Washington’s San Juan Islands are a spectacular boating destination and the scene of my most harrowing experience sailing. I am dating myself here, but my visit was before cell phones had GPS, and sailors relied on navigational charts. We anchored near shore at night to enjoy an island’s charms, and in the morning we made coffee and got out the charts. We pinpointed our location, decided where to sail that day, and determined the compass heading for getting there.
The last morning of our trip, we had planned a quick sail across Puget Sound to return our charter boat to its Bellingham harbor before driving 100 miles to Sea-Tac to catch our flights home. We awoke, however, to a thick fog and no wind. We couldn’t see from the bow to the stern, much less to the island protecting our anchorage. Boats swing around their anchors with changes in current and wind direction, and we couldn’t even guess where the island was without a compass. We were completely disoriented.
Morning fog was not atypical, though, so we had coffee and waited for it to lift. It didn’t. We started calculating backwards from our flight departure, allowing the minimum time for boarding, returning the rental car, driving 100 miles, checking in the boat, and so on. When our last ditch time for shoving off arrived, the fog had lifted only slightly, so we faced a tough choice. We were young and foolhardy and had nonrefundable tickets, so we weighed the anchor and motored slowly, steering by compass towards Bellingham.
Knowing your correct heading is one thing, but actually steering to it manually under power is another matter entirely. It’s easy to drift too far one way and then to overcorrect in the other direction. The helmsmen wrestled the wheel continuously, leaving a serpentine wake in the mist behind us. After meandering this way for several hours, we started feeling a little desperate. We no longer knew where we were or where we would be when we sighted land. We didn’t have time to spare cruising up or down the shore looking for Bellingham.
As anxiety mounted, I thought I heart a faint horn in the fog. All ears onboard strained to make out the sound and its direction. Several minutes later someone else heard it. It was two horns at a regular interval. I dashed below to consult the chart and found a lighthouse sounding two blasts at one minute intervals. That was it! We still didn’t know where we were, and the lighthouse was significantly south of Bellingham, but if we could steer to the foghorn until we saw shore, we would at least know the direction to head to reach our harbor. In the end, we arrived safely and made our flights.
It strikes me that navigating life is not unlike this. Sometimes we are close to shore and know exactly where we are. We don’t need a compass because the destination is in plain sight. Other times it feels like we haven’t seen land for days, like sailing across an ocean without GPS. Maybe we have forgotten where we’re going or circumstances have forced us off course. Checking our bearings periodically is essential for the long haul because if we go a long way, heading just a few degrees off course can land us hundreds of miles from our intended destination. The start of a new year invites us to ponder where we are headed and the course corrections we need.
Join the conversation. When did you last check your bearings?
Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.