Three weeks ago and a few days before the US election, we faced a building storm in one of the most remote areas of Caribbean Panama. Totally alone out on the ocean, our transmission died just as I was hoisting the main sail as we departed from an offshore island. We were leaving an anchorage on a dangerous lee shore, so we couldn’t turn around and safely anchor there again. As if on cue, the winds picked up to 25 knots, and the sea punched our hull with continuous whitecapping waves. We were forced to sail dead on into a storm.
The closest town, our destination, was over forty long nautical miles away. We had no cell service. Staring down these conditions feels a lot like the fear and anxiety of a presidential unknown–plus the uneasy immediacy of contemplating one’s own possible demise.
We could have turned around, ridden out the storm while losing ground in open water: gone with the wind and waves, a more comfortable direction for the boat. But we had places to see, people to meet, and a sturdy boat that knows how to sail upwind. So we pressed our little boat forward in building seas. We sailed strategically; we used the coastline ahead of us to gain some shelter from the swell and chop.
When the paddleboards were ripped off the side of the boat by a wave that crashed over the hull, I despaired. I said let them go. But even as I said this, I never took my off them in the churning seas. This is the key to saving anything overboard: never let it out of your sights. With my eyes transfixed on the boards, Josh suggested we at least try to get them back. We calmly discussed our plan. He turned the boat into the howling wind. Even as the storm rattled the wires and my nerves, we sailed back downwind for the boards and, almost miraculously, were able to pull them both out of the angry sea.
For the first part of that day, we traveled over twelve nautical miles, but made only two miles in the direction of our course. We literally had to tack backwards to go forward. Without a motor, we were forced to be more in tune with our conditions. We discussed turning around a few times. But we didn’t. Wet, cold, and fatigue saturated my bones from constantly shifting our sails and hand steering all day in the gusty wind and driving cold rain. The winds mocked our attempts to steer with capricious gusts. But after a while, we learned how to steer into the gusts and when to expect them.
We eventually got the transmission working and were able to set a more comfortable course into the wind. We had the tools and the knowledge to do this. Around the same time, the winds eased and the crashing waves abated. The ship no longer had to dunk her bow to fight forward. But we persevered through some very uncomfortable, scary conditions in the meantime. There wasn’t so much the absence of fear, but the ability to make good decisions with it present. There was love and trust between the two of us, and we trusted the boat. Even the dog understood the conditions and stoically persevered. Sometimes we forget how good we are as a team; it takes an unexpected failure and a storm to remind us.
We are more ready than we think. The daily, insidious onslaught on women, minorities, the rural and poor, our climate and environment means we have been practicing our whole lives for this. This storm is the opportunity that we needed.
We may be required to go backwards on the path forward. This calls forth our dragons but also illuminates our resilience. We have each other. We have a good boat. We have wits, grit, and humor, and we know how to keep our eyes laser-focused on our task. We are fortunate to be alive, alive in this time, with this opportunity to hoist our sails, turn into the wind, and take. a. stand.