls to agents, dinners with ex-colleagues, business cards at social occasions; a sabbatical from Linked-In; a growing pile of unopened professional magazines. No more crack-of-dawn flights in suits that were barely comfortable, just polo shirts and jeans over the newspapers as my spirits grew daily lighter, and the underpinnings of my professional life crumbled away. Months passed as I escaped from a mental balance sheet focussed on the ambition for financial independence, in which the forfeit of time and health had never weighed. My only concern was to find an active and joyous way of life.
Telling a friend that I had had my fill of airports, a thought crystallised: Be a Professional Yachtsman.
That’s it! Give myself a complete immersion (wrong word but right idea). Learn to sail in UK waters, extend my reach to Europe, the USA, the globe; and when and if I ever returned, there would be opportunities to lecture, teach, charter, perhaps to write.
But have you ever been on a yacht? Er, no. Dinghy? No. Power boat, personal water craft, surf board, lilo …? I did some canoeing at school. Well what if you get sea-sick? Can’t be worse than a wrenched back, can it? Happily, I am yet to find out. My words may turn out to be truer of past thoughts than future achievements, but now I had a goal that ticked the boxes, and no nay-saying would discourage me.
The gym shifted 70 lbs, broke the sugar addiction and cured the back. Lassitude and aching muscles gave way to a routine of welcome exercise—nice to reach the taps again from inside the tub, and look at a muffin without a sense of dependency. Sleep lengthened, and as my form improved, so did my outlook, my confidence and, after years of absence, my optimism. Soon I had memorised knots and collision regulations, and digested manuals on navigation, weather and sailing theory. It was time to get out on the water and begin training in earnest.
Ellen MacArthur was the pathfinder as a teenager in 1995, accomplishing a single-handed UK circumnavigation. Many have followed her example, and I fixed it as my target. The coastal waters of Great Britain are some of the most difficult in the world, with currents faster than a yacht can sail and a huge tidal range. But I needed an introductory voyage—if yachting did not suit me, I would have to think again. So I signed up for a starter course, and my new life began in February 2009, sailing out of Gibraltar to Morocco on a 37-footer, first time ever aboard a sail boat.
Fabulous! What have I been doing all my life?
The instructor moved around the boat like one of Gibraltar’s Barbary apes, pulling on lines, knocking off jammers and maintaining an impressive flow of tuition. But he was concerned that conditions can be unsettled in the winter. I urged him not to let us be blocked in port as there were no storm warnings, but he was right—experience counts whatever the forecast. On the way back, the light dimmed unexpectedly as though a prism had been twisted in the sky, and the wind kicked up to a sudden gale before we had time to reef the sails. The instructor was at the mast as the weather hit with a howl and the boat heeled hard over, throwing everything in the cabin onto the floor. I thought the sails would be dunked, and possibly some of the crew. I fell onto my bottom in the cockpit trying to release the mainsheet (the rope controlling the boom), and got tangled up as the boom came back. But as the rudder lifted from the water, the yacht broached—the leverage on the mast rotated her into the wind and she halted and stood back up, the sails flogging alarmingly but doing no harm. I too had seen the forecast, and now I saw the lesson: it is good luck when it goes to plan, but it probably won’t, and preparedness determines how far out of control matters can go.
I had learnt something else by the seat of my pants. Wind alone will heel a yacht but not capsize it—I was safe provided I could keep my balance and stay on board. Our instructor was always in balance, even against the sloping mast, and I complemented him on it. His words have stayed with me. You cannot permit yourself to take inexperienced crew out on a yacht if you cannot handle her alone: they depend on you, not vice versa.
We persistently believe in our youthful abilities, however decadent we grow. Sailing will soon demonstrate how wrong-headed that is. I had made a start and it was great, but now I knew what I had taken on: I could not control a boat if I could not stay on my feet. I needed agility, and I had a lot to learn. How I went about it is the next part of the story.
Photo: inset by author, stormy seas by Bradley H / flickr