Sailing - like life - depends on the community that surrounds and sustains you.
Sometimes, it is important to test ourselves to better understand our strengths and limitations; our values and our commitments. I went through a rigorous test this weekend as I participated in the Queen’s Cup sailboat race from Milwaukee to South Haven Michigan. I sailed with five other friends on a comfortable and sturdy 41 foot, homemade steel sailboat named Grey Matter. The sail to Michigan was pleasant. The sail back was a brutal 20-hour slog through high wind and six-foot waves.
We left at 2:30 on Friday afternoon and sailed all night, arriving at South Haven by 4:30 am Saturday morning. The evening sail was pleasant. We had the wind behind us and the waves kept building so our boat would “surf” down the backside of them with ease. On every other lake crossing, the nights have been bitter cold. This one was different. It was cool but not cold. While all of us had on our foul weather gear and wore winter stocking caps and gloves, we were comfortable. The night sky was spectacular and full of stars. We could even see part of the Milky Way cluster.
The sail to South Haven was uneventful except for near the finish when two boats boxed us in and made our sailing a bit of a challenge. On Saturday, we tried to sleep and prepare for what we knew would be a hard sail back. The wind was predicted to remain steady at 15-25 miles per hour, which meant that the waves would continue to build. Unfortunately, the wind and waves were coming from exactly the direction that we had to sail home to Milwaukee. We tallied up the years of sailing experience between all the crew and realized that we had a combined knowledge of more than 150 years of sailing on board. We figured we had a sturdy boat and plenty of experience to handle whatever may come our way.
On a typical return after the Queen’s Cup race, most boats will raise sail and turn on the motor to increase the speed and reduce the sailing time considerably. We knew this would not be an option for us this year. Motoring into these 4-6 foot waves would be bone jarring on us, hard on the boat and would not reduce our sailing hours since each time the boat smashed into a wave it would lose considerable boat speed. We knew we had to sail and since the wind and waves were coming from the direction in which we needed to go, we would have to head off 45 degrees from the wind, increasing our return sail time.
Sailing was a challenge. The wind was consistently above 20 MPH and would gust considerably higher. The 4-6 foot waves were often “confused” meaning that they would sometimes come from unexpected directions. And, no matter how carefully the boat was steered, we would unavoidably come to a wave we couldn’t duck and the boat would lift over the wave and crash down into the trough creating a sheet of water washing into the boat and showering everyone. After sailing in these conditions for about six hours, the wind and waves began to settle down and shift in a more favorable direction. Finally, we could set course more directly to home.
While sailing, it is important to monitor the emergency radio channel 16. Early in the morning on channel 16, we heard distressing news. The US Coast Guard was putting out an alert for all Lake Michigan boaters to watch for a boat that had participated in the Queen’s Cup race but had not returned Saturday night, as expected. The boat was a trimaran and was named “Tri and Catch Me”. This is a boat we all knew. The skipper and crew were friends. Everyone began to scan the horizon for signs of a mast – or worse – of floating debris. Every 15 minutes or so, the Coast Guard would make the same alert about the missing boat. All conversation stopped as we each contemplated what might have happened and how dangerous sailing can be. Fortunately, after about two hours of alerts, the Coast Guard announced that the boat had been found and all were safe. The mood on our boat lifted, conversation resumed and we broke out the snacks, which felt like a celebration.
When we were 25 miles from Milwaukee another weather front announced itself with a 30 mile per hour gust of wind. The waves again picked up and we were nearly back to the sailing conditions in which we started the day. The only difference being that it was night, we had already been sailing for 15 tough hours and were sleep deprived.
One of the things I love about sailing is that you are forced to deal with the situation in front of you. There is often no safe harbor, no place to rest and reset. A sailor learns that he or she must push on, solve the problem at hand and survive. And that we did. We finally pulled into the dock at 2:15 am on Monday morning. A tired and thankful crew.
We placed 5th in our division in the Queen’s Cup race, high enough to win a trophy flag for the boat. But this race isn’t really about the flag. It’s about deepening our skills and our sailing experience. It is about the friendships you build when you know that your safety – if not your life – depends on the crew person next to you. It’s about knowing that your boat and the people on it are the only things you can rely on. Sailing - like life - depends on the community that surrounds and sustains you.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.