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I Learned a Big Life Lesson on a Very Small Boat

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

By Margie Smith Holt

Not long after I turned forty, I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in a tiny boat with no engine and a bucket for a bathroom. For sixteen days I didn’t see land. It was a mid-life adventure of epic proportions, one I could never have imagined in my younger days. Given the intensity of this experience, you’d think it would have been the most difficult of my life. But it wasn’t. The hardest thing I’d ever done preceded sailing across an ocean: quitting my job.

I knew the moment I walked into my high school’s TV studio that I wanted to be a reporter. I studied journalism at NYU and spent my 20s working multiple jobs—a morning radio gig in a small town, overnight turns on the TV assignment desk, and so forth. By my mid-30s, I had the dream job of anchoring the news in my home town of Philadelphia. Awards, accolades, and countless breaking stories followed. And then, suddenly, it was all over—the career I’d built came to a screeching halt after fourteen years. Today, we’d refer to the situation as a toxic work environment. Back then, we just called it having a horrible boss.

Next came a position in public relations. Not my passion, but a really good job and, unlike TV news, it came with predictable hours. This was a boon for my personal life. I had finally met the man I thought I was going to marry. My clock was ticking, and the reliable workload meant that we could start a family. Then came September 11th. My journalist boyfriend came back from Ground Zero a different person, and one day announced that he didn’t want marriage or children—at least not with me.

What happened? I was a hard worker, a diligent planner, and had my life laid out in front of me. I would be successful, with an exciting journalism career, a wonderful husband, and a bunch of great kids. But there I was, staring down 40, with none of it.

My instinct was to throw myself into work, a strategy one colleague thought was deranged. She believed what I needed was a vacation and stood at my office door every morning to tell me so. One day, mostly to shut her up, I handed her my credit card and told her to book anything she wanted. She chose scuba diving in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands—a stunning Caribbean gem, two-thirds national park, and surrounded by the bluest water I’d ever seen. I was smitten. I went home, sold my car, sublet my apartment, and put my stuff in storage.

Is this some kind of a mid-life crisis or something? One of my younger co-workers wanted to know. I had never thought of myself as middle-aged, but it was hard to argue with the math.

For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a plan. All I wanted was a break from deadlines. Some sunshine. Maybe a little perspective. I talked my way into a waitressing job, snorkeled with tropical fish, and met a group of bad-ass women who taught me how to sail.

I fell in love with my new island home, with her people, and with sailing. The thrill of being out on the water, the intoxicating feel of wind and sea spray, and the sheer freedom of it was life-changing. As my boating skills grew, so did my confidence. After a year of sailing in circles, I was ready to embark on a true journey.

I chose Antigua, a three-day sail from St. John. The women I crewed with thought I should aim higher. Sure, one of them said. And then when you get there, you can hop on one of the big yachts and cross the Atlantic. Because how many people can say they’ve done that in their lives?

I sailed to Europe on a yacht with a crew of six. Then I boat-hopped around the Mediterranean, each sailboat bigger and more beautiful than the last, each port of call—Sardinia, St. Tropez, Malta—more exotic. Each new crew position extended my travels a little farther. What would happen, I wondered, if I simply kept going?

Just when I thought I was running out of options, I heard from a friend in St. John I called Captain Kid, a young guy with an old soul. He had built a 30-foot wooden boat “in traditional style”—think Moby Dick—and he needed help sailing it home to St. John from Spain. Did I want to come along?

We set sail from the Canary Islands, navigating by compass, plotting our course with pencil, ruler, and a paper chart, our little boat so low to the ocean you could reach out and touch it. We took turns keeping watch, and I spent hours on deck, solo. Night after night I would sit at the tiller and gaze at the sky.

It was out there in the middle of the ocean, contemplating the Universe under a canopy of stars so magnificent you can’t help but believe in something bigger than yourself, that I finally found peace. Alone with my thoughts—away from distractions and expectations and pointless worries—I began to trust that even though absolutely nothing had gone the way I had planned, everything was unfolding exactly as it should.

This was an epiphany more freeing than the feeling of sailing itself, one I vowed to hold onto when, nearly a month after leaving port, we were back on land.

Alone with my thoughts—away from distractions and expectations and pointless worries—I began to trust that even though absolutely nothing had gone the way I had planned, everything was unfolding exactly as it should.

People say I was brave to uproot my life and move to an island, brave to sail across the ocean, but leaving my job in television was far more harrowing. Work had defined me for so long, I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t a reporter. But I took that leap, and it turned out there was a whole world beyond the one I had envisioned—an entirely different person. And out on the boat, in the middle of nowhere, was exactly where I’d found her.

After several consecutive years living the life of an island sailor, a cancer diagnosis forced me off the water, back to Philadelphia. But I was lucky and got better. The lessons in survival and perseverance I’d learned over the last several years certainly helped to buoy my spirits. Although I never had the kids I yearned for, I did find my Big Love, married a wonderful man, and started a writing business together. Today, I’m an entrepreneur, wife, daughter, aunt, niece, sister, friend, and maybe even a little bit of an adventurer.

This was an ending I could have been perfectly content with, but the story doesn’t end there. Six years ago, St. John was destroyed by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes. Because of the remote location, the devastation barely made the news. I was living in New Jersey at the time, desperate for information. When I decried the lack of reporting, a trusted mentor from my television days suggested that I was the one who was supposed to cover the story.

I returned to the island, steeling myself to write an elegy for the place that remade me. Instead, I found a truly inspiring story of endurance, resilience, even optimism in the midst of the climate crisis, one that called into question the very definition of paradise. Over the next year I chronicled the heartbreaking aftermath and recovery, eventually interviewing shell-shocked survivors to piece together what happened during the catastrophic storms. I couldn’t repair roofs, or write big checks, but I could give my old neighbors a voice. I owed them that much.

“Former Journalist Details Her Time in Paradise in New Book” read the chyron when I returned to television to talk about my project. This time I was the one being interviewed.

Turns out I am also still a reporter. Still a storyteller. It’s part of my DNA. And when I forget or have doubts, I go outside, look up at the stars, and try to remember that my place beneath them is determined not by a job title bestowed by someone else, but by my own belief in what—and who—I am.

Margie Smith Holt is a four-time Emmy-winning journalist, founder and managing partner of re:Write, a storytelling business focusing on the arts and nonprofits, and a volunteer mentor with the Visible Ink writing program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Her first book, Not On Any Map: One Virgin Island, Two Catastrophic Hurricanes, and the True Meaning of Paradise, was published in January.