Barbara & Elizabeth Pagano’s Sailing Sabbatical

[singlepic=1664,250,,,right]Barbara Pagano & Elizabeth Pagano are the mother-daughter team behind yourSABBATICAL – a firm that partners with businesses to deploy programs that attract, retain and accelerate top talent through the use of highly planned and structured leaves of absences. In 2001, they took their own leave of absence during a 6-month sailing sabbatical that set them on a new course for their lives. “Our sabbatical has had lasting effects. Today, our business partnership thrives, in part, because of our co-captaining experience.” Here they share with us the importance of that sabbatical.

What made you decide to take a sabbatical?
Each of us had different reasons. For me, life was good – but predictable. I had been successful in my career, had a nice home and marriage; yet I wanted to put myself in a challenging situation to “see if I could do it.” My daughter, Elizabeth, was in her mid-30s and had a string of life and career questions stretching in front of her. She hoped that time away might offer clarity… and maybe even answers.

What were you doing beforehand career-wise?
As an executive coach to leaders worldwide, I was busy with corporate client initiatives on leadership and developing a reputation as a facilitator and speaker. Elizabeth was a newspaper reporter before spending a few years working for her father’s manufacturing business.

What was your sailing experience like prior to your break?
This question always makes us laugh! We had sailed for 15+ years as second-mates and galley queens with my husband, Herb. We’d never handled a boat alone and certainly never sailed at night. So, Elizabeth went to a week of sailing school in Key West, and I went to navigation school (and flunked the test).

We practiced docking for a couple of days and watched the mechanic change the engine oil once. Seriously, we weren’t very experienced, and we knew we’d learn a lot along the way. But we had confidence in our ability to learn quickly, and we promised people we’d make good decisions. We put a whole lot of books on “bad weather sailing” and “boat systems” onboard, just in case!

Desire outranks skill and experience. If you really want to do something, you’ll learn what you need to know.

What were some of the ways you prepared for this new experience? Were there any experiences from your corporate life that helped you in the preparation process?
The best things we had going for us were our enthusiasm and a pretty good mother-daughter relationship. We communicated openly and frequently. That doesn’t mean we saw eye to eye on everything, because we didn’t! (Slammed teak cabin doors make a loud bang.) The absolute best thing we did was to not declare a “captain.” This aggravated many of the cruisers we met who’d say, “but you have to have a captain.” But it worked for us. In fact, because neither of us carried more weight, we were forced to “work it out.” And the quicker the better, because we were in tight quarters, you know?

We built on our communication skills, worked through our conflicts, and shared stunning daily vistas that made us smile. Plus, we enjoy one another’s company and like to laugh. That helped.

[singlepic=1665,275,,,left]Did you face any anxieties while preparing? If so, how did you deal with them?
The reactions from family and friends were mixed. While Elizabeth’s friends tended to think it was cool and were supportive, my friends said things like: “Are you out of your mind?”; “This is dangerous”; “You don’t know what you’re doing.” My husband asked me if I’d consider putting a captain on board. But it was important to me to try to do it on our own. He accepted that and was totally supportive (but fearful as well).

How did you decide on what to do and where to go?
Our approaches were very different. I just wanted to “head south for as long as we can.” Elizabeth needed a goal. One afternoon, we rolled out a map of the Caribbean and I said, “Pick a place.” Elizabeth chose Trinidad…that became the goal.

But we never made it that far. And in hindsight, the goal was too aggressive given the time of year, wind direction and the length of our sabbatical. In the end, the goal wasn’t important – the journey was.

What surprised you the most about yourself during this trip? About each other?
I was challenged with pushing a little boat through big water, and there was much I didn’t know. Navigation was a puzzle and so were some of the boat’s systems. And while I was determined, I realized I was slower than my daughter to pick up things and “get it”. At first that was so frustrating to me (and to Elizabeth). Accepting the fact that age changes things just meant I had to be persistent and plan for a longer learning curve – but I’d eventually get it!

Elizabeth had always known me to be a very confident, in-charge, decisive woman. Then, a couple of weeks into the trip, she realized I was none of those things. Her nickname for me was “Nervous Nelly.” I didn’t like that at all. As the trip unfolded, Elizabeth watched me work through my self-doubt and show vulnerability. And she respected that.

Don’t wait. Go before you are ready.

While on the road, what helped you through any doubts or struggles you encountered?
We found a community of cruisers who gave us plenty of help along the way, from teaching Elizabeth to fiberglass our water tanks to helping us re-wire our power system. Best of all, they encouraged us and built our confidence.

We also worked every day to do things better. At the end of each day, we’d sit in the cockpit and have a conversation: What did we do well? What could we have done better? Our focus on becoming better may have been because we anticipated times when Mother Nature might slap us around (which she did). But it also built our confidence. And each day we really did do some things better!

[singlepic=1666,275,,,right]Did you feel you could have been better prepared in any way? If so, how?
Some would say that we should never have left until we proved to be good sailors. Had we waited for that, we’d probably still be at the dock. We left before we were ready….and we’d encourage others to do the same.

How was your experience returning home? Did you struggle with reverse culture shock?
The hardest part of the whole trip wasn’t 10-foot waves breaking over the bow or the fish pot that wrapped around our rudder during a night sail. It was getting off the boat. We were out of money and out of time, so we had to go back to our land lives. But we loved our life at sea … we were learning to be better sailors every day … and there was a new island to explore just around the bend. Re-entry was really tough.

Reflecting on your sabbatical, what insight did you gain?
Desire outranks skill and experience. If you really want to do something, you’ll learn what you need to know. It won’t be pretty, and you’ll make lots of mistakes. You might even be afraid.

Bottom line for us: We learned to be brave.

How did you apply lessons learned from your experience to your life and work now?
We make fast decisions. On the boat, all kinds of things happened – the wind picks up, that darned current is stronger than anticipated, the weather forecast turns out wrong or the jib is jammed. Should we reef the sail, turn around, or plan on entering an anchorage after dark? We learned to take in the information and make the best decision we could, because we had to.

We also learned that changing a decision or reversing a decision is no big deal. So what if you’ve got 8 knots under your keel and you are almost to your destination when a pod of whale goes by, traveling in the opposite direction. With one turn of the helm and a couple of sail adjustments, you can be right there in the middle of the pod!

In our business, there’s always the unknown, and we’ll never have ALL the information. We make the best decision we can and adjust it if necessary.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this?
Don’t wait. Go before you are ready.

Other comments

One Comment on "Barbara & Elizabeth Pagano’s Sailing Sabbatical"

  1. Sherry Ott on Thu, 4th Mar 2010 2:05 am 

    Love this advice of “Go before you are ready.” I think that’s brilliant. Perfection is for losers. If you wait for perfection then you’ll never get anything done!
    Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful sabbatical story! I just did a month in Nepal with my father – so your mother/daughter travel strikes a chord with me!

Career Break Guide Table of Contents

Meet Plan Go