I’ve only been sailing a handful of times in my life, and only once have I taken the helm. It was a long time ago when I was deliriously in love with the man I had just married and, on a whim, we signed ourselves up for a learn-to-sail adventure on the edge of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. With six of us aboard a 25-foot ship, we learned our way around knots and winches; we learned how to make tea on the tippy little stove, how to bring the tea cups to the deck while the boat rocked over the waves. I was not a natural. I called the boomvang the “boom bang” for the better part of the week. I was terrified when we set sail into open ocean, away from everything that resembled land. At night, when we’d crawl into our tiny bunk, I’d imagine our mooring coming loose and the six of us unwittingly drifting out to sea. Then I’d think about the terrors of the day—the nine-foot waves, the lightning storm on the horizon—and cry myself to sleep.
So you wouldn’t think I’d be the market for Uncharted: A Couple’s Epic Empty-Nest Adventure Sailing From One Life To Another, Kim Brown Seely’s midlife salty-dog tale of sailing 700 nautical miles north from Seattle in search of a rare spirit bear. Then again, just because I’ll never follow in Seely’s footsteps doesn’t mean that reading the account of her journey wasn’t wonderfully exciting from the safety of my sofa. As Seely learned her knots and sails, and eventually took the helm of the 54-foot rig she and her husband of 25 years bought on a whim, on the brink of becoming empty nesters, I gasped and cried and worried right along with her. I cried as two humpback whales surfaced alongside the ship’s hull just days after Seely had said goodbye to both her sons, having launched them off to lives of their own. And I smiled with sweet anticipation as she and her husband danced topless in their tiny below-decks galley all by themselves in the middle of the ocean, two people long in love on a new adventure all over again.
By email from our homes in Seattle, Kim and I corresponded about being a woman adventure writer, becoming an empty nester, and sailing into the unknown.
What compelled you to narrate the year you and your husband became Empty Nesters?
My mom had confided in me that empty nesting had been a really hard time for her. That she’d fallen into a depression. This stunned me, because it wasn’t as if my mom was left without a purpose or meaningful work once my sister and I left home. My mom had a very full life as a photographer and artist. Because of this, I had a lot of uncertainty myself as I neared empty nesting. I decided to pay close attention to it, as a way to both honor those last months with my kids living at home – and to possibly write about it later.
Your journey centers around a quest to see a Spirit Bear. How’d you go from a mom driving school and lacrosse carpool to sailing into dangerous waters in search of a bear?
I’ve always had an adventurous streak. Those years driving carpool were long ones for me. During the last year, although I felt anxious about our youngest leaving home, I also felt an equally powerful desire: the desire for freedom. When I learned about the rare white bear, which is in fact, the rarest bear in the world, and that it lived on only two islands that were sailing distance from our home in Seattle, I became obsessed with the idea of trying to see one. While I was dreaming of adventure, my husband was dreaming about a boat. So together we hatched a plan to teach ourselves to sail – and try to sail insanely far our first summer as empty nesters – in search of the Spirit Bear.
In order to undertake this journey, you had to learn to sail. You also had to learn to be alone with your husband again—for the first time in 25 years. Were there times you just wanted to jump overboard?
Oh my God, YES! Our boat is a lot of boat, a ridiculous amount of boat for two people with no prior sailing experience together to learn how to sail. I don’t know what we were thinking. I just had confidence that we’d somehow figure it out. But that led to a lot of tension since my husband had sailed quite a bit before we met, but I hadn’t. So it was a radically uneven playing field that first year. There were days I would have given anything to have been able to jump off, drive to my favorite café, meet one of my girlfriends for coffee and say, “You’re never going to believe this...” But that wasn't an option.
There’s an archetypal quest narrative for heroines that basically looks like Cheryl Strayed in Wild. How did you see yourself differently?
When you think about it, it’s odd, this idea that the classic heroine’s journey is a solo quest. In reality, how many people past a certain age get to travel solo? Since I’d been married more than 20 years, I’d missed that boat. But once I began writing my book I realized that the tension between two people who love one another, but have already been on a long life journey together, and are trying to embark on a new quest together, is in some ways even more complicated than a solo quest. The internal tension inherent between most partners was fascinating and gave me a lot to work with. Especially when it mirrored stormy seas. Believe me, there were times when I wasn’t just wondering if it was our boat that would survive.
How did the great—mostly male—adventure writers you reference influence you as an adventurer and as a writer? I’m thinking of Jonathan Raban and his Passage to Juneauand Peter Matthiessen with The Snow Leopard,but also M. Wylie Blanchett and her book, The Curve of Time.
It’s infuriating. With the exception of intrepid British explorers and writers like Isabella Bird and Freya Stark, and more recently, Cheryl Strayed, the best-known adventure writers are almost exclusively male. So as a woman it’s hard not to look to them for inspiration. I spent years reading Matthiessen, Chatwin, Theroux, and I of course adore Pico Iyer.... But at a certain point their journeys didn’t resonate for me. So I found myself reading them more for craft, but developing my own voice as a woman adventure-writer. That’s when things started to get interesting. I do think women travel differently. Why not honor and explore that? Some women adventure-writers I’ve loved reading recently: Rebecca Solnit, Ana Maria Spagna, Caroline Van Hemert, and the late Ellen Meloy.
As I read the several intimate passages in your book, I was surprised by how refreshing they were. And that’s because, I realized, it’s not often that we have the opportunity to read about women over 50 being sexy and sexual. Did you feel brave or transgressive writing these passages?
Those passages were liberating to write, but also slightly terrifying. I wasn’t sure, at first, if I’d even include them. But once I got up the nerve to share them with a few trusted readers there was no turning back. I think they make the book raw and real. And fun! Writing that makes you slightly uncomfortable, or afraid, is often your best writing. Especially when it comes to memoir.
One question nonfiction writers get asked all the time is “How did your family feel about you writing about them?” Oftentimes this comes at writers who are writing about disenfranchised members of their family, or relationships that are already strained. But in your case, the family members you write about—your husband and children—are still very close to you. What factors did you take into consideration before you wrote about them?
I still can’t believe how supportive my husband and sons were about my writing about them. I mean, I was literally sitting in the cockpit of that boat with a notebook. On the other hand, they’re used to my making entries in a notebook; as a travel writer I’ve done that for 30 years. You often hear from memoir-writers that Rule No. 1 is to never share your manuscript with members of your family. But I’m glad I shared it with them – especially my parents. My mom, in particular, was incredibly helpful. She allowed me to write about her depression and was also wise enough to encourage me to include the sexy scenes… and she’s 82.
Was there a point in the journey where you felt hope as an Empty Nester?
Yes. About two days after we’d dropped off our youngest at college. I was alone at the helm when two humpback whales breached right beside the boat. It was so electrifying I was instantly reminded there’s a whole wide world out there if you pay attention. Nature is profoundly healing. And inspiring!
And for those of us who aren’t sailors, would you still recommend we take an empty nest adventure?
Absolutely. Think of all those years dictated by the school calendar… you’ve earned it. It’s important to be intentional about empty nesting, to think about it in advance and imagine all the things you might do, even if it’s just taking a few days or a week. Life is short, so why not mark this transition. It’s an ideal time to celebrate having reached a huge milestone: after all, you’ve raised a human.
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Margot Kahn is co-editor of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice collection This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Rumpus, Tablet, Publishers Weekly and elsewhere. Learn more at www.margotkahn.com.