Alison Rice’s hopes for a walk down the aisle were dashed a couple of years ago when her long-term boyfriend showed up with his truck full of her personal belongings.
“I’m not staying this weekend,” he told her.
“In that moment I knew why he was there. That was when I heard a voice in my head say, ‘This is what we do now. We’re not going to get married. We’re going to break up,’ ” Rice said.
He said he wanted to be free to be his own person and that he couldn’t be in a relationship anymore, said Rice, a Wells Fargo executive communications manager.
Never married, she worked hard to fight off feelings of self-doubt. Instead, through a bit of happenstance and self-reflection, she started to remake her life.
Rice lightened up a bit. And she toughened up, too. She stared down a lifelong fear and won. And she started sailing the high seas.
“When he broke up with me, I had a vision of my world just cracking open. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Rice, who lives in Charlotte’s Selwyn Farms area. “But now I see that the gift of that breakup is that I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”
Shortly after the split, Rice flew to the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands with a friend in August 2010 as a present to herself for her 50th birthday.
While there, she visited with her cousin, who offered to take her for a ride on his Hobie Cat.
“I found myself not just enjoying the experience but loving it and feeling absolutely no fear,” she said. “That was the instant when I knew clearly that I wanted to learn how to sail.”
First, however, she would need to overcome her lifelong fear of swimming.
“I was never comfortable with putting my face underwater,” she said. “I definitely did not like being in water where I couldn’t stand up.”
Back in the states, Rice signed up to take an adult swimming class at the Mecklenburg Aquatic Center.
Her first assignment: blowing bubbles in the pool in order to become comfortable with her face underwater.
By the end of the course, Rice was swimming laps without stopping.
“Like sailing, the whole swimming thing was really empowering,” she said. “It helped me break through fears and perceptions that I’d had about myself.”
Learning to sail
Rice began researching sailing schools, ultimately deciding upon Sistership Sailing School in the British Virgin Islands.
During the weeklong session, instructor Pat Nolan taught Rice and two other women how to maneuver a 45-foot sailboat on their own.
“I loved the feeling of being on the water, the sun, the wind, the whole 9 yards” she said. “I felt intensely alive, like in the sense that Buddhists talk about. I was fully present in the moment when I was sailing.”
Rice also felt her self-confidence growing. Where before she may have been deeply hurt by criticism, she now found herself becoming more receptive to feedback.
While learning to sail, she had plenty of commands barked at her as she stood at the boat’s helm.
“You don’t ease into sailing. The way you learn is by doing it,” she said. “But when I was able to do it and nothing bad happened, I was thrilled. It felt incredible.”
The 30-year Charlotte resident proudly recalled how she was the only one to earn a perfect score on one of her written sailing tests.
“I was pretty tickled with that. I could feel my confidence going up,” she said.
Several months after Rice returned to Charlotte, her former instructor invited her on a vacation trip sailing around the coast of Turkey with a group of women.
“It was the trip of a lifetime, filled with unforgettable moments and amazing experiences,” she said.
During one excursion, the women were touring the Dalyan River when they came across two small rowboats tied together with a food merchant on board.
Rice and the other women placed their orders for crabs.
The merchant caught several from the river and then handed them to his wife, who cracked their shells and grilled them right in front of the group.
“It was the best crab I’d ever had,” Rice said.
At another juncture, the women were sailing to Greece for the day when one of country’s border patrol officers began waving his machine gun in their direction.
“We had sailed into their harbor with a Turkish flag waving. We didn’t understand what the man was yelling but as soon as we ran a Greek flag up on our boat, he stopped.”
Living in the moment
Rice said she was most moved by the sense of belonging she felt among “friendly, inspiring and strong women.”
“They told me, ‘We are a family and you are part of our family now,’ ” Rice said. “I really can’t even capture how I felt.”
Over the last several months, Rice has continued to say “yes” to any sailing invitations. She wasn’t always this spontaneous.
“Just by nature I had always been a planner,” she said. “By not making long-range plans as much as I used to and just letting things unfold, I’ve found I can enjoy my life so much more now.”
She has also learned to “loosen my purse strings” enough to treat herself now and then.
For instance, two years ago, she was driving a same beat-up, 15-year-old car, even though she could afford a new one.
But at that time, all of her disposable income went straight into her 401(k), savings accounts and investments.
“At some point, I remember asking myself, ‘What am I waiting for? Am I going to wait to buy a new car to drive to the old folks home?’ ” said Rice, who bought a new car last year. “Now I live in the moment. It doesn’t mean I don’t save, but I’m also enjoying my life today.”
Rice, who’s still single, said she’s still interested in marriage. She just hasn’t “found the right man at the right time yet.”
As for the ex, Rice said she holds no ill will.
“I’ve had an amazing last two years and have been incredibly happy,” she said. “I’m not sure if I would have gotten to this place in my life if we’d stayed together.”