by Rainee Denham
I boarded the gleaming, new 38’ Chris Craft sailboat to spend July 4th sailing from Chicago Montrose Harbor to Saugatuck, Michigan. This was my first time on a sailboat. After arriving, my friend and I and the two owners of the boat night capped and talked excitedly about our trip. It was around midnight when we went to get some sleep below deck before setting off at daybreak. I remember waking up around 5:30am to the sound of the motor as we puttered away from the dock. The motion was rhythmic, like a rocking cradle. Looking out my little window I watched the warm colors slowly morph into blue skies and I fell back into a peaceful reverie. The next thing I knew I was bolted awake to the shrieks of “cut the sails, cut the sails” and seeing one of my friend clinging to the deck, and another with a butcher knife. Outside my window, the inland sea we call Lake Michigan was a churning mass of grey and black water.
Growing up in Chicago, all I knew of the lake was spending lazy summers at the beach jumping baby waves and trying to get the attention of the lifeguards. I did not know that when you’re far out from shore, what makes this lake dangerous is the steep waves and strong gusts of winds. Ten-foot waves in the middle of the ocean have a rolling motion. Ten-foot waves on the great lakes is a survival situation. Eight to twelve-foot waves have claimed many boats.
Awake now but in a stupor, I climbed up to the deck to find a world of chaos. There was shouting and grunting and rope flying everywhere. There was a desperate search to find life jackets, and people tying ropes around their waists, and stretching to reach rigging without going overboard. The waves were white capping and crashing over us. I vomited numerous times and apologized for the mess. No one cared, of course. The waves were at least ten-feet and came down fast on the boat which would be held down in a deep valley with walls of water towering around us. Then, the lake would invert, and the boat would teeter up on its keel at the top of a new wave. This erratic balancing act felt punitive and seemed to go in and out of slow motion.
This was how we spent the next 10 hours-rising up and plummeting down, twisting and turning. After nothing was getting better, I went below deck. I was in the galley when we were violently slammed on our side. I was suddenly thrown onto the wall of the kitchen looking out the window to the bottom of the lake. Like an insignificant insect I sat that wall and imagined the water rushing in over the deck and down the steps towards me. I saw myself overwhelmed by the waves as the boat sank into the black, cold water. I waited for nature’s decision without judgment.
The boat miraculously righted.
I’ve thought about this event for years-and now it’s going on decades. It really was life affirming. For me, it’s not a story about sailing on Lake Michigan. It’s a story about what happened when I was faced with a catastrophic event out of my control.
At the time this happened, I was twenty-something. I felt invincible-supremely healthy and I had everything going for me. But none of that mattered when I met this storm. I was helpless, and I was calm. And it was not my choice. It came from something bigger than me. Outside of me. And I trusted it.
John A. Shedd said, “A ship is safe in harbor — but that is not what ships are built for.” The ship is a metaphor for our lives and yes, we’re always navigating choices. But remember, a ship may seem safe in harbor, but it can also end up in a tree when a hurricane hits it.
Sometimes you must fight, sometimes you’ll lose it or panic, and sometimes you listen and accept. It’s all OK. It’s a reminder you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. You’re not alone. Trust Yourself.
You can be the calm in the chaos.