Friday, July 14, 2017

Humdrum to Terror: A Sailing Story

I lived on a sailboat for two years. It was a Tayana 37 with a full cast iron keel and a wooden mast. A cutter rig. It was a pretty boat, a standout in the harbor.

I sailed with my husband from Maine to the Bahamas and back, worked for a year and did it again. We sailed and motored down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) combined with "outside" overnight passages, and made it to our terminus of Georgetown, Exuma, Bahamas in 6 months. After languishing in harbor for a while, we turned around and sailed back up.


The Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) is a series of Bays, Sounds, Lakes, Canals, and Rivers that connect, from Cape Ann Massachusetts to Key West, FL. (and beyond) There are man-made parts that the Corps of Engineers dredge and maintain, and there are natural parts that form the connection, like Albemarle Sound or the Neuse River. The technical portion of the Waterway begins at Mile Marker 1 in Norfolk VA, because you can go all the way from Norfolk to Key West without having to enter the Atlantic Ocean. However the informal ICW goes all the way to Maine. In order to make passages north or south most live-aboards use a combination of staying inside and going outside.

Cape Cod Canal, Wikipedia photo

When you're motoring or sailing down the ICW, what you're really doing, apart from cruising and sightseeing, is commuting. If you are on a sailboat, your maximum speed is likely going to be 3-5 miles per hour. That's only how fast sailboats go.

So traveling down the ICW means you're seeing the eastern seaboard at a rate most people can walk or jog. Progress is incremental at an agonizingly slow rate. Since there are only so many daylight hours, and since it's inadvisable to travel the ICW at night, and since you need to chart ahead to make the next anchorage and bed down before it gets dark, you get up at dawn and start aiming to hit that anchorage before dark.

So, you're essentially commuting. You can make between 30-50 miles per day on average, given weather conditions and ICW traffic. The traffic you share on the ICW is a mixture of other sailboats, motorboats, small pleasure craft, commercial fishermen, and commercial traffic such as tugboats and barges. It's busy.

Getting up at dawn and turning on the motor and setting off for the day, every day, repeatedly, lulls one into a routine. We'd check the engine first, all the belts, the oil, and the pistons. We'd do a once-over topside to make sure things were still hunky dory. We'd turn on the engine, my husband would up the anchor, and off we'd go.

Leaving a Georgia anchorage at dawn. EPrata photo
Mainly, life commuting down the waterway was humdrum. You turned on the motor, did the same thing each day, and you anchored down at night. You made slow progress. Sometimes you had to look at a map just to see IF you'd made any progress. It seemed that the ICW was very long and the amount traveled in a day was very short, inconsequential even. Looking at the 1700 miles from start to finish it seemed like we would never get there.

The humdrum routine was punctuated by occasionally pulling into a town. It was always interesting learning about a town's history, getting some local food, and/or replenishing the larder. It was fun to hop into the dinghy and putt-putt into a town for recreation. Even doing a laundry run was all right if it got us to walk and stretch our legs a bit. Getting off the boat added a little different something to the day-to-day commute.

Cruising the ICW was fun and good, sometimes thrilling, but it was far from being the glamorous yachting life you see in jetsetting magazines. Routine is routine. Humdrum.

Then some days an unexpected kind of comet would burst into your life and BLAM! you would almost die.

There was the sunny, calm day like all the previous days in northern FL when we were cruising north, in tandem with a tug pushing a barge. Barges are big. The part of the ICW we were motoring was narrow and crowded. We were ahead of the barge and both of us were cruising at the same speed. We had been in close VHF radio contact and were friendly with each other, courteously minding the navigable 'rules of the road' and frequently making way for each other in minor ways that helped us travel safely.

The bottom was sandy, which tends to silt up at the edges. We both tried to stay in the middle so we wouldn't ground. The tug & barge had a draft of only a foot or so but we needed at least 6 feet of water under us to stay afloat and not touch bottom.

At one point in the long day, the tug radioed and asked if we could pull to the right a bit, as he wanted to pass us. He had to do some maneuvers up ahead as his turn off the ICW into his home port on the St. John's River was approaching.

We edged over and slowed to just enough speed to keep way on. The tug and barge passed us. We sped up and started coming back to the center of the river. We made it!

BLAM!

Underwater in the middle of the channel was a hump of sand, enough to ground us. We grounded so hard nothing on the boat even jiggled. It was instant and it was final. I was below making lunch, and all I heard and felt was a JOLT. I looked out the porthole and the trees were not going by. We were stopped.

IF we had still been traveling in front of the tug and barge, we would be dead. The tug and barge are too large a vessel to be able to stop on a dime. Think 18-wheeler, on water. It would have crushed our boat, ramming us and pushing the debris down into the mud below, and us along with it. Or perhaps my husband who was steering in the cockpit would have had time to jump off, but with me being below I certainly would have died instantly.

But those thoughts didn't come until later. For the present, we had a terrible problem of being stuck in the middle of the channel and exposed to all other motorboats, barges, tugs, and whatever else came along. We enacted the protocol for this situation where you put the anchor into your dinghy, row out to deeper water, set the anchor, and then get back on the boat and winch yourself forward off the obstruction.  Fortunately, this worked. After some hard work, terror, sweat, and skittish eyes looking down the waterway for oncoming craft, we shook loose of the keel grabbing sandbar and got afloat again.

We were extremely grateful we had a full keel and it could withstand the jolt. We were very grateful we had no adverse effects except a little lost time. It could have been so much worse.

A tug and barge, not THE tug and barge., Photo TX DOT

As we processed what had happened and realized our extremely close call, we shivered and shuddered. Our days and days of tedium had been shattered in an instant by a near death experience we would never forget. That is liveaboard cruising on the ICW, long periods of humdrum routine punctuated buy sudden terror.

And that is the Christian life too.

Sometimes it seems like you're making no progress. It feels like you've come only inches and there are miles to go. Can you even see your progress? It's only incremental. It feels like you'll never get there. You go days and days and wonder if you added anything of value to the Kingdom at all. It's just routine. Tedium. Then BLAM! ,  a life changing event stirs you out of your mundane life and suddenly you're scrambling.

A car accident. A cancer diagnosis. An injured child. A lost job. Homelessness. Whatever it is, one day you're sailing along and the next you're struggling for your life. Job knew. Elijah knew. Mary knew. Paul knew.

Does God use His interruptions to our daily life to shake us? Our pastor had given us the example of the fish tank. He said he had known someone who had a fish tank with fish in it but sometimes it got dirty. The water looked clear and clean. But if you were walking by and bumped it, the sludge on the bottom would drift up. He said that sludge accumulates, laying there, invisible, until a bolt from the blue comes along and then you see how much there is to clean out.

Photo by Guillaume on Unsplash
That's us believers. Our hidden sins, ruts, and blots lay in the bottom of our heart lurking and waiting undetected. When an unexpected life-comet zooms in, you turn to God. Prayer suddenly becomes fervent. Diligence in spiritual disciplines become tantamount. Pleading with tears ensues.

Does God uses the occasional BLAM in our lives to shake us? I think He does. Progress might be slow, tedium might even enter in. But when the jolts come, thank the Lord for them. He is using them to do a good work in you. It will be OK.


2 comments:

  1. What an amazing experience for you, and what a good illustration.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thank you for reading! Yes it was an adventure. The ocean is endlessly fascinating, and our country is truly beautiful

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