This is the messy part.
I’m all over the place. This narrative is not concise. It’s not well constructed and polished, refined by editors making sure every comma is in its proper place and each idea is given its proper place and development. I go from talking about modern college kids being withdrawn and frankly boring, to something that sounds like a book on business communication. It’s the ADD mind jumping all over the place. It’s sloppy and probably a little bit confusing if you’re not in my head. But, I think to do this right. To write this the way it needs to be written is to let you into my head. And I’m here to tell you that’s a weird ass place to be. Hemingway wrote that the first draft of anything is shit and you’re reading the first draft. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe part of the problem is everything is too presentable. We don’t get to see enough of the dark corners where the dirt hides or the closets where we store all our junk that we just can’t seem to let go of. That all gets edited out of public view. That all hides behind fake smiles and filters that turn people into plastic.
But only histories and fictions are edited. Life happens in the first draft.
Right now, at this very moment. I’m sitting on my boat. It’s cold and grey outside and first light is only a few minutes old. It’s rainy and the boat is swaying with the wind and I’m drinking my morning mug of coffee as I write. I could leave it at that. I could leave you with a romantic vision of a writer on his sailboat. But I’d be leaving out things. Like all the piles of clutter around this boat that are gnawing at my sense of order. When you have a chaotic mind, one of the best things to have around you is an orderly space to live. Whether it’s your bedroom or your boat. When a mind or a life are in chaos, keeping a space that’s tidy is good for the soul. Its order among chaos and that can feel like a life raft at times.
But that’s not what I have right now. There is no order on this boat today. I’m replacing the old navigation electronics in the boat and part of that is removing all the old ones. Which means I have hatches open, wires pulled out, stuff that was put away that’s now pulled out and piled on my bed so I can access some compartment that it was blocking. What you see on the surface are just the displays. What’s hiding behind the walls and beneath the floor are webs of wires that are confusing and mostly pointless. They’re the connective threads of a former life for this boat. One that doesn’t exist anymore. But some still are. It feels a bit like my mind and my life. So it’s my job to find which is which and cut out that which no longer serves this vessel.
But, it’s not that I’m cutting out all the old navigation equipment. It’s that I’m also making space for the new navigation equipment that will help guide me in the years to come.
I feel like there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
Let me tell you a story.
The night was black across the water. We were double reefed on a beam reach and a cold north wind was steady at 40 knots kicking up heavy seas as we sailed 100 miles off the Texas coast, attempting to cross the Gulf of Mexico to and deliver the sailboat to Florida. There was no moon. Only the occasional light from a distant oil rig or star breaking through the clouds gave any real visual sense of direction. Hand steering through the night, I relied solely on the boat’s compass and chart plotter to ensure that we were on course.
Few things had gone right on this passage. While the boat sailed beautifully through heavy seas almost none of the electronics were working. The radio was out. The auto-pilot was malfunctioning, and the cabin was a chaotic mess of tools and parts that hadn’t been stowed properly, and had exploded across the floor the moment the waves picked up. To make matters worse, the man I was sailing with had gotten sea sick as soon as we got into open water and stayed sick. The moments he was awake, he was throwing up over the side of the boat. Mostly he slept in a heap, exhausted and motionless in the corner of the cockpit wrapped up in his foul weather gear and a wet sleeping bag.
It was two days until Christmas and over 36-hours since I had slept.
Sometimes things don’t work out like you plan.
There is a darkness at sea that can be hard to describe. It doesn’t take much moonlight to give a sailor enough light to see. But when the moon is gone and the stars are hidden by the clouds, the darkness is total. Blackness above and blackness below. The only illumination are the red and green navigation lights at the front of the boat that illuminate the spray of the water coming over the bow. On calm nights, there is little cause for concern. On clear, becalmed nights when the moon is absent, but the stars are shining and reflected in the glassy water, it can feel like your boat isn’t floating on an ocean but in space itself. The world is quiet and you find yourself drifting silently through space and time.
But that is not this night. Nights like this take concentration and endurance. Though the world around us may be shrouded in darkness, the waves that bear down upon us only build through the night.
To sail is to understand your relationship to the world, its rhythms and your own vulnerability. Sailing in heavy weather can be exhilarating. But, it is also inherently dangerous. A misstep can be fatal. With only water rising and falling as far as you can see in every direction, you get a deeper sense of how utterly alone you are. The International Space Station orbits 227 nautical miles above the earth’s surface. For a sailor alone in the ocean, seeing the ISS fly overhead may mean seeing the closest human beings to his location. While we carry radios and emergency beacons that can notify the coast guard of our location in an emergency, that is no guarantee anyone will come in time.
Every sailor should be prepared to self-rescue.
A good helmsman feels the waves and wind. Without instruments, without having to see the water, the boat becomes an extension of himself and he falls in step with the music of the sea. To fight the music is to invite disaster. To understand rhythm is to understand what comes next. To sail is to dance and the sailor and his boat become one on this living dance floor, moving to the beat of the ocean’s song. With his hands on her wheel, as if it were his lover’s waist, he feels the way she moves upon the water. In the darkness, her bow lifts as the wave comes and she rises over the crest. Her bow drops as she slides down into the trough, the wind heeling her over. He feels what the boat asks for and smoothly turns the wheel in response, never too much and never too little and always at the right moment, they move as one, so that their dance over the waves feels as natural as the sea itself.
Sometime in the middle of the night, exhausted and my shipmate still a huddled mass in his sleeping bag, the clouds broke and I could see the stars. But it was like I was seeing the stars with new eyes. I’d never seen them this clear. Then about an hour before dawn a crescent moon came up over the horizon and leaned against the gunnel rail as I held the wheel and just looked out over the moonlit sea and I realized everything was fine. It was more than fine. It was amazing. The boat, was doing exactly what she was built to do. But I realized that for the first time in this passage, I trusted the boat to keep me safe. I was still in a heavy sea, but this amazing vessel and I were dancing a beautiful dance until the sky on the eastern horizon turned purple with first light and then the orange of a beautiful sunrise.