Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sailboats and Panicking

One ship sails East, another West

By the self-same wind that blows.

‘Tis the set of the sails and not the gales

That tells the way we go.

— Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Years ago, my mother made a cross-stitch sampler of this poem that still hangs in a bedroom in my parents’ house. It reminds me of one of the great life lessons I learned when my father purchased a sailboat.

We were living in Atlanta at the time, so I was probably around 10 or 11. My dad and a co-worker bought the boat together. Neither of them had ever really sailed before, but they were determined to learn. They read books, took sailing lessons and practiced their skills at a nearby lake. When they felt confident enough in their ability, they invited me, my brother and the other man’s daughter (a year or so younger than me) to join them.

It was a cold, autumn day when the five of us set sail in Lake Lanier. Like most kids, I had complete faith in the adults’ ability. To me, this was just a great adventure where the only possible danger was not getting out of the way of the boom when it swung my way.

At one point, the wind changed direction and the “sailors” needed to adjust to it. My father’s friend was at the rudder and when he went to move it, the handle got caught in a seat cushion. Before we had time to think, the boat lurched dangerously to one side (it was a keel-less model).

Seconds later, all five people and everything in the hull that wasn’t attached ended up in the water. The shock—from the unexpected occurrence, as well as the chill in the water—was immediate.

I’m not a particularly strong swimmer, but I was able to easily get myself over to where the boat rested on its side. The dads quickly made sure that all of us were accounted for and okay.

Not wanting us to be in the water any longer than necessary, they decided to try to right the boat in the middle of the lake. All five of us got on the high side of the hull and pulled it toward us. Instead of the desired outcome, the boat completely flipped over and the water-logged sail pressed us underwater.

That’s when I panicked.

With my air supply gone and nothing but murky water surrounding me, I froze. Seconds later, I felt myself being pulled by the seat of my pants underneath the boat and to the other side away from the sail. I’m sure my eyes were wide with fear as my head popped out of the water and I once again clung to what was now the high side of the boat. My dad calmly explained that if that ever happened again, I should simply push up on the sail to create an air pocket, fill my lungs and then swim out from under the canvas.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to test out his advice again that day. A nearby houseboat witnessed the whole scene and raced over to our rescue. With the three kids safely on the houseboat, my dad and his friend tried again to right the boat, which simply flipped back over to the other side. I watched as they created air pockets under the sail before swimming to safety. (They later found out that the boat couldn’t be righted in the water, but had to be towed to shore to get it upright again.)

Safely back at home and around the dinner table that night, my father suddenly excused himself and went upstairs. I later found out from my mother that he had broken down in tears thinking about how easily our outing’s outcome could have been tragic.

It probably took me years to process all of this, but I learned a very valuable lesson that day. When in the midst of a dangerous situation, don’t waste your limited time being afraid. Instead, spend your energy thinking about how to get yourself out of harm’s way. There’s time enough later once you’re safe to let the panic set in and ruminate on what could have gone wrong.

After all, the same imagination that causes us to freeze with fear of the unknown also gives us the means to figure out a solution. It all depends on which way we set our sails.


  1. I love childhood stories like this... recalling them over the years, brings on new meanings, as well as the understanding that the event had a bigger impact on our life than when it originally occurred. I found myself smiling the whole time until I read how it affected you Dad. Wow.

  2. It's funny, I've never really talked to him about this. I wonder if he remembers it the way I do.