WIND, WAVES AND WORRY Steve Dresselhaus
The 25-knot winds were not the predicted 14-knot winds. My plans to cross the Canal de San Lorenzo in the Sea of Cortez near Baja’s capital city of La Paz where I live had been based on the smaller number from the current weather forecast. At sea, a wind speed difference of 11 knots can be huge. The five-mile crossing I was making is normally quite calm and benign and I have done it many times in my kayak with never any trouble. This time it was different, very different.
I was on a solo multi-day kayak trip, something I have been doing for many years. These solo trips, normally done in the Sea of Cortez, are part of my spiritual discipline. They are times of solitude, reflection, prayer, meditation and worship. These times at sea, alone with God, have always, yes always, proven to be influential in my spiritual journey. New ideas, fresh understanding, enhanced vision for the future, corrections to my theology, and innovative direction for ministry are generally the outcomes of these voyages. On this particular voyage I had to do some serious thinking about my career path and some potential changes looming in the near future.
As I made this particular crossing I felt very close to God, extremely close. In fact, I was wondering if I was not about to meet him at any moment. The winds were fierce, relentless, unforgiving and cold, not temperature cold but the cold that comes from merely being an emotionless, non-caring, pitiless force. When I started the return crossing to the Baja mainland from Espíritu Santo Island, the winds were fresh and blowing out of the northwest at the predicted speeds. Doable. Not particularly difficult. Intermediate skill level was all that was required. Shortly into the paddle, the winds shifted to the northeast and exploded in their intensity. The winds grew and so did the waves–large waves, many of them breaking whitecaps surrounded me, making the surface of the sea look like a cavorting flock of rambunctious sheep. Because of the island immediately to my north, the waves curled around the island, attacking me from both right and left as well as from dead astern. Whitecaps, steep wave faces, from the right, from the left, howling wind – next possible landing – five miles away – five long miles away – five neverending miles away – this was not a good place to be.
I looked to the bow of my kayak, hoping to find Jesus asleep, like in the storm story from the Gospels. A scolding from him for my lack of faith would have been welcome about now. It was rough slogging. Stroke after stroke–countless strokes – unending repetition – unable to pause to rest for even a second. Brace against the wave. Wide paddle sweep to keep my boat’s stern to the waves as much as possible. Brace again. White foam pouring across my boat. Water up to my chest as breaking waves rolled across my boat. “Dear Jesus, if you get me out of this predicament, I promise I’ll become a missionary.” Wait. I already am a missionary in Mexico. That bullet had long since been fired. Quick, what else can I promise in exchange for a safe crossing?
Stroke, brace, stroke, brace, sweep left, sweep right. Keep stern to the waves. Whoa! Almost went over that time, and that time and that time. Boat filling with water as the spray skirt around my waist can’t keep up with the constant pounding of the breaking whitecaps. There was only one other boat, much bigger than mine and with a big engine, at sea the entire crossing. I didn’t know the port had been closed and that the port captain had issued a small craft advisory. I was in the smallest of small craft – a human-powered craft – a sea touring kayak. The smaller the boat, the bigger the adventure. What had gone wrong with the forecast? I have always trusted the forecast in the past without any problems. This time it was different, very different.
Is the distant shore, my destination, any closer? Yes, I can distinguish individual features, a silhouetted cactus atop a hill, a bus, a beach-side restaurant. I am getting closer. I am still far off shore but not as far. The waves are still huge, still breaking, and I still cannot pause for even a second to rest; but I am getting closer. Do I dare to think I might win this battle? At what point in this crossing will I start to feel safe and in control? I still have to paddle along a half-mile cliff downwind and down-wave from me, but I can at least now see the tip of Punta Tecolote , my immediate destination. Once I get around that point I’ll be safe. But for now the shore to my left is nothing but one big continuous cliff with waves crashing into its base. If I go over now it is likely that my boat will be smashed to bits. I can swim the remaining distance but I would have to stay far from the surf smashing into the rocks. It would take an hour to swim to safety in these rough conditions but the water is not cold, so no big deal. Feelings that I just might make it, boat and body intact, begin to surface. Like a playground teeter-totter my feelings of fear and victory take their turns going up and going down.
I drew closer and closer to Punta Tecolote and the known safety to be found by tucking in behind the steep cliffs that mark the entrance to the bay and would shield me from the wind. If I capsize now I’ll simply grab the swim fins tucked under the deck bungee and swim the rest of the way. Sure my boat will be dashed to bits on the rocks and I’ll lose my camping gear but I’ll be safe. One hundred yards to go, then fifty. I have to stay far enough off the rocks so that that the rebound waves won’t catch me in their collision with the incoming waves. I made it past the rocky point. Now I have to nearly reverse my course and turn the boat almost 170 degrees to be able to get behind the sheltering rocks. When the rocky cliffs were south of me they were my enemy. When the very same rocks are to my north they will be my salvation. Sermon illustration somewhere in that idea. As I make the turn, for a few seconds I’ll be broadside to the steep, now collapsing waves–waves collapsing not because of the wind but because their underwater base is hitting the bottom, shifting the energy upwards into steep collapsing wave faces. But who cares? I’m only a few yards from calm water now, so capsizing would be nothing but an inconvenience, a minor embarrassment in front of all the other boaters seeking shelter in the same bay.
I’m behind the wall of rock – the wind is gone. The water is calm. For the first time in several hours I simply sit still, floating. Prayer after prayer of gratitude drift from my heart to God’s ears. The bow of my boat slides up onto the soft white sand beach being caressed by gentle wavelets. I was safe but I did not feel like celebrating. My elation at what I had just accomplished was tempered by my humble gratitude to God for having given me the courage to not give up and the energy to keep paddling. Any festivity I may have contemplated was nipped in the bud by the thought of how many times I had narrowly escaped a very serious problem at sea. God had answered my prayers either by his direct intervention or by giving me the courage to not give up and the strength to keep going. I’ll let theologians argue the efficacy of prayer and who does what for whom, but I will not let the mysteries of prayer rob me of gratitude.
Embarking on solo kayak trips is something I will continue doing, just as I have for the past two decades. These trips are a very important part of my life. I suspect we guys are genetically programmed to need healthy tests and reasonably risky adventures. We were not designed by the Almighty to sit behind a desk or in front of a screen or spend our lives merely reading books about other guys’ adventures or other guys’ ideas. Each of us must have his own adventures, his own tests, his own reaffirmations of manhood. We need those times when we find our fears taking us to the portal of panic when we have to beat them back through self-control and calling on God.
In addition to adventure, I need the freedom of periodic solitude in order to find and enjoy new ideas, to be creative, to find escape from the constant input of others wanting to hijack my thoughts and ideas and implant their own. I long for those times of solitude in which I am no longer merely reacting to the pressures imposed on me by others and no longer subject to the approbation of group-think. God’s creation inspires creativity. When I have no books, no internet, and no electronic entertainment programmed by others for my purchase, I can invest a couple of hours watching a billion stars drift by. I can lie in my sleeping bag and watch shooting stars race across the sky, leaving a trail of sparkles as they disintegrate. I can listen to the lapping wavelets on the beach and let them be the white noise that lulls me to sleep. I can without feeling guilty of wasting time lie on my belly in the sand and watch a hermit crab gnaw on a piece of seaweed. Alone, I can sit in the sand with my back against a boulder and watch God say “good morning” with a spectacular, slow motion sunrise while sipping hot coffee from my beaten and battered metal travel mug. When I’m totally alone at sea, God is the only person available with whom to speak, so it is with him I converse. My worship of him becomes personal, private, intimate and not borrowed from a popular Christian performer du jour nor molded by the influence of the latest market driven best-selling book.
Each trip I take sharpens my skills and makes me a better mariner. Each solo trip I make lets me read new chapters in the book of the sea, thus enhancing my knowledge of the oceans; and each trip self-writes new chapters in my life story. Each solo trip creates creativity. Each solo trip is gift from God, both physically and spiritually. Can’t wait till the next one. I’d invite you to join me but….three’s a crowd.