Saturday, 27 September 2014

One Little Bit At A Time

I've learned lessons from the sea, the kind of lessons that cannot be learned by listening to the stories of others nor by reading them in some guide or magazine. I've learned lessons about weather and helm, distance and direction, lessons about the limitations of ship and crew, the power of waves and water. I've learned about attacking odds, moving against them steadily and defeating them not through force, but through persistence.

There is a stretch of water along the Sunshine Coast of BC which challenges all who come there in anything except the easiest of times. It runs from Welcome Pass, just up from Sechelt, down to Gower Point, the entry to the safety across Shoal Channel and into Gibsons Harbour. This stretch of water is exposed to the long fetch, the full fetch of the Salish Sea, running clear from the islands that protect the entry to Puget Sound all the way to Campbell River, an open stretch of water where southerly winds build a pounding triangular sea, bounced back and forth in a bathtub action by the shores of Vancouver Island on the one hand and the mainland coast on the other.

It is a dangerous stretch of water in bad weather, having claimed more than one vessel whose skipper was insufficiently experienced or arrogant enough to assume that the mere power of engines could surpass the strength of the sea. It is possible to navigate this stretch in all but the worst of weather, yet each year it claims someone, whether professional mariner or recreational boater. It is not dangerous if you know what to do; it just takes those who lack the experience to know when to turn back.

In one of our many sailing trips, my daughter Meaghan and I were traversing this stretch of water in late afternoon, an afternoon of foul weather and adverse conditions. The wind was pounding us with a near gale, driven up by a building southerly rising in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, turning the corner in Haro Straits, running fast, furious and free up the Strait of Georgia, finally blasting itself onto the open shores of Davis Bay.

Meaghan and I made this run carefully. The wind held us back, the tide pushed us back, the waves pounded us back, rising alongside and running green water from the open seas over the foredeck of our small sailboat. I knew this water and I knew this boat. The way to take it was steady, a hand on the tiller and an eye on the water. This stretch is an 11 mile run; with wind and wave against us we were making no more than 2 or 3 knots; it was going to be a long stretch.

As we passed Davis Bay we heard a Mayday on the radio; this was one time when I wished I was running with the radio off, something I would rarely do. We had passed Davis Bay but behind us was the call for urgent assistance. A boat had overturned and people were in the water. We knew what we had to do; we turned and suddenly were headed at 9 or 10 knots away from where we wanted to go.

As it turned out, the mayday was a false alarm, a roadside motorist seeing a windsurfer go over and assuming it was a boat, not just someone taking advantage of the full surf that this weather drove before itself. Once we cleared the mayday, we still had 9 miles to go while making at best 3 knots an hour. It was to be a long run.

I settled in, hand on the tiller, face against the rain, standing square in the cockpit, bracing myself with the railing and seat, prepared to work against it all, headed for home and safety. I had my GPS beside me so I could get a better sense of run and speed over ground. It showed each mile, each tenth of a mile. I came to realize that every 14 waves represented a 10th of a mile; every seventh or eighth was a bad one. I held the tiller, counted the 10th's of miles, and knew that with each passing minute our goal of safe harbour grew ever closer. We got there safely.

Tonight I was at a social event. It was at one of my favourite hangouts and, as usual, I stayed late. When I arrived I could not park in the regular handicapped spot; it was already taken. So I parked in the laneway across the street. After my evening with friends I made my way out of the pub. I approached the curb and gutter, one that has given me grief in the past. I made my way slowly down the the edge and worked across it.

Once safely setup, what lay before me was the steep rise to the crest of the road, the hump in the middle. So I edged my way up slowly, adjusting my body to maintain a center of balance and moving the wheels on my chair a bit at a time. I inched forward to the top. Once there I rolled down the other side where I was again presented with the steep slope up the alley way. Again I move in careful, measured increments, balancing myself as I moved up the rise to my truck.

It was there I realized the similarity between my adventures in sailing and my adventures in my wheelchair. I am no longer strong enough to simply force my way up something. I am no longer able to push with the power I once had against the slope of the road. But like my sailing adventures, if I take each increment, each rise, each stage in small bits, I know I can get there; every push, every struggle, every part; none is monolith, all can be taken in smaller pieces. I may no longer be able to run, to stand, to walk, to stretch, yet I can still get there, one little bit at a time.

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