By Curt Collier
When I was a young man I lived on a sailboat in Corpus Christi, Texas. With long, hot, sweltering days fading into humid nights, living on a boat in a shallow bay was pretty easy, and marina life has perks. The real reason I chose that life (which I maintained for six years…. including two years at Liberty Landing Marina in New Jersey) was because early on my parents had instilled within me a love for the water. The irony here is that our love of boating has always been filled with more misadventures than smooth sailing.
My grandfather was a tugboat operator, a profession he took up after his shrimp boat operation literally went up in flames. My father’s youth was spent on the water, tending nets or moving suction booms as they dredged hundreds of miles of the Gulf Coast. Dad was also filled with never-ending and fantastic stories of misadventures of his life on the water. He was raised on Dauphin Island, which at that time had no electricity, and his stories were filled with ghosts, swamp dragons, hurricanes that drove waters over the land, pirate booty, and always the sea, the sea, the sea. Ironically, his family bought their first boat as it lay shipwrecked. At the time of purchase, it was lying at the bottom of the bay…sunk in some storm. Dad had to swim down to shove bladders into the sunken ship’s hatches so that they could be inflated with air to raise the boat up for repairs. It was later destroyed in a fire when a man murdered a local roustabout named Peg-leg Pete, and then set the entire dock on fire to cover the crime, reducing my grandfather’s fishing business to ashes and sinking my father’s beloved sailboat, as well. Dad ran to the dock…saw everything in flames and pushed the burning sailboat out into the channel. Alas, it, too, burned, and sank to the bottom of the Pascagoula River.
Despite it all, we loved the sea
These stories go on and on. Did I mention to you the story of when my dad and grandfather’s shrimp boat sank while they were trawling off the coast of the Chandelier Islands near Louisiana? They swam ashore only to be immediately placed under arrest for invading a secret Army post. Oh, and did I mention that my grandfather’s father ran the only ferry service between Dauphin Island and the mainland until he lost his ship in a storm, or that his father was captured by privateers during the Civil War and only escaped with his life by throwing a large wash bucket overboard and paddling his way to Dauphin Island, where he settled? We loved the sea, and it frequently cursed us. We loved it nonetheless.
One weekend my parents telephoned to ask if I could take them sailing. I enjoyed their visits, as they were pretty easygoing folks who lived simply, liked a good party, and were always helpful on the boat. I am not my father. While he was always making sure his engines ran fine (and of course, they always didn’t), I often skipped the required maintenance and threw caution to the wind. So off we set on a day with wind above 15 knots, making our way to nowhere in particular. The waters of Corpus Christi Bay are extremely shallow (you could walk across it in places) and thus remaining in the channels was the only sure way to avoid running aground. The problem that day was that the wind blew directly down the channel, making it difficult to tack. I switched on the engine to help guide the boat as the winds grew fiercer. Storms at sea never bothered my parents…that was just par for the course.
Anchor, anchor chain, and sturdy line disappear
A couple of hours up the channel I heard a depressing sound, as my engine began to stall. I rushed downstairs and opened the engine hatch to find water shooting out from a broken water hose. I had to shut down the engine, and we continued beating our way for hours up the channel into the strong winds. I finally glimpsed a small cove I knew about that contained a narrow channel leading up to a tiny marina. I steered for the sheltered water and found a good spot in the cove to throw out an anchor. You can imagine my surprise when I saw my anchor, anchor chain, and sturdy line all disappear over the gunnels when I tossed it overboard. Oh, did I mention to you that I had detached the anchor a few days before to remove a jib?
There we were, no engine, fierce winds, no anchor, and late at night. My dad rushed to grab a small back-up anchor (ketch) I used to pull the boat out of tight areas and tied a small, thin line to it. Luckily, the ketch caught and I felt the sailboat swing hard out of the wind. (My mother during this whole time was fishing. This was, after all, a typical boating trip for her). He then fashioned the rope to a cleat and joined my mother fishing. I was exhausted. They weren’t catching anything but hardheads (a type of catfish one doesn’t eat where I’m from), and decided to turn in. I asked my dad if we shouldn’t do something about the ketch. The line was too short (anchors need play), the winds too strong; if the line broke, we’d drift into deep muddy reeds and quagmire. I remember him looking at me and saying, “It will hold,” and he disappeared down the hatch after my mom.
…as if it were yesterday
I’m sure they slept quietly down below. I, however, slept on the deck, restlessly waking at every sharp tug of the sailboat against the storm and waves. In the morning, the line had held and the seas were calm. (I swam over to the marina and found a replacement hose on an old boat). To this day, I remember that night as if it were yesterday. The strong winds, the thin line jerking against the weight of the sailboat. How did Dad know the line would hold? He couldn’t have…the line too frail, the waters too rough, the ketch anchor too small…and yet there we were the next morning safe, sound, with the prospect of a beautiful day.
After all these years, I’ve decided that my father had made a calculation of such; even in the roughest of seas, he trusted what he could, and he trusted himself…and perhaps me…to find a solution if indeed the thin line broke. In fact, we always found solutions, even when the best we hoped for failed.
Our commitment to community is solid
The Bergen Society for Ethical Culture’s small vessel has taken a pounding from the storms of life. We limp along during a fierce pandemic that has unmoored so much of our congregational life. We toss in rough seas because of a dispute that threatens to swamp us, and we chart our way through unknown waters. And yet, we have a small fragile lifeline that is tethered to something solid; your strong commitment to community. Is it enough to hold? I hope so, but I also believe that even if that lifeline where to break somehow, many of you would spring into action and a crisis would be averted. We may end up far away from where we started, with new challenges….but somehow I don’t think so.
We are lucky to have what others don’t. I’m hoping this holiday season you also can recognize what your lifelines are in your own family. I hope they, too, are anchored to something deep and strong to weather the worst of storms. But either way, we’re here for you. And, I believe, you’re here for us. Let’s just get back to fishing, shall we, and enjoy the holidays while they’re here.
Curt Collier is interim leader of the Ethical Culture Society of New Jersey.