No space to breathe. The roof was closing in on my me. I was in a crowded winter cabin, a tight ice cave, a berth just deep enough to fit my head. I awoke up and hit my head on the ceiling above. Where was I? What time was it? Oh yes, I was on a sailboat and it was the first night on our sail across the Caribbean to Cartagena, Colombia. I checked my watch. Shit, it was still only two in the morning. I wanted the day to break, and I wanted out of this tight berth.
I felt trapped, physically and mentally. I could barely breathe so I opened the porthole next to me. Why was I here? Where was I going? I was 30 years old and I still had no direction, no partner, no home, no one I could rely on in my journey. If I disappeared from my travels, no one would notice. And would anyone even care? Where was the love in my life, and why was I running from it? My future was looking dim. Too many uncertainties. I had to get out of my berth and get some fresh air.
This was not the first time in my life that I woke up to such panic. I was once camping in an ice cave in Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont, and I woke up breathless in the middle of the night. I dressed in my down clothes and walked the snowy trails for hours until I could calm myself and settle in for the night. Another sleepless night was spent in a cabin on Mount Katahdin in February of 2001. I had to breathe out the window all night in an effort to escape the trap of the smoky, congested cabin, which like the cave, was really just a metaphor for the things I couldn’t escape in my life…expectations, a relationship with no future, and the search for a career that didn’t fit me.
I rushed to the cockpit of the boat, where I would get some fresh air and nap for the rest of the night. Much to my shock, there was a cold downpour, and I wouldn’t breath easily outside. I searched for another place to sleep, but they were all taken. I sat in a chair next to the galley, and struggled for the next hour…my mind was in a whirlwind about the trap I was heading for in life. I wanted so badly to sleep, but I was too cramped to make it happen. I told Daniel, who was on watch, about my predicament and how I was in extreme mental distress but couldn’t return to my berth because it would only intensify my feelings of entrapment.
“Jeff, Jeff,” I heard from the berth by my side. It was Robert, a fellow traveler from Holland, who had apparently overheard our conversation. “Take my bed. We can switch for the night.” He had heard me talk about how uncomfortable my berth was, but sensing my mental emergency, he offered to take one for the team. I was desperate and selfishly accepted. I grabbed my pillow and snuggled into the couch where he had been sleeping. It faced the galley where there was plenty of room to breathe. This was heaven.
“Thank you Robert. You saved me.” I awoke hours later to the sun rising over the Caribbean. What a night. I was physically and mentally drained. I would not sleep for the next 48 hours, as I wouldn’t dare return to that berth that put me into my mental trap. I don’t know why this mental state returned after an eight year absence. Looking back, it may have been a reaction to the malaria pills I was taking, coupled with the lack of exercise I was getting on the boat. Whatever the reason, it was the most stressful night of my trip, and perhaps my life. Robert’s simple sacrifice, which is probably a vague memory for him right now, was the best thing anyone had done for me in my travels. I owe someone out there a favor. Thanks again Robert.