Some of life’s best lessons have been lain at my feet horribly disguised as disaster.
I had just spent a long-yet-satisfying 8 days working on Ave del Mar on land, as documented in a few posts here like Haul Out Time and I’m Not Sure What Day It Is. My triumphant return to my marina in Eastport came on a Thursday, as I—equal parts pride and exhaustion—motored up from Deale, Maryland, under a glorious August sun with Ave’s hull glistening, reflecting the sparkling waters of the Chesapeake Bay. As I started to make the turn from the Severn River into my home waters of Back Creek, the engine, without warning, fell dead.
What immediately followed was nearly clinical, as I fell into a controlled rush checking engine components, fuel flow, and temperature gauges—my nautical version of a trauma surgeon fighting to save a life. Check the wind. Check the drift. Call the Coast Guard on the VHF radio. Duck below, work on the engine. Pop back up above decks, check the drift. Look for boating traffic. Talk to the Coast guard. Back below, try Plans C, D, E, and F. Calm, cool, collected. We’ve got this. Gather information. Triage options. Evaluate conclusions. Regroup. Repeat.
Ultimately unsatisfied with the engine’s health I decided to call for a tow, roughly the equivalent of driving all the way home from your Uncle Bob’s only to have your car die just as you turn onto your street, forcing you to call AAA—but on the water we call BoatUS towing. The tow boat arrived in short order, tied onto the front of Ave, and helped us limp down that painful last half mile of our journey home. A neighbor came out onto the docks to help pull the boat into her slip where I tied her off to my satisfaction. After putting a few loose items in order I sat down in the cockpit, slumped my head into my hands, and cried.
I cried hard and deep, from exhaustion that was both mental and physical. I cried from frustration. I cried from horrible feelings of helplessness. I cried because I knew I had ruined my boat’s engine, failed to prove myself as a captain, failed to pass muster as a mechanic, and was sure to slide headfirst into failing in my future attempts to find a clear path forward. I had put myself and my intentions in the public eye, and I was falling flat on my face in plain sight.
Over the next day or so, as somehow seems to happen in life, the real lessons floated up to the surface, revealing that the boat, the engine’s premature death, and my resulting emotions were all metaphors for all that happens in life, and this is exactly what makes this boating world resonate with me.
The boat is not going to sink (probably). I am not going to die as a result of sailing (probably). I will have some degree of shelter (probably), food (probably), joy (probably), and suffering (definitely) as my journey progresses. My reactions are (mostly) my own to control and choose and watch and contemplate. The stark simplicity of the boating world distills all of this down, exaggerating—or maybe simplifying?—both the causes and effects of all that crosses your path.
I watched myself as if in a movie over the next few days as I refused to crawl into the engine compartment to try to determine the state of affairs it contained. I would enter the engine’s realm when I was rested and happy, a week to the day after my little misadventure. Shockingly, things were a bit less dire than originally suspected: the engine wasn’t dead—a clogged fuel filter was to blame for starving the engine of its needed fuel. The transmission wasn’t seized—just a little whiny from lack of fluid (my fault there). Friends whose sailing experience dwarfs mine gave me good marks for the entirety of my real-time reaction—I alerted the coast guard of my predicament, I undertook a logical series of attempted fixes, I knew when to say “Help!” and was thereby able to avoid turning a small issue into a larger disaster. Pretty much everything I had felt had been off the mark, from my certainty that I had ruined the engine to my own feelings of doom and gloom about my abilities.
This time it was the little clogged fuel filter episode. There was also the day that I dropped a $200 turnbuckle into the river. There are all the times that I faced problems that seemed to have no solutions, parts that failed, leaks that reappeared, and issues thought solved that later declared that they were anything but. These lessons pop up over and over, cracks in the sidewalk of my life. When you see them clearly they’re almost insignificant, but should you get caught unawares they’ll send you tumbling down.
I thought that I wanted to sail so that I could experience life more fully, more intensely. Little did I know that for me, what it is all about has nothing to do with casting off those lines and catching the wind, and everything to do with my own head and the lessons of life. The experience of these things in my little petri dish of a boat has made this lesson fabulously clear, and I couldn’t be happier about that.