Lessons from a Sailing Trip

I really don’t know how many years ago it was now- probably about 18 years ago- when my friend and mentor Dennis Mikel invited my son and I to go sailing with him on his sailboat on Lake Erie. Denny was an amazing guy. My late friend and mentor passed away several years ago, and I still miss him. I hope this story honors him, and maybe teaches some lessons too.

My son at the time was about 21 years old. The plan was to go up late on a Friday evening, spend the night on the boat, and then have a little cruise on Lake Erie the next day. The weather was supposed to be nice, with some nice breezes on Saturday so that we could get around on the lake. When we arrived Friday night, Denny asked if we would like a little moonlight cruise. We could camp at an island a couple of miles away and spend the night, ready for a nice early start in the morning. We readily agreed.

We started out with a nice breeze, fair skies, and the sun starting to fade in the western sky. It seemed like such a nice evening that we did not notice the growing cloud formations, and the wind kicking up a little. Pretty soon, we realized that there were some flashes of lightning in the sky behind the clouds. “Heat lightning” we suggested. It really didn’t seem that hot, but I comforted myself with that thought. It was not long however before we realized that the lightning was indeed the first warnings of an approaching storm. We were pretty far out into the lake by that time, and we needed to decide whether to return to home port, or go on to our destination. We decided to push on, figuring that the places of safety were probably equidistant.

Interesting fact- I don’t know how to swim.

My first lesson perhaps was this- I was not panic stricken. I had some fear to be sure, but I had a confidence about the situation. Why the confidence? I do not know how to sail, and in fact, I don’t think I had ever been on a sailboat before this. I don’t know how to swim (although later Denny said that if we went overboard in this kind of storm, it might not have made any difference). My confidence was not at all in my abilities or knowledge. My confidence was in the captain. I trusted him, and respected his knowledge and leadership. I figured that Denny would get us through. He was successful in everything he did, I felt, and he was certainly bright and resourceful. I also knew that he trusted God. All those things added up to give confidence to me despite that fact that I was pretty helpless on a boat in the middle of a lake in a storm.

Denny indeed took charge. As the winds whipped up and the rain started to fall, he assigned us our jobs. My son, a fearless athlete, was ready for the challenge. Denny assigned J.P. to rigging duty. Denny, very lithe and agile himself, even at about age 65, would help J.P. on the rigging, climbing forward to trim the sails as needed. They could easily be washed overboard, but Denny knew what he was doing, and J.P. was strong and quick-witted enough to be a great help. Also, they both could swim.

Did I mention that I don’t swim?

Denny assigned me to the rudder. I was to hold us on course as best I could. Understand that it was pitch black and raining, so I did not have any idea as to where to steer this boat. Then Denny gave me the second lesson- steer toward the light. There was a lighthouse on the shore, and all I needed to do was to fix on that light and steer toward it. I said that I could do that, although there was a real learning curve. You see, steering a sailboat in a windstorm is not easy. The rudder has a mind of its own, and one needs to fight the rudder for control. Sometimes the rudder wins.

Just another interesting development was the fact that the boat was now on a permanent 45 degree angle. Denny suggested that we really didn’t want to be at an angle over 45 degrees, and I certainly know that I did not want that either. We had to keep shifting our weight on the boat, and bailing water to try to keep it as level as possible. Through it all, Denny seemed unflappable. I am sure he knew that J.P. and I would pick up on his level of anxiety- and he was right- so he seemed pretty assured of himself. He would give the orders, and J.P. and I would comply as best we could.

Another lesson in leadership- the captain sets the tone for the crew. Leaders are calm and stable or they lose their crew, maybe literally.

Needless to say, we got through the storm. The wind died down, we got the tiny motor started back up (it had gone out for much of the trip) and we started to head for the shore. We just had one more little blip heading into a port when another boat seemed to contest us for the right-of-way in the narrow channel. No real issue there, but I saw another aspect of the captain’s character. Denny admitted that he was not aware of the protocol in that situation, and he was gracious in his deference to the other boat, and to his uncertainty about the procedure. Humility is another important aspect of leadership.

I think the spiritual aspects of this story are self-evident. My confidence comes not from my abilities, but from faith in the captain. I do not need to fear if my faith in the captain is complete. If we have trust in God, what weapon formed against us can prosper?

In the darkest of night, steer toward the light. If there are no other landmarks, the light is still there. In fact, when everything else is the darkest, a little shine shines the brightest by its contrast with the dark.

So, those are my recollections from that weekend. I am still amazed that I had a calm feeling that night that I to this day cannot really explain, but it certainly seems to fit that Biblical injunction that there is a peace that passes understanding.

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