By Jeff Jay
In the first summer of my recovery, I was obsessed with the dream of voyaging, but had nothing more than an old Sunfish. I was moving into my late twenties and couldn’t afford a real cruising boat, and I wasn’t keen on racing anymore. I wanted to sail long distances. The first chance came to me through the good graces of Father Vaughan Quinn, a maverick alcoholic priest who ran Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center. I hadn’t been a patient there, as it mainly served hard-luck cases from the inner city, but I knew him from Detroit-area Twelve Step meetings. He laughed loudly, swore cheerfully, and challenged people to get off their butts and out of their ruts. I remember him driving the point home one night during a talk he was giving to a large crowd.
“The biggest pain that you and I have, that stops us from living, from laughing, from loving, is preoccupation with self. The anatomy of faith is this,” he said. “Do the action first. Take a risk.”
I was commuting an hour each way to a dreary desk job at the time, and I spent most of my days looking out a fourth-story window at the sailboats docked along the Black River in Port Huron, Michigan. The smooth-hulled beauties called to me like an old flame, and I daydreamed of the time we’d get back together again.
One day Father Quinn phoned me at work, out of the blue. I’d never had a call from him before, and my eyes went wide as we talked. He told me he was going sailing the following day, and told me I could see the boat from my office window. Following his direction, I looked and saw the gleaming forty-two-footer standing proudly on the quay, just where he said it would be. He talked me into getting the day off and coming along for the ride. He said he was taking a group of patients out from Sacred Heart, landlubbers all, and he needed a couple guys who actually knew how to sail. I couldn’t wait.
It was a bizarre collection of passengers that came aboard the next day, mainly patients who’d never stepped foot on a boat. I was happy to be a simple crewman on the foredeck while Quinn played captain. Another guy who was supposed to be an experienced sailor took the role of navigator, but with a bit too much swagger.
The patients were pretending to be sailors, tugging on lines and horsing around in the sun, all but forgetting the morass of their addictions. After lunch we had an impromptu Twelve Step meeting in the cockpit, and Father Quinn gave a little homily, ranging over some of his favorite topics. He talked about pain and forgiveness and laughter. In his rousing style, he raised hearts and eyebrows, and then he asked:
“Can other people see the unrepeatable beauty of God’s creation in the twinkle of your eye?”
The question hung in the air like a challenge, and we all wondered if we really measured up.
“Well, you’re the only one who can change that,” he said. “You can’t blame your misery on other people. Use your freedom wisely. You have to take responsibility for your own life.”
It was like rocket fuel for recovery. Quinn wasn’t a man to sit still, and his enthusiasm rubbed off on everyone. His perpetual motto was, “Say YES to life,” and for him that meant get up and go, find your dream, and give it all you’ve got.
It was a good day to be out of the office.
After the meeting, I moved up to the front of the boat and hung my head over the side like the old days. It was marvelous to be on the big water again, to slip the shore and get out into the timeless world. I stayed up on the bow much of the time, away from the chatter of the cockpit. The lake sparkled like heaven, and I was lulled by the motion of the boat into waking dreams.
Late in the afternoon, things got a little hairy. The navigator got confused, the electronics went dead, and the passengers started getting nervous. Quinn knew how to sail, but he wasn’t sure what to do, and the navigator just wanted to turn back. I knew this would be a mistake, because there wasn’t enough time to make it back to Port Huron by sundown, and darkness would send this ragtag crew into a minor panic. Quinn knew it too.
I took the paper chart of Lake Huron and plotted our position by dead reckoning, using the usual tools of the trade. The question was: How far out were we? Lake Huron is over two hundred miles long. What was our best option for finding safe harbor?
“That’s Kettle Point,” I said, pointing to a faint bulge on the Ontario shore.
“No way,” said the navigator. “There’s no way we’ve come that far north. We have to turn back.”
That was pure nonsense. The return trip would take at least six hours, and there wasn’t that much daylight left. But the navigator was loud and insistent, and most of the crew were on his side.
“It’s Kettle Point for sure,” I said. “If we tack west, we can be back in Michigan in three hours.”
Quinn was the captain of the boat and he had to make a decision. It was a tense moment in the cockpit, with everyone’s eyes moving from the navigator to Quinn to me and back again. I showed him my calculations on the chart and we talked it over, and then Quinn gave the order to follow my course. We picked up speed on the beam reach, perpendicular to the wind, and made good time. The boat pulled into Port Sanilac three hours later, just after the sun slipped out of sight.
Quinn and I both knew things could’ve gone badly that night. As we were tying up the boat and getting things squared away, he looked at me across the deck, and I could see his blue eyes were serious.
“You handled that pretty well out there,” he said.
I muttered some thanks under my breath.
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs,” he said, quoting the Kipling poem.
I knew the unspoken ending, of course: “You’ll be a man, my son.”
It was a big compliment from a man I deeply admired, and I saw myself differently through his eyes, as though I were remembering something I’d forgotten or perhaps hadn’t known. The following summer, he invited me on a major sailing trip with a group of better sailors, of which I was the youngest by more than ten years. We got into a couple of terrible storms, and I was proud to take the wheel on the graveyard shift.
For me, sailing was like a cloistered prayer, a sacred space, a dream of love. It was an escape from the clanging of the world, the hiss of electricity, and the prattle of motors. On the water, there were only the Zen sounds of the waves, the unpredictable moods of the wind, and the creaking sinews of the boat. Being far from shore presented an opening into solitude, and I wanted it badly. On a good old boat, teak benches were worn smooth as rosary beads, and braided line fit the hand just right.
With a crew of sailors, there was always the camaraderie of the sea, the loud laughter, and the perfunctory curses and gripes. It was a good world too, but nothing like the world of the solo sailor, who crewed his boat in the company of numinous spirits and the souls of those long gone. I was ready to dive deep into that world, to drink its magic all the way to the bottom and rise again. It took me quite a few years to launch the dream, but the time finally came when my old boat and I were headed for the ocean.
Jeff Jay is a clinical interventionist, educator and author. His work has appeared on CNN, the Jane Pauley Show, PBS, Forbes Online and professional journals.
Jeff Jay’s latest book is Navigating Grace: a solo voyage of survival and redemption. Navigating Grace is a personal memoir of Jeff’s devastating loss of oneself to alcohol addiction, marriage ending, father passing away and losing brother to suicide, which led Jeff to embark on a solo adventure by sea on an old sloop named Lifeboat. While surviving the dark winter storms of the Atlantic, life-changing moments experienced became a journey of personal transformation.
You can connect and learn more about Jeff’s work at lovefirst.net.