Boat in sailing regatta during sunset.

Read The Water

I went on a sailing trip through the Florida Keys during my senior year of high school. The irony in this story isn’t in that particular destination; it’s in the place we left to get there.

I spent my senior year of high school in Nassau, Bahamas. So where do a small group of seniors in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme go when they want to sail? Florida … I think that’s just plain funny.

I’ll begin this amateur mariner’s tale with a series of confessions. My sailing experience is sadly limited to this particular experience. I loved sailing, but I don’t really have an outlet for it anymore. The next confession is that I was very much, in every way, an 18-year old on that trip. I wasn’t looking for big life lessons. I was quite literally along for the ride.

Yet as it is with life, there are lessons that have crept back, even from that trip almost twenty-three years ago. One such lesson has come to mind several times in the past year or so. Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure where the lesson is taking me now, but it keeps coming up.

My next confession is that I don’t remember the name of the sailboat captain. The trip was five days long and all six of us got to take the helm and drive the boat. Each night when we anchored, the crew would make dinner and enjoy each other’s company. Often, a few of us would spend the last few hours before bed sitting on the edge of the boat, our feet dangling over the water. The captain often joined us and this recent lesson came out of one such conversation.

It didn’t start as a sailing conversation, though. I think when you give your life to something like that, every conversation becomes a sailing conversation. A student asked the captain about his family and he quietly began to share with us his recent divorce. He told us about a wife he had loved and a son that he missed and after a quiet moment he said, “I should have read the water.” We talked a bit more before everyone found their bunk for the night.

The next day he explained reading the water to us while I was at the wheel. It starts with watching, he said. “Watch the water. It will tell you everything you need to know. The water can’t keep a secret.”

He went on. The water will tell you where the wind is coming from and when it will come. The water will point out things you can’t yet see and can’t yet feel. “The water will always tell you when the winds will change.” And when the winds change, a lot changes, for sailors and for all of us. Learning to understand what the water is telling you is “reading the water.”

In many ways, sailing is a sport of surrender. You can’t change the wind. You can’t force anything. You have the boat with all its limitations. You have the wind as it’s blowing. And you have the water that you’re in, with its obstacles and currents. Successful sailing learns to live within all of those, to have a relationship with them. Ignoring any of them leads to accidents at best and disaster at worst.

I’m learning that reading the water is bigger than sailing. I’m still learning about surrender. It’s apparently a lesson two decades in coming. There are many things I have no control over. There are things that are best avoided. There are forces in this world that can take me places and there are safe places I can rest. There are things that push me and things that pull me. There are things that are too big and too powerful for me. There are destinations to be found, but more importantly, there are journeys to be had.

I don’t believe in random winds and currents that carry us from season to season. Nor do I believe that we have as much control as we think we do, as we try to exercise along the way. I believe that we, like boats, are made for a purpose and designed to succeed, to fly at times and to rest at others. I believe that God instills within us a holy purpose to sail, so to speak. I believe that no matter what we face in life, we can weather it. And I believe that like that first sailing trip, it’s meant to be together.

First, we have to learn to read the water.



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