Storms Happen

As the outer bands of Hurricane Sandy blew by outside, a visitor asked about the object hanging above my office door: “what’s that?” “That” is the end of a boomkin - a spar that extends aft from the stern of a boat, used to attach the backstay.

This particular spar is from the 125’ schooner Westward, formerly owned by Sea Education Association (SEA) of Woods Hole. It broke during a severe storm, and I keep it as a reminder.

How did it break? Here is an excerpt from SEA’s report:

“It was north of Bermuda, with winds as high as 60 knots and seas of 50 feet. As the Westward made her way through the storm, the chief mate was slammed by a wave and hurtled into the wheel, snapping it in half. Captain Phil Sacks quickly took charge. For the first time in his almost 25 years with SEA, Phil required students to stay below, as waves of eight feet broke across the side of the stern. With conditions too dangerous for the crew to rig emergency steering, Phil oversaw the safe navigation to Bermuda on only a half wheel.

One mate that night was Steve Tarrant. "I drew a lot of strength and experience from Phil on that trip," says Steve. "He was just a solid leader. He had a clear plan."

Says Phil of the storm, one of the worst he'd experienced: "You do what you have to do, you can't worry about it."

I have experienced two such storms at sea. The first was on the yawl Portunus as a late spring nor’easter caught us in the middle of the night between Cape Cod and Penobscot Bay. The second was on the ketch Cassiopeia when a four-day blow turned an early November passage from Woods Hole to Bermuda into a survival exercise. Both storms greatly exceeded predictions, but there we were, and we did what we had to do. I would not want to revisit either experience, but I learnt from both.

Westward’s boomkin reminds me daily: when storms happen make a clear plan and do what you need to do. Of course there is fear: perched in the pulpit of a 40’ boat in the middle of a vast, angry ocean, wrestling a large jib to the foredeck while the boat hobbyhorses violently beneath you is more than scary. But fear consumes a lot of energy that needs to be applied elsewhere and panic and despair lead to disaster. In the words of Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn, “the trick is not to rid your stomach of butterflies, but to make them fly in formation.”

Life is like that: storms – meteorological and metaphorical – happen, despite our best planning. And when they do, whining won’t help; “It’s not fair” won’t save you. What will see you through is 1. Knowing what you are doing (as opposed to being a complete idiot and launching your windsurfer into the teeth of a hurricane), and 2. Calmly doing what you have to do.

Our work is to make sure our students have the skills they will need to navigate the sea of life. This includes having the confidence and preparation to successfully weather life’s storms.

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