Plunge - One Woman's Pursuit of a Life Less Ordinary

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A 30-year-old nomad seeks adventure and freedom at sea, but finds herself at odds with love, work, immigration, the weather, and health as she navigates the world and her relationship. Through joy, curiosity, determination, and personal challenges, she must survive - and mature along the way.
First 10 Pages

Prologue – Mid-ocean

For the last ten days, my sweetheart and I have been stuck on our 35-foot sailboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. However, there is nothing pacific (or sweet) about this ride, this life, anymore.

Mark steps into the cockpit and cracks his head on the sharp edge of the doorway – again. He lets out a yell of agony. Our floating home had briefly gone airborne and landed with a smack and a groan back into the turbulent sea.

“We’re putting this boat up for sale the moment we arrive in French Polynesia, so those islands better be the highlight of the South Pacific!” Mark barks at me before scrambling towards the autopilot.

His expression reflects the grim circumstances around us. There is absolutely nothing we can do to change them. Our sailboat is bouncing and jerking and pitching, lunging left, right, up, down, forward, backward, and everything in between.

Holding on, I gasp and shout back, “You’re kidding! I’m not ready to sell the boat yet, after all we’ve been through to get here!”

He glares at me with non-negotiable fury. Blood gushes down his forehead.

I swallow hard as half-digested crackers threaten to escape. It’s difficult to care about him when he’s this angry.

His head hurts. My stomach churns. He’s ready to give up, now, forever – to quit this lifestyle I have come to love.

Our roller coaster ride plummets into the lowest of troughs, and I hover over the foaming crests of the infinite ocean. I’d rather vomit than let his attitude drag me deeper into this depression – and I do. I look up to catch my breath and watch the horizon dance relentlessly. Deep blue, lined with white, morphs into sky blue, curved above, then below me.

I barf again.

You have to be tough to cross oceans on a small boat. These days, it’s tough to be tough. That ever-important sense of freedom I strive for tastes salty and feels confined.

In the name of love and adventure, I pull my weight as a sailor. Albeit with a pale face that matches the color of our sails. And that guy I’ve been with, through sickness and health, frustrations and despair, peace and madness, anger and passion? He increasingly makes me unhappy, crushing my dreams, belittling my choices. Maybe he should get off this boat when we finally make landfall.

Hardships are often required to reach goals. No pain, no gain. I’m heading to the blissful, mysterious islands of French Polynesia, better known as Tahiti, to stay a while – and not sell the boat. If I have to suffer through weeks of discomfort and watery environs to get there, so be it.

My mate doesn’t agree. He hates discomfort. The pay-off, a so-called paradise, a distant utopia, is not worth the cost to him.

“There are enough beautiful countries that are easier to reach. By plane, if necessary,” he states.

I can’t deny that, but we are here now, in the middle of the ocean. His mindset and grumbles don’t surprise me. I should be happy he agreed to do this crossing in the first place.

While well-equipped, our tiny vessel isn’t meant to endure conditions like these. Neither are we.

“We can do this. All of us… together…” I say to nobody in particular, despite the fact that our family has shrunk over the years. I don’t want to dwell on that; I have more imminent things to worry about.

I hope we don’t flip. We’re too heavy! Why did I provision like Armageddon was upon us?

My mind keeps racing, unable to forget my stomach.

I don’t want to be sick anymore. Should I take more medicine?

I force my thoughts onto a different tack.

I’m glad I don’t have children yet. Imagine the chaos! The fear! The mess!!!

I need to think positively.

Should I try to cheer my man up again? Sailing was his dream, after all…

This is probably one of his exaggeration fits and he doesn’t mean any of it.

Maybe I should listen to him. Is it time to get off our boat and do something else? No, it’ll blow over, like these heavy winds and killer waves.

Bang! The fiberglass creaks and the boat stalls.

Is this the end?

Chapter 1 - A True Kiss and a False Start

San Francisco. A fascinating city I only know from movies and guidebooks. So close now! I can almost see the Golden Gate Bridge, smell the salty air of the bay, and feel the breeze in my light brown hair. The promise of a new adventure causes my ear-to-ear grin as I hop into our small camper to grab a CD of dEUS, my favorite Belgian band.

After crisscrossing the United States, Western Canada, and Alaska in our truck camper for the last year and a half, my boyfriend Karl, his dog Caesar, and I landed in California. Karl’s friend Nik, a DJ, had invited us to share his studio-apartment in Oakland, as a base to explore SF. Nik also rents out two apartments in his house.

CD in hand, I enter the yard again and stop dead in my tracks. Two gorgeous dogs with fluffy tails had run up to me. I smother them with cuddles and praise.

“Hi, I’m Mark. And these two are Kali, the white one, and Darwin, the grey one.”

I look up from admiring the wagging furballs.

My eyes meet those of a tall, skinny, short-haired, and attractive man in the doorway of apartment #1.

“Hello. I’m Liesbet,” I oblige. It’s interesting how Americans always introduce themselves immediately, as if names are the most important take-away during a conversation.

“My boyfriend and I just arrived. We’re staying with Nik for a week to visit San Francisco. Our home on wheels is parked in front of the house.”

“Home on wheels? Why are you living in a camper?”

“It lets us travel around with our own bathroom and kitchen and plenty of storage. A small RV provides much more comfort and security than dingy hostels and a backpack,” I tell him with an unfaltering smile and raised voice; telltales of the excitement I always feel when elaborating on my pursuit of freedom.

“I detect an accent. Where are you from?” he asks, after I had described a handful of places I visited while backpacking for almost two years on the other side of the world.

“I’m from Belgium, but I haven’t been back in a while.”

“I don’t know anyone who can just pack up and go. How do you afford that?” He’s not the first to ask this question, verbally or with raised eyebrows. Ever since I chose travel over stuff, at age 17, people have wondered whether I’m rich. I’m not. And I never will be.

“I live on a tight budget and have always been careful with my income, saving most of it to travel the world.”

I think about how to phrase the next part of my answer. Back in Australia, when I met Karl, and he told me he still had school debt ten years after graduating, I’d been shocked. No wonder Americans become work-focused and entrenched in the economic system at 22. They begin their adult lives needing to repay tens of thousands of dollars before actually making money. Stressful!

I can’t possibly dump all this on a person I just met, so I simplify it.

“Because I’m from a socially-inclined country, where education is cheap, I’m debt-free. And, because certain incentives are encouraged, the government pays me the equivalent of 300 dollars a month, since my teaching position is now filled by someone who would have required a hefty unemployment check otherwise. That pretty much covers my expenses.”

Mark seems entranced, which encourages me to ramble on about my passion. After some time of telling stories and trading questions and answers, he exclaims, “That’s incredible! I need to fly to Australia and find myself a Belgian girlfriend!”

I blush. It dawns on me that we’d been chatting for a while.

“Do you know what time it is?” I ask. An hour has passed. I rush to Nik’s place next door.

“Where have you been?” Karl asks.

“Talking to a neighbor, the one with the big dogs. He seems like a nice guy.” I hand my CD to Nik, who is always eager to discover new music.

Our planned week in the Rockridge area of Oakland turns into four, as all of us become friends and Mark unintentionally draws me closer and closer. We create precious memories together. He buys me a gloriously ripe organic tomato for my 29th birthday, because I like tomatoes and complained about their high price in California. It is the plumpest and tastiest one ever. He and I go on romantic beach walks, take the dogs to nature parks, and spend hours and hours talking in private at night, getting to know each other better.

Karl encourages my contact with Mark. “Soon we’ll be out of here and it’s just you and me again,” he says. “Enjoy the company!”

I embrace Mark’s presence until I crave it. During the day, Karl and I discover the Bay Area and take all three dogs for walks in the neighborhood. In the evening, I anxiously await Mark’s arrival from work and, after dinner, find an excuse to go over there.

One night, the Hollywood-moment arrives… our first kiss, following days of butterflies-in-the-stomach anticipation. An arm around my shoulders. A fluttering body. Touching of lips. Mutual desire. He loves me back!

We never allow anything more to happen. Mark is a realist. He knows I am leaving Nik’s place shortly and that I am in a serious relationship.

Our dreadful last evening together eventually arrives. We hug strongly and kiss tenderly.

“I’ll come pick you up wherever you are, whenever you’re ready to leave Karl.” Mark’s parting words sound sweet. Is he serious?

That night, I lie awake, heart racing. By morning, it’s time to pack up the camper and leave our base for the past month.

I exchange glances with Karl. His eyes beam with excitement about continuing our adventures; mine reflect trouble and sadness.

I take the plunge.

“I can’t be with you anymore. My attraction to Mark has grown too strong.” I sound more determined than I feel.


“I was ready to take this relationship a step further,” Karl mumbles, his voice breaking.

What is that supposed to mean? Was he planning to propose?

My pounding heart skips a beat. I don’t want to be someone’s wife! I would have had to say no. Even worse than breaking up. I avoid his eyes. This decision rips me apart; hurts me as much as it devastates him. I care a lot about Karl, who loves me dearly and with whom I bond well. I had no reason to leave. Why split up when mutual respect, passion, and interests abound?

Alas, something else – someone else – happened.

Karl stares at me with intent. “We’re driving to Mexico. We both looked forward to this.”


Did he not notice my enthusiasm to continue our overland journey had diminished these last weeks?

I swallow hard.

Can I really give all this up, our past explorations on the road and whatever adventures await in Mexico? The year and a half of ups and downs before that, where he tried so hard to fit into my Belgian life? How about my American visa that will run out if I don’t leave the country soon?

The consequences of my impulsiveness finally trigger some brain activity.

Karl continues, “I love you. Caesar and I will miss you so much.”

We both cry. Three years together is not nothing. I think about the good times we shared. Karl and his dog – and me, too – had been ecstatic when I showed up at his Maryland apartment, ready to roam North America.

That was the summer of 2003. I had thrown a goodbye party at my parents’ house in Belgium and hopped on a plane. Little did I know I was never to return.

I remain quiet. My heart bleeds for him. Karl is a sensitive man who understands me and cares about me. We have the same passion: traveling the world on a budget. Yet, I crave more romance in a relationship with someone else, a new-found love.

Am I seriously giving up my travels for a man?

That would be a first. It’s usually the other way around. My gut knows how this predicament will end. My mind has nothing to add.

I face Karl and finally utter, “If I leave with you, I will want to come back here at some point.” It is the only conclusion I can muster.

I have fallen in love with another guy, the “guy next door.” I can’t stay with Mr. Cute, the name fellow backpackers had given Karl before we met. It would be unfair to him.

“If that’s what you want,” Karl replies with a sigh, “then you should just stay.”

In the hours that follow we split the money from our communal account; I gather my belongings; and we discuss a contingency plan for the truck camper. I pet Caesar goodbye and give Karl one last, heartfelt embrace. Then, misty-eyed, I watch them drive away.

I close the door of Mark’s apartment behind me. Unlike other times when Karl and I returned his dogs after walking them with Caesar – today, I don’t leave.

My pile of clothes and gear clutters the corner of the bedroom. Mark has no idea.

Kali and Darwin join me on the bed. It’s a California King. A month ago, I’d never heard of such a thing. Now, I hope it becomes mine. Four inquisitive eyes stare at me. I reach for my companions. I should be jumping with joy. Instead, I can’t stop sniffling. Their fur is drenched in minutes.

This King-size bed should easily fit the four of us.

The Australian Shepherd mixes wag their tails. I continue snuggling with them. Both are rescue dogs; smart, loving, beautiful. It’s their fault I’m here. They greeted me that fateful day.

Mark has found his Belgian girl without having to travel to Australia; she appeared right on his doorstep. He probably thought he’d never see her again. Surprise!

What will he say when he comes home from work?

What if he doesn’t want me here?

As usual, I don’t have a back-up plan. The rest of the afternoon, I cry. I feel bad for Karl.

I’m such a selfish bitch.

I contemplate emailing my parents about what happened. Maybe a Skype call?

“Guess what, mom? I broke up with Karl, the man everyone likes so much; that considerate gentleman who has become part of the family.” I imagine the frowns. “Why? Because I chose someone else. Oh, and you’ll have to meet him instead of Karl on your upcoming vacation in the US.”

It doesn’t seem the right moment to tackle that subject. Besides, computers can’t handle salt water.

The front door opens. The dogs jump up and run towards their human. I stay behind in the bedroom.

“Hi, guys,” Mark greets Kali and Darwin with a sad voice. “I guess they’re gone, huh? They must have forgotten to lock the door before they left.” The dogs’ collars jiggle. I assume he’s petting them.

“You two don’t seem too excited to see me. What’s up?”

I walk into the hallway. My eyes sting.

Mark looks up.

“What the hell are you doing here?” His words crush me. I shuffle towards him. We hug. I don’t want to let go.

“I’m staying with you,” I whisper, as if he doesn’t have any say in this. Mark’s face relaxes into a smile. His grip tightens. I guess that means it’s okay.


The following weeks are exciting and emotional. Mark and I discover each other’s minds and bodies. Time eases my thoughts, worries, and sadness about Karl. I settle for a sedentary life as house maid, grocery shopper, and dog walker. I have mixed feelings about my new situation. I spend money being stationary without doing anything inspiring. It’s against the pact I sealed with myself years ago: I either live somewhere to work and save money for travel or I spend money while traveling. This is neither. I’m in limbo. But at least it’s with the man I anticipate a future with.

In Rockridge flair and fashion, everything is in walking distance: a wonderful Mexican burrito joint, the hip café on the corner where we hang out with our dogs, the BART metro station for easy rides into San Francisco, the Safeway grocery store, and any ethnic restaurant that strikes our fancy. Like the Ethiopian place where I eat injera with my hands. The tradition reminds me of trips to Morocco.

Mark’s shrink has an office close by as well. Once a week, I pick him up at the glass door and we go out for an early dinner. Do I need to worry about these visits?

I’ve never met anyone else who sees a psychiatrist, but on TV many Americans do. I know Mark has depressive tendencies – he told me so – and according to his psychiatrist, “everyone has depression.” I find that hard to believe. I’m content about my life choices. I often get what I want and focus on my passions: travel, writing, and recently, dogs. Kali and Darwin have become a major part of my existence.

I let the shrink issue fade.

“Would you like to come with me to San Diego this weekend?” Mark asks one day. “There’s a sailboat in a boatyard I want to look at.”

My turn to be surprised. He has been scrutinizing ads, but I had no idea how serious he was about actually buying a boat. His dream of sailing the world is within reach, now that he’s found a partner who loves trying new things. There’s only one caveat. I get motion sickness.

But the heart beats the stomach. I love this guy. Besides, I’ve never let seasickness stand in my way of experiencing something unique. Anything to start traveling again, even if it means – gasp – on the water.

“Sure, that sounds great.”

Should I tell him I get seasick?


I don’t think Mark ever asked, “Hey, do you want to go sailing full-time with me and the dogs?” I just assume that’s next after he buys Tovarish in San Diego. I’m approaching two years away from my home country and, one would think, getting close to wrapping up this nomadic existence. Mark is ready to begin his adventure, after ten years of living the “American Dream” being unhappy.

Going back to Belgium and working, or trying out a lifestyle that expands my horizons?

It’s an easy decision for me.

We move Tovarish to Emeryville Marina and rename her Four Choices. The spelling on the hull – F/Our Choice/s – highlights the middle part. Life is about choices. Mark downsizes by selling most of his belongings on Craigslist and at a yard sale. He gives notice at work and to Nik, the owner of his apartment.

We move aboard for five months and learn the ropes of our Islander Freeport 36, a bulky monohull with a raised saloon and big windows. Three wide steps lead to the living area and a flip-out transom makes it easy for Kali and Darwin to get in and out of the dinghy. It’s a dog-friendly ship with lots of storage and headroom; comfortable to live in.

As long as she doesn’t move.

Four Choices is 25 years old, so our life in Emeryville is filled with long hours of boat projects, renovations, and maintenance. I’m eager to participate and do my best to understand Mark’s engine talk. It doesn’t interest me but helping him does. New to diesel engines and some of the systems, he uses books and the internet to figure things out. None of it is fun since every project requires at least one failed attempt. The constant effort, disappointment, and dirt become infuriating. In our darkest hours, I wonder whether we’ll ever set sail.

Entwined at night, the dogs curled up with us, I try to soothe Mark’s frustrations.

“At least our little family is together, and we love each other. Kali, Darwin, you, and me. Isn’t that wonderful?” It is. We’re determined to get the work done. Each day that ends with a majestic sun setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge is one day closer to casting off.

With my B1/B2 visa, I’m allowed to stay in the US for up to six months at a time. I’ve always obtained that maximum amount, finding out the hard way that a month-long visit to Canada does not re-set the clock.

My emotions are put to the test each time I fly into this country. I’m treated with disrespect, disdain, skepticism, fingerprinting, head shots, interrogations, and intimidation. Afterwards, US Immigration stamps my passport, and I’m admitted for six months.

My current time allowance is coming to an end. Mark and I don’t know when we’re leaving, so I apply for a visa extension. It costs $200 and – unbeknownst to me – is only possible once. An extra six-month period is granted. No rush to sail south!

I learn the basics of sailing from Mark, who’s an accomplished sailor and certified instructor. San Francisco Bay is ideal for practicing, with its consistent, blustery conditions every afternoon. I’m a novice and I know it, but I have a patient teacher who appreciates my efforts and determination. Our attempts to train Kali and Darwin to pee on deck with the help of Astroturf remain unsuccessful. Even after we invite other dogs to drop their scent and show them how it’s done ourselves. Nope. Our pups prefer to go ashore. We can’t blame them.

Once the major repairs are taken care of, we embark on weekend trips to see how everyone fares. The protected waters have mercy on us. We finally have fun on our boat.

China Camp, Clipper Cove, and Drakes Bay reveal what the real cruising life is about: peaceful anchorages and stretches of pristine beach where the dogs run free. We contemplate our new life. Paradise lies south of the border. We’re almost ready to go. On the way home from Drakes Bay, I succumb to seasickness. Kali and Darwin miserably join me inside. Mark is forced to single-hand us back to the marina.


After nine months of labor and loaded with food, charts, and spare parts, we motor out of the harbor and raise the sails. The wind pushes us through the Golden Gate, into the mighty Pacific. We turn left.

Mexico, here we come!

The first day of our sailing journey, I hang over the railing and puke my guts out. I lie down in our bunk but feel guilty that Mark is on his own, exposed to the elements. I join him in the cockpit. Staring at the horizon eases my stomach contractions. Darwin is uncomfortable but eventually manages to hunker down under the helm seat. Kali remains on four legs, balancing and bracing herself for nine hours. Poor puppy. Mark takes care of us all, and of Four Choices, which he stubbornly sails south until we reach Half Moon Bay. We pull in for the night.

Tomorrow will be better.

“Okay, sweetie, let’s get this show on the road! Are you ready to head back into the ocean?” Mark starts the second leg of our trip with enthusiasm.

“Do I have a choice?” I make it sound like a joke but believe today we’ll have a better time out there.

“You have four choices!” Mark can’t resist, despite disliking the boat name I picked.

We had taken the dogs to the beach earlier and straightened up the interior of our floating home. All items have to be stored, because the rolling motion of our monohull can turn anything loose into lethal projectiles.

Mark presses the start button for the engine. Nothing!

“Now what?” he mumbles, before trying again and consequently digging the engine books out of a cabinet. The rest of the day is spent in the engine room. Mark is chief engineer, putting book knowledge into action. I’m his assistant. By the time we diagnose and fix the problem – a corroded ground wire of the starter – it’s too late (and we lack the motivation) to reach Monterey. Instead, we dinghy the dogs ashore and talk about our upcoming adventure.

Are we cut out for this?

We try leaving the bay again on day three and regain our positive attitude. The engine starts. Four Choices carries her crew towards the ocean. I dread bouncing up and down for an entire day and focus on the horizon.

We follow the California coastline with full sails and enjoy the wind in our hair. Darwin needs time to relax before finding his sweet spot in the cockpit. Kali pants and stands for ages. It hurts to watch this behavior. When I take her inside the tilted boat to comfort her, she climbs the couch, then the wall, thinking it’s the floor. I swallow hard and feel mentally sick. Being indoors triggers my physical discomfort as well. Moments later, I hang over the transom again.

Mark has to do everything alone: steer the boat, attend to the sails, make lunch, check the charts, and discourage his loved ones from jumping off the boat right then and there.

Multiple hours into the trip, the mainsail rips. Now we have to motor, which reduces our progress, roars us into submission, and smells nauseating. I feed the fish once more.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” I mutter.

“Yes, this sucks. Everything is going wrong. The dogs are miserable. And so are you.”

We suffer in silence. I don’t know how to proceed on this voyage. I don’t want to give up, either. As if on cue, at the height of our gloom, a pod of dolphins brightens our wake, followed by an ensemble of sea lions.

“This is amazing! How do they know we’re feeling like crap? They want to cheer us up.” I wordlessly thank the creatures and smile at Mark. He remains deep in thought.

Our attempt to arrive in Monterey before nightfall fails. Well after the sun sets, we limp into the public marina, where helping hands tie us up. We’re exhausted and demotivated.

Unable to do anything about our issues that evening, we walk to the buzzing commercial district to eat out. The restaurant spins. I can barely focus my eyes on the table in front of me. My belly can’t handle more than a spoonful of clam chowder. What a waste.

I walk home like a drunken sailor. My conversation with Mark halts abruptly when we reach the same sentiment: Is this what we want? Really? Who chooses to be miserable on the ocean? But it’s Mark’s desire to go sailing! We’ve worked so hard to turn this dream into reality...

The decision is made on day four of our adventure. We quit! We cannot stand seeing our beloved dogs suffer each time Four Choices takes to sea. It breaks our hearts. Not to give up this seafaring journey, but to realize our family is unhappy. We have to stop this madness before something serious happens or before we regret sailing forever. Cruising is not in our cards yet.

It shouldn’t matter that we only made it to Monterey, a whopping two-hour car ride from Emeryville. Nor that we worked on our boat for the duration of an average pregnancy.

Within five weeks, we turn our lives upside down. A sailmaker fixes the mainsail, we resolve outstanding boat issues, and I buy two yellow For Sale signs, which I attach on each side of the bow. Our prime location – in plain sight of the pier where tourists and boat aficionados stroll – helps our cause. We sell Four Choices for asking price and without a broker, after she’s hauled out and surveyed on my 30th birthday. The positive outcome of the sale is a most welcome present and a step up from an organic tomato.

We buy a used, fire-engine-red, F-350 pickup truck and an 11-foot Lance camper to nest in its bed. Our belongings and provisions are transported from the “weight unlimited” sailboat to the “weight constrained” camper. We’re disheartened by the amount of stuff we still own yet impressed with our ability to cram everything into a tiny space.

One year after my RV travels with Karl and Caesar, I drive south along Highway 1, destination Mexico. With a different man, a bigger truck camper, and two dogs instead of one...