Familiar Water

betelgeuse underway small

Setting sail on a singlehanded transatlantic passage in 1981, Betelgeuse my Ranger 23, departs Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale bound for Europe.

It is the summer of 1981 and I am crossing the Atlantic Ocean alone in my 23-foot sloop Betelgeuse.

It had been a week since I had known definitively where I was. I had been becalmed for days in the Sargasso Sea. I barely escaped disaster as a freighter on a collision course passed less than a boat length away on a moonless night. I was hungry and I was ill prepared. These were the days before GPS and I was depending–without much confidence–on celestial navigation to find my first landfall. I had never before used a sextant in real world conditions. Four legal-sized pages of scribbled calculations showed my noon sight intersecting with an earlier celestial line of position. It created an X on the chart. The black magic of celestial navigation told me I was over the Challenger Bank, some 20 miles southwest of Bermuda, a landfall surrounded by coral. How accurate was that position, I wondered? I scanned the horizon and saw nothing.

It is now the summer of 2015 and I am once again on the water over the Challenger Bank.

The circumstances are radically different this time, and yet there are some eerie similarities. I am fishing for tuna with friends in the Bermuda Flyfishing Invitational. We are with an experienced captain in a seaworthy boat but there are elements outside of our control. Wind speed is consistent at 25 knots and seas are 10 to 12 feet. The ocean swells meet the relatively shallow water of the seamount creating steep, anvil-shaped waves that that throw the sportfishing boat on its beam ends. Portuguese man-o-war and flying fish navigate the sloppy seas but there is a feeling by those of us aboard the boat that maybe human beings don’t belong out here today. A vicious squall drops down on us from the northwest and with it comes driving rain powered by gusts of 40 to 50 knots. Our anchor loses its hold and now we are drifting.

Adversity on the ocean is what attracts many of us to it. While it may seem that Divine Providence is what sees us through  difficult times, other people view it less theologically and say personal experience and even luck helps resolve challenges. I consider it a combination of all three. When I left Ft. Lauderdale at age 26 to sail alone across the ocean I was not adequately prepared for the endeavor. I survived that ocean crossing by the grace of God, by good fortune, and by a determination to learn at sea what I should have known before I set sail.

Now, as I look at this familiar water on the Challenger Bank, I think back to that day in Betelgeuse when anxiety and lack of confidence prefaced the moment of triumph that accompanies landfall. I realize now that I am on the same piece of water, on the same day of the month, at exactly the same time of the day, when I made that celestial calculation 34 years ago.

Then, as the sportfishing boat drifts wildly across the bank with a dragging anchor, the squall suddenly breaks. There is sunshine to the northeast. We crest a wave I see the faint outline of Gibbs Hill, Bermuda etched upon the horizon. It is without question–then and now–that we have been delivered by Divine Providence.