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Myfatherslist: A journey to check sailing off the bucket list

Photo credit Steven Seighman

Laura Carney came to Mission Bay Aquatic Center through her inspiring journey of completing her late father’s bucket list that was discovered after he passed. We had the opportunity to help Laura cross off her father’s goal of “learning to sail by myself” when she took our Basic Sailing class in October. Laura has been documenting her progress finishing the bucket list through her blog, “myfatherslist,” and Instagram @myfatherslist. She is currently writing a book about her experience. She shared with us her inspiration to start her blog as well as her exciting adventure in learning to sail. 

Please introduce yourself:

My name’s Laura Carney. I’m a writer and magazine copy editor based in New York. 

Please tell us how and why you started myfatherslist:

My dad was killed by a driver on her phone in 2003, when I was 25—three months after I moved away from home for the first time.

It was a shocking experience as a 25-year-old and unique among my friends and the new friends I made in New York, most of whom had parents still living. I felt alienated by it for years. It changed my faith in God and made me fearful at a time when I should have been optimistic about life. I dealt with it by being committed to what I’d moved to New York to do—become a journalist.

The teenager who killed my dad was fined $200—it was like she’d just run a stop sign. It was the same punishment regardless of whether someone was killed. While many laws regarding distracted driving have changed since then—in most states now, texting is illegal, and in many, even touching the phone while driving isn’t allowed—drivers are still permitted everywhere in the country to talk on the phone hands-free, and most seem to believe that hands-free is safe. Thanks to handheld bans, which save many lives, I have to hear dial tones in cars everywhere I go now. It was the driver’s brain that caused the car crash—not her hands.

I became an activist thanks to my work as a journalist. After 10 years in the field, one day an article came across my desk about distracted driving. I started speaking publicly about my dad’s death, which was very difficult—mostly because I didn’t like the idea of viewing him as a victim. He was a larger-than-life guy. I knew there had to be a better way. Six months after I got married, I wrote an article for the Washington Post about not having him there, and then my brother found his list. It had been hidden in a small brown suede bag he’d had for 13 years. When I read it, I realized it was my dad helping me tell the whole story and I have always viewed the list as his wedding gift to me.

Myfatherslist is my journey to check off my dad’s bucket list in only four years. Fifty-four items (the age he was when he died). He’d checked off five of the original 60 he wrote down in his lifetime, and marked one as having failed at.

Laura and her father

Why do you think sailing was on your father’s bucket list?

Some list items are easier to discern than others. My dad wrote the list the year I was born, so he was probably very influenced by whatever was trendy in the 1970s—so he wanted to surf in the Pacific, play golf in the 70s, beat a number-one seed at tennis, run 10 miles straight…all very popular sports at that time, the decade of leisure! But I know that sailing was a passion for him—he had a good friend who was a professional, who wrote a book called “Sailing Is Fun.” My dad was a writer, too, and he started a publishing company purely so he could publish her book. I found his paperwork on it two years after I found the list. Other lists and ideas he had when he was young have shown up unexpectedly throughout this journey. I honestly do believe he’s trying to help me.

How did you find out about Mission Bay Aquatic Center?

I felt intimidated by the idea of sailing a huge vessel by myself. And the list item was “sail by myself,” which meant nobody else could be on board. One of the list items is “visit St. Thomas,” so I assumed I’d check it off there. But the lessons there are thousands of dollars and last several days. My mom lives in Connecticut and suggest signing me up for a class there, and when I saw their boats I discovered they were Sabots—a vessel I could very much “sail by myself”! “Visit San Diego” was also a list item, so I looked up sailing lessons there, after I learned sailing had a strong history there. Suddenly I knew, San Diego was the best place to do this! I also liked that children learn how to sail Sabots—it made me feel like the whole thing was more doable.

Photo credit Steven Seighman

Please describe your experience learning to sail at Mission Bay Aquatic Center:

I was relieved when I walked in and saw a fully grown adult signing in. And then even more relieved when I saw my whole class was adults! And that one was female. And that the instructor was female! Maybe that shouldn’t matter, but it’s sometimes intimidating checking off the dreams of a man…so I appreciate when brave women are involved. I’ve actually discovered lots of untold stories about incredible female athletes no matter what list item I’m doing all along the way.

Kelsey was our instructor and she did a fantastic job. She was very easy to understand, her passion for the sport was obvious, she put everyone at ease and she was funny. She made us all feel like we could do this…and like this might be a lifelong passion for all of us, too! The first day I felt really successful because of her. One of our classmates had a physical issue and pulled her aside to discuss it. So I felt comfortable doing the same—I was born without peripheral vision in one eye, which caused some difficulty with the surfing list item, too. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to jibe right or tack right very successfully. Kelsey gave me some pointers, both on and off the water, and I felt like I could handle it. I realized most of my problem was my fear of it—and sailing is really all about that. It’s about feeling OK with not being totally in control, with being able to act on your feet.

On the second day, the current picked up and my boat filled with a lot of water. As I tried to bail out, I accidentally got too close to a classmate who’d capsized, and then too close to a stranger’s boat, who pushed me away (trying to be helpful), and then I capsized too. Luckily, Kelsey had told us what to do in this event, so I felt totally calm about it. I felt badly for her that she had to turn two boats right-side up at once! She said later people tend to freak out when that happens. But I didn’t, because at that point, I totally trusted her and my classmates. I felt like they were my friends. It turns out “sailing by myself” is kind of a misnomer. You need teammates in this sport—even if you’re in a Sabot!

Laura’s “teammates” and fellow sailing students. Photo credit Steven Seighman

Are you able to continue your sailing journey back home?

Yes! I’m going to look for Sabots when I check off “visit St. Thomas” and in Connecticut near my parents’ house this summer. I’ve been bitten by the bug!

Photo credit Steven Seighman

Besides sailing what are some other bucket list items you’ve checked off the list?

Other than the athletic ones, probably the greatest thrills have been “get my picture in a national magazine,” “skydive at least once,” “speak to a TV audience,” “talk with the president” (I met Jimmy Carter, who was president when my dad wrote the list) and “write and have a few novels published.” “Grow a watermelon” was pretty fun, too!

What bucket list items are left for you to complete?

I have 30 done now and 24 left to go! I’m going to the Super Bowl in February, and trying to get invited to a political convention (that one seems to be the hardest). The next year will be filled with all sorts of adventures.

Photo credit Steven Seighman

Anything else you want to share?

When I set out to do this, it was because I believed if I showed a full picture of someone’s life, drivers might understand a little bit better about what’s being lost when people die for no reason on our roads. I was angry about my dad’s death, angry that he’d missed my wedding and my whole adult life because of a stupid phone call. 

I’ve since come to an understanding that probably the list was always meant for me to do, not him. It was born the same year I was! I gave myself only four years to check off 54 items (coincidentally, the age my dad was when he died) because he wrote as his first item that he wanted to “live until at least 2020.” It’s a very different way of living my life—it’s a financial, social, emotional and creative investment. It requires, oftentimes, being more present than I’ve ever been before, and never judging anything by its appearance. I always see every experience as a chance to learn now. If anything, what this has taught me the most is how truly valuable life is. And how important it is to share our passions with others, and to know that when we do, we won’t be alone in pursuing them. Life is short, so we might as well live out loud. That includes how we grieve for those we love. 

Now I believe that if we did more living out loud, like sailing definitely requires, we’d do less living through our phones. The change will come organically. The happiest people tend to be those who are deliberate in what they do—who don’t go through life vulnerable to distraction. I intend to be one of them.

It is Laura’s mission to raise awareness about distracted driving. Once her book is complete she will be donating a portion of proceeds to distracted driving awareness groups in her father’s name.

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