Cruising Blues and Their Cure|
By Robert Pirsig
(originally published in Esquire, May 1977)
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Their case was typical. After four years of hard labor their ocean-size
trimaran was launched in Minneapolis at the head of Mississippi navigation.
Six and one half months later they had brought it down the river and across
the gulf to Florida to finish up final details. Then at last they were off
to sail the Bahamas, the Lesser Antilles and South America.
Only it didn't work out that way. Within six weeks they were through. The
boat was back in Florida up for sale.
"Our feelings were mixed," they wrote their hometown paper. "Each of us had
a favorite dream unfulfilled, a place he or she wanted to visit, a thing to
do. And most of us felt sheepish that our 'year's escape' shrunk to eight
months. Stated that way, it doesn't sound as if we got our money's worth for
our four years' labor."
"But most of us had had just about all the escape we could stand; we're
overdosed on vacation. Maybe we aren't quite as free spirits as we believed;
each new island to visit had just a bit less than its predecessor."
"And thoughts were turning to home."
Change the point of origin to Sacramento or Cincinnati or any of thousands
of places where the hope of sailing the world fills landlocked, job-locked
dreamers; add thousands of couples who have saved for years to extend their
weekends on the water to a retirement at sea, then sell their boats after
six months; change the style and size of the boat, or the ages and
backgrounds of the participants, and you have a story that is heard over and
over again in cruising areas - romantic dreams of a lifetime destroyed by a
psychological affliction that has probably ended the careers of more
cruising sailors than all other causes together: cruising depression.
"I don't know what it was we thought we were looking for," one wife said in
a St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, harbor after she and her husband had decided
to put their boat up for sale and go home. "But whatever it was, we
certainly haven't discovered it in sailing. It seemed that it was going to
be such a dream life, but now, looking back on it, it just seems . . . oh,
there have been beautiful times, of course, but mostly it's just been hard
work and misery. More than we would have had if we had stayed home."
A husband said, "We find ourselves getting on each other's nerves, being
cooped up like this with each other day after day. We never
realized that in order to enjoy being with someone you have to have periods
of separation from that person too. We sailed on weekends and short
vacations for years. But living aboard isn't the same."
Statements symptomatic of cruising depression vary from person to person,
but common to most are long periods of silence in a person who is normally
talkative, followed by a feeling of overwhelming sadness that at first seems
to have no specific cause, then, on reflection, seems to have many causes,
Everything is breaking down on this boat. Everything is going to hell.
Considering the number of things that could break down, the attrition is
actually quite normal, but now there isn't the time or tools to make major
repairs, and the costs of boatyard labor and overhead are out of sight. So
now every part failure - a pump that won't work, a loose propeller shaft, a
windlass that sticks - looms up as a catastrophe, and during the long hours
at the helm while the problem remains unfixed, it grows larger and
larger in the mind.
Money is running short. Most of the big supermarkets are too far from the
boat to walk to. Marine stores seem to overcharge on everything. Money is
always running short, but now that fact, which was once a challenge, is a
source of despair. A serious cruising person always seems to find the money
one way or another, usually by taking short-term waterfront jobs, and taking
them without much resentment. His boat gives him something to work
for. But now the boat itself is resented and there is nothing to work for.
The people are unfriendlier here than back home. Back home people seemed
friendlier, but now cruising depression has put a scowl and a worried look
on the sailor's face that makes people keep their distance.
All this is just running away from reality. You never realize how good that
friendly old nine-to-five office job can be. Just little things - like
everyone saying hello each morning or the supervisor stopping by to get your
opinion because he really needs it. And seeing old friends and familiar
neighbors and streets you've lived near all your life. Who wants to escape
all that? Perhaps what cruising teaches more than anything else is an
appreciation of the real world you might otherwise think of as oppressive.
This last symptom - the desire to "get back to reality" - is one I've found
in almost every case of cruising depression and may be the key to the whole
affliction. If one bears down on this point a little it begins to open up
and reveal deeper sources of trouble.
One first has to ask where those who are depressed got the idea that cruise
sailing was an escape from reality. Who ever taught them that? What exactly
do they mean? Scientists and philosophers spend their entire working lives
puzzling over the nature of reality, but now the depressed ones use the term
freely, as though everyone should know and agree with what they mean by it.
As best I can make out, reality for them is the mode of daily living they
followed before taking to the water; unlike cruise sailing, it is the one
shared by the majority of the members of our culture. It usually means
gainful employment in a stable economic network of some sort without too
much variance from what are considered the norms and mores of society. In
other words, back to the common herd.
The illogic is not hard to find. The house-car-job complex with its
nine-to-five office routine is common only to a very small percentage of the
earth's population and has only been common to this percentage for the last
hundred years or so. If this is reality, have the millions of years that
preceded our current century all been unreal?
An alternative - and better - definition of reality can be found by naming
some of its components ...air...sunlight...wind...water...the motion of
waves...the patterns of clouds before a coming storm. These elements, unlike
twentieth-century office routines, have been here since before life appeared
on this planet and they will continue long after office routines are gone.
They are understood by everyone, not just a small segment of a highly
advanced society. When considered on purely logical grounds, they are more
real than the extremely transitory life-styles of the modern civilization
the depressed ones want to return to.
If this is so, then it follows that those who see sailing as an escape from
reality have got their understanding of both sailing and reality completely
backwards. Sailing is not an escape but a return to and a confrontation of a
reality from which modern civilization is itself an escape. For centuries,
man suffered from the reality of an earth that was too dark or too hot or
too cold for his comfort, and to escape this he invented complex systems of
lighting, heating and air conditioning. Sailing rejects these and returns to
the old realities of dark and heat and cold. Modern civilization has found
radio, TV, movies, nightclubs and a huge variety of mechanized entertainment
to titillate our senses and help us escape from the apparent boredom of the
earth and the sun and wind and stars. Sailing returns to these ancient
For many of the depressed ones, the real underlying source of cruising
depression is that they have thought of sailing as one more civilized form
of stimulation, just like movies or spectator sports, and somehow felt their
boat had an obligation to keep them thrilled and entertained. But no boat
can be an endless source of entertainment and should not be expected to be
A lot of their expectation may have come from weekend sailing, whose
pleasures differ greatly from live-aboard cruising. In weekend sailing,
depression seldom shows up, because the sailing is usually a relief from a
monotonous workweek. The weekender gets just as depressed as the live-aboard
cruiser, but he does it at home or on the job and thinks of these as the
cause of the depression. When he retires to the life of cruising, he
continues the mistake by thinking, Now life will be just like all those
summer weekends strung end to end. And of course he is wrong.
There is no way to escape the mechanism of depression. It results from lack
of a pleasant stimulus and is inevitable because the more pleasant stimuli
you receive the less effective they become. If, for example, you receive an
unexpected gift of money on Monday, you are elated. If the same gift is
repeated on Tuesday, you are elated again but a little less so because it is
a repetition of Monday's experience. On Wednesday he elation drops a little
lower and on Thursday and Friday a little lower still. By Saturday you are
rather accustomed to the daily gift and take it for granted. Sunday, if
there is no gift, you are suddenly depressed. Your level of expectation has
adjusted upward during the week and now must adjust downward.
The same is true of cruising. You can see just so any beautiful sunsets
strung end on end, just so any coconut palms waving in the ocean breeze,
just so many exotic moonlit tropical nights scented with oleander and
frangipani, and you become adjusted. They no longer elate. The pleasant
external stimulus has worn out its response and cruising depression takes
over. This is the point at which boats get sold and cruising dreams are
shattered forever. One can extend the high for a while by searching for new
and more exciting pursuits, but sooner or later the depression mechanism
must catch up with you and the longer it has been evaded the harder it hits.
It follows that the best way to defeat cruising depression is never to run
from it. You must face into it, enter it when it comes, just be gloomy and
enjoy the gloominess while it lasts. You can be sure that the same mechanism
that makes depression unavoidable also makes future elation unavoidable.
Each hour or day you remain depressed you become more and more adjusted to
it until in time there is no possible way to avoid an upturn in feelings.
The days you put in depressed are like money in the bank. They make the
elated days possible by their contrast. You cannot have mountains without
valleys and you cannot have elation without depression. Without their
combined upswings and downswings, existence would be just one long tedious
When depression is seen as an unavoidable part of one's life, it becomes
possible to study it with less aversion and discover that within it are all
sorts of overlooked possibilities.
To begin with, depression makes you far more aware of subtleties of your
surroundings. Out on a remote anchorage, the call of a wild duck during an
elated period is just the call of a wild duck. But if you are depressed and
your mind is empty from the down-scaling of depression, then that strange
lonely sound can suddenly bring down a whole wave of awareness of empty
spaces and water and sky. It sounds strange, but some of my happiest
memories are of days when I was very depressed. Slow monotonous grey days at
the helm, beating into a wet freezing wind. Or a three-day dead calm that
left me in agonies of heat and boredom and frustration. Days when nothing
seemed to go right. Nights when impending disaster was all I could think of.
I think of those as "virtuous days," a strange term for them that has a
meaning all its own.
Virtue here comes from childhood reading about the old days of sailing ships
when young men were sent to sea to learn manliness and virtue. I remember
being skeptical about this. "How could a monotonous passage across a pile of
water produce virtue?" I wondered. I figured that maybe a few bad storms
would scare hell out of the young men and this would make them humble and
manly and virtuous and appreciative of life ever afterward, but it seemed
like a dubious curriculum. There were cheaper and quicker ways to scare
people than that.
Now, however, with a boat of my own and some time at sea, I begin to see the
learning of virtue another way. It has something to do with the way the sea
and sun and wind and sky go on and on day after day, week after week, and
the boat and you have to go on with it. You must take the helm and change
the sails and take sights of the stars and work out their reductions and
sleep and cook and eat and repair things as they break and do most of these
things in stormy weather as well as fair, depressed as well as elated,
because there's no choice. You get used to it; it becomes habit-forming and
produces a certain change in values. Old gear that has been through a storm
or two without failure becomes more precious than it was when you bought it
because you know you can trust it. The same becomes true of fellow crewmen
and ultimately becomes true of things about yourself. Good first appearances
count for less than they ever did, and real virtue - which comes from an
ability to separate what merely looks good from what lasts and the
acquisition of those characteristics in one's self - is strengthened.
But beyond this there seems to be an even deeper teaching of virtue that
rises out of a slow process of self-discovery after one has gone through a
number of waves of danger and depression and is no longer overwhelmingly
concerned about them.
Self-discovery is as much a philosopher's imponderable as reality, but when
one takes away the external stimuli of civilization during long ocean hours
at the helm far from any land, and particularly on overcast nights,
every cruising sailor knows that what occurs is not an evening of
complete blankness. Instead comes a flow of thought drawn forth by the
emptiness of the night. Occurrences of the previous day, meager as they may
have been, rise and are thought about for a while, and then die away to
return again later, a little less compelling, and perhaps another time even
weaker, until they die away completely and are not thought of again. Then
older memories appear, of a week past, a month past, of years past, and
these are thought about and sometimes interrelated with new insights. A
problem that has been baffling in the past is now understood quickly. New
ideas for things seem to pop up from nowhere because the rigid patterns of
thought that inhibited them are now weakened by emptiness and depression.
Then in time these new thoughts wear town too, and the empty night dredges
deeper into the subconscious to tug at, loosen and dislodge old forgotten
thoughts that were repressed years ago. Old injustices that one has had to
absorb, old faces now gone, ancient feelings of personal doubt, remorse,
hatred and fear, are suddenly loose and at you. You must face them again and
again until they die away like the thoughts preceding them. This self that
one discovers is in many ways a person one would not like one's friends to
know about; a person one may have been avoiding for years, full of vanity,
cowardice, boredom, self-pity, laziness, blamingness, weak when he should be
strong, aggressive when he should be gentle, a person who will do anything
not to know these things about himself - the very same fellow who has been
having problems with cruising depression all this time. I think it's in the
day-after-day, week-after-week confrontation of this person that the most
valuable learning of virtue takes place.
But if one will allow it time enough, the ocean itself can be one's greatest
ally in dealing with this person. As one lives on the surface of the empty
ocean day after day after day after day and sees it sometimes huge and
dangerous, sometimes relaxed and dull, but always, in each day and week,
endless in every direction, a certain understanding of one's self begins
slowly to break through, reflected from the sea, or perhaps derived from it.
This is the understanding that whether you are bored or excited, depressed
or elated, successful or unsuccessful, even whether you are alive or dead,
all this is of absolutely no consequence whatsoever. The sea keeps telling
you this with every sweep of every wave. And when you accept this
understanding of yourself and agree with it and continue on anyway, then a
real fullness of virtue and self-understanding arrives. And sometimes the
moment of arrival is accompanied by hilarious laughter. The old reality of
the sea has put cruising depression in its proper perspective at last.