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Elephant Hunting

This isn’t bucket-list planning. It’s an attitude and a way of life.

It is troubling to me when I see someone leave the boating lifestyle—sometimes bored, sometimes burned out, all too often soured by the whole thing, never to return. It doesn’t need to be that way.

I’ve been at it for more than 60 years, and I still love being on the water, anywhere, at any time, aboard any craft, going who knows where, doing who knows what. Therein, I think, is the secret. Mix it up, keep it fresh, don’t hesitate to try something new, and don’t use inexperience as an excuse: We were all novices once. My auburn-haired sweetheart’s grandfather, when someone would protest he didn’t know how, would reply, “You’ll never learn any younger.” Hard to argue with that simple logic, and a valuable lesson if taken to heart.

A column by Clement Salvadori in a recent issue of Rider, a motorcycle enthusiast magazine, explains that “off to see the elephant” is “an old-time expression saying you are going someplace that you’ve never been, and maybe a bit scary. Elephant hunting is not like bucket listing. The latter is making a list of things you want to do. The former is more of a risky affair: Can I do it?”

While I think that explanation applies as much to yachting enthusiasts as to motorcycle clubs, I’m a longtime advocate of safety at sea, so I would replace his word “risky” with “challenging.” Risk can be reduced significantly with careful planning. But otherwise, we are in complete agreement on taking a chance, making a change, doing something new, something a bit startling to your friends and family, maybe even to yourself.

Any hull in today’s growing fleet of expedition yachts is perfect for such an adventure, whether you buy or charter. If that doesn’t fit your plans, even the smallest craft can suffice. Big adventures don’t always require big boats.To refresh my recollection of Kenneth Grahame’s oft-quoted words on the subject, I pulled my beloved copy of “The Wind in the Willows” from the bookshelf. His advice is as fresh today as when he penned it in 1908. There, on the yellowing and increasingly fragile pages, enhanced by Arthur Rackham’s vivid illustrations of the Water Rat inviting the Mole to board his little punt for the first time, are the classic words, “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

That’s the line we all know, but Grahame continues, “Messing about in boats—or with boats. In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do.”

I’ve encountered a few elephants along the way. Some appeared on schedule (the challenge of transiting the Panama Canal), others were unplanned (being confined to prison overnight on my second trip through the canal). Sometimes the elephant was feared but didn’t appear (leaving our yacht to hike grizzly country in British Columbia, thankfully without encountering a grizzly), and other times the elephant appeared without warning (sailing unprepared into a full-blown typhoon, mid-Pacific, in the days before weather satellites). In all cases, there were moments of trepidation, but I came away stronger and with great memories.

Hunting elephants can indeed be scary, at times a bit risky even with planning, but on balance, I’d say it’s worth it. The only adventure you’ll ever regret is the one you didn’t take.