Author: Michael C. Hurley
Series: Stand Alone
Published By: Hachette group (April 16, 2012)
Michael C. Hurley, a noted trial attorney who once worked as a professional sailor, returns to the sea to give us a thought-provoking memoir of a man’s yearning for redemption and renewal in the wake of infidelity, divorce, and failure. The story begins as Hurley leaves Annapolis, Maryland, aboard an aging, 32-foot sloop, the Gypsy Moon. Three years after his marriage ended in scandal, Hurley is short of money, out of a job, and seeking to salvage a life that has foundered. Woven through Hurley’s compelling prose are gems of insight on such diverse topics as faith and disbelief. As the voyage brightens in surprising and sometimes humorous ways, we are guided to a physical and spiritual destination that seemed unattainable at the start. Once Upon a Gypsy Moon tells a salty, wave-swept tale in the time-honored tradition, but it also offers a message of hope that will resonate with anyone who has had to pick up the pieces after personal failure and loss.
About The Author:
Mike Hurley is a husband, father, attorney and writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. Born in Baltimore in 1958, he received his undergraduate degree in English Education in 1981 from the University of Maryland at College Park. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Law, he began a career in private practice in Houston in 1984. At age 34, he moved to North Carolina, where he took a year off to work as a professional sailboat-charter captain. Since entering private practice in North Carolina in 1993, he has earned success and notoriety as a defense lawyer in medical malpractice litigation. He is listed in North Carolina Super Lawyers.*
Mike began writing magazine articles about the outdoors at age 17. In 1995, he began writing and photographing a travelogue of wilderness canoe-expeditions with his children. This homespun journal grew into a commercially printed, quarterly gazette known as Hurley’s Journal (later Paddle & Portage) that was well-loved by more than 10,000 subscribers in 48 states. A collection of Mike’s essays from eight years of the journal became his first book, Letters from the Woods. The Wilmington Star-News described it as “one of those books you pick up like a comfy old shirt to relax in. . . Whimsical . . . Elegiac . . .” and wrote that “Hurley, like Hemingway, glories in the job cleanly done.” Writer’s Digest called it “inspiring on a variety of levels.” The Raleigh News & Observer found it “pointed, personal and poignant,” “a deep and passionate tale of wilderness adventures,” “a celebration of universal truths,” and “well worth reading.”
In 2006, Mike’s life was turned upside down by the end of his first marriage. Three years later, in seeking to understand these events and find a way forward, he took to the open ocean in a 32-foot sailboat, the Gypsy Moon, on a voyage that spanned two years. In his latest book, Letters from the Sea, Mike tells the unlikely, true story of how this remarkable voyage changed his life, and he offers hope to others who have had to pick up the pieces after personal failure and loss.
- Tell us the story behind the story. How did ONCE UPON A GYPSY MOON come to be?
The book started as a series of letters that I published for a small group of close friends and longtime readers. I had decided to make a solo, long-distance voyage aboard a leaking and aged 32-foot sailboat, the Gypsy Moon, three years after my twenty-five-year marriage had ended due to my involvement in an extramarital affair. Events along the voyage became touch points that I employed in writing about the crisis of guilt, anger, self-pity, fear and longing that I was experiencing. The book helped me to see where I had been, decide where I wanted to go, and express the universal need of every man and woman facing a similar failure or loss for understanding, forgiveness, and renewal.
From Chapter 1:
“This book is partly an effort to work out the navigational problems of the heart—to find true north; to account for set, drift, variation and deviation and measure the time and distance run, that I might better know my position within what Tolkien called ‘some larger way,’ and that others might better find the lights to guide their own voyages.”
- What was the most challenging aspect of writing ONCE UPON A GYPSY MOON?
The voyage itself, and particularly the mental challenge of the voyage. Taking off for the horizon on a boat in the midst of the financial, professional and personal wreckage in my life at the time seemed the most reckless of decisions, but something compelled me to go. It turned out to be the smartest decision I ever made. The writing flowed easily from the voyage. Making it from one port to the next turned out to be more daunting than I imagined, but those trials inspired the book and gave it a voice.
From Chapter 41:
“This voyage did not begin, back in August 2009, with the idea that it would change my life or anyone else’s. Seeing no better plan, I had cast my fate to the wind; but the wind being the fickle fellow he is, I expected nothing more from this gesture in the end than I would from a helium balloon that escapes a child’s hand. The thrill and wonder of its sudden rise belies the quiet ignominy of its inevitable, unseen descent. Yet, what I came to see in my little vessel, as she completed each successive leg of the voyage, bloodied but unbowed, was a realization of what we were both stubbornly capable of achieving. I began to kindle a hope, and soon that hope became a plan, that I might actually keep going.”
- What is the message you want readers to take away from your book?
I didn’t write the book especially for men, but I expect that my experience and what I have to say about it may resonate particularly with men who, like me, have made mistakes that have irrevocably changed their lives. We men are hard on ourselves and are prone to guilt and self-loathing. We hold on to the criticism about ourselves much longer than the praise, and we often refuse to accept that every guy around is just as imperfect as we are. On this voyage, I learned to face the fact that while I can’t undo the harm I caused my family, there is nothing to be gained by wallowing in it. Like a ship at sea, life will move on from your mistakes with or without you. It is better to be aboard and going somewhere—anywhere—than to be adrift in your regrets and going nowhere.
From Chapter 4:
“The idea—now so prevalent in law and politics—that there are ‘good’ people and ‘bad’
people and that ‘good’ people always do the right thing is a fiction of the childish mind. The wisdom of country songs notwithstanding, every one of us, since the Fall of Man, has been ‘the cheating kind’ in whatever area of life that holds for him or her the greatest temptation. Humility requires that we understand this, but it is more important to know that we are not defined by our mistakes. A ship’s wake tells you where she has been, not where she is going.”
- Describe your background.
I am an attorney in private practice in North Carolina, married with four children and three dogs, a backsliding student of the piano and classical guitar, a comfortably stiff Episcopalian, and stubbornly addicted to sailing and wilderness canoeing.
From Chapter 2:
“Growing up in Maryland, I was the youngest child by ten years of a divorced mother of four, spoiled rotten by my two older sisters, too young to know my brother when he was growing up, and all but abandoned at the age of two by an alcoholic father whose absence was most acutely felt in a boy’s unfulfilled dreams of grand adventure.”
- Describe your writing schedule. Do you outline? Any habits?
I am a procrastinator. I tend to live in my head and germinate ideas for weeks, finding phrases to express them and playing them over in my mind like measures of music until the rhythm and melody are right. I then write copiously, especially when a deadline looms. Promising readers and friends that I would send them a new letter about the voyage every other month gave me the pressure I needed to get the book done in a year.
- What books are on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
- Which authors inspire you?
Henry David Thoreau
George Washington Sears
C. S. Lewis
- What have you learned from this experience?
I discovered in my own life the humor, genius and truth in these words from The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien: “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
- What is your advice for aspiring writers?
“There is no such thing as great writing, only great re-writing.” Assoc. Justice Louis Brandeis, United States Supreme Court
- What are you working on now?
I just finished my first novel—a romantic thriller set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I am currently working on a proposal to submit it for publication.
In this day and age, which is to say a time well removed from the Age of Exploration, an era when there is less urgent need for travel and more efficient means to do so when one must, it would seem at the very least a mistake of judgment to point the bow of a small sailing vessel seaward and let slip her lines. One could offer clinical evidence that it is indeed an act of insanity, but that would risk missing the poetry of such a thing. Poetry or not, it is an odd habit, peering over the rail of a seagoing ship in a fifteen-knot breeze. Alone. And late in the day.
I know this pathology and have wrestled with this same impulse many times, usually regaining my heading and my senses and returning to port. Sailing alone or in company offshore, all night in a small boat, is a thing that passes for mere eccentricity or even dashing adventure in polite company. But however benign, it remains nonetheless a disorder, a departure from the mean and median of human life, and a path that many regard with admiration or envy but that few decide to follow. There are, I am told, more men alive today who have flown in outer space than who have sailed alone around the world by no power save what wind and water might sup- ply. I am not surprised by this, nor would you be if you sailed with me.
What appeals to me about voyaging in a small boat under sail is what first appealed to me as a young boy about camping in the wilderness. Both are simple systems—or, more accurately, systems for achieving simplicity. Aboard a boat, life is reduced to its essential elements. Life as we live it in the modern world, by contrast, has become a very complicated thing. We take the first steps toward school, career, and marriage, and before we know it, we are swept up into a self-perpetuating cyclone of consumption and production, to be carried aloft on those busy winds until we are thrown back to Earth some seventy-five years later, wondering where all the time and money have gone. We consume, and so we produce; we produce, and so we consume.
In a boat at sea, the processes of consumption and production are conjoined. That’s the beauty of it. The wind and water are at once both spectacle and vehicle, means and medium. The steady breeze on our face enthralls us as it propels us. The sea bears us up and feeds us dinner. There is no Walmart there. There is nothing to buy. There is only to be.
In the city of Miami, the sky burns with electric light and the streets boil with the perpetual motion of cars and trucks and people, but just three miles off that coast, there is no traffic, no noise, and no light at night save the moon and the stars. The open ocean is the only place on Earth where the hand of man has taken no lasting hold.
I don’t know what compelled me to follow the seaward path again, that August day in Annapolis. Perhaps it was a desire to retake the helm of my own destiny, however briefly. I must say I felt in that moment no small affinity with the author of the autobiography Papillon, played by Steve McQueen in the film, who upon leaping into the sea and climbing onto a floating raft of coconuts—finally escaping Devil’s Island in his old age—yells to unseen listeners, “I’m still here, you bastards.”
I wish to take a moment to reassure any readers who, perhaps not familiar with me and my station in life, may be laboring under the mistaken impression that sailing is nothing but an idle pastime of the very rich. It is that in some circles, to be sure, but in general that sort of sailor loves racing, not cruising. He goes screaming about the bay with a gang of like-minded friends, ties up his expensive boat at the yacht club pier at the end of the day, savors his victory or plots his revenge in the yacht club bar, and drives back to his expensive home to await the next contest. For this man, sailing is a sport, not a frame of mind or a philosophy of life. It is, to him, very much like a game of golf played on the water. In stark contrast to this fellow, there is an entirely different breed of peasant sailors who are not more than sea gypsies, and while I cannot claim truly to be one of them, I have admired them from afar.
In fact, the rich and powerful make up the decided minority of the sailors I meet at sea. Many manage to stay just a boat length or two ahead of their bankers’ worst fears, and all their fragile dreams depend heavily on the continued beneficence of a favorable wind, a half inch of duct tape, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average—hardly bulwarks of constancy. Whereas it has been famously written that the rich are different from you and me, real sailors are very different from the rich. They are an addicted bunch (insufferable cheapskates, the lot of them), and not for nothing are they regarded contemptuously in posh marinas the world around as “ragbaggers.” You are likely to find more impressive balance sheets at the tailgate party of any college football game—that seemingly most egalitarian of pastimes—than among the skinned-knuckled old men in well-stained khakis and sockless Top-Siders, eyeing pots of varnish at your local ship chandlery.
I am not speaking of “yachtsmen” here—those well-fed denizens of resort marinas, marking time from one gin and tonic to the next along the inland waterways, who dream mostly of time-shares in Miami, not of Magellan, and whose dreams are born aloft by diesel fumes, not wind and imagination. Nor am I speaking of those who rent sailboats on Caribbean vacations and (mostly) motor them nervously from one anchorage to the next.
To me, sailing is a way of looking at life, or it is nothing. It is a philosophy, not a space on one’s calendar between the Friday board meeting and Sunday brunch. The kind of adventure of which I speak cannot be rented any more than true love can be rented, nor is it merely an “experience” to be had, like a game of bowling or a good cigar. Voyaging under sail is a marriage of man and vessel, and as in any healthy marriage, the bond grows stronger even as the excitement of new love mellows. The things that strengthen that bond are the patience to endure and the commitment to overcome hardship. Patience and commitment are the heart of a sailor. In life, in love, and in boats, you’re either all in or you’re out.
This book is partly an effort to work out the navigational problems of the heart—to find true north; to account for set, drift, variation, and deviation and measure the time and distance run, that I might better know my position within what Tolkien called “some larger way,” and that others might better find the lights to guide their own voyages. Every ocean voyage forges both inward and sea- ward. The challenges of the seaward course that can be met are met easily enough by simple implements and routines of planning and preparation. The inward journey is not so well charted, and “there be dragons” along that way. So, with these thoughts in mind, let us cast off.
A Voyage Begins
I stepped off a plane at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in August 2009 and made my way to the traffic of cars picking up passengers on the street below. It was an easy flight from Raleigh. I carried no luggage save what fit in a small duffel held with one hand. Walking into the bright morning sun, I felt the still, moist heat that, for a period however brief every summer, makes Maryland seem like Miami.
My boat, a thirty-two-foot sloop named the Gypsy Moon, lay just outside Annapolis in a shipyard on the Magothy River, where I had taken her for major repairs six months before. The strain of thirty seasons of sailing since she first slipped her builder’s traces had taken its toll, and the work necessary to fit her out for an ocean voyage had taken five months to complete. I had undergone some less visible but no less critical repairs myself in the past few years. Now the Gypsy Moon was ready, and so was I.
My sister and her husband met me at the airport to ferry me to the boat, but not before the obligatory lunch of Maryland crab cakes and farewells to my brother and his family, who live nearby. In the past year and a half, while the boat was berthed in Annapolis, I had relished weekends sailing around the bay in places where, growing up, I had only imagined I might one day stand at the helm of my own boat. Here, in my middle age, I had sailed the Gypsy Moon under the shadow of the statehouse that was America’s Revolutionary War capitol and the place where my service as a legislative intern, at age eighteen, had convinced me never to enter politics. Back in these old haunts, I had fun reconnecting with family and friends and imagining the life I might have had here if I had chosen differently between job offers in two cities—one in Houston, one in Baltimore—twenty-five years ago.
But before long, my plans to prove Thomas Wolfe wrong about going home again ran into reality. A sojourn of three decades in Texas and North Carolina had made me more accustomed to the civility of southern manners and less tolerant of the edgy combativeness of life up north. It’s not just that the drivers won’t let you in on the road up there. I recall passing abeam of another boat on the bay near Baltimore and leaning over the rail with a smile, ready to exchange what in southern waters would surely have been a friendly hello, and being startled by a broadside of profanity in- stead. (I had dared to come close.) Dumbfounded, I could manage no reaction but to say “I’m terribly sorry” and tack. It seemed that a good share of the population between Washington and Baltimore had grown accustomed to living with their dukes up. I decided that there is more to the warmth down south than the weather. I was eager to be off again, aboard the Gypsy Moon.
Over lunch, I answered questions from my family that gently probed the perimeters of my plans. Nassau seemed far away and nigh unattainable, not just to them, but to me as well. It’s not every day, after all, that one ships out to sea alone. It sounded more daring than it was, yet I not only understood but shared their concerns. The open ocean is no trifling thing, even on the best of days.
I feel right at home at the helm of a sailboat, although I didn’t come by that knowledge easily. Growing up in Maryland, I was the youngest child by ten years of a divorced mother of four, spoiled rotten by my two older sisters, too young to know my brother when he was growing up, and all but abandoned at the age of two by an alcoholic father whose absence was most acutely felt in a boy’s unfulfilled dreams of grand adventure. The world of seafaring was the stuff of Hollywood—unimaginable, and far from me. As a child I lived my dreams on a much smaller scale, on creeks and ponds that I could reach on foot, in nearby neighborhoods, and on scouting trips with the aid of the fathers of other boys. It was mostly about the fishing back then, and the smell of wood smoke, and the authenticity of living life in the rough—however briefly, and never far from the ready-to-eat suburban comforts of 1960s America. Those truant days in the woods were wonderful furloughs, allowing my imagination to inhabit a world apart from teachers and tests. I loved the unsupervised freedom of it all.
But Chesapeake Bay and the sea that lay beyond were distant and more impenetrable mysteries, brought closer to me only occasion- ally when my brother, Jay, would take me and my sisters out for day sails aboard various dories and dinghies—some he rented, some he purchased, and one he had built himself. I distinctly recall the moment when the bow of a Rhodes 19 sloop, with my brother at the helm, plunged out of the mouth of the South River into the chop of the broader waters of Chesapeake Bay. What was once a horizon of trees and houses became nothing but water and the unseen possibility of whatever lay beyond. I looked into the small space of the cuddy cabin beneath the mast, just big enough for a duffel of food and clothes, and wondered what it might be like if we just kept going.
We didn’t. When our hour was up we pointed that fearless ship of dreams sheepishly homeward, paid for the time used, and drove back to the city on dry land. But the infection of that moment and others like it remained with me and would reemerge often years later, beginning with the time when I decided to “borrow” Jay’s fourteen-foot sloop and take her sailing myself.