“Ma’am, we gon git yur feet wet today!” exclaims my 20 year old, College of Charleston Olympiad-in-training instructor in a weathered straw cowboy hat.
I’d decided to learn to sail one of the dinghies used by the racing team. Turns out you must successfully recover from a capsized one before you can skipper it. I can hear my dad’s voice saying, “always be prepared.” This will be a valuable learning exercise. And this teacher with boundless energy (who has 3 girlfriends and had been carousing till 4 am the night before) was going to school me.
I was more than a little scared. Jellyfish were swarming the harbor. Not to worry, they don’t sting I was told.
We rig the little boat and are under way. Just out of the marina, Mr. Straw hat uses all of his weight to flip us over…and we are in the warm, salt water.
1- Make sure everyone’s okay. Check.
2- Get out of the rigging if tangled in it. Check.
3- Hat still on Teach (he is an Olympian, after all). Check.
4- Right the boat by standing on the dagger board while your mate hops in. Check. Check. Passed.
That is where this story was supposed to end. Little did I know, this was training for what was to be an accelerated lesson in the art of tipping over.
I’d been wanting to sail at night for a while…dreams of witnessing glowing phosphorus, shooting stars, and gentle breezes.
So, I hopped on a familiar boat almost identical to the one I grew up on for my first night race. Knowing the crew, I felt comfortable. The beginning of the race was uneventful. There were 6 “souls on board” and a setting sun to our stern as we crept passed the starting line headed east on this 100 mile jaunt.
The night WAS delightful. I loved keeping watch, steering on a course, documenting our location in the log and quietly musing about life as we watched the satellites and stars in the summer sky. The breeze WAS gentle and warm. Every now and again we’d hear the magical, labored blows from the exhaling dolphins as they danced in sync with us.
At 4 am I saw what I thought was heat lighting in the distance. The radio chimed a weather warning for Myrtle Beach and we determined the storm was far from our location. Not a concern. “Coast Guard Station Charleston South Carolina with a severe weather alert…blah, blah, blah.”
Just passed 6 am, the sun began to rise and the night sky turned cool gray. We were in a lead position. The wind was almost non-existent so we hoisted our spinnaker to make some time and adjust for the light air. I went below as the sky was turning pink. Or was that heat lightening?
I heard the Captain say, “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” And then there was a call for all hands on deck to get the spinnaker down.
As I ascended the companionway, I met the whites of the Skippers’ eyes against a now black, wave-shaped shelf cloud eclipsing any light in the sky. Above my head, I witnessed the boom accidentally jibe with a clang from starboard to port across the horizon.
A mesoscale convective shift. “It” was ON.
The 20,000 pound boat groaned and lurched to the port side (as did I). The mast teetered and descended almost parallel to the sea. It was a biblical scene. The entire spinnaker and bow surrendered to the force and doused into a surprisingly flat, whitecapped ocean. The same warm, salt water I had been in weeks prior poured into the cockpit. The wind whined as heavy wooden cabinet drawers below full of silverware clattered and clanked while smashing out from their carcasses.
Shielding his eyes from hail, the Capt commanded, “BLOW THE SHEETS!” I released the lines and the spinnaker flew out behind us, attached by the halyard like a twirling cape on the finger of a dancer who has happily just removed her garment. It was a drenched swath of red, white and blue canvas flailing high above us and trailing into the treacherous wild blue yonder.
Another Kind of Turtle
And then we steadied.
One of the younger guys looked at me and said, “it’s okay, don’t worry, everything will be fine.”
And it was. The sentiment of crew was that we handled it well and now we know what to do when that happens again.
Once settled, I felt grateful for surviving the experience, thankful for my coolheaded teammates, a sense of accomplishment and trust. A similar feeling to righting the dinghy.
As if God were smiling down on us upon our return, a golden sea turtle appeared on the indigo ocean surface. His yellow and rust colored shell glistening as his flat, wide flippers paddled below. His pointy head popped out, “Welcome Home.”
And that made the journey worth it. I appreciate the freedom to choose this experience and adventure. What a grand, powerful, beautiful earth we live on. I am humbled.
So “capsize” often. Do a mock drill. Remember that things can change in a flash. Trust your team and the choices that got you here. Of course we hope to never be in a crisis but the more prepared, the better. Whether you sign up for it or not, you ‘gon tip over; you ‘gon git yur feet wet!