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Sailing for Lent

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My spiritual experience of sailing during Lent during my Jesus year birthday of 33 and all the important lessons and experience I have been lucky to have as a result.

Sailing for Lent

Kinship II

Although I am a member of the Vestry of Saint James' and its currently both the most exciting time and my favorite time on the Church calendar, Lent, I responded to the call of my best friend Mark when he asked me to come to Mexico to help him complete his sail from Charleston, SC, to Los Angeles, CA. I joined the sail on March 1, spent my birthday on the boat, and find myself stuck in Cabo San Lucas over a month later. What I have realized is that sailing allows one to better understand the nature of God's grace in my life. Little did I know that it would be as much help to me as it has been to him.

I have been following Mark’s journey from his former home in Charleston and living vicariously. We have been best friends since we met at University during my first year at GWU. We were both on the crew team and have been best friends ever since -- more like brothers than mere college chums. I have never sailed with Mark, even though he lives and works from the deck and cabin of a gorgeous yacht catamaran named Kinship II. I have never been much of a sailor and so much of my sailing enjoyment has been vicarious. It just never interested me and Mark never really pressed the issue.

A little over a month ago, Mark called me and told me that the crew of six he started with in South Carolina had started abandoning the vessel beginning at the first stop after a grueling trek from the Keys all the way to Central America, through the Panama Canal, and back up the Pacific coast of Mexico. The faithful remnant left in Acapulco because their money had run out and the time schedule had slipped and slipped and slipped, as sailing schedules are wont to do.

So, when Mark suggested that he would pay for me to fly to Acapulco to join the crew – him – I took this as one of those veiled manly calls for help which never really show either fear or desperation. When you spend time with men’s men, you have to read between the lines. I was in Acapulco within five days. I might have hurt a relation with a client and leaned on my lovely friend Sarah a little too much, to say nothing of the strain on my new and wondrous relationship with Wendy, but it was Mark! The brother I never had.

We burnt two weeks moored off of the Club de Yates de Acapulco as most of the beatings that Kinship II had suffered on the long passage through the Gulf, along Central America, through the Panama Canal, and up along the Pacific coast were being healed by our angel, Gabriel, who took the time and the pride to get us up to ship shape.

I have been officially sailing the Pacific sea since the first day of Lent, 5 March. An equal time has been spent stuck in port and harbor as it has been sailing miles offshore; some of it has been gentle and awe-inspiring while other parts have been punishing and trying. Although I have not officially given up anything for Lent save my job, I have been able to use the time to become more essential.

Things have been very difficult for me over the last year or so, at least since 9-11, but including the technology crash. Technology and the internet is the basket I had been placing all of my eggs and I had been compensated very well for it. During the last six months, I have be grasping at straws, asking myself what I want to do with the rest of my life. Become a lawyer? Go to business school? Pursue a PhD?

I was stuck in a myopic infinite loop. My priorities, my goals, my desires, and my true wants and needs were befuddled and unclear. Sadly, I have unintentionally hurt people as they were caught in my personal panic as I desperately searched for my equilibrium while not giving myself either the time or the slack with which to find it.

On 8 March, in addition to everything else, I became 33, which to everyone I have spoken to at Saint James´ and elsewhere is my “Jesus year.” The age Jesus the Christ died for our sins, allegedly. Lord knows this was renting space in my mind as the date approached. Lord knows that there was no way I could even remotely find the time or the money to be able to take this time to both help my friend and save myself. But there it was, and I am still sailing with a lot of help from my friends.

Sailing takes time, and it takes its own time which has nothing to do with either my desire or the requirements of society. The moment one becomes willful enough to disrespect the nature of the sea is the day something breaks. Its as simple as that and is kind of spooky at first. Easy as she goes. Cliché sentiment seem to reverberate on the sea. The 96-hour passages blur one into the other into one long day, and when the limits of my tolerance were reached I was rewarded with a pod of a hundred dolphins dancing in and out of my wake. Or a field of basking green sea turtles in the middle of the sea. Or a dense morning fog clearing to a double rainbow.

God can be very remedial in his lessons when you are sailing. He also protects fools and drunks and I am most certainly a fool at the very least. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction and Karma is direct, reciprocity is king on the sea. When I am tempted to be willful and push myself past either my abilities or my energy, I always either hurt myself or break something onboard. This is not a joke. It seems gentle -- the sea always does -- but it is life or death.

The lesson I have learned thus far is that there is a definite rhythm I have been blind to, within which everything works beautifully.

As a striking example, last week we were on route from Manzanillo to Cabo San Lucas and it was to be a milk run. Easily enough diesel to motor from where we were anchored at the Las Hadas Resort to where we were to moor in Cabo San Lucas. First impossibility: we ran out of diesel prematurely because the engine was detuned and was drinking the fuel quickly. So we ran out with just enough to bring us in to port when we finally made it to port, which was still 150 miles away. That's okay, we have a sailing catamaran. We sail easily in 5 knot winds. During the second day, the main sail halyard snaps at the block, at the top of the mast. That's okay, we have a redundant halyard -- which snaps four hours later! We string up the Genoa line and limp the rest of the way. Impossible, but normal I guess.

Things like this happen a lot. When we arrived at Cabo San Lucas, we could not find anyone who would climb the mast, until we ran into Sebastian and his family, from Vancouver, BC. He shimmied up the mast for free and we were back on schedule. We ran into many people like Seb along the way and the Cruiser community around the world is amazing generous.

Sartre was wrong, hell is not other people: grace is other people.

Every day of this trip has humbled me; every day has given me confidence. Not once have I felt humiliation and every day has been a celebration. The confidence not to fear what will happen next, to remain present and observant, to remain vigilant but not aggressive. And I have been thriving and I am strong and worthy of supporting Captain Mark as his only crew and of protecting the delicate fiberglass exoskeleton Kinship II so that she is seaworthy and makes her voyage to Los Angeles on one pristine piece.

On the sea, nothing needs to be forced, nothing needs to be rushed; in fact, there are very few things that can be rushed. I have had to turn on the hourly chime on my wristwatch because I have experienced a couple of these 96-hour days. Time shrinks and expands. Being on watch exacerbates this experience. Time is relative in a practical sense as it can stretch or compress, and some nights I have been on a watch for what feels like an hour starting at 0100 and then the sky lightens and turns pink and the morning comes. Other times, I fight for wakefulness and after making a go of trying, I wake Mark and ask him to take the watch instead so that I can catch some sleep for a little while. This is too much to risk, too much to lose, if I were to try any harder and fall deep into an exhausted sleep leaving no one at all to keep an eye out for cruise ships or super liners.

What’s on the line is the safety of the boat -- a quarter-million-dollar investment – and the safety of the crew. There is only one person, usually sleepy and bored, who takes watch and single-handedly keeps the fragile and absurdly delicate vessel going 8 knots out of the way of container ships moving at 25 knots. There is a feeling of trust, the kind of confidence-building experience that can easily undo damage done in the workaday world of corporate America, can rebuild the confidence and self-love that might have blossomed in simpler times. I know they did for me. On the sea, either alone or with a crew, one can renew one's faith in oneself and others.

Post Enron, dot-com, 9-11, and Clinton, my world changed in significant ways. I am a pretty technologically-savvy fellow and when I graduated from GW in 1993, during a low point in employment and jobs, I became an internet and web developer in addition to photography and writing. Although a student of literature at University, I didn't choose graduate school right away but instead became part of the great excitement of the dot-com explosion. I have been using the internet since a bet version of Mosaic; since I played with MacWeb, when I noodled with lynx. I am pre-internet and as a teen I was part of the BBS culture. It was natural for me to join the excitement and during the 90s I didn't explore graduate school or law school, but rather put all my eggs into the internet economy. And I was rewarded for a time.

Recently, times have become tough and I have lost much of my confidence in my choices, what I have to offer, and in myself. Luckily, I have never lost my Faith.

While on Kinship II, Mark and I went over my life because I needed distance and clarity. I was able to note the five things that are most important to be in my life, and I am proud to say that I have four out of five of them in spades: A partner, my family, my friends, my spiritual life, and money.

I am told that there are so many rich Americans who suffer from a true lack in their lives. So many Americans who might have money and a partner, but lack friends, family, and spirit. Or have money and nothing else. I am reminded every day that in a conscious, present, spiritual life, money is the easiest to secure for many of us as it is the most valued. Surely, it can feel that way. There are days when I lose sight of all the things in my life for which I am amazingly grateful and focus on only the things I lack, in this case money. And then it is often a downward spiral, where lack begets lack and before I knew it, I find myself feeling not only like a loser but like the worse kind: the fellow who failed to live up to his potential. In these times, I lose sight that I have had money before and that I will have money again. Its easy when one lives in a small world -- or a world, shrunk -- to find oneself skewed: both in perspective and proportion.

But on the sea, its different. As a geek, I liken it to rebooting my desktop computer. Rebooting the PC is the secret we techies have for fixing most of the problems wrong with most desktop PCs. Most of the time, these slowdowns occur because there are too many things going on on the PC that the user is no longer aware of: memory leaks, infinite loops, crashed software. These things cannot fix themselves and most users cannot truly sense this chaos in any way short of system slowdown. Not all problems result in the blue screen of death, some just send the computer into a morass. A skilled technician can fix some of the problems from the keyboard or by using a piece of software as an elixir, but the simplest thing one can do to set everything right is to turn the machine off, wait a minute and then turn it back on. Reboot.

So as I sit in an internet cafe in Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico, wondering if I am spending Lent the way I should. Mexico is a traditionally catholic country, truly religious. I have not given up coffee, chocolate, or even beer; I am not attending church and I am three thousand miles away from my pew in my parish, Saint James' Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill.

Yes, I am spending Lent better than I could have ever imagined, in my opinion. For all the fears, stresses, and anxieties I have been suffering under, I have had my head truly buzzing so that I couldn't hear myself think clearly, to say nothing of the soft voice of my Faith.

On the boat, I have had time to think. At first, way too much time! I felt guilt and boredom; I felt like I needed to do something, needed to get back to the office to make sure everything was all right. After two weeks -- yes, I buzzed for a fortnight -- I started to relax. I felt my heart, my face, by body, and then my mind become more tranquil. On the boat, I have been getting a good lesson in Faith, in trust, and in moving with the flow as opposed to opposing it, striking against it. To force it makes it break; to avoid it doesn't make it go away; to fear it doesn't help. Whatever it is. To be completely honest, I have not felt so good about myself and what I have to offer in ten years. I feel like a tiger!

So I have done the most irresponsible thing imaginable in dropping everything and flying three thousand miles to help a friend by replacing his crew and becoming a sailor for what will be over six weeks. It would never have happened had the request come in any other form than what I perceived as a mayday, an SOS. But it did and I am here and I am changed. Does this mean that I will be doing this irresponsible thing again and again? Will I need to do this again in the same way, taking an unscheduled, selfish, and fool hardy escape again? Probably not I have learned so many things and the next time I become overwhelmed or lose faith in myself or my life experience and am myopic and suffused with fear, all I need to do is remember; or, be reminded. Quite possibly this very writing will be enough; if not, then Mark, my friends, my parish family, or you.

Instead of being changed into a bum, a drop out, or a vagabond, am becoming more clear that I want the life I have, that I can handle the life choices I make, that I make fine life choices. I have had an amazing growing up, brilliant parents, a world-class education, and have many friends, and a fine girlfriend. When I make a life choice there is a good chance that my decision is a result of a very fine coming up and I should not worry too much. My choices will probably -- based on a thirty-three year track record -- be moral and kind.

I have been spending the last three years attending Saint James' Holy Week religiously. Saint James' offers one of the most spiritually rich Holy Week and Easter I could ever have imagined. From Maundy Thursday through Easter Eve, the Spirit is palpable and the presence of God is undeniable; similarly, I have a profound personal and spiritual experience while sailing. As arcane and transcendent and as undeniable as what I experienced in Church. To be sure, I am grateful to have had spent a truly blessed experience.

The next time I wish someone Godspeed, in my mind and heart that will forever be between 2.9 and 8 knots.

Apr 08, 2003 12:00 AM