“How did it go?” asked Melanie a couple of weeks after I got home from the last leg of my summer voyage. Melanie is a longstanding writing buddy and sailor whose partner, Steve, had come with me on the first leg. “Fine, on the whole,” I replied, and continued, after a hesitant pause, “Although you’d better tell Steve that without his help I hit a rock.” Melanie opened her eyes wide in a horror, “What!” she exclaimed, “But there isn’t a hint of that in any of your blogs!
So maybe it is time to confront my embarrassment and ‘fess up.’
In the gray dimness just before dawn I dropped the lines on the mooring buoy off Craighouse on Jura and steered Coral out of the bay. The green and red navigation lights that mark the channel between Goat Island and the reefs to starboard flashed reassuringly. Once clear of the island I turned Coral north up the Sound of Jura, intent on catching the last quarter or so of the flooding tide north toward Oban. I had it all worked out: the tide times, the landmarks, the alternative anchorages along the coast.
With little wind and a flat sea, I adjusted the engine to push Coral along at around five knots, set the Autohelm and, after checking the course would take us clear of the coast, went below for a few moments. As I stepped back up the companionway I was almost jerked off my feet by a massive crash. Coral dipped her bows and came shuddering to a halt, mast and rigging clattering violently. For a moment of utter confusion, I had no idea what had happened. And then I realized: Coral had hit something. But what?
I quickly recovered myself, leaping into the cockpit and putting the engine into neutral. Looking around, I could see two, maybe three fishing buoys lurking on the dark water, presumably marking lobster pots set in the thriving ecosystem around an underwater rock. Coral had motored right into it.
I rushed around looking for leaks. For a few moments I pumped frantically on the bilge pump. No water came up. I looked into the deep sump inside the keel where water collects. There were just the normal few inches in the bottom. I looked in the anchor chain locker, under the cabin sole, in the cockpit lockers, wherever I could get a sight of the naked hull. No water was flowing in, there was no sign of damage. Back on deck I went forward and peered over the bows, where Coral’s sharp prow curved down into the water. Nothing was untoward there. Then, to be sure, I stripped and reassembled the bilge pump to check for obstructions that might stop it working and pumped again. Clearly Coral was not taking in water. Looking around on the surface of the sea, I could see no debris that might have floated away from serious damage. Finally, I checked the tiller and was reassured that it moved smoothly from side to side.
I was hot, sweaty, shaken. With the immediate emergency over, I steered round the submerged hazard carefully, set Coral on her course again and went below to check the charts. Ah, there it was, Goat Rock, awash at chart datum, although rather obscured on the chart by a mass of soundings. But when I pulled out the larger scale chart of the Craighouse area, I could see that it clearly marked; and it was noted as a hazard in the pilot book, too. I had motored right over the top of it, although with the rise of tide it must have caught the keel toward the bottom.
Now was the time for recriminations. “What an idiot,” I thought, “not to check more carefully.” I was furious with myself and also felt a cold sense of dread as I considered what might have happened had I put a hole in the hull, or ripped off the rudder. Was I too tired, after ten long days sailing in windy weather, so that I no longer had good attention? On top of recriminations came embarrassment. What would others think – Elizabeth, friends and family, other sailing people – about such a silly mistake? Could I keep the mishap secret? Or should I write about it in my blog? Hot feelings of shame rose in my cheeks, overlaying my earlier cold sense of dread.
Coral was now motoring along smoothly as if nothing had happened. Every now and then I checked the water level in the sump: it remained low. I could only carry on and see what damage I had done once she was lifted out of the water at Oban. Gradually I relaxed and began to enjoy myself again. I stopped in Lussa Bay toward the north end of Jura when the tide turned against me, and picked up the first of the next flood to take Coral north past the Gulf of Corryvrecken, through the Sound of Luing, to Oban.
The following day, with Coral moored on a pontoon at Dunstaffnage Marina just north of Oban, I went through all the arrangements for lifting her out and overwintering with Twig Olsen, the Harbourmaster. I seemed to forget to tell him about the collision with the rock until the end of our conversation. When I did, he looked concerned. “That’s not good,” he said, “We’ll have a look when we lift her out.” As it turned out, the damage was bad enough, although could have been a lot worse: a job for the shipwright to repair the underlying laminate with glass cloth and epoxy resin.
It took me a while to write draft this blog following Melanie’s prompting. It has taken me even longer to finish and post it. Why is this? Of course, it is partly my embarrassment at my own foolishness. But more than this, I think I was searching for a meaning of the incident for my journey ‘on the western edge’; I wanted to place it in the context of my ecological pilgrimage.
Stories of pilgrimage from medieval times are full of challenge: ‘A cold coming we had of it… such a long journey,’ Eliot has one of the Magi say in his poem. Apart from the sheer length of the journey, pilgrims were exposure to the elements, lost their way in mountains and forests, and experienced fraud, robbery, shipwreck. Accounts from modern pilgrims who, at their best, step out of the illusion of safety that is everyday life, can be equally dramatic.
Environmental activists Karsten and Allison Heuer followed a herd of porcupine caribou in their yearly migration across northern Yukon and Alaska to the contested Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and calving grounds. Academic Shoshannah Ganz argues that this five-month journey can be seen as a pilgrimage not only for the humans but also for the caribou, engaged as they are in an ancient and instinctual movement that is now under threat from oil drilling. And for both humans and animals the journey is hazardous, as Heuer points out:
Four mountain ranges, hundreds of passes, dozens of rivers, countless grizzly bears, wolves, mosquitoes, and Arctic storms – those were the risks, that was the real story.
A major threat to the Heuers was the grizzly bears. Starving, having just woken from their winter sleep, the bears following the caribou in a desperate hunt for food. Humans might be easier pickings. I met a young man a while ago whose face was scarred and eyesight damaged after an encounter with a hungry polar bear near Spitzbergen; a young boy in his party was killed. As Allison protested,
“Karst, this is crazy. We’re following the caribou to the calving grounds with a bunch of hungry grizzly bears!”
‘Liminal experience – experience outside the normal frame of reference – means no safety net,’ writes Jennifer Westwood in her book on modern pilgrimage. So what is the place of dramatic and dangerous events like this on a pilgrimage? It is easy to see them as the inevitable consequences of adventuring in lonely places, or to dismiss them as foolish errors and sheer incompetence: the Heuers should have known about grizzlies, just as I should have seen the rock on the chart. But in the context of pilgrimage they also carry some teaching. They seem to be sent to test the pilgrim in some manner, and the individual’s worthiness is measured against their ability to respond.
The first lesson is that the world, beyond and beneath human perceptions and conceptions, is an irrefutable real reality. The pilgrim may start out with a whole range of hopes, fears and expectations, but the encounter with the world will reveal its is-ness. Whatever idealist or social constructionist or anthropocentric worldviews we hold will be challenged. Boswell famously tells of a conversation with Samuel Johnson:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – “I refute it thus.”
Rocks are hard, grizzly bears are fierce and hungry and once we get past our flashy technology we humans, just like the bears, are entirely dependent on the continued existence of the thin layer of liveable space that surrounds Planet Earth. We will crash into the facticity of climate change, the degradation of ecosystems, the loss of other species just as surely as I crashed into the rock.
So the second lesson for the traveller as pilgrim is that one must be alert for the signs that warn of hazards – those that are obvious but more importantly those that are hidden. As wilderness guides and spiritual teachers continually ask, “Are you awake?” I was awake to the more distant challenges of the day’s journey but asleep to immediate hazards. And the answer for modern humans, as we ignore the seriousness of the environmental crisis, must be, “No, we are sleepwalking into calamity.”
The third lesson is, “Can you respond?” do you have the skill, resources and presence of mind to summon up appropriate action in the face of emergency? And can you act without making the problem worse? I responded effectively enough in assessing the damage, but I do wonder what I would have done had Coral started sinking into the cold waters of the Sound of Jura.
In some ways pilgrimage seems to be about relearning life’s fundamental lessons. My friend Malcolm Parlett writes that responding fully to situations is the ‘heart of human living’. But while we humans appear to be well-designed for responding to emergency-style challenges – such as hitting the rock – he wonders how can we learn to respond to situations of greater complexity, which have a longer time span, where the evidence is less clear cut, and where there are extreme consequences if our choices are the wrong ones?
Gary Snyder reminds us that ‘The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife,’ that the baby hare ‘gets maybe one free chance to run across a meadow without looking up.’ The wilderness pilgrimage not only takes us along that knife edge. It may also draw our attention to the precipice on which we all are teetering.
Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson. (1791). Quote retrieved from http://www.samueljohnson.com/refutati.html
Ganz, Shoshannah. “‘A Living, Breathing, Pulsing Web’: Being Caribou as Canadian Ecological Pilgrimage.” Synaesthesia 1, No. 2 (2009): 51-59.
Heuer, K. (2006). Being caribou: Five months on foot with an arctic herd. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart.
Parlett, Malcolm. Growing up Humanity: Revolutionary Change and Personal Integration, in preparation.
Snyder, Gary. ‘The Etiquette of Freedom.’ In The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990.
Westwood, Jennifer. Sacred Journeys: Paths for the New Pilgrim. London: Gaia Books, 1977, p. 88.