By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
If there’s one thing in my life that’s missing, it’s the time that I spend alone sailing on the cool and bright clear waters.
I can hear the wind howling and moaning outside; but being tucked into a protected basin in Southport, North Carolina, I can hardly feel it. The boat rocks now and again and all of the boats in this marina are dancing around, as if anxious about the weather. But there are no large waves here — there is peace.
I haven’t watched television or seen the nightly news in weeks. Being alone, I had no one to converse with so I talked to God. Early on, I would begin with a whine — “Please God...” — but then realized that my conversations should begin with thanks because I had so much to be thankful for. It was something I tried to remember as the conversations continued.
Taking a miss on the nightly televised news had an interesting effect. Without the constant bombardment of bad news, I began to see the good in things. I began to see anew that people are not inherently evil. We are all just bundles of thoughts and nerves; a messed up species trying to learn a thing or two as we tumble through this circus called life. All of us, rich and poor, lucky and cursed, are just trying to get by — although some have means and ideals more noble than others. Then again, that which is considered noble is a matter of perspective. Noble to a rich man may be criminal to a poor man. And vice versa.
There’s lots of those friendly people, showing me ways to go and I never want to lose your inspiration.
The sail from Belhaven to Oriental, down rivers, canals and across the wide expanse of Albemarle Sound, was beautiful. I saw four sails on the horizon and knew that as long as there was another ship at sea, as a sailor I was not alone. Along the way I passed a pretty little sailboat named La Dulcinea with a young couple on board. The woman aboard waved with great cheer as I passed — so much so that it, along with her smile, warmed my heart. Perhaps they are headed off on their first adventure together. Or maybe she was just happy to see another boat that was almost as slow as their boat.
Oriental felt like an oasis. For the first time in days, my cell phone worked, as did the MiFi device that I use to connect my computers to the Internet. The marina was charming, complete with a tiki bar and an on-site restaurant. The small town boasted numerous locally-owned restaurants, a coffee shop and a marine consignment store that made me a child again, in a toy store at Christmas. In every aisle, I reached out to grab something exclaiming, “Ooh, I’ve been looking for that!”
I picked up emails from the people I had met in Belhaven; people who had helped to protect my boat and my psyche through a storm last week. They are all off setting their own courses but remain in my heart.
Now that my life is so pre-arranged I know that it’s time for a cool change.
Late in the evening, a taxi driver from New Bern dropped my wife Michelle off at the marina. She arrived just ahead of a cold front. I had assumed the pace would pick up dramatically with both of us on board, so the next morning we left for Beaufort, a short 24-mile sail away. And in Beaufort we stayed. By our fifth day in that pleasant coastal village, the wind was still howling out of the north with gusts to 24 knots and the temperature had fallen to 22 degrees, making for a wind chill near the single digits. As much as we wanted to get south, losing our own digits to frostbite didn’t hold much appeal. The marina courtesy car became our temporary lifeline to the supplies in town; the warm cabin of the boat became our refuge.
Before this trip, I had never stayed at a marina that offered a courtesy car. But every marina I’ve stayed in since leaving the lower Chesapeake has offered one. The cars are in various conditions: an old Buick Roadmaster station wagon on which the back gate wouldn’t close, a nice minivan with a digital dash display, a beat-up Chevy Caprice without working seat belts or handles to roll down the windows, and a newer model Ford in which everything, most importantly the heat, works.
Getting into a courtesy car is somewhat like entering a time warp. Time accelerates rapidly once the keys are handed over. If you are allowed an hour or 90 minutes, it goes by in seconds. Despite our best intentions to return the car early, we were often late, thanks to the courtesy-car-time-warp. Fortunately, few cruisers are still this far north so when we called the marina to explain that we were caught in an odd acceleration of time, we were told not to worry, no one was waiting for the car.
My outlook has changed in the weeks that I’ve been gone; in the weeks I’ve been alone. Now having Michelle on board has enhanced everything. Suddenly the adventures are shared and the laughter and worry is mutual. I still talk to God, although now less overtly and more in my head. There is no need to scare Michelle into thinking I’d gone insane and am now talking to myself. Still, I wondered if she could see the change.
On this journey I’ve come to realize that there are no small blessings. In the course I have chosen, I can see that everything works like puzzle pieces into something much bigger. The momentary frustration of a delay could mean avoiding something unpleasant down the road. A fortuitous gust of wind to speed me along could mean arriving in port before a storm. I don’t believe God changes nature or the world for me — my hope for wind may run counter to someone else’s hope for calm, after all. But I do believe His breath occasionally fills my sails without affecting anyone else.
I am acutely aware of my fortune in making such a journey. Life is short and meant to be lived; but bills still need to be paid, groceries purchased, and responsibilities met. Yet somehow it seems we’ve lost ourselves in a sea of iPods and Nikes. I am suddenly filled with gratitude that I have everything I need: my wife, my ship and a course set for my home in Florida. It is an awareness that I too rarely have on land.
The temperature was in the low 20s when we left the comfort of the Town Creek Marina. At a nearby slip, a water faucet had been allowed to drip, freezing a stream of water from the nozzle to the dock. For the best possible protection against the cold I was wearing: a long sleeve t-shirt, a long-sleeve denim shirt, a heavy sweater, polypropylene long underwear, jeans, two pairs of wool socks, a stocking cap, a scarf, and a heavy winter coat with my foul weather jacket over top. Inside my gloves were chemical hand warmers; inside my shoes were chemical foot warmers. Despite all of that, I was as cold as I could ever remember being — even with all of my years growing up in Minnesota. As the morning progressed, the wind slacked off and during lulls, the conditions felt pleasant in comparison. The sun was shining down making an effort at warmth, but then a gust of wind would instantly blow all warmth away.
Despite the cold, we began to see reminders of our life in Florida. I almost felt sorry for the palm trees in the Beaufort marina shrouded in ice and cold weather. In the harbor, we motored through a large school of dolphins and no doubt, our propeller interrupted their breakfast buffet of fish. Continuing south, as we passed inlets to the ocean, dolphins would abound, frequently swimming next to the boat. I have a feeling they know they are magical and that they enjoy giving us a few moments of entertainment. I am certain they are empathetic creatures that know their presence is calming.
We sailed only a short distance to the town of Swansboro where we walked through the historic village to the small shopping district. With the temperature struggling to reach the mid-30s, few tourists could be found. Most shops were open but some appeared to bow to the inevitable — that not many customers would come in such cold weather. A handful of tourists could be seen, looking at brochures and maps, standing close to the heat offered by their waiting cars. It must be difficult to be a shop owner in this town. It is a quaint and beautiful place, yet it is unlikely to be high on anyone’s to-do list when the weather is cold.
Upon our early morning departure, we could hear distant booms from the live firing range at Camp Lejeune 15 miles down the Intracoastal Waterway. The ICW runs directly through the camp and the Marines occasionally close the waterway for exercises. Patrol boats and signs keep boats out of the danger zone, at those times the only option is to circle until the exercises are complete. We hoped to squeeze through during a lull in the firing. The camp provides an information line for boaters and we were told there would be exercises that day but could not be told when. We were told the patrol boats would provide further information upon our arrival. The flashing red lights were unlit as we approached the warning sign at the start of the firing range and there were no patrol boats in sight. We quietly motored through the camp, seeing the occasional bombed-out tanks and trucks from previous exercises along the way. Just as we sailed out of the camp, we heard the deep and powerful booms begin again.
Well I was born in the sign of water and it’s there that I feel my best.
All of my focus is on a single day. I think in abstract terms about where I’d like to end up by the weekend or where to be for Christmas; but I can only think in detail of today. In the ICW, that means focusing on the next 40 or 50 miles. Now the focus is on staying in the relatively narrow waterway and worrying about whatever currents may (but hopefully will not) oppose us and slow us down. The focus is on being somewhere safe and protected for the next cold front that is forecasted to usher in strong winds and record-cold temperatures.
Because of that focus, I have completely forgotten that it is nearly Christmas. I love Christmas, even the crowds in the stores. There is a feeling I get from it with people out buying or doing things for others. For a moment, I felt sorry for myself that I was missing it, until I realized that I’m not missing out on the spirit of the season. I realized that spirit is alive and well all year long for those who look for it. When you stop expecting the worst in everything and everyone, the good that is inherent shines through.
Deep Point Marina in Southport, North Carolina, met every quality I was seeking for a safe and protected harbor in a storm: a basin that is protected from the wind in every direction. The marina is new and has perhaps been stung by the burst of the housing bubble. But despite the public’s lack of appetite for buying more and bigger things, the finishing touches are being completed. Rob Gandy, the harbormaster, scrambled to ensure the showers in the newly built restrooms worked upon our arrival. He told us the marina didn’t yet have a courtesy car but we were free to use his personal car. That the marina is nearly full in a slow economic climate is certainly a testament to his commitment and concern for those who live in and visit this marina.
From a boat across the dock, a couple we had not met knocked on Shadow Marie to invite us to Christmas dinner. They have a reservation at the one restaurant that will be open in town and have rented an apartment for the month of December. We don’t even know their names but they were looking out for the two strangers who came to their marina, inviting us to their home for the holiday.
It’s kind of a special feeling, out on the sea alone. Staring at the full moon like a lover.
When the weather cooperates, our next port of call will be in Florida after a three-day sail south in the Atlantic. Finding the proper weather is more important in the ocean than in the relatively protected confines of the ICW. Years ago, Michelle and I spent days at sea alone, adapting to the rhythms of life far away from the sight of land. It is a special, indescribable feeling to see the water, the sky, and the stars as our boat sails onward towards home. But now, I am fully aware that we are never alone as long as another ship plies the seas and waterways. Nor are any of the crews of those boats alone. It is up to us to carry forward the generosity and care we have received from so many others on this journey. It is something we will do willfully and gladly. God doesn’t change the world to suit our individual needs and wants. He changes us.
(Song lyrics from “Cool Change” written by Glenn Shorrock and performed by the Little River Band)