explore

Life at sea

Change is the defining factor of the sea. Over time, at sea, change comes to define you, too.

One week ago today, at this precise moment, I was sitting at a bustling seaside canteen, on a wooden bench piled high with my two over-stuffed backpacks and camera bag, waiting for a 4,000-French-Pacific-Franc-taxi to the Nuku Hiva airport. As I sat I sipped the canteen’s home-brewed lemonade, scratched the ears of the friendly brown island pups who padded by, and listened to the locals’ morning chatter, all in French.

Island dog. ©Erica Cirino

Island dog. ©Erica Cirino

One week ago today I embarked on the beginning of the end of a 2,300-nautical mile sailing expedition from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Tai-o-Hae, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, French Polynesia, with eight Danish sailors and scientists. What stood between me and the end of the journey–my home in New York–was 24 hours, a stretch of time over which I’d fly more than 10,000 miles. Before touching down in New York, my airplanes would stop in Tahiti, and Hawaii — where it all started.

Hawaii. I remember the night we left, Honolulu, vividly. As our ship motored out of Kewalo Basin Harbor’s rocky mouth toward the Pacific, the sky and water were endless and black, the same dark entity. The world was opened up to our exploration and enjoyment. While we could still feel the security Honolulu’s warm city lights, we hoisted the jib and cut the engine, surging forward over waves warm and wild on wind power alone. Sailing into the unknown.

Leaving Honolulu. ©Erica Cirino

Leaving Honolulu. ©Erica Cirino

The unknown. The sea is always changing, but over time its actions fall into familiar patterns. Day after day the sun rises, the sun sets. Waves crest and break. Wind speeds and slows and blows into new directions over the blue undulating waters. Change is the defining factor of the sea. Over time, at sea, change comes to define you, too.

Waves and sky. ©Erica Cirino

Waves and sky. ©Erica Cirino

You. You might think you have a reason to go to sea. Many people do. Many hope to find something. Many hope to find themselves. I did. I went to sea twice, each time wishing to come off the boat a different person than when I stepped on board. But I didn’t change in the ways I expected. Each time I sought more peace, and instead I uncovered inner turmoil that I started to confront; each time I sought confidence, and instead I discovered insecurities that I began to try to cope with. I learned that inner change is inevitable at sea, but that it’s impossible to predetermine what it is about you that will change. Crossing the sea has just been the start of the larger spiritual journey of my life; there will always be more work to be done, more room for change–I feel that deeply, humbly.

A portrait on my most recent sailing expedition. ©Rasmus Hytting

A portrait on my most recent sailing expedition. ©Rasmus Hytting

The journey. At sea you are forced to cope with both your wildest dreams and your most tormenting demons. The sea itself is a fantastical dreamscape: blue and sparkling, brimming with life — leaping dolphins, gliding birds, splashing fish. It’s home to the most intense sunrises and sunsets on Earth. And out there, the intensity of the sea sets your soul on fire.

Sunrise with seabird. ©Erica Cirino

Sunrise with seabird. ©Erica Cirino

Intensity. About two weeks into the journey, it hits you how isolated you are from the colleagues, friends and family members you interact with on a regular basis on land. Your days at sea are different than the days you spend on land. There are fewer distractions out here. You eat, you sleep, you talk, you steer the ship, you raise sails, you turn winches, you tie knots, you cook, you clean. That’s about it. There’s no Instagram or Facebook, text messages or phone calls, emails or television. Life at sea is intense because there is no way for you to escape, to enter an alternate reality. You are here and must deal with the discomfort, you must embrace the intensity until it becomes your intensity.

Sailing-scape. ©Erica Cirino

Sailing-scape. ©Erica Cirino

The discomfort. We shower, wash and cook with seawater for 23 days. Our toilet is a bucket that wants to skitter across the deck when we try to sit on it. Our clothes are slick and smelly. Our hair is greasy. Our hands are calloused. We tan and burn beneath the strong equatorial sun. We eat from cans and boxes and the occasional fish from the sea. We sleep in shifts throughout the day, coming together during mealtime. Sometimes the closeness is too much. But over time your crew becomes your family, and you accept that. I learned to live like this, for 23 days, and then for 11 more after we arrived in Nuku Hiva, anchoring in the bay but still living on the ship.

Malene Møhl and Torsten Geertz bird watch from the cockpit of S/Y Christianshavn. ©Erica Cirino

Malene Møhl and Torsten Geertz bird watch from the cockpit of S/Y Christianshavn. ©Erica Cirino

Living. By now I’m back home, back in my apartment in New York–alone save for my sweet dog, who seems to have aged over the two months I’ve been away. It’s cold outside but radiant heat keeps my studio cozy. Here I have a shower with warm, pressurized, running water. Here I have a stationary toilet that flushes. Here I have two sinks and a too-large refrigerator filled with fresh produce, beer and chocolate from the grocery store down the street. Here I have my car, internet and a cellular connection, social media and work, friends who text and colleagues who email. I know I have changed because I am consistently uncomfortable with these things that have not changed, while I’ve been away.

I have changed. Since coming back home, I have begun to consider my values, my happiness. I’ve asked myself what it is I want to get out of life, what makes me feel fulfilled. Today what pleases me are not the luxuries of life on land but the knowledge that I can cope with the discomforts of life at sea. That I can embrace the intensity required to entertain my dreams and stand off with my demons and still come out the other side ok, alive.

Alive. I miss the raw realness of life at sea.

Sunrise wave on the Pacific. ©Erica Cirino

Sunrise wave on the Pacific. ©Erica Cirino

Erica goes to Denmark

This past Saturday, I stepped onto European land for the first time in my life: Denmark. I'm here to do some scientific research for my Go and See speaking tour and stories about plastic, meet up with sailing friends and of course, explore.

I've settled into my new "home" in Nørrebro, a really beautiful part of Copenhagen, living on the fourth floor of a five-story walk-up apartment building. 

Foosa isn't the biggest fan of all the stairs, but she seems to be settling in just fine.

We're close to shops, cafés and just a minute's jog from a series of five lakes, each about a mile in diameter. Their dirt paths are perfect for running and dog walking. I have the feeling I'm going to come back to the U.S. in really good shape. 

I've only lived abroad once before, for a few weeks in Costa Rica. I've also lived off the grid on a sailboat for more than three weeks which is virtually the same thing; being so isolated you might as well be on another continent, or even another planet. In any case, I'm liking this whole life abroad thing. 

Learning a new culture–new mannerisms, language, cuisine, lifestyle–is rewarding. It puts you outside of yourself, opens your eyes to the way others live and current events in other countries. With the political climate of the U.S. currently in full-freakout mode, I'm quite grateful to be away for a while. While I still read about my country's news online, I'm far enough away from the real thing physically that it makes me less anxious. That said, I'm still working hard to change the way things are going, and being away is making that a lot easier.

With that said, I'll get back to work. I'm currently working on a few science stories that I need to wrap up so I can get back outside and do some serious adventuring. And maybe grab an øl. 

Tak for læsning! Follow me on Instagram (@ericarunsamerica) to see my latest Denmark photos and updates. Just look for the hashtag: #ericagoestodenmark🇩🇰

In defense of adventure

Me at age 3 or 4, checking out a lizard in Florida.

Me at age 3 or 4, checking out a lizard in Florida.

When I was a little kid, an adventure consisted of investigating every nook and cranny of my family's suburban Long Island backyard. Within the confines of one fenced acre, I'd wade through my mother's ferns and cattails pretending to be on safari as I searched for birds, squirrels, snails and praying mantises. When I found an animal I thought was cool, I'd carefully sketch in it a spiral notebook. When exhausted from crawling around in the dirt and grass, I'd retreat inside to a glass of lemonade and review my drawings, trying to assign names to the creatures I saw.

That was my wilderness.

When I grew older and had more freedom, I moved on to biking, running and walking around nearby State and County parks and beaches. Suddenly my world became filled with much more wildness. I could get up close to deer, snapping turtles, fish, raccoons, opossums, foxes. The vegetation was lusher, more green. When I got a car I began driving to parks further from home. Each park was different, each was its own wilderness, its own adventure.

The park I grew up behind from ages 6-20, photo taken by me at age 16.

The park I grew up behind from ages 6-20, photo taken by me at age 16.

Today, as a freelance science writer and artist, I go on adventures as a living. I pack up at least once a month and head off somewhere different to cover a different story. Some friends and family members have urged me to "settle down" like they have, to get a "steady" job with benefits like dental and health insurance and a 401K plan. "Want adventure?" they ask. "That's what vacation days are for. Go to a resort in Cancún or Miami or the Bahamas. You'll love it."

I'm skeptical. I believe we were all meant to really, truly adventure, to put ourselves in situations that may not be comfortable, or enjoyable even, but that are different than our everyday lives. That is where we can find the courage within ourselves to grow. That's where we learn things about the world, the life on it and ourselves. 

Last week I explored a region of the U.S. I had never before seen: The West and Pacific Northwest. What did I find there? Breathtakingly beautiful landscapes and diverse wildlife (orcas, auks, magpies, deer and more). Old friends and new friends. Steep city streets and gently sloping mountaintops. More confidence in my ability to navigate places I've never been and more appreciation for the many places I have been and excitement to explore those I haven't.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Leg 1 of my two-week adventure this month. September 2016.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Leg 1 of my two-week adventure this month. September 2016.

Leg 2. Pacific Northwest islands. October 2016.

Leg 2. Pacific Northwest islands. October 2016.

Leg 2. Me snapping some pics of this gorgeous fox in the Pacific Northwest islands. Credit: Jenifer Chiodo, October 2016

Leg 2. Me snapping some pics of this gorgeous fox in the Pacific Northwest islands. Credit: Jenifer Chiodo, October 2016

Leg 3, the third and final leg of my two-week adventure. Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado. October 2016.

Leg 3, the third and final leg of my two-week adventure. Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado. October 2016.

Going on an adventure is like unwrapping a surprise gift. You don't know exactly what you'll get out of it until you've finished unwrapping the whole thing. But as you unwrap it, bit by bit, you can see hints of the ultimate gift peeking through. But unlike a physical gift, at the end of an adventure you're left with things no one can take away: experience, emotion and memories.

That's my defense of adventure, why I've vowed to never stop exploring. If you're skeptical, give it a try. Spend a day off the grid hiking in a local park you've never before visited. Or even in a part of your city or town you've never spent time in. Bring a friend, or go alone. Get lost a little and don't worry about time, just focus on the adventure and the gifts you'll uncover at the end.