A warm tropical sun caresses our bodies. Clean, cool water beckons us to go snorkeling. The British Virgin Islands overwhelm the senses with their spectacular physical beauty, especially as viewed from a boat. Luminescent water reveals more of the sea’s beauty. A school of small, deep-blue fish swims in synchronous harmony over and around boulders on the sea floor. One can almost hear the music of their movement.
In the same way, I can also hear another sound — distant, old, human. It is the wail of slavery. Slave ships anchored here at The Baths off Virgin Gorda after their Atlantic crossing from Africa, to wash their human cargo before delivering it to the auction block. Chained in coffin-sized spaces, slaves often had not been on deck during their six- to twelve-week passage. I imagined the joy of the fresh air and the cool water on their bodies. But as one horror ended another began.
The Baths are granite boulders, one and two stories high, tumbled on each other as though a giant hand had cast them like so many pebbles. Millions of years of wind and waves carved grotto-like passages. Sitting on deck, I am struck by the contrast of God’s beauty and human cruelty; the confinement of slaves and the liberation of sailing — on the water, I feel I am in a holy place, a sacred place.
When I bought my first sailboat, I was seeking adventure, new places, and family and friend time. I wanted to pit human skill and a well-designed boat against wind, wave, sun, and storm. Sailing is a contest between the human — boat and crew — and the natural world. What I didn’t know was that I was embarking on a spiritual journey as well.
It started with an “aha” experience. I was solo sailing from Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island to Old Saybrook, Connecticut, on my way home to New York City. My crew had left that morning. The day was overcast with winds of 12 – 15 knots and a forecast of unstable weather and possible rain. But the skies didn’t look too threatening, so I raised sails and got underway. Setting my course, I turned on the autopilot and settled down with a cup of coffee and some music from National Public Radio. A life jacket lay beside me, if needed. Wind Dancer is a comfortable boat with galley, head, and sleeping berths for six. I felt at home in her care.
I picked up Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. In his introduction, Moore proposes that “soulfulness” is tied “to life in all its particulars — good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart.”
I read on, glancing up occasionally to be sure no other boats were nearby. Moore continues: “One person might care for the soul by buying or renting a good piece of land, another by selecting an appropriate school or program of study, another by painting his house or his bedroom.” Excitement raced through me like a fast-moving current. I shouted to the winds, “Yes! Yes!” This is what I experience while sailing! I put on my life vest and moved to the bow, where I could feel Wind Dancer’s graceful rhythm, the bow moving through two-foot waves, the sound of the parting water, the wind and the boat moving together as gifted dance partners.
Thomas Moore changed my life. He helped me recognize the spiritual nourishment I experience on Wind Dancer. She takes me into the natural world of whales, dolphins, flying fish — a powerful reminder that we humans are only a small part of God’s creation. Nighttime passages reveal a sky where stars shine brightly, undimmed by city lights or obscured by skyscrapers. I could now understand the fascination of the ancients with the movement of the heavens.
Similarly, few are privileged to see the effects of a sunset on every horizon. Three of us were sailing out of the Cape Cod Canal into Buzzards Bay one summer evening. The bay is between the Massachusetts mainland and the Elizabeth Islands, and drops down for several miles to Cutty Hunk, our destination. Clouds rimmed the sky. As the sun sank, the western sky lit up in brilliant oranges, reds, and yellows. Then we looked around. There was color on every horizon. Blues, grays, and pinks in the east. More muted colors in the north and south. Overhead was a single cloud, like a yarmulke, with subtle shades of pink and orange and blue. It was like sailing down the center of nature’s grand cathedral with stained glass overhead and all around. There was a hush on the boat, a sense of awe. Awe, I think, is a gift to the spirit.
The Depth of Small Spaces
A boat can be a sacred space because life is lived and experiences are shared in the small space of the cabin and in the large open spaces of the deck, where the sea fades into the sky far off on the horizon. Many emotions fill that space: friendship and camaraderie; fright and fearfulness; challenge and success; joy and awe; love and compassion. There is time for the deep participation with others of our life journeys, our pain, our joys. Anchored in a quiet bay one evening, the cockpit of Wind Dancer is the space where Barbara and I made our commitment to marry.
In this sacred space, too, my friend David and I talked about his death. We had sailed together for many years. David loved sailing. On overnight passages, he would rarely sleep, for he didn’t want to miss anything. David had cancer, and one summer, when he was in a brief remission, we were anchored in the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River near Lake Ontario. We swam in the refreshingly cool waters.
One evening David talked about his wish — having his ashes scattered on the ocean. I responded, “Perhaps the ocean will not be possible, but we could scatter your ashes at the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River, and the waters from all the Great Lakes can carry you to the ocean.” Being a Michigan native, the idea appealed to him. The following summer, his son Philip and I shared our memories of David. We had a brief ceremony of liturgy and prayer, and then scattered his ashes on the waters of the St. Lawrence River. We said good-bye to father and friend, but there was something else, too — a new bond of friendship between a son and a father’s friend.
A Place of No Strangers
A boat is a space where radical hospitality can be practiced. Each of the major faiths calls us to be hospitable to the stranger, to our neighbor, to our families. Boat owners are a small minority, and we have the unique opportunity to share the joys of sailing. The clatter and schedules and stresses of life ashore are blown asunder and washed away by water, wind, and sun.
It was on Wind Dancer where I became acquainted with nephews and nieces I hadn’t seen since their childhood. Now, as adults, we sailed the Canadian waters of Lake Ontario, explored landfalls together, tried out new restaurants, swam and snorkeled, and in living together briefly, we discovered that we liked each other. A new family friendship began.
Sailing crews sometimes face life-threatening dangers of fog and storm, but the sublime is there too: sun on our faces and wind in our hair, a boat perfectly tuned and slicing effortlessly through the water, a meal in the cockpit or the coziness of the cabin after a long day’s sail. The many experiences deepen our relationships.
The sighting of a sail in the distance has a different meaning today than it did during the early nautical days. Then, the question was friend or enemy, merchant ship or pirate, life or possible death? Now, a sail suggests freedom, friendship, harmony, and beauty. It suggests fun, challenge, and visits to new places. Whether on an afternoon sail or a weeks-long cruise, we move into God’s natural world of sun, water, wind, and weather.
Rumors still circulate about undiscovered treasure buried in the British Virgin Islands from those long-ago days of slave and pirate ships. Today we bury spiritual treasures in our hearts and memories. They nourish our souls, now and far into the future. Perhaps an additional definition for a boat is appropriate. Boat: a sacred space sailing into sacred spaces.
Getting Started Sailing
LEARN HOW BOATS SAIL: Do a little book learning. Read Sail and Cruising World magazines for stories about sailing and “how-to” articles.
ENROLL IN SAILING SCHOOL: Many yacht clubs offer sailing classes. Land-based classes are offered by the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary (USCGA) and the United States Power Squadrons (USPS) — usps.org.
JOIN A YACHT CLUB: Social memberships are less expensive. Get to know the members and let them know you want to learn to sail. Racers often are looking for crew. Cruisers, too, often need crew for a day or a week. When cruising, offer to share expenses of food, fuel, overnight docking, and pump out (of the head holding tank). Be available and flexible. If you turn down an invitation more than twice, you likely will not be asked again. For sailors, you have to get your priorities right!
JOIN OPO: If you are ready for offshore sailing, join Offshore Passage Opportunities (sailopo.com). There is a modest annual membership fee. You will be placed on OPO’s email list to receive information and a monthly newsletter so that you can connect with captains needing crew to move boats from one location to another — many between the Caribbean and the Northeast but also across the Atlantic or on the Pacific Ocean. Costs normally involve getting to and from the boat, plus any personal onshore expenses.
CHARTER: While expensive, costs can be cut down by sharing with two or three other couples. If you are new to sailing, you also will be required to hire a captain. An internet search of“sailboat chartering” and “your area” should lead to opportunities.
Nelson Price has been on a spiritual journey, both professionally and personally. He is the former president and CEO of the Odyssey cable network, now the Hallmark Channel, which featured programs of faith, spirituality, and values. Price has sailed thousands of miles, from Florida to Maine, and on Lake Ontario. He and his wife, Barbara, live near Syracuse, N.Y. He is author of Spirit Sail: A Memoir of Spirituality and Sailing.