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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn May of this year, for a little diversion (and to deliver a new boat to my new home), I decided to sail to Bermuda. I set out from Annapolis and was headed ultimately to Charleston, a voyage of some 1500 miles.  I was alone aboard Prodigal, a thirty-foot ketch built in 1965 that I bought for less than the price of a rusted Ford Fairlane, unaware that the cost of fixing her up would come in somewhere north of a shiny new BMW (which explains why I am driving the cheapest Fiat I could find and coasting down hills).

As it turned out, I missed making landfall in Bermuda by forty-five miles.  After four days of sailing down Chesapeake Bay and six days out to sea, through nerve-wracking gales and insufferable calms, I came to the southwestern tip of the island. Right on cue, a nor’easter blowing out of St. George’s Harbor pushed me back out to sea and tore my timetable to shreds.  I could do nothing more than run before the storm in the direction of Charleston and the way home.   Before I came ashore at Masonboro Inlet in North Carolina (more about that unusual navigation, later), I had been at sea for seventeen days—thirteen out of sight of land. For many days at a time I saw no other ships nor a single, solitary thing created by the hand of man beyond the hull of my vessel.

I was of course disappointed not to come ashore in Bermuda—not because I pine for pink houses and brown beer, but because Bermuda is a long, long way from the East Coast and an even  longer way to come for no reason.  Except there was a reason and, as it turned out, a very worthwhile one.

Quite by the accident of weather, I got to spend the entirety of seventeen days in the sole company of the sea—that great, clarifying solvent of man’s uncertainties and self-doubt.  In my solitude, when I was not reading or sleeping, I was regularly employed in the two favorite pastimes of frightened sailors everywhere: prayer and penitence. As a result I learned a few things, and for what profit there might be in it for others, I want to share my experience.

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” (Revelation 21:1). I have often wondered what the writer of Revelation meant in telling us that, in the end, something so lovely and beloved of humankind as the sea—our most reliable source of sustenance and means of travel—must one day be no more.  But after being at the ocean’s mercy for such a long time, I think I finally understand. 

The ocean is Death. 

That may sound harsh, but it is certainly the way I conditioned myself to look upon the briny deep during this voyage. What is death but an abyss, and what abyss is more inscrutable than the deep blue sea?

Since I first learned to sail under my brother’s tutelage on Chesapeake Bay and through a half-dozen sailboats of various sizes I owned in the years since, I had never ventured more than a day’s distance  from land and the promise of aid.  Bermuda would be different. I knew this when I set out, which is what made it at once so alluring and so terrifying. Getting to Bermuda meant crossing 700 miles of open ocean in the North Atlantic in a boat that, on a very good day with a favorable wind and gentle, following seas, can travel 125 miles.  Commit to such a voyage, and in a few days you have surrendered to something immovable, unpitying, and utterly indifferent to your vaunted sense of self-worth and autonomy.  You have subjected yourself to the capricious authority of wind and wave.  There is no mercy in that hall.  One misstep, one moment of carelessness, one instant of inattention will change the single-handed sailor’s world forever.  Fall overboard while your vessel sails on without you, and help, if it comes at all, will be days away.  Death from hypothermia, dehydration, and delirium will be hours away. When you’re Out There, you’re Out There.  For a long, long, long time.

And so I was.  Out there. 

I knew this voyage would require a mental discipline to which my life, of late, has grown unaccustomed.  I was delighted to discover that I did not despair, and that I found a well of faith and resilience that I had hoped but wasn’t sure I could draw upon in the darker moments. That well springs from something else I came to understand.

The ocean is Life. 

Charles Darwin and the writer of Genesis held this philosophy in common.  “And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly.” (Genesis 1:21).  If we believe that the sea, through some unfathomable divine agency, “brought forth . . . every living creature that moveth,” we (like Darwin) must also accept that the sea is the material source and summation of all things. It was there in the beginning.  It will be there in the end. We cannot change it, stop it. contain it, or delay it.  It waits for no man. President Kennedy believed that man is drawn to the sea because the salinity of the blood in his veins is exactly the same as the salinity of sea water. Perhaps we pine for it because we somehow “remember” it on a molecular level.

What I discovered in my time at sea is that Life and Death are two sides of the same coin.  You cannot have one without the other. The sea is the germinator of both.  In this voyage I delighted at the sheer joy of a family of dolphins who lined up, some fifteen animals in a straight row as if they were on a starting line, until someone said “go” and they all sprinted to see who could reach my boat the fastest.  The victor leapt and spun in the air.  They were a vision of life lived for the sake of life itself, unbridled and untamed.  I loved watching them.  Yet one day the sea will devour their bones.  Flying fish thrill with speed and acrobatics, but each morning I would find one or two marooned on deck, stiff and lifeless. There is no sadness in this, only understanding.  Death is a certainty, not an occasion for despair.  It is the reason why we celebrate life and the promise of eternity.

On the voyage home, I was able to lay the rhumbline (a direct course) for Charleston for five days and five hundred miles.  With a push from that Bermudian nor’easter, I was making good time.  Then came the Gulf Stream and another shift in the wind to change my fortunes. When I was exactly 165 miles due east of the Charleston sea buoy, the wind veered to the west. Just as it had blown directly from Bermuda when I attempted to land there, now it was blowing directly from Fort Sumter and blocking my path toward the channel that would take me home. 

The immutable reality of a sailboat is that it cannot make way directly against the wind. It must tack to move forward, and so I tacked to the north.  I soon discovered that this change in direction, aided by the current of the Gulf Stream, put Prodigal on a collision course with Frying Pan shoals, eighty miles to the north of my position.  Hit those shoals, and the destruction of your vessel is a certainty.  The shoals lie within the Gulf Stream, with waves regularly above ten feet.  No vessel with her keel buried in the sand can long survive that kind of pounding.

So, I altered course to sail north around Cape Fear, giving up two days and a two hundred miles of hard-won progress. I also kept a watchful eye on the chart to ensure that if the wind shifted again overnight I could react in time to change course and still skirt the shoals by a wide margin.  Prodigal took a terrific beating in yet another gale and huge seas in the Gulf Stream, but in the end all was well.  On day seventeen I pulled into a secure berth at Seapath Marina in Wrightsville Beach to see my wife for the first time in a month before motoring the boat to Southport for the final sail to Charleston that I expected to take no more than two days.  I had made that voyage many times before.

The irony is not lost on me that, as I departed Southport on Memorial Day bound for Charleston, on a course safely inside the shoals, the wind shifted to the south and increased again to gale force.  I was again impeded in reaching my desired goal and again obliged to tack against the forces of nature.  After three days of fighting big seas and strong winds I was exhausted and had made only about eighty miles of progress.  I was near Wynah Bay and Georgetown, South Carolina, still forty-five miles from Charleston.  (The number forty-five loomed large in this voyage for reasons unclear to me.)

I had sought refuge from rough weather in Wynah Bay once before—eleven years ago when sailing with my son—but I had never gone all the way up the long channel to Georgetown.  I needed to go to Georgetown because my vacation time was up.  I had to find a port where I could leave the boat and hire a captain to motor it the remaining forty-five miles to Charleston through the ICW while I returned to work in Raleigh.  A hearing was scheduled in a case for one of my clients, and I couldn’t risk missing it.

There was a problem, however. I didn’t have a detailed chart for waters as far inland as Georgetown, and my GPS chart-plotter was not showing any marinas there.  I was still far offshore, and I didn’t want to waste the time it would take to sail for Wynah Bay and head all the way up the river to Georgetown if there were no place to leave the boat.   So I radioed the Coast Guard to ask for information about marinas in the area.

No one answered.  I was twenty-five miles offshore and apparently out of radio range—or so I thought.  After making this call I left the radio on and busied myself with some other chore that needed to be done.  Then a calm voice came over the speaker.

It was the skipper aboard another ship in the area.  He had answered a call sent from the Coast Guard in Charleston, which had received my radio signal but was unable to reach me because my radio receiver was not powerful enough.  The Coast Guard sent a message to vessels in the area to relay a message to me, and this man had responded.

He was extremely helpful, as sailors invariably are when one of their number needs even the smallest gesture of help.  He told me that Georgetown most certainly did have a marina—several, in fact—where a transient vessel might find a berth for the night, and he even gave me a telephone number of one to call when I was in range.  It was reassuring to know this as I headed toward Wynah Bay late in the day. 

When I was finally in range, I made contact with the Harborwalk Marina in Georgetown, whose friendly staff waited for my arrival and guided me safely into the channel.  Once I was secure at their dock, they found a local sailor with some time on his hands to take my boat down “the ditch,” as the Intracoastal Waterway is called, while I attended to business in Raleigh. I enjoyed a wonderful steak dinner that night at a local restaurant and the company of many fellow sailors eager to hear of my travails and flirtation with Bermuda. 

Like Tennessee Williams’ famous heroine I have, throughout my life, depended on the kindness of strangers. This voyage was no exception.  It was by design that I named my little ship Prodigal, for I have more than once felt an affinity with the son whose tale of woe met with unmerited kindness and redemption gives hope to us all.  We all wait on that heavenly hope, and we surely can rely upon it.  I know I did that long, tired day as I searched for a way home.  I recognized that hope by name as soon as I heard the friendly voice of the captain who responded to Prodigal’s call for help and reassured me that a safe harbor awaited me in Georgetown.  “This is the motor vessel Providence,” he said.  “I hear you loud and clear.”