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Just off the Port Bow—a place of uncertainty, adventure, and insight. Thank you for your ears, eyes and hearts. I hope to bring compassion, grace and beauty to your day.

The Feeling of Sailing - from Summer 2013

“Here is a William Wilberforce quote from his Practical Christianity that made me ponder- how much do I think about my emotions as a primary focus of faithfulness? What do you think?” - question posed by Neil Lebhar 8/13

"“My son, give me thine heart.”[Proverbs 23:26]—“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart” [Deuteronomy 6:5]. Such are the direct and comprehensive claims which are made on us in the holy Scriptures. We can scarcely indeed look into any part of the sacred volume without meeting abundant proofs, that it is the religion of the Affections which God particularly requires. Love, Zeal, Gratitude, Joy, Hope, Trust: are each of them specified; and are not allowed to us as weaknesses, but enjoined on us as our bounden duty, and commended to us as our acceptable worship."

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The quote from Wilberforce, with our current vacation venue (a sailboat) has me bent on responding in a different sort of mode.

The premise is obvious; sailing is a powerful metaphor for life. Paul Zahl was recently quoting something said by HG Wells, to the effect that "life is the grand antagonist for human experience". Affections, such as those highlighted by Wilberforce, are a partial list of responses to the "antagonism" presented by life.

This antagonist, life itself, is quite fickle in his machinations, devices and designs. The only thing predictable is the confounding bent of what we encounter, and the absolute truth that everything, except God (and Love) changes, is uncertain, and is mostly not known. Note: the antagonist, for Wells and for the purposes of this short essay, is not in any way personified or demonized. The word points only to a persistent reality. PZ follows up this HG Wells quote with a question; one to which this short essay will also be a response. How do you deal with the many and sundry "checkmates" you face from day to day? In sailing one does not encounter checkmates, as they might be described on land. One does encounter the absolute sovereignty of the elements, and the fact that things do break, whether nautical or human.

Back to sailing. Yesterday we set off from the sleepy hamlet of Wickford and into Narragansett Bay for a short hop up to East Greenwich. As we got out onto the Bay the wind was blowing just right, out of the West at 5 - 10 knots. We unfurled the sails, switched the engine off, and were soon in a blissful sailing state. ALL WAS WONDERFUL. It was one of those ideal sails: fair winds, clear skies, no seas to speak of, and everything on board (including our Chart-plotter at the helm) working as it should.


We enjoyed this for about an hour, and then arrived at a buoy which gave us a choice: fall off and enjoy more of this ideal sailing, or drop sails, power up, and head directly into the wind and into Greenwich Bay and to our next harbor. We chose the former.

Within minutes of letting our sails out and changing to a more downwind course we were virtually becalmed. This was not the joy, the hope-filled grace, of the perfect sail we had thus far relished. So I tacked back toward that decisively positioned buoy.

Again, within minutes, the wind changed dramatically, from 2 knots to 15 knots. We had our rail under water and were making almost 8 knots over the ground. No danger at all, it is what this boat loves, but it was calling for a great deal of focused attention from this one sailor and his help-mate.

I had Mary steer a downwind course, it is less intense reaching than beating, while I shortened sail (triple reefed). This is a sail setting reserved for gales, and we were not in a gale, but for our experience and combined comfort levels, it might as well have been.

To further the "affective" side of this new antagonism (“check” at this point, not yet “check-mate”), a look to starboard and up the bay toward our harbor produced a feeling of some dread and dismay. It was a wall of relentless wind and waves pushing right at us. Could we face this awful wind (mind you, just 15 - 18 knots of it....not much)? That's how it felt.

I've handled this boat in this sort of wind before and knew that we were fine. The shortened sails had leveled the boat off and cut back our speed. We were handling the lines with no undue stress. But Mary is not as experienced, and we were going to be short tacking our way with lots of winching, shifting positions and quick commands. Greenwich Bay has only a narrow channel in its northernmost heart. This is a channel that boats with deep keels, such as ours (5’7”) must follow religiously. There are ledges and reefs on either side of this channel; and it is a busy thoroughfare, in which a constant lookout for other boats is a must.

It was not a difficult decision to switch on the engine, furl the remaining sail, and turn toward our destination under power.

Things had gone from calm to crazy in a minute, and as quickly they went from strained to steady. We were on a straight line for Sally Rock buoy, following a few other sailboats, and leveled off for a very comfortable ride into East Greenwich. Our affect changed dramatically. Confidence returned; dread faded away.

I think you can see where this is going. Here is life in a bottle; floating on the wide ocean of life. Angle of attack, breadth of canvas presented to the wind, the antagonist's way of coming right from our desired direction; all of these define life.

The affections produced by this sail varied from ecstasy to (well, this is being dramatic) despair. In reality, it was the angle of our boat to the wind which changed the perspective (though there was a genuine wind strengthening, which is common in New England summer waters). I had experienced this sudden surge of wind on a number of prior occasions. It is a combination of what is called Apparent Wind Speed(as opposed to True Wind Speed), which varies dramatically at different angles to the wind (think vectors), and gusting afternoon breezes which define summer sailing. Because I do not sail regularly this one caught me by surprise. In the moment it was familiar only as the dread in a nightmare is familiar. On reflection I see a pattern etched in the history of the Holy Ruach of God.

This may not be at all what Wilberforce was driving at in the quote. Evangelicals tend to live in their heads. Charismatics tend to live in their emotions; Wilberforce was, it seems, appealing for equal time to both.

In the past few years both Mary and I have been trying to regain contact with our emotions, the affective sides of our lives. We have both, through past experience, grown up resistant to "affective" responses to the antagonisms and checkmates of life. And, we have spiritualized our responses in all sorts of creative ways; opting for three and four point lessons (all having key words beginning with the same letter) which help manage the uncertainty and volatility of encountered “opposition”. We have used the Bible as a “certain” rule book to answer the “uncertain” realities around us. Our exegesis and application has mostly been well founded. We were trained by the best. Sadly, even well founded vessels can leak and break apart when the winds and waves conspire as co-antagonists. The good sailor accepts this as a part of what it means to go to sea. The good sailor certainly has personal rules and rehearsed procedures. You must always, rules and procedures notwithstanding, assume that something unpredictable will occur and that something will break. We followed the rules and procedures, and, didn’t we know?, things broke around us and inside of us. Our rails were underwater, our sails overpowered, and our confidence shaken.

The sailor continues to go out to sea because she loves it (or because it is his way of making a living). My own anxieties about sailing are awkwardly juxtaposed with my love for the pure pleasure of being out on the water, and particularly under sail. This is a very accurate way to describe how I deal with life in general. It explains why I am essentially a home body, though I have loved leading trips to Israel (another metaphor for life which is another short/long essay).

That's the extent of what I have right now. Food for thought as we head off to Bristol harbor.

Sailors, to be sure, know that they are dealing with elements and circumstances which are uncertain and often unknown. This is their only certainty. A sailor who is committed to the sea, and to a particular voyage or trade, must go out into this uncertainty regardless. His experiences through the years have taught him how to respect the sea, and how to survive her fickle nature. He deals with what is, and anticipates what might be.

Newport, Rhode Island, is a haven for sailors. Pick any particularly blustery day, with forecasts of thunderstorms in the vicinity in the next hour, and you will see scores of boats heading out of Newport Harbor, under full sail. The vessel before you, off the tip of Fort Adams, might be an enormous mega-yacht, with all sorts of navigational equipment and lots of seasoned crew, ready-for-everything-but-hurricane-seaworthiness. You will also see little 10 foot sailing dinghies, classes full of them, going out into the open water for a lesson; regular cruising sailboats, much like Summer Breeze, with one, two, or five crew on board: racing boats, going out for a training sail; or charter sailing excursions for the tourists - large schooners or 12- meter America Cup class boats, charging into the fray.

I am standing on the shore, just in front of Fort Adams, watching this ceaseless parade of sailors and sailboats (ignoring the power boats quite deliberately, except the lovely and majestic vintage wooden Elcos which still grace this port), in dumb amazement. Don’t they know the forecast? Can’t they see the deteriorating conditions? What sort of moxie is this? What flavor Jello am I made of?

A fair weather sailor picks and chooses the conditions he is willing to engage. If the wind is too strong, reef or go under power. If storms threaten, stay in port. If the vessel is wanting in any way, get her repaired or provisioned before heading out. There will be other sunny days, other fair breezes and other ports of call. Stay safe and comfortable.

The fair weather sailor would not do well in the company of St. Paul. Perhaps this was John Mark's nature, and Paul could not countenance a companion averse to certain uncertainty.

Let me bring all of this into the present, and raise a third model. We have spent the past two nights at Potter Cove, an idyllic refuge from the busy harbors of Bristol or Newport. Here there is only the wind, the gulls, the sun and moon rising and setting, and other boats (sail and power) enjoying the tranquility of it all. One can hang safely and peacefully, and for free, on a town mooring, with no commercial interests in sight.


Our weather for the past three days has been typical Narragansett Bay summer weather: winds out of the southwest blowing five to ten knots (usually increasing some in the afternoons). Mornings are pretty calm, as are the evenings after sunset. These conditions are set up by a variant of the Bermuda High, and mean clear sunny days and nights.

We have known that there was to be a change in weather today, but nothing that would warrant us leaving Potter Cove early. Our charter contract says that we must be back on our Newport mooring by four or five this afternoon. We can reach Newport, under power, in about two hours.

When I woke up this morning before sunrise it was apparent that the change in weather was upon us. Fog had set in. Not the sort of fog that blinds you, but a fog where visibility is restricted to a mile or two. The entrance to Bristol Harbor, about two miles east of us, is fading in and out of sight as the fog rises and settles. The nearby shore of Prudence Island, which wraps itself around Potter Cove, has that wonderful Maine coast shrouded in fog look to it.

There is no question about whether or not to proceed to Newport. A chance of thunderstorms later in the day does not put us in any peril. There are matters of convenience which will have to be put aside as we finish up this charter. The boat needs to have its fuel and water tanks topped off and its holding tanks pumped out. Our sea bags need to be taken off the boat and transferred to our car. A final shower? Have we left it all as clean or cleaner than we found it? Timing? The wind on or off the fuel docks? The crowd of boats in Newport Harbor (should we do our "ablutions" in Jamestown?). All of these questions are chugging through my mind. I know that I must get out the paper chart and plot our course to Newport, just in case the chart-plotter fails. We don't want to rush our final morning at Potter Cove, but the tides will be just right for our down bay voyage after breakfast.

In a sense, this picture, which I have just painted, is more like real life than our "near perfect" sail of Monday morning, or that "de-powered" sail of Monday afternoon or our "reduced-canvas" sail around Prudence Island yesterday. Life is constantly presenting you with antagonisms and checkmates. Today it will be fog and fickle skies. Tomorrow it may be cancer. You don’t have a choice about finishing your contract. But, boy, is it interesting to watch body and soul wrestle with perceived and real adversities.

I'm feeling anxious to get underway, and will go and wake Mary up. I wish our charter were ending in the sunshine....and maybe it still will. It is all quite uncertain and unknown. The only thing I know is that tonight I’ll be playing these tapes over and over in my head, and tomorrow will be making plans to sail again next summer.

As a Postscript, here is how the day ended, a day that began with a foggy sunrise at Potter Cove.



Our boat does have a GPS based chart-plotter, which tells you just where you are on the water, the depth under you, and your speed over ground. You can play around with the cursor and determine headings to landmarks and buoys. The boat also has a standard ship’s compass, and an autopilot (with compass read-outs). To go from point A to point B in the fog is mostly a matter of steaming from one buoy to the next, and then setting a new heading.

I realized pretty quickly that the ship’s compass, the autopilot compass readings, and the chart-plotter compass readings were not always in synch with one another. This is a helpful way to understand my brain as it muddles its way through daily challenges. Which course do I rely on? The ship’s compass is the obvious answer, but steering consistently is easier said then done. There is current, tide and wind to factor in; and my unsteady hold on the wheel. When the first green buoy showed up on our starboard bow, just where it was supposed to be, you can imagine my delight (and surprise!).

Every minute I was aware that the fog might suddenly thicken and I really needed to keep track of the course. We were close enough to the shore of Prudence Island (which, by the way, has a smaller Patience Island on its northwestern corner, and a Despair Rock just on the tip of Patience....no kidding) so that I had one steady point of reference. What I was also aware of was the fact that we were in a major shipping channel, used by freighters and barges coming up Narragansett Bay to Providence. The channel at this point is pretty narrow. We were listening on the VHF for shipping traffic, and we did have radar to help us, but we were spared having to face that sort of antagonism.

(At the southern end of Prudence is a ferry dock, which receives and sends out the back and forth ferry from Bristol. Wouldn’t you know it that the ferry was pulling out of its island landing as we steamed by. In seamanship classes you learn how to determine whether or not you are on a collision course with another vessel. I applied said lesson to this encounter with the ferry and determined pretty quickly that, in fact, we were lined up to meet at an ugly angle. Mercifully the fog was such that I saw this situation with plenty of time to react, kicked the throttle and surge out ahead of the ferry. More “prudence” might have inclined me to steer towards shore and fall in behind this approaching behemoth. Huh. I didn’t.)

When you get to the very end of the island you are faced with a long open water leg down to Gould Island near Newport, or a more circuitous jog over to Conanicut Island whose shoreline leads you down to Jamestown, across the East Passage from Newport. Not knowing what the fog was going to do I opted for the jog, which afforded more buoy waypoints to use. The only unexpected “antagonism” here was that our paper chart, our chart-plotter chart and what my eyes were seeing did not all agree. I had watched a sailboat go aground in these same waters three years ago, and did not wish to follow that example. Thanks to the Navy there are some gunnery exercise buoys in the region as well, and these we picked up pretty quickly. Before long the dangerous reef was spotted off our port beam, and I knew we were home free.

So buoyed was I by this successful foggy transit that when a little more wind presented itself near Conanicut I unfurled the genoa to enjoy one last sail before our charter ended. I had visions of boldly coming into Newport Harbor under canvas and confidently coasting by the impressed crowds at Fort Adams and into the waiting mooring field. No such luck.

The wind got quite fickle, changed its mind and intensity ten times a minute and threatened to die down altogether. I dropped sail, cranked the engine and schlepped into the harbor, having to dodge around and behind some passing tourist schooners heading out to Narragansett Sound. To add insult to injury I made quite a mess of our departure from the fuel dock in Newport, when later in the afternoon we took the boat to Newport Yachting Center to top off and pump out. (I had mentally rehearsed this particular sort of dock departure for three years. It involves going forward into the dock, and against a bumper, while you swing your stern out into the channel. Once your stern is free you go into reverse briefly, and then power out ahead and to starboard. I didn’t reckon on the bloody antagonism of our dinghy, which seemed determined to put its towing line in danger of getting wrapped around our propeller shaft. Mary was at the bow doing just what I had asked her to do, and I was stewing in the stern, watching my perfectly begun maneuver go to pieces. I did a save-face swinging turn with Summer Breeze and then headed back to our mooring. This is not to mention the fact that I let the diesel fuel overflow when topping off and I let the head pump-out spit a load of shit back at me as I cleaned out the after head holding tank. And, I had given the dock boy a very generous tip to guarantee my success in all of these endeavors. Sigh.) The ego, with all its confused attachments and sorry fantasies provides an ever present antagonism.

William Wilberforce was not necessarily looking to the Bay of Narragansett when he wondered about the affective side of faith. Sailboats, skippers and seamanship were probably not on his radar screen. I can say, with some confidence, that Love, Zeal, Gratitude, Joy, Hope, Trust are all part of my affective experience of sailing. It is perhaps easier for me to talk about these feelings when I talk about sailing, though I might not use the specific words to capture a specific moment on board Summer Breeze, or Endless Summer, or Summer Magic (the three Beneteau 423s I have sailed so far). I do know that my internal connections are much more alive at the end of this week of being “at sea”. I also know that my internal bearings are inclining me to hang on the “mooring” of quiet Grafton life for the next few days.

Is this all part of being “faithful” to God? I do know that being in touch with how I feel in a sailing saga is easier than being in touch with how I feel in my faith. That’s what gets me back on the water again.


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