The catamaran rolls in the swells while her husband Rob keeps the 40-foot boat a steady distance from where the waves break against the cliffs of the little island. The plan is for Rob to cut the engines long enough for us to slip into the water, where we’ll swim a loop around the rocks that plunge into the depths, before he comes back to cut the engines again for the instant it takes to pick us up.
Bri flashes a grin at me through her mask. “This is my kind of adventure. Think of it like jumping off a cornice,” she says, and then she drops into the ocean.
My sister and I grew up together on the edge of the desert, between mountains and beach. The rugged San Bernardinos were our regular playground, as much as our frequent trips to the coast where my dad had a sailboat in Dana Point when we were little. I have vague memories of my parents putting us to bed in a drawer (which I now know was the forward berth, that actually does feel like a drawer on most boats), and falling asleep to gentle rocking. I used to believe we sailed to distant harbors at night, magically arriving back at our own slip by the time I woke up.
I also have smile-soaked memories of sledding in the mountains that housed Big Bear and Snow Summit, and those two mythical times it actually snowed in our home town. When I was 12, I asked my dad why we didn’t ski, and still distinctly remember his only-half-joking answer: “You can stand in a cold shower and rip up $20 bills for the same effect.”
I chose mountains anyway, heading north in search of ever-bigger ranges and deeper powder. My sister chose ocean, hitchhiking as crew on sailboats and escaping to tropical climes as often as possible. We find ourselves most often meeting in the middle on rivers now, riding the melted snow that flows from the peaks down to the sea on multi-day trips all over the Pacific Northwest with as many friends as we can drag along with us.
As our choices diverged, so did our lives. Where once we used to live together, and then next door, and then just across the creek from each other, I pared down so that most of my life fit in the back of my truck and bounced around mountain towns until I landed in Canada. She got married and had two kiddos, taking them gallivanting on sailboats at every opportunity.
We stopped understanding each other’s lives on a daily basis, and there’s something very hard in that.
Which is how I found myself on a catamaran in the British Virgin Islands, following my sister into the deep. And in swimming with my nephew in calm bays where he’d spot turtles before any of the rest of us, in rocking my niece to sleep to the rhythm of the wind, in watching my sister navigate the ocean—all the miles, hours, and convoluted routes to get there from a remote Canadian mountain town faded into insignificance.
And I thought: we might not understand each other’s daily anymore, but maybe the most important parts are these, anyway.