“If you can sail to Catalina,” someone once said to me, “you can sail around the world.” — From Where We Sail
The road trip is a well-established genre in America’s literary cannon, and San Diegan Dianne Lane’s recently released memoir From Where We Sail is an engaging narrative within this literary tradition. The full title of the book includes the additional description: A Family’s Six and a Half Year Journey Around the World on Sorcery.
The Cruising Life
Dianne dedicates the book to her family and “beloved Sorcery who brought us home.” Sorcery, their 61-foot sloop-rigged sailboat, is as much a character in the memoir as her husband Robb and their young children Alex and Annie. The dedication also includes fellow cruisers, who provided companionship, particularly female companionship, as well as support and assistance.
The definition of cruising is “to sail about in an area without a precise destination, especially for pleasure,” and it provides insight into the Lane family’s motivations and approach. Their extended travels would take them from San Diego to Mexico, across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, across the Atlantic to Central America and finally to North Carolina, their journey’s end.
Crisis Cooking Skills
The first few years of sailing were extended trips to Mexico, first on their first boat Sunward and then on Sorcery. Daughter Annie was four and son Alex was eight when their cruising life began in 1988. These four and six month cruises with return trips to their San Diego home base honed the necessary skills for their longer voyage. Think of the bedrock activities of ordinary life — eating, washing ourselves and our clothes, sleeping, medical care, shopping, entertainment, personal hygiene, working and going to school — then imagine them taking place on a 61-foot boat.
To prepare for Mexico the following year I read a lot and went to seminars on ‘cruising,’ traveling on a boat with no fixed schedule. I stocked up on school materials from an educational supply store, provisioned for food, and designed an all-you-might-need medical kit complete with reference books.
Robb readied the boat, doing preventive maintenance and getting spares for everything. Alex by then eight and already a seasoned sailor was keen to help. Taking her primary task very seriously, four-year-old Annie marched up and down the dock armed with a clipboard, getting names and mailing addresses of friends on other boats.
Dianne writes that she looked forward to cooking while cruising. It was a creative release that would include countless potlucks at anchor and on beaches with other cruisers. When Sorcery left Mexico for the last time in April of 1993, the Lanes began the first leg of their real journey — a 3,000 mile sail with no stops to the Marquesas in French Polynesia.
Her family would enjoy fresh baked bread, her enormously popular homemade yogurt, (what a delight when it “yoged,”or set, for the first time!) and a lot of freshly caught fish and shellfish. The boat was always well stocked with non-perishables which included cases of ground beef which Dianne and Robb canned themselves at a Mormon cannery in Los Angeles. Cases of wine were also included among the non-perishables.
At my insistence, we always provisioned to the hilt: basic food that would last 52 days if the motor quit and the mainsail shredded. This tactic was based on the account of a woman we met whose boat drifted 52 days after those exact catastrophes struck.
Dianne would carefully consider all manner of crises that could beset them, from “man overboard” in treacherous seas to handling medical emergencies, to making fail proof safety harnesses for each member of the family. Her drills made them safer and more confident in their abilities to respond.
The Pleasures of Merely Circulating
All of the provisioning and boat prepping were the necessary precursors to the pleasures of cruising. Descriptions of these pleasures are enhanced by Dianne’s deep appreciation of the physical landscape. Some of the most memorable passages in the book are descriptions of small isolated anchorages, of sea life viewed through crystal clear waters and the splendor of clouds, stars and moon rises at sea. In Mexico they would rate anchorages by the amount of bioluminescence they provided.
One moonless night after the kids were asleep, I invited Robb to go for a swim.
‘You go ahead. I’ll be on shark watch,” he said.
“Shark watch? Oh, well, here goes. Doing my best Esther Williams, I swirled around sending out sprays of glitter. After the show, I emerged glistening from the water only to learn that between the cover of darkness and Robb’s concern about sharks, he didn’t notice I’d been clothed only in sparkles.
Dianne describes the lagoon of Beveridge Reef, a microscopic point in the Pacific Ocean:
Being inside the unusual lagoon was awesome in the strictest sense. There we were, hundreds of miles from anywhere, anchored at high tide in 20 feet of clear blue water, with nothing but a fringe of distant white breakers surrounding us. At low tide, hundreds of giant Tridacna clams took turns creating a symphony of squirts by spouting water a foot or two into the air through their huge, wavy and velvety lips. By giant, I mean that the ones we saw averaged about 2 feet across.
While From Where We Sail is essentially Dianne’s story, she intersperses her own accounts with journal entries that Alex and Annie wrote at different times, as well as their later recollections of specific events. She provides numerous pictures of the children — young kids who, at least in the first few years, were totally in the moment. Shakespeare’s lyrical sentiment “O wonderful, wonderful, most wonderfully wonderful!” radiates on Annie’s face as she swings off the side of the boat on Robb’s lap out over the water, or as she smiles out at us wearing a crown of tropical flowers on her 10th birthday in the Cook Islands; it illuminates Alex’s young body as he spends a morning fishing or time snorkeling with his father.
After an exhausting brush with a hurricane Annie writes:
What an adventure! I stood in the aft companionway and remember the wind whipping my hair. I remember Mom being scared and thinking that was so unnecessary, and that I was happy to be a kid and not have to worry.
One of the other pleasures was the tightly knit cruising community that offered camaraderie, more potlucks on beaches and boats, an opportunity to sing and play guitar, drink wine and swap stories. The cruising community which maintained radio contact with each other in those pre-Internet days also provided mutual aid transporting mail, equipment, people and food. A cruising dentist cleaned teeth aboard his boat. Dianne includes a list of their fellow cruisers at the end of the book, an indication of their deep connection.
Citizens of the World— Before the Internet
While Dianne and her family’s closest relationships were with their fellow cruisers, extended periods of anchorage during hurricane seasons or while major repairs were being made to the boat afforded the family opportunities to establish connections with locals throughout the journey. Above all, they were travelers of good will and kindness.
During a lengthy stay in La Paz Mexico they joined a group to clear trash from a lagoon. In the Pacific islands Dianne sought out people who were interested in providing support to domestic abuse victims. She even established a Weight Watchers group in one location.
The Lanes sometimes worked along the way to shore up their dwindling savings. Dianne describes the best job of her life as the four months she spent as a reporter and photographer for the Marshall Islands Journal. Robb was a skilled electrician as well as an expert on boat repairs.
They often swapped services or simply performed favors. Once, they were hired to transport a dead body in a large coffin and a live pig which had the bad luck of falling overboard but was ultimately rescued.
When their stay extended into months, Annie was enrolled in local or private schools in Australia, New Zealand, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, and South Africa. Alex, who was high school age by the time they reached the Marshall Islands, flew back to his mother in Chicago where he would finish those crucial years.
Annie entered the 10th Grade in 1999 in South Africa. She attended the only school in town that taught English. It was only nine years earlier that Nelson Mandela has been released from prison, four years since his election as president. This is where Annie realized “racism is taught, not born.”
Black students were in the same classrooms, but there was virtually no social intermingling. …Before getting to South Africa we wondered if our daughter, Egyptian by birth, might experience racial prejudice.
Annie only reported a couple of incidents. One girl told her flat out, ‘I can’t be your friend since you’re not white.’ A boy asked, ‘Are you Black? It doesn’t matter, I just need to know.’
Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’
From Where We Sail is more than a series of verbal snapshots of beautiful lagoons, interesting people and the occasional storm blowing up. The tone of the book shifts during the last few years, revealing the enormous sea changes that Dianne, Robb and Annie themselves were undergoing. They are ready to “get back,” but as Annie later wrote:
So many things happened on our trips that I think people will ask, why did we keep going? Part of it’s because after a certain point you have to keep going to get back to where you started.
The final parts of their journey include salt water crocodiles, hot flashes, puberty, sharks, horrific storms, treacherous seas, boredom, cheating death and marital tensions. Robb also sustains a serious, deep knee injury that requires being airlifted for medical attention.
Annie, who was only 4 when they set sail on their first “trial” trip to Mexico is 14 at the end of the book. Her greatest joy is attending a Michael Jackson concert in South Africa. She imagines how nice it would be to go to the prom.
At her worst point, Dianne confides to a friend, I hate the fucking boat. I wish I liked boating and sailing as much as Robb does, but I just don’t. I like the places we go, but not getting there. Robb admits at one point, I’m exhausted from being responsible for so much and for the hard work. Sometimes I just want to go home.
Sorcery’s demands for maintenance and repairs are unremitting throughout the book.
They eventually navigate the dangerous port of entry to Wilmington, North Carolina where they had years before thought that they might settle. It was time to sell beloved Sorcery, which had been their only home. In spite of our complaints over the years, the very idea of The End was too big and too sad to talk about.
In Wilmington they had a change of plans and heart. … North Carolina, with its mosquitoes and so-see-ums, heat and humidity, not to mention hurricanes and low wages, was not for us. They decide to return to San Diego, their starting point. Robb drives cross country to San Diego, and immediately finds work as a union electrician. Dianne and Annie stay behind to oversee the sale of Sorcery.
Robb and Dianne eventually bought a little house in Point Loma; Dianne spent the final 13 years of her working life as a paralegal; Robb, in good standing with IBEW got credit for his time abroad and retired with forty years of service; Alex finished college and is now a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy.
Annie would go on to get a degree in Journalism, but then switched tracks and currently works as a Registered Dental Hygienist. She brings her unique experiences and talents to the San Diego Free Press, where she has been an editor since its launch in 2012.
We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. T.S. Eliot Little Gidding
From Where We Sail, like other memorable road trip narratives traces its lineage to the archetypal Hero’s Journey. Newly-wed Dianne sets off into the unknown, is sorely tested physically and emotionally and at times humbled by her experiences. She learns much about a world that is by turns confounding, gorgeous and dangerous. The same can be said about what she learns about the workings of the human heart. Dianne returns to the place she started from, transformed.