It is good to be the Captain

I have always had a very special and emotional relationship with the water and the sea. Born in the South of France by the Mediterranean Sea, I grew up with this amazing liquid playground. At first, as a kid, the sea was mainly about the beach and the family. I remember endless summers spent with the whole family at the same spot on the same beach downtown Cannes, every weekend, like we owned that little piece of sandy land. It was to the point that, two beach-blocks down, my cousins’ grandparents had their own spot too, so we would visit them every time, like we visit neighbors down the street. And every time, my cousins’ grandma would tell me and my siblings how much we grew up and how handsome we looked, although she saw us just the week before. Last time we met her – a few months ago, at the age of 94 years old – she said the same thing to us again 😉

As I got older and became a teenager, the sea and the beach turned more into an exhibition venue where young males like me would act for long hours under the hot sun in order to impress the girls. Tough competition. Once in awhile, I got lucky and I was able to get the attention of one of them. Then further swimming and aquatic games, out of sight from the beach, led to more sensual evolutions…

To this day, I still don’t understand how I managed to graduate from high school. From our main class room building, we had a splendid sea view and I would spend countless hours just staring at her profound blue color along with this so unique azur sky. And during the warmer season, I would, of course, spend all my lunches down on the beach, again, chasing the girls, and get late for the afternoon classes.

Growing up on the French Riviera, it never really crossed my mind that I could, one day, just go on the water and further explore the world. My only goal after high school was to join the military in order to do something meaningful with my life. Even then, the Navy was not on the top of my list. I wanted to be a jet pilot, but it didn’t work out, so I thought I could join the Army Academy (St Cyr) like my grandpa did in 1939, on the eve of WW2. Well… that didn’t work either. After I failed my first attempt to college, I started to consider joining the Navy. But still, I was only interested in the Navy aircraft at that time, not the ships (yet), as I thought that only silly people would spend that much time away from home to get sea sick… Silly me.

Somehow, my enlistment application was accepted by the French Navy, and I had the chance to spend a few days in Toulon (the main French naval base, in the South East of France) for lots of exams and medical evaluations. On the last day, the meeting with the psychiatrist was supposed to be the decisive one. As a smart young man, I prepared this interview the whole night before, downtown, spending all my money in these cool bars where “experienced” women would insist I pay them expensive drinks for some sort of private time… The next day, totally hangover, I successfully passed the psych interview and the Navy shrink even told me to think about an officer career after I graduate from the Petty Officer school. I guess there was a sign there…

And indeed, there was. After a short career onboard shore-based patrol aircraft as a radar and navigation operator, I eventually ended up at the Naval Academy and finally put my feet onboard boats. There, I learned and loved the sea from a new prospective. It was no longer only the beach and the leisure side, but also now the freedom – the real one, where the horizon is the only limit. From that moment on, and for almost ten years, I have had the immense privilege to travel and discover the world from the sea. Hereafter sailor, I experienced the most breathtaking sceneries: the ocean near the equator where the water is so flat because there is absolutely no wind, so that the flying fishes and the wake of the ship seem to be the only things that can disturb this peaceful and so quiet environment; or, on the other end, the intensity and the suddenness of the thunderstorms in the tropical waters, and these trade winds, these comforting winds that make the heat bearable and life amazingly sweet on these heavenly islands (O’Tahiti Nui…). Or still, the brutality of the winter storms in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, and the roughness of the subsequent gigantic swell and waves in the Bay of Biscay.

Of course, one day, while ashore still busy chasing girls, one (THE one) got me, for good. Thanks to her, I settle down my sea bag in the beautiful Southeastern country of Virginia, and we have called this place home ever since. With the family life and raising two young boys, I then put the sea and the sailor life aside for a little bit.

The call from the sea later resurfaced for a new journey, called cancer and survivorship.

During my first chemotherapy treatment, there was one particular night. After receiving drugs through IV all afternoon long, I was finally home, on the couch, just trying to rest and recuperate from that heavy punch in the face… It was late and everybody in the house was sleeping. I was trying to find something to watch on TV that could take my mind away just for a moment, and ease the burden of reality. Unexpectedly, I ended up on a documentary about the life of a famous French sailor named Bernard Moitessier. The man was telling all about his amazing sea stories and adventures around the world. At one point, he explains how he named his latest boat – Tamata – and the meaning of the Chinese symbol he painted on her hull: “heart & mind”. He goes on to say that, in the Chinese culture, these two can’t be differentiated. I found that symbol so powerful and true that I made it mine instantly. A few months later, as the project of this blog unfortunately gained momentum due to my relapse, it made sense to me to incorporate this Chinese symbol in the logo of Lou Pitchoun USA, and bring a piece of this famous sailor onboard my own journey.

At the toughest time of my second treatment, during the high dose chemo and the stem cells transplant, another French sailor – Bernard Giraudeau, famous for his later acting career – joined me for a little while. His books were telling the kind of stories that my soul needed. His writing style, oneiric, suggestive and very raw at the same time, was fully aligned with what I was experiencing. Drugged up with so many chemicals in my blood, his adventures led my mind every night into these stoned-like dreams where I could actually feel free and liberated from the medical cage I was trapped into.

Once treatment was over, the journey took another turn. The constant fear of another relapse, doubt, anxieties and depression pushed away that little flame of Peace that just returned after the good news of the remission. I have tried several times in this blog to explain what it feels like (HERE, HERE or HERE for instance), shared my attempts to get better and what solutions seem to work. But as I am growing up as a survivor, I am realizing how the sea and the water have been helping me to keep my mind at ease.

In particular, one specific event reignited the spark. In June last year (2015), the Hermione – the replica of the vessel who brought French General Lafayette in America in 1780 – arrived in the U.S.A. (in Yorktown exactly, close to where I live) for an amazing commemoration voyage on the East coast. For this very special occasion, I took a day off to welcome this proud ship and her crew for her first call on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. The sight – almost magical – of this historical vessel, the atmosphere of this unique celebration voyage, but also the energy and the vibes of this fantastic crew, along with the company of my friend (French and sailor too, of course) all combined to make it a surreal and powerful moment. Overwhelmed, I turned that spark into words the next day (if you read French, the post is right HERE), and from the inspiration that came out of it, I understood my special connection with the water and the sea.

As an additional sign of this defining moment, my words made my Mother happy, as I was finally “getting it” according to her. A few months later, when I told her that I was joining this sailing club to go back on the water, she said again that she was very happy for me.

Mother, Sea, two words that sound the same way in French (Mère, Mer)…

She passed away earlier this year, after losing her battle to cancer. It took me several weeks to put into words my feelings about her passing, as an attempt to process what happened and accept the mourning, in a similar way that writing this blog has been helping me cope with cancer and survivorship. In the post I wrote in her memory in my mother tongue, I drew blurred parallels between these two words, Sea and Mother, to understand in the end that they share the same beauty and eternity…

Today, I feel immensely blessed to be alive and well. I feel even more fortunate to have found – so far – what makes me happy and what brings Peace to my mind. In this always unexpected journey, I have been given the chance to meet other survivors for whom the water and the sea had the same soothing and healing effect. My friend Kim is one of them. When we go sailing together, she says it is her soul therapy.

Over the last winter, during the calm off season for our sailing club, I trained with more experienced shipmates to get my Captain qualification with the intent to eventually be able to sail on my own, with my kids, my “Lou Pitchoun”. Further to the joy of being on the water, that training period allowed me to regain lots of the self confidence I had lost due to the disease and its aftermath. Re-learning how to handle and steer a 20 footer felt so much like re-learning how to lead confidently my own destiny boat.

“When you can’t change the direction of the wind, adjust your sails”
H. Jackson Brown Jr.

As I was making progress with my sailing skills, I offered to my friend and fellow survivor Katie (who also happened to be a US Navy shipmate) to join us and experience this unique therapy. By the look in her eyes, it was obvious that she too enjoyed that precious time on the water. In addition to being an amazing person, Katie was also very crafty. Before I even got my Captain qualification, she made me two very meaningful objects that illustrate this special connection with the water, and also our bond in this journey.

After three different chemo regimens, a high dose chemo followed by a stem cell transplant, Katie unfortunately relapsed and her latest treatment impacted seriously her immune system. As she was often admitted in the ICU, I texted her every time I went sailing hoping that, from her room at the Naval Hospital, on the bank of the river, she could see our colorful sails and that it could cheer her up.

Now that she has joined Heaven, hoisting proudly the sails of our little boats on this river has become the ritual to honor her memory.

Spring is here now. We kicked off the beginning of the sailing season by burning our socks in celebration of the warmer days. Weird tradition, yet fun. As I was hoping for when I started my training last fall, I am now a qualified Captain on these little sailing boats. With some work and motivation, and most importantly, thanks to the help of my dedicated and passionate mentors, I did it.

The day I successfully passed the practical exam, I thought: “Now what?” As a survivor, it has become challenging to project myself in the future. It feels like I am only allowed to enjoy life in between medical follow up appointments, like I am on probation. But with this major sailing milestone, and for the first time in a long time, I have been able to set up a goal, plan a little bit ahead for success and achieve this goal. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I overcame my fears. And the water and the sea made that possible.

So “now what?” indeed. Well, although I am not sure I can go full speed ahead on new and long term projects yet, I know now that regardless of what the future might bring, I can enjoy life, have new dreams, and more daringly, be hopeful that I can achieve them. No matter the storms or the flat seas, I will adjust the sails accordingly.

Last Saturday, the weather was perfect for an easy and light sailing session. So for the first time, I took my little ones – my “Lou Pitchoun” – with me, and all together, on the water, we had fun. That made me happy and at Peace.

It is good to be the Captain.

See you for the next story.


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