Shipwreck 101!

Shipwreck 101!

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”             Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4-5


Go’in Fishing

A few years back I was in my co-owned 16-foot aluminum boat in Quilceen Bay with my out of town friend Jeff. Our plan was to set a couple of crab traps and then make our way out to the more open waters of Tabook Bay and fish for salmon. Early in the excursion the steering connected to my main outboard motor broke. The motor ran but I had no steering. The good news (I thought) was that we had a smaller trolling motor that would help us maneuver where we wanted to go. With a trolling motor you steer by holding on to the motor itself rather than a steering wheel, as with the main motor.

So, we made the decision to continue out to the main channel with the smaller outboard trolling motor. I have seen many smaller boats with only a small trolling motor on the water, so it didn’t seem like an outrageous decision.

The Captain Needs to Captain

As the “captain” of the boat I should have made a unilateral decision, on whether we should turn back, but I decided to let it be a joint decision with Jeff. We both decided to go ahead. As we rounded the point of Quilceen Bay the wind began to pick up in the more open water. We kept trolling and were in fact following another, even smaller, aluminum boat with a single occupant. He seemed to be doing okay so I reasoned that we should be okay also.

A Choice Point

Within 20 minutes the wind worsened considerably and I decided to head to shore. I headed for what I thought would be a sandy beach. I reasoned that we could just sit on the beach and safely wait out the big gusts, since we came prepared to have a picnic on some little beach later on anyway.

The problem, however, was that as soon as we beached the boat and jumped to shore I realized that we were not on a sandy beach but on cobblestones. It only took a couple of minutes to realize that the wind was so bad that our aluminum boat would be battered against the stones. I was imagining the look on my boat partner’s face as I brought back the boat covered in huge pockmarks. I had to get us out of there.

Within those couple of minutes after deciding that beaching the boat was a bad choice I noticed waves breaking into the stern of the boat. It began filling up very rapidly. It only took a few moments for the stern to be half-full of water.

I jumped in the boat and began bailing as quickly as I could. To make matters worse I could not get the trolling motor started. I then chose to start the main motor and decided I would try steering it by grasping the entire motor, similar to how I would steer the smaller trolling motor. Mind you, events were unfolding VERY rapidly!

From Bad to Worse

I started the main motor. Would my idea work? Jeff tried to push us off the shore but he couldn’t budge us. It didn’t make sense. We came to shore easily so why couldn’t we just back off as easily? I turned the motor off again and got out of the boat. Only by standing in waist deep water beside the boat was I able to ascertain that we had landed right on top of a large rock, which we were now sitting on top of. It also appeared that the tide was going out.

With great effort, Jeff and I were finally able to wedge the boat off the large submerged rock. I ended up standing in chest high water at the stern and Jeff was in waist high water on the side of the boat. All the while with big gusts of wind and splashing waves, and with great effort we were able to push-pull-and grunt the boat off the big rock.

Finally when I was back in the boat with the big motor once again running. Jeff launched the boat backwards into the open water. That however drew more waves into the boat and again the stern was filling up. I felt like I was bulldogging a big steer as I was trying to steer the boat backwards, turn it in the waves, and then moving it forward.

As I got us moving forward and parallel to the shoreline I was hoping that the forward momentum would push the water out of the rear of the boat as I had heard it would. It didn’t take long for me to realize that would not be a viable option. Waves were breaking into the rear of the boat and so I once again pointed the bow towards the shore and tried to make a run for it.

The Plunge

As I was within 50 feet of shore a big wave crashed over the stern and I immediately was sitting in the bathtub deep water. That jettisoned the bow up high where Jeff was sitting, and made it plunge to the left. It literally flipped upside down pitching Jeff like a catapult cannon ball up and out of the boat. I evacuated the stern as the boat turned upside down. Fortunately I was able to stand in chest high water. Jeff had to swim a bit to shore.

As we caught our breath, we both stood there in the water holding on the upside-down capsized boat so it would not drift away. We were out in the middle of “no where”. Fortunately I had my cell phone in a cellophane baggie in my pocket, so I was able to call 911. A long story later found us having to walk a couple of miles out to a protected section of beach where we could be rescued. The problem was that the now gale force winds were too dangerous to have rescue boats pick us up on the beach of which we were stranded.

Ancient Words of Wisdom

The words of the Greek Stoic Epictetus had particular meaning for my situation that day. I learned more than ever the importance of differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not. I had no influence over the storm but I did have influence over the choice I made to continue our fishing journey. I had no influence over the large rock we landed on, but I could have chosen to sacrifice the boat there on the shore, in order, to secure our safety. No amount of wanting to rewrite history will make those bad decisions okay. No matter how hard I try I can’t un-capsize the boat.

Blame is a waste of time. No amount of blaming the boat’s steering, the wind, or the big waves change my personal responsibility to make decisions. Sometimes we only have a few seconds to make decisions. Other times we have hours or days. But the important thing is to be clear about the things we have control over and the things we have no control over.

Likewise, no matter how hard we try, we can’t change another person or make them like us. The time we spend hurling ourselves at these immovable objects is not time spent on the things we can change.

As we look forward to this New Year, it might be well for us to remember the modern version of the Stoic’s insight. It is found in the recovery community’s Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

Tim Berry

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