The first time I fell in love with sailing

Sailing happened to me. It was never something I was inclined to, not even interested. My first love has always been the mountains.

In Italy sailing is thought to be an activity for rich people. It is of course a prejudice, as there are ways to make it more affordable, but on average the costs are pretty high. I too fell into the power of generalization and thought that sailing was an activity exclusive to a group of snobby rich obnoxious people. Of course I was not part of this group and I preferred the cheap and harsh alpine terrain, where I hiked and sometimes skied.

The first time I step on a sailing boat it was ten years ago, aboard Bicho, a Beneteau 51 designed by German Frers, that a friend of mine recently purchased to run charters in Venezuela. Bicho was big, comfortable, elegant, and she was waiting for us on a dock in Higuerote, to take us on a cruise of Los Roques. The owner invited me and other friends to celebrate the recent purchase and the beginning of the charter activities.

Aerial view of Archipielago de Los Roques, in Venezuela

We had an overnight sail offshore in the Caribbean Sea, which during peak season of the trade winds has some serious waves, and you feel them all when they hit you on your beam.

I slept in the forward cabin, rolling left and right and sometimes finding myself in midair. Because I was not sick as other of the passengers, I had to keep the helm for  a little bit, after receiving vague instructions on how to steer a course following the compass.

Once in the protection of the islands we enjoyed a week of island hopping, sailing through flat and crystal clear waters powered by a steady breeze, and surrounded by a wonderful scenario. Sitting on the rail on the windward side of the boat I let my legs dangle off the side while keeping my sight on the liquid horizon, enjoying a sensation of peace that I grew accustomed to during these years, and yet still so hard to describe.

Sailing time aboard Bicho

Back to Good Old Europe, in the gray and busy Pianura Padana, I resumed my job of building and delivering courses for employees and manager of various companies, helping them navigate through the treacherous waters of corporate life.

A year passed by, and I enjoyed the mountains more than the ocean. I realized my dream to take a solo trip to India and explore the Himalayan regions of Kashmir and Ladakh. I also decided to move from Milan to Turin and that put me even closer to the Alps.

A fertile valley in the arid Ladakhi Mountains, in India

Until one day, serendipitously, I left it all behind and moved to sea level, again in Los Roques, where I started a new professional path that I had never thought could be suited for me.

It was only after months there that I realized how those islands were nothing but a series of very high submarine mountains, with their peaks piercing the surface of the ocean, providing beautiful beaches and habitat for marine life and humans engaged in tourism. Once again I could feel that my attraction to mountain peaks

And yet in my mind I was no sailor. I still thought of myself as a manager running a business, until one day during a period of shipyard refit for Bicho in Curaçao, I met a person that challenged this view and planted a seed that would change my life.

I was living on a gutted charter boat in the Tropical heat. Only one cabin, where I slept and kept my belongings, was left untouched. Everything else was dismantled and under reconstruction, covered in dust and grease, and littered with tools and building materials. The project was very ambitious and I was doing my best to keep it underway while the chaos was unraveling around me.

My workplace in Curaçao

In that shipyard I met a young guy who was doing the same thing, only on a smaller boat. He was fit, fun to be around and hard working, and he was outfitting his own boat to sail across the pacific to Polynesia, where he had a seasonal job as crew of a luxury Motor Yacht.

We were the two youngest people living in the yard and we quickly bonded. He had a temper and was very energetic, I am low key and relaxed, so we found a natural way to coexist. For me he was an encyclopedia of boat work and I couldn’t restrain myself from asking him about anything sailing related and observing his work.

He would also share his sea stories with me, on how he sailed that old leaky wooden racing boat, bought sight unseen, straight from Nova Scotia to Saint Martin during the winter, with a couple of backpackers that had never sailed before, or how once he got dismasted in the Caribbean Sea and decided to decline rescue and instead drifted back from where he started to fix his mast and sail again.

His stories were eye opening for a rookie like me that thought boats only meant business and plummeting bills. He also debunked some myths about sailing that I had taken as axioms, first and more important that you need a big boat to sail across oceans.

Sailing lessons underway

I immediately identified with him. He was a young guy enjoying life on a boat on the cheap, and this was a revolutionary idea for me. Beside his long sailing experience, we were not so different.

After few months of hard work in the yard and long night talks he set off solo from Curaçao, to his destiny across the ocean, but before leaving, he gave me a suggestion. He told me that Back in Los Roques there was a good old boat, perfect for me. It was a Rival 32 that his friend was selling for 10.000$. When I got back to Los Roques I quickly found the boat. It was in need of a bit of TLC but that was not so important as visions of a new life afloat were flooding my daydreaming.

There was another option, which I also took from his personal example, that had a similar price tag: to take a professional license and make sailing my new career.

I chose the second option, because I knew that eventually another boat would show up at the right time and in the right place, and I would be better prepared to take on the challenge.

At least this is how I prefer to tell the story.

Misty Mountain Hop

Mountain wilderness has always fascinated me, long before the ocean did. The Alps are just at a stone’s throw from my hometown in Italy, and most of my growing up memories are related to walking in the woods, swim in mountain lakes and climb rocky peaks.

When it was time to figure out where to travel for our New Year’s Holidays it wasn’t difficult to pick the mountains. Kate and I needed a change of scenario from Coastal Georgia and the Blue Ridge Mountains north of Atlanta were the closest available option. Relatively close, I have to say, as it takes almost 7 hours driving to get there from Brunswick.

Even if life is sweet in the marshes of Glynn I felt the need to look at a different landscape. It takes some courage to find the time and the determination to do it, to subtract it to social life, work and money and general everyday schedule that ends up trapping our lives. It so much rewarding to be able to leave and go, and see what you haven’t seen before, and I am so lucky to share this attitude with Kate. We can say that we took  our souls on a date.

New Year's Eve ©Kate Zidar
New Year’s Eve ©Kate Zidar

With the burden/blessing of a multiple course feast we had for New Year’s Eve and tired by the consequently cooking and clean-up we jumped on the car the very first day of 2015 and started the journey. We killed two birds with one stone (I am practicing stone’s related idioms) visiting Kate’s siblings in Atlanta. It was nice to spend holiday time with family. Atlanta is so close yet so far there are not many opportunities to do it in the course of the year, when the Schedule reign.

After the Atlanta stop we drove up the mountains to a cabin in Chattahochee National forest. The forecast for the weekend was heavy and non/stop rain. Leaden sky, misty and grey, a true Appalachian atmosphere. We had to make a change in our plan, from hiking to sight seeing, using our car to explore the scenic roads of the Blue Ridge mountains.

Cabin portrait ©Fabio Brunazzi
Cabin portrait ©Fabio Brunazzi

UNICOI STATE PARK

Nestled in the Georgia Mountains, Unicoi is a state park that surrounds the 53-acre Unicoi Lake on Smith Creek. Kate dragged me to see the Lodge, which is a fancy building that serves conference groups, families and individuals with guest rooms, meeting space, restaurant and catering. We had no business there but to get a bit of free wi-fi to continue our planning of the visits. Nonetheless the staff was very welcoming and allowed us to walk around freely and to visit the building. They also gave us a straight forward advice: if we are interested in booking a room during low season we should just bypass the reservation area of the website and call the lodge: when the season is low they are always willing to meet your budget for a room in the lodge. Forewarned is forearmed.

HELEN, GA A FAKE ALPINE TOWN

Economic development strategies are to be judged by their effectiveness and the one that transformed Helen, GA into a touristic destination was a very successful one, even though bizarre. Once a logging town, Helen suffered a severe economic depression until a group of businessmen decided to invest and create a replica of a Bavarian village in the Alps in the 70s. Even national franchises as Huddle House and Wendy had to surrender to the style imposed by the zoning authority. Today Helen is a popular destination, with many restaurant and shopping areas.

We were unimpressed by Helen (as you see no pictures were taken), which is a bit disgusting for the kitsch style and the obvious inauthentic architecture. We had to take at least a stroll through the city and dine out. Thanks to Kate who is always able to extract local knowledge from store employees, we found the best restaurant in town, which obviously is not Bavarian and it doesn’t even have a Bavarian-style building. Bigg Daddy’s proved to be an authentic non-german restaurant and we still remember with pleasure the Jumbo Wings with lemon pepper hot sauce!

ANNA RUBY FALLS

Kate and the Falls ©Fabio Brunazzi
Kate and the Falls ©Fabio Brunazzi

The twin waterfalls lie in the hearth of the Chattahoochee National Forest and can be reached after a short and pleasant walk from the parking lot, the ideal condition for our rainy day. So when we hit the road to our NW route to McCaysville we made our first stop at the falls, where we had a wet little hike, some moment of meditation in the mist and a curious encounter with a pine-needle/spaghetti worm.

The spaghetti worm ©Fabio Brunazzi
The spaghetti worm ©Fabio Brunazzi

MOUNTAIN CROSSINGS

Visiting the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center at Neels Gap was like a pilgrimage for us, as the site is an important crossing of the Appalachian Trail. In 2012 Kate and I took a summer trip to Maine and we visited Baxter State Park and Mount Katadhyn, the northern end of the AT. We were fascinated to learn about the AT and dreamed that one day we could hike it.

The Hostel at Walasi-Yi ©Kate Zidar
The Hostel at Walasi-Yi ©Kate Zidar

Walasi-Yi is a Cherokee word for “big frog” and it’s the original name of this area at Neels Gap. The native american people used to have a village very close to the actual position of the building, but they had to leave through the infamous “Trail of Tears”, the removal of the Cherokee Indians and other native tribes from their life long home in 1838. According to eyewitness John G. Burnett, “… many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefoot. […] The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire.”

A recount of the "Trail of Tears"
A recount of the “Trail of Tears”

The actual stone building was built in 1934. Through the years it served as restaurant and dance hall, and today it houses a Hostel and an Outfitter shop right on the Appalachian Trail, which passes through the building, marking the only covered portion of the trail’s 2100 plus miles.

HANK B.

Our itinerary was designed around a specific appointment. We wanted to go and visit Hank, a man we met exactly one year ago in Cumberland Island. He was very interested int Tranquility, sitting at the dock by the ferry and we started to chat. After few words, we were all sat in the cockpit eating nuts an talking about sailing, and life afloat. He offered to trade his mountain cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains for our boat. We felt very tempted but we sticked with Tranquility. When we decided to go up in the Blue Ridge Mountains we called him, to see if he was still around, and he invited us to meet him in McCaysville, where he lives.

Old copper mine in Ducktown, TN ©Kate Zidar
Old copper mine in Ducktown, TN ©Kate Zidar

Hank took us on a tour of the area, first crossing the border to Tennessee, where we visited the abandoned copper mines in Ducktown. The scars of the mining is still evident, but trees are starting to grow back and repopulating the area. For Kate this was the sign of a profound legacy with her Pennsylvania ancestors who used to work in a mine town.

The system of dams on Ocoee River ©Kate Zidar
The system of dams on Ocoee River ©Kate Zidar
olympic course
Olympic Course on Ocoee River ©Kate Zidar

The second point of interest that Hank showed us was the system of dams on the Ocoee River. TVA manages the dams to produce electricity and to control the river flow for recreational purpose. The whitewater course on the Ocoee River was created for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and it is dependent by the water control system of the dams. In Spring, when they open the water, a group of kayakers and whitewater rafters gather to run the first wave down the river. Sounds like great fun!

TALLULAH GORGE

The gorge from up top ©Kate Zidar
The gorge from up top ©Kate Zidar

Weather improved the following day so before driving back to the lowcountry we stopped in a gorge-ous place. Tallullah Gorge is a set of waterfalls that flows in a steep little canyon. The interpretative center give tons of informations about the history and the nature of the Appalachian Region, and the trails around the waterfalls are easy and accessible.

The gorge at the bottom ©Kate Zidar
The gorge at the bottom ©Kate Zidar

Walking around the gorge on a finally sunny day gave us the opportunity to discuss some of the plans we have for 2015. After a static 2014, where we consolidated our situation after leaving New England in a hurry, we expect to start travelling again. There are plans to point Tranquility’s bow on a northern route later in Spring/Summer, to explore the great crusing grounds of New England. There is also a plan for a family meeting in Italy next August, in the beautiful scenario of the Alps. Quod erat demonstrandum, I live on the Ocean but I belong to the Mountains.