Sailing now and Zen

My friend Jim Forcier says, “Man wants to be a maximizer, but he’s forced to be an optimizer.” Hey, who's got the wheel?

Put another way: We want to be powerboats that can pound through the waves, driving a straight line to our destination and getting there in a hurry. But we are forced to be sailboats, unable to steer a straight line toward our goals, because we have to deal with headwinds, currents and unexpectedly sparse menus (I’ll explain that last one shortly).

In my 20s, I learned that sailboats can’t sail straight into the wind. As a completely under-qualified member of a four-man crew delivering a 53-foot sailboat from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, I saw firsthand that we couldn’t sail straight for Gibraltar 4,000 miles away because we would be fighting the prevailing winds and currents. Instead we had to sail hundreds of miles north before turning east toward Europe. It felt like it was taking longer than it would have if we’d steered a straight course, but a straight course was simply impossible.

For most of us, life is more like sailing than power boating, and it can get frustrating. But what we forget is that life is what happens while we are making our way, usually along a winding course, toward our goals. And often when we get there, we realize the goal isn’t all it was cracked up to be, but the life we lived in the meantime can be.

When our daughter Madison was 5 and our son Daniel was 7, I had a little 14-foot sailboat at the Greater Richmond Sailing Association, up in the northwest corner of Swift Creek Reservoir. One warm summer day, I decided that we were going to take a family sail to Sundays Restaurant on the other side of the reservoir to get ice cream sundaes (Sundays must have great sundaes, right?).

So I forced my wife Stacy (not a water person) and the kids into the little boat and off we went on the two-mile sail.

With the wind at our back, we were able to steer a straight line for the restaurant, but it still took an hour under the blazing sun to get there. Still an under-qualified sailor, I had packed no water or snacks. Halfway across, Daniel started thirstily eyeing the dirty water in the bottom of the boat, and I think I caught Madison imagining my forearm was a turkey leg. Meanwhile Stacy was wedged into the bow, trying to ignore the up-and-down and back-and-forth motion.

I now have an inkling of what shipwreck survivors stranded on lifeboats go through.

Somehow we survived the trip, and after dropping the sails and dragging the boat onto the beach, we settled into a booth and declared to the waitress: four ice cream sundaes, please!

It amazes me to this day that the waitress could not understand why we expected Sundays Restaurant would serve ice cream sundaes, or ice cream of any kind.

They also didn’t have chicken nuggets, mac and cheese or any of the very few other foods my kids would eat. We ended up devouring a couple baskets of bread, dozens of glasses of water, and getting back in the sailboat for the two-hour sail back to the GRSA (now into the wind).

What I remember about that day isn’t that Sundays didn’t serve sundaes (although that seems to stick in my kids’ memories and their craws), but the time we spent together sailing. It is one of my favorite memories.

Life isn’t a straight line, and the living is in the winding, windy journey.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it – but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.”