Sailing had never appealed to me. To be bounced around on a wild sea, drenched with spray and feeling cold and seasick was not my idea of fun at all. I preferred a quiet life of creating beauty within my home and garden, spending time with my children, composing abstract paintings in oils and riding my horse.
When my husband suddenly decided that he wanted to sail the world, he sent me off on a sailing course to see how I would cope. To my surprise I loved it and quickly learned to handle a yacht as if I had been sailing for years.
In September, 1985 we moved to Queensland and bought Zeehaen, an eighteen metre steel yacht. Our marriage broke up within weeks of moving aboard. A few months later Zeehaen foundered on a sandbar while at anchor, flooding the interior when she rolled into deeper water. It was an out picturing of how I felt inside. After refusing to return our two children from a holiday, my husband had filed for custody in Melbourne, planning to carry out the threat he made when I left that he’d win custody by proving that I was emotionally unstable.
Remaining funds from the sale of a farming property enabled me to hire one of the best solicitors in Melbourne. But when she urged me to find witnesses who would say that my husband was a bad father, I told her there had to be another way. A chance meeting with a stranger advised me to “fight my case with love.” Zeehaen’s sinking was to show me how.
After Zeehaen was refloated and towed to a slipway, I negotiated with the insurance company to carry out repairs with progress payments after convincing them that because of my experience renovating our various homes, I could organise the refit and do a lot of the work myself.
I hired Stephen (a young English man who had turned up as if on cue to help with the tow) to work with me to strip the whole interior back to bare steel. In an effort to add some humour to my plight, he bought me a large poster of Garfield looking heavenward with his arms outstretched. The caption said, “Why me?” He stuck it to the wall above the steps leading from the wheelhouse to the saloon. “Why me, indeed,” I often thought when Garfield greeted me each day.
Yet as I worked to strip out the yacht and sort through what was beyond use or repair, tossing things over the side to go to the tip, or stacking on deck what could be salvaged and used later, I began to learn what Zeehaen’s sinking had to teach me: I needed to strip out all the bitter memories and negative thoughts I clung to before I could rebuild my life.
After the black oily sludge from the bilges had been bucketed out, I saw how rust had spread like a cancerous growth. During the long hours of chipping it away I came to understand that inside myself was the “rust” of self-pity. It created bitterness and feelings of powerlessness which fuelled many angry outbursts.
When Stephen pointed out that my husband was still controlling me from a thousand miles away, I knew that I would have to “toss over the side and take to the tip” the self-pity I felt over my powerlessness to protect my children from the trauma of a custody case I did not want. Although I had no power to change my husband’s actions, I learned that I could change the reactive patterns that threatened to destroy the new life I wanted to create and the friendship that was developing with Stephen.
We worked well as a team. I learned a lot from his knowledge of boats, and Stephen respected the way I coordinated the work that needed to be done. He jollied me along when I was down. We laughed and joked while we cooked dinner together at my house after an exhausting day’s work. And his observations always challenged me to think.
When he told me that my whole life seemed to revolve around drama, pulling people into it as if by a high-powered magnet, I finally had to ask myself, “What part have I played in my life dramas?” I was dismayed to admit that I had too often played the role of victim – something else that needed to “go to the tip.”
Putting all my energy into Zeehaen and learning new skills allowed me to “forget” the frightening reality of the impending custody case. I had managed to win the interim hearing and get my children back, then ran out of money and took on a teaching job just before Zeehaen was due to go back into the water. But fear made its presence felt as my children became increasingly withdrawn and distant.
They were being cleverly brainwashed, but I had no proof. I told Stephen that I felt as if I was going into battle to fight an unknown enemy and had nothing with which to defend myself. “You are not unarmed,” he assured me. “Your best defence is love. Continue to do what you are doing – just love them.” Stephen sailed away with his parents to New Zealand a week before the custody case, convinced that I had nothing to worry about.
My barrister told me not to cry in the witness box. But by burying my emotions I came across as an iron lady and was relentlessly attacked. I naively believed that truth would win over lies, but to my dismay “truth” became buried within the rigid formalities of court procedure and never had a chance to emerge. I consoled myself with the knowledge that if I had fought bitterness with bitterness, I would have lost my self…and my integrity.
After my husband collected our tearful children I sat in a daze amidst remnants of their toys and clothes scattered over the floor. The pain was so intense I could not cry. Their guilt over the lies they believed and the lies they told counsellors had broken the bond between us. It felt like a living death. Finally I reached for my pen and wrote in a notebook “I will rise above this despair. It’s going to be tough going but I’m determined to make it. Freedom means to rise above all that would hold me down. What I have to do is learn to accept the pain and keep on going.”
The year seven class I taught gave me a reason to get up each morning and get on with my life. The day I stepped back into my classroom they all stood up to clap and cheer. Tears came to my eyes. I decided then that I would teach them about how to learn from life’s experiences, and to find the beauty within.
However there were mornings I awoke in tears feeling that I couldn’t get through the day. Sometimes I took a day off to sit with the pain and write, often surprising myself with new insights that allowed me to see my grief from a different perspective. It softened pain’s hard edges. Then I walked on the beach for hours and returned home feeling renewed.
At the end of the year I resigned from my teaching job to write a book about what I had learned. I sold everything I owned and moved to live aboard Zeehaen after taking her to a marina with shower and laundry facilities. Legal expenses had exhausted my funds and brought the refit to a halt, so I negotiated a lump sum payout and hired a builder to work with me.
The yacht was a mess inside. I slept on a foam mattress in my sleeping bag on the partly made settee. Timber took up the space where the table and seating was to go. The galley was unfinished and there was no refrigeration. A microwave/convection oven in the wheelhouse was my only means of cooking. Electrical wires ran all over the floor.
Amidst the mess I was finally able to let go of some of my grief and cry at night until I felt like I was breaking in two. I appealed to the loving energy I could feel inside Zeehaen to help me. She became a cocoon in which I collapsed my old self through grief at night and renewed myself during the day through the love I gave her as I worked to put her back together – putting in new porthole windows, sanding and varnishing, installing a new toilet, fixing a leaking water pump, repainting inside a water tank… The list of jobs went on and on.
After eighteen months of working and writing on Zeehaen, tremendous healing had taken place and it felt as if we had become as one, rebuilding each other. Whenever something happened to upset me it had become my custom to ask, “What do I have to learn from this?” Then answers came like gifts to change the way I thought about people, experiences and life. It gave me peace of mind.
The refit was almost complete when I was finally forced to sell her. Initially I was distraught, but since I had resolved to turn each negative situation around, I told my son that Zeehaen had taught me to pull out the weeds of negativity in my soul and plant flowers instead. He gave me a hug and said that I would have a botanical garden one day.
Zeehaen’s sinking was a gift for which I will always be grateful. I discovered that it is within this feeling of gratitude that forgiveness automatically takes place; it is how love is returned for bitterness. This was the gift of Zeehaen.
Today I am living on a yacht in Tutukaka to revisit my time with Zeehaen and what she has taught me as I rewrite chapters of my book. My son and I had a happy reunion two years ago where we were able to talk openly about the pain of our separation. As for my daughter, the pain of our broken bond was too great and she has shut me out of her life. In April 2000, my husband was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Footnote: Last Christmas an American couple berthed next to Juliet’s jetty. When she showed them photographs of Zeehaen they recognised the yacht. They had met the Australian couple who bought it and reported that they had sailed off on the very journey around the world that Juliet had hoped to make.
First published in NEXT Magazine, September 2001