Learning to Listen to an Ominous Sky

The day started innocent enough. The end of another sailing season was near and we longed for one last Sunday morning ride. The sun was shining. The sky was clear, save for a few then, wispy clouds. The forecast called for the chance of strong winds later in the day, but at the present little warranted concern. A slight gust here and there might have drawn some notice, but its message was no match for our own yearnings.

We packed a breakfast of coffee, fruit and bagels and ventured out across the cove to one of the neighboring islands. The wind behind us, we flew along, propelled only by nature’s powers. Such exhilaration and sense of abandon is surely the greatest lure of sailing.

After an hour or so of eating and exploring, we decided to head home. There was a sense that the winds were picking up. We could see the cat’s paws, the ripples in the water caused by blowing breezes, multiplying. No sooner had we left the protection of the island’s cove did we realize just what a turn the weather had taken during our brief stay. The gusts were stronger and more frequent and from the direction to which we wanted to steer. The sky began to change, the clear blue giving way to gray – a battleship gray. But we were not in a battleship, nor any battle-tested vessel. We were in a pleasure craft. And we were not prepared.

All of a sudden we were at war, in a clash with belligerent forces, completely unanticipated, reminiscent of a nation torn apart by combat fueled by differences in religion or ideology. For years you live peaceably with your neighbors. You know their names and the names of their children. You know their family histories and they know yours. Over time, you share histories. But then, for some inexplicable reason, you are taught to hate them. You are told they are different and you’re told the differences are a threat. And you are threatened. And the war is on.

We had lived on that waterfront for years. We knew every island in our cove, every turn in our coastline. But all at once it was as if we knew nothing of it. It was a stranger. It was different. And the peace we had shared, living side by side, was shattered. We had often watched storms from the shoreline, but this was different. We were not casual observers, but rather active participants, completely immersed in the drama being played out not before us, but all about us.

As we crossed the exposed opening of the water between the islands, the battering of the wind became relentless. We lowered the jib and tacked in a manner as best we could to keep the swells from hitting us broadside and flipping us over. We could see the shore ahead of us, but the line between the darkening sky, the dull rocks and the choppy water blurred together, becoming indistinct. Indeed, our own outcome was fast becoming just as unclear.

It is strange though, that in the midst of such uncertainty there was really no fear. Perhaps because we did know this place so well, her sudden change in appearance did not make her a complete stranger. Perhaps more likely, because we had too many things to do to give fear much thought, even as we lost our struggle and became one with the waves.

We were fortunate in that friends on shore had been watching the events of our day unfold and, as friends will often do, came out into the storm to our rescue without much thought for their own safety. We managed to pull our submerged boat – and drenched selves – to shore, bailing out the water and seaweed only slightly faster than the next wave returned the same to the cockpit. And even though it was October, adrenaline kept the chill of the water and air at bay until hours later, when more than just the nature of those elements began to sink in.

Centuries have passed since people learned to harness the power of the wind and water, but never has it been tamed. Unleashed, they prove a formidable force – a humbling force – to which humans are really no match at all. Sometimes they will take you with them. Other times they will spit you out. Luckily, on that day we were granted the latter.

October 2005

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: