Back porch views are separated from mountaintop views by a vast expanse of worthwhile sacrifice.
Samantha and I had just crossed the Gulf of Alaska for the second time in a month when I had that thought. Our sailing logistics company has taken off, and we are quite busy, delivering sailboats between Seattle, Washington and Resurrection Bay, Alaska.
That voyage, like all the others, had its own unique challenges. We had waited for a full week to cross the Gulf of Alaska. Gale after gale pounded Cape Resurrection, the winds coming from the direction we needed to go. Finally we departed, nosing into the tale end of this last gale, putting the craft (an Island Packet 350) through its offshore paces by beating to weather under 15 foot built seas for a day as the low pressure subsided. Then the wind died out completely, leaving a lumpy mess behind, and we motored southeast from Montague Island to Cross Sound about 400 nautical miles away.
These were not ideal sailing conditions. But this was not cruising, this was work. We had a boat to deliver, within an ever-dwindling timeframe. So motor / sail / motorsail we go, using a 3 knot minimum speed rule, for a safe progression across the Gulf of Alaska, then down the Inside Passage to Seattle.
As it turned out, we made the trip from Day Harbor (near Cape Resurrection) in four days, making way through North Inian Pass at low slack tide on the 4th day. On the morning of the fifth day, we felt some relief at having completed the Gulf crossing – shaving a fair chunk of miles off the trip. We could now concentrate on the next leg and its various puzzleworks.
We were getting low on fuel and the wind was still flat, so a course was set for Hoonah, a small port town on the southern edge of Icy Strait. (Ironically, this is where it all started for me. I purchased Empiricus there in January of 2006.)
I was feeling some nostalgia to be sure and excited to show Samantha another of so many places like this, which I have until now only enjoyed alone.
As we approached Hoonah, a steady NW wind rippled the water. I thought it was a local wind gust, but it held steady. The high pressure was filling in, bringing steady winds to Icy Strait.
When Samantha came up for her watch, we decided to bypass Hoonah in favor of wind power. Suddenly, fuel was less of a concern. If we sailed even halfway to Juneau, we would have plenty of reserve.
I set the main and trimmed for a beam reach, with a full genoa. We were off like a rocket, sailing 6 knots on flat water. As the engine went silent and the hull found her rhythm under sail, that deep satisfaction and serenity returned to me, which had absconded since we last started the engine.
What a beautiful work it is, to trim sail and gain speed in pure silence.
Soon she was dialed in tight and the sun was out in full glory. It was mid-May and the first real warmth I had felt in a while. But there was a problem. And for a moment, it almost fouled me up. The sun was hiding, just behind the mainsail leech, leaving me in the chilly shadows. Was this really a problem? No, of course not. But true to man’s greedy nature, I found myself disappointed with the situation.
Can you believe that?! We were sailing near hull speed, directly toward destination on a clear sunny day in Southeast Alaska. But that was not enough for me. I wanted more. I wanted the sun on my face as well…
I found myself, steering off course a few degrees, trying to tweak my heading, to allow for a splash of golden rays.
That heat felt so good, even for moments at a time. But a little battle was waging in the simplest parts of my brain, dueling between mission and pleasure. As I watched my wandering course and sails fall in and out of trim, I was reminded why we were there in the first place: to safely deliver the craft as efficiently as possible. This broke the spell.
I pinned the rudder hard on our heading as we stomped along beautifully. The sun and its warming rays stay cloaked by canvas and I gave a tug to the rim of my Filson hat to cradle my ears with its scratchy, wooly, familiar warmth.
This all got me thinking…
“Sometimes your sails block the sun. But, they drive you on to greater moments then sunbathing can offer.” I chimed to myself.
I thought more about this as we leapt down our track, having a great sail indeed.
I thought about mountains I had climbed as a kid and how I was always amazed to find myself alone in such a beautiful place. When I was eighteen, a friend and I camped out on the side of Mount Benson at about 2500 feet before making the summit. We woke to a solid cloud bank that created a floor of white just below our tent to the mountains in the distance. It looked as though you could walk across. The view was ours only, shrouded from ground-level view.
So twenty years later I realize how important moments like that were and are still. Moments like those show us that certain perspectives can only be found by enduring discomfort. If our goal was to just sit in the sun, we would be in a lawn chair, letting it all happen to us, catching rays and looking at mountains on clear days. We would have no idea of the breathtaking experience one has among the clouds.
I cannot imagine living that way. Life from the drive-up window makes for junk food for the soul…
You see, I had climbed that mountain, just to climb it. A curious test of myself, just to see if I could. But during the process, I was unexpectedly blessed by moments indescribable…like that floor of clouds, which has lingered in my mind for over two decades.
I love this because it reminds me that moments like that one are reserved for those who “step into their boots and go” as Tillman might say.
Now twenty years later, I’ve replaced steep slippery steps, with steep slippery waves over the cold liquid summit of our curved earth. In order to get the most out of this journey, past lessons must be remembered.
- The mundane flat steps and waves must ground over by putting in time and effort.
- The steep steps and waves must lit upon with tenacity and focus.
- The perfect steps are non-existent. Stop looking for them.
- It will be cold.
- It will be scary at times.
- Only few will dare to accompany you.
- The voyage itself will not change you, grow you or prepare you for the next cliff. Only moments in time can do this.
- Whether you are slapped with terror and forced to face it, choked up with joy and revel in it, or simply awestruck by creation, the rewards of putting forth effort are inescapable.
Sacrifice, desire, effort and determination. These are the catalyst which, when mixed into daily life, excite a change for the good. A change which purges the trivial and strengthens the soul.
Looking back on that youthful day, I cannot remember if I had blisters on my heel, enough water to drink or enough food to eat.
Nor can I remember if I had the coolest camping gear (though I would wager I did not).
What I do remember was the view above the clouds in the morning and standing at the peak in the afternoon. Then speckled moments of a sketchy side hill and the fumbling of my friend’s goofy dog, who, bless his heart, came the whole way.
In order to live life without regret, we must embrace sacrifice. Though our sails will block the sun, we must fly them step by step in the cold unknown. Or we will fall off course and drift in familiar waters with the sun on our face.
Comfortable and sedated, we lack purpose. Cradled and enabled, we lack appreciation. Unchallenged, we lack rest.
“The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich, will not suffer him to sleep” Eccl 5:12
So when you find yourself skiddering down lumpy ocean waves with little wind, shadowed from the sun by the force that drives you, or sliding back every half step in the muddy rock with your fingertips buried in alder roots. Remember that these are the barriers between easy street and the oasis beyond.
Capt. Jesse Osborn SV Empiricus