Weather Helmed

an adventure in renewing the spirit and living the dream…on a sailboat

Weather Helmed

The Bilge

It’s where all the water that leaks into the boat ends us; it’s where all the oil that leaks from the engine goes; it’s where spilled milk in the icebox drains, and where sawdust and mud and all the other manky stuff on the floor eventually winds up. But it’s also the place where you sometimes find what you thought you had lost.


Who I Really Am (originally written in May, and added to recently)

Pastors and self-help books are fond of asking the question, “Who are you, really – taking off all masks, discarding your various roles, shedding all facades, who are you when all of that is stripped away?”   I have considered this question several times in the past but it’s hard to put yourself in that mindset without actually being in a situation where everything truly is stripped away.  I would think, Ok, so if I’m not a sister, a daughter, a friend, an employee, a student, a wife, who am I? But, so many times, my answers would still all be influenced by those roles.  It is always worth asking questions like that, but often difficult to answer them honestly no matter how hard you try.

What is even more difficult, though, is to face the answers to those questions when you are finally in a position to respond truthfully.  By that time, though, it’s not so much that you are able to respond to the questions thoughtfully and deliberately, but rather who you really are suddenly appears in the mirror one day and you are forced to see the reality whether you want to or not.

Being out here, I have never been so far removed from the world.  Occasional, slow internet access has reduced my online hours to a quick checking of email, a facebook message or two, and some blog posts maybe once or twice a month if I’m lucky.  Forget skyping, or responding to most emails, reading other facebook posts, checking my friends blogs, looking at their pictures, etc.  I have only made two real phone calls since we left Mexico, both to my mother just telling her where we are.  And it’s not as though we are traveling with several other boats and hanging out with friends all the time.  95% of the time, it’s just been Matt and me (and now Jon). I’ve never felt so disconnected from my “world.”

Since we left Mexico, it has really just been Matt and me (and, since mid-June, Jon), and after more than six months on the boat, there are certainly no more facades, no more masks, nothing false between us.  We have definitely seen each other at our worst.  And once those barriers were broken down, everything seemed to shift so that instead of seeing other people, instead of seeing Matt and wondering how he saw me, instead of caring about how I appeared to other people, it got to the point where all I could see was myself.

And, it’s not a pretty picture.

When all the masks are set aside, all the facades erased, all the roles discarded, when everything is stripped away, I find that I don’t like who I’ve become.  What I see is a person who is angry, impatient, selfish, lacking compassion, insincere, negative and crude.  When there is no one left to impress, no one else to reflect my attitude, no one else who might question what I say or what I do, this nastiness, apparently, is now my default setting.

I can’t be too upset about this discovery, though, because it’s largely what I came out here to see.  I wanted this trip to be about introspection, about facing the demons I’ve accumulated over the years, about seeing whether the person I’ve become is who I really want to be.  I’m lucky that I get to contemplate such things in beautiful, exotic locations, but when it comes to confronting the blackness in one’s soul, it doesn’t matter if you’re on a boat in a gorgeous lagoon or sitting in your apartment – it’s not easy to do.

I wonder how I got to this place; how I fell so far from where I used to be, spiritually speaking.  There is no one moment I can point to where I think, “there! that’s where it happened!”  Instead, it seems that it simply happened over time – one disappointment here, one sadness there; one doubting question, one stumble off the path.

When I was at home, surrounded by co-workers and neighbors, talking regularly with friends and family, it was easy to constantly wear the masks, maintain the facades I had carefully erected.  But out here, disconnected from all those influences, I am forced to see who I really am and then decide whether I want to stay this way.

I remember when I first became calorie-conscious.  I remember how astonished I was to realize that a 100 calorie piece of candy could take up to a half-hour of jogging on the treadmill to burn off.  A half hour of hard work for something that took only seconds to eat!  A larger meal, say Thanksgiving, could require days at the gym to counteract the caloric indulgence.  Similarly, a wedding that lasts maybe six hours can take years to pay off; a housing contract that is signed in a minute might bind you for decades.  Is the spirit like that?   How long will it take to reverse the damage done to my spirit over these last couple of years?  Will damage that was done in moments take years of recovery?  Coming from a protestant Christian perspective, I want to say no!  God can change me overnight!  And He can, but I know that it’s generally not that easy.  Like in other areas of life, growth hurts.  It can be painful, uncomfortable, and not always desirable.  I know that God would give me the strength, the power, the grace of change if that’s really what I want, but it would also take some deliberate soul-searching on my part.

So now that I’ve seen the tired, torn and tattered remains of my soul, now what?  The only plan I have is to turn to the only Healer I know and hope that I can be patient and strong enough to see my recovery through to the end.  It will be a slow, painful process, this I’m sure of because I’ve already attempted it several times on this trip and have failed to follow through.  But now it’s gotten to a point where I look in the mirror and feel that I can see the hollowness in my eyes, I can feel the emptiness inside.  I take comfort, though, in knowing that when all else is stripped away, there is nothing, and yet, there is everything.

I am not one of those people who hate themselves or will discount anyone who says, “no, really, you’re a nice person!”  It’s just that I’ve seen who I’ve become on this trip and I’m not happy about it.  I hate that my initial responses to even minor problems (i.e. my snorkel mask leaking) is to freak out, curse up a storm, and feel such anger and animosity that if I had a sledgehammer on the boat, I’d be really worried about what I might do with it.  Yes, there is still that part of me that cares about people and is kind, but underneath all of that, there is this other part that scares me.

This encounter with my “true self” is not something I probably ever would have experienced had it not been for this boat trip.  Even when we are out camping in the middle of nowhere, the “real world” is still too close for me to get to this point.  No, it has taken complete, long-term isolation for me to come face to face with these internal demons.  I will remember this trip for providing a mirror of my soul, just as much as I will remember it for the beautiful atolls and the people we meet.  The external difficulties of life on the boat, too, are now simply examples of the internal conflicts waging within.  It is a frightful thing, actually, to come face to face with who you really are.  It’s scary to stay the same and scary to think about changing.  It’s also quite depressing. But, the good news, I guess, is that now I know.  And like NA and AA have figured out, admitting your problem, truly recognizing who you have become, is the first step towards healing and change.

And, thank goodness for grace:  the grace of God, the grace of my husband, the grace of friends, the grace of family…  Their grace that sees past my faults and imperfections and awful selfish attitude, their grace that reveals I am not alone in my struggle with my faith and my fears.

One of my best friend’s little sisters posted a quote on her facebook page the other day and it caught my eye and resonated within my heart:

God actually delights in exalting our inability. He intentionally puts his people in situations where they come face to face with their need for him. In the process he powerfully demonstrates his ability to provide everything his people need in ways they could never have mustered up or imagined. And in the end, he makes much of his own name.” -David Platt

These days I am almost ashamed to write about my faith and myself, to even attempt to associate who I am with God because I certainly am not any sort of an example of love or joy or hope or trust or patience, or any of those things a life of faith should represent.  Although I have a strong religious background, in many ways it feels like I am starting all over again in my spiritual quest.  This boat trip has been an interesting experience in that Matt and I have spent a large portion of it unhappy, for mostly unidentifiable reasons.  I think, for both of us, this trip has been less about fun and adventure and more about personal insight and discovery, something we may have wanted to an extent, but didn’t necessarily anticipate would consume us.  Although, back when we were preparing for the trip and were totally ignorant as to what it was like to even live on the boat, I wrote this post (see “May 2009“), with the following quote:

“They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters, these men see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep.”

So, I did come out here hoping to see God and I have, instead, come face to face with myself.

I expected to see God in the multitude of stars and the endless miles of moonlit ocean.

I expected to see God in the roaring waves and the unfathomable depths of the sea and sky.

I didn’t expect to see Him in my weaknesses.

I didn’t expect to see Him in my failings.

I didn’t expect to see Him in my fears.

I didn’t expect to see Him in the darkest mire of my strangled inner life.

Yet, it seems, that’s where He is

amazingly, thankfully, and oddly wonderfully

to be found.


Slatting Sails (written on passage from Beveridge Reef to Tonga, August 2010)

The sail, the play of its pulse so like our own lives: so thin and yet so full of life, so noiseless when it labors hardest, so noisy and impatient when least effective.”  ~ Henry David Thoreau

When I read this quote, my spirit cocked its head to the side and nodded, a silent gesture suggesting I pay attention.  I don’t know if it’s because we spent most of yesterday and today fighting with inconsistent winds and the slatting of sails, or if it’s because my own heart feels equally squally and restless, that these words echoed within me.

Something I’ve learned over the last few years, and tried vehemently to deny, is that I need imposed structure in my life.  I need a schedule to shape my day, I need routine to give meaning to my actions.  As luck would have it, though, I have also learned that I am not exactly what you would call self-disciplined; as much as I know I need to purposefully guide myself along, I often succumb to the luxuries of laziness and distraction, fabricating dozens of reasons as to why I’m unable to accomplish even the most simplest of goals I’ve optimistically set before me.

At various times, I’ve experimented with my nature and have cautiously implemented strict routines (grocery shopping on wednesday, vacuuming on thursday), surprised to find how much more effective I am in doing, well, anything, and a bit shocked at how much more I enjoy whatever it is I’m doing.  Just as structure gives a child security and comfort, I feel more in control, less overwhelmed, more capable, and less stressed when I’ve devised – and followed – a plan.

I have rejected and denied this part of me, though, because “structure” and “routine” do not seem to go hand in hand with “exciting” and “spontaneous” and “creative” and “relaxed” – words that I would much rather use to describe my life and myself.  At work and at home, I’ve unsuccessfully pretended that I can handle it all without so much as using appointment books or jotting down notes, only to be humbly discovered with a single question, “Have you ordered ____ yet?  Where do we stand on ____?   Do you have that memo ready?”  Questions met with a blank stare, then a flash of fear and embarrassment as I realize, once again, that everything slips through my fingers when I’m holding onto nothing.

Here on Syzygy, down in the cabin, as I’m trying to fall asleep on the settee, I hear every sound on deck and against the hull.  When the wind is too light to fill the sails, the sound of the sails banging around is genuinely painful.  I outwardly grimace and the boat shudders, too, groaning and flinching with each blow.  The jib curls in on itself, shimmying in amongst the shrouds then unwrapping violently with a loud WHOLLOP.  The mainsail crumples as the boom drifts towards the center, straining against its lines, and as the boat rocks to the side, the boom SLAMS back into place, jolting the rigging.  As the sea continues to roll beneath the boat, the sails collapse and unfold, collapse and unfold, magnifying the rocking motion as the banging and slamming and wholloping grow ever more intense.  The sails seem annoyed and fidgety, angry at the boat (or its captain) for putting them in this position where they are unable to perform their only function; embarrassed that the world can see their humiliation, their dirty white fabric flogging, flimsy and shapeless like an old man’s underwear hung out to dry.  When the seas are calmer and all wind disappears, the sails simply droop and hang lifeless, giving up their futile efforts to fill, to lift, to soar.

In great contrast, when there is sufficient wind, the sailboat becomes a thing of beauty, foresail and mainsail full and flying, the boat surging ahead, climbing up and over waves, reaching. Even more spectacular, as the sailor knows, is the sound, the feel of this kind of sailing.  Everything falls away but the rushing of the hull as it glides easily through the water, the feel of the wind on your face or the back of your neck, the way the boat rises under your feet and leaps forward, eager, hungry, for that extra half a knot as it runs with the wind.  What I’ve come to love most about the motion, though, is the lightness of the boat, of myself, when the sails are full-pressed, their lines taut, the rigging tense under the force as the boat lifts and slides noiselessly between the waves.

The wind gives the sails structure.  The wind takes an otherwise hopeless, useless piece of fabric, fills it, shapes it, floats it in the sky and enables it to pull, nearly effortlessly, thousands of tons of fiberglass, steel, aluminum, wood, through the water. Though the wind imposes an enormous force on the sails and the rigging, causing them to labor hardest, only then can the sails perform their best, function at their capacity, and do what they have been specifically designed to do.

Life on the boat, with seemingly endless time that is all mine, is, so far, not all that conducive to structure. In fact, what a lot of people most appreciate about the cruising lifestyle is its lack of structure and routine – the ability to stay where you want to stay, go when you want to go, get up and go to bed at any time of day, eat when you feel like it, and be absolutely 100% lazy all the time if that’s what you want to do.  Many cruisers have cast off a life of structure, exchanging bosses and clients and timecards for a new life of “freedom.”  I foolishly believed that life onboard would lend itself to routine far more easily than life at home.  At home, there were distractions of work and friends and the everyday demands of life.  Here, quite isolated from the world, I find that there are not necessarily as many distractions as there are obstacles to establishing a structure for my day.  Or, perhaps, there are simply excuses.

I find, not for the first time, that, inside, I am feeling noisy and restless and impatient and, because of this, I am least effective at accomplishing anything.  I feel myself occasionally collapsing and unfolding loudly and painfully, straining against my inner discontent, and at other times I simply droop, my spirit tired and limp from all my stupid floundering for form.  Thoreau’s words remind me to not give up; they remind me to continue to seek structure and embrace that part of me that needs it.  For, just as I do not fault the sail for needing the wind to give it shape – and, in fact, find the sail all the more beautiful for it – neither should I fault myself for needing routine to give me purpose, for am I, too, not more beautiful when I am flying?


Fear & Joy   (written on passage to Tonga, August 2010)

I am afraid.

All the time.

Of something.

Of everything.

What started off as a joke amongst my family and then my closest friends has grown into an epidemic in my life.

It used to be that I could clearly name the major things I was scared of: spiders, living by myself, traveling alone.  In my early twenties I purposely set out to conquer those fears.

(ok, so I chose to not deal with the spider thing)

I traveled to Paris alone and spent a week there by myself.

I moved away from home and lived by myself in an apartment for two years.

Normal things for other people, but significant achievements for me.

Somewhere along the way, my fear slowly began to infest itself deeper, but I managed to {sort of} hold it at bay by additional traveling, driving cross-country by myself (twice!), being too overwhelmed with major life changes, and then staying busy enough that I didn’t give it too much thought.

When things started to settle down after law school and I moved back to San Francisco, fear kicked in again full force.

Fear of earthquakes.

Fear of being attacked/raped/murdered.

Fear of getting hit by a car.

Fear of getting cancer.

All somewhat understandable, but the way they took over my thought life was not.

When Matt and I got an apartment to ourselves in probably one of the safest areas and buildings you could find in the Bay Area, I thought I would finally feel secure.  Then one day, he took the laundry down to the 2nd floor and chose to climb up the wall from the 2nd floor garden to our studio the next floor up.  He popped over the rail onto our patio, smiling and flushed from the quick effort, not realizing he had just made a huge mistake.

Now I knew that an attacker could easily climb onto our patio and access our bedroom window and back door.

So, Matt was quite surprised {and worried} when he came home early from a week-long work trip and found metal spoons tied to a jingle bell christmas wreath tied to the knob of the back door, tied to the leg of the dining room table.

What?!” I asked defensively, trying to hide my embarrassment. I didn’t bother telling him I had also slept with the kitchen light on, a knife under my pillow, and the phone and my car keys next to the bed.

Do I sound paranoid prepared? If so, it’s only because I had perfected that “system” over the past ten years.

I’m thirty-one years old and I’m still scared of the dark.

When we go camping in the middle of nowhere, I worry that a crazy serial murderer will find us.   When we camp near others, I worry that they are murderers.

Out here at sea, I worry about Matt falling overboard.  That’s reasonable.  When he chose to climb some rocks above the water, I turned away and couldn’t watch because I worried that he would fall off, land in a too shallow area, crack his head open or land in a way that would cause him to become paralyzed and I wouldn’t be able to get him back in the dinghy or on the boat and he would die in my arms.

Yes – Sadly, that is really how my mind works.

On this trip I’ve started to pay attention to how often I start a sentence with:

I worry that…”

That scares me…”

I’m worried…”

“That’s scary…”

“Weren’t you afraid…”

And it’s frightening how my vocabulary, too, has become contaminated with fear.

Particularly on this trip, I’ve realized how my fear has prevented me from enjoying good things.

I can’t enjoy a gorgeous starry night in the middle of the ocean because I am afraid we will run into something that I can’t see (a whale or a wayward cargo container)

I can’t enjoy a relaxing dip in the water because I’m afraid of sharks… or jellyfish… or other things that might get me.

I can’t enjoy snorkeling away from the dinghy because I am afraid the dinghy anchor will fail and the dinghy will get swept out to sea and I won’t be able to get back to the boat and will have no way of contacting Matt or Jon to come get me.

I also can’t enjoy snorkeling away from the dinghy because the dinghy is my only protection from sharks… or jellyfish… or other things that might get me.

I can’t enjoy a leisurely hike around an island by myself because I worry that I could be attacked or raped or murdered or I could fall or something bad could happen and no one would know where I am.

It’s hard for me to enjoy anything without constantly being aware of how it could go wrong.

Recently, I was daydreaming and letting my mind play out what should normally be a happy event.  When it came time for my “scene,” I envisioned myself being momentarily joyous and then collapsing into tears, saying, “But I’m terrified…

And like a bomb exploding in my chest, the truth hit me:


And that is the thing that scares me the most.


Convicted (written in Tonga, September 2010)

I have started reading a book called “The Good and Beautiful God.”  It has given me much food for thought as I struggle through my faith.  It encourages me because the chapters address the large, fundamental issues I’m working out, and so it feels like I am conversing with a friend on the subjects concerning me most.  Because each chapter inspires deep thought, I read the chapter over and over, considering it anew as I read it again from my changing perspective.  Chapter two focuses on the truth that God is Good.  I have read this chapter at least four times and not felt particularly moved by it.  I believe God is good.  Well, mostly – I am still wondering about that  whole “problem of pain” thing.  Anyway, this chapter didn’t exactly penetrate my soul.

Until today, when we went snorkeling at the coral gardens near anchorage #16 in Vava’u.

The tide was very low and we walked out onto the dark reef, looking at the large, breaking waves surging towards us and washing over our feet.  Matt gently picked his way farther out, carefully leaning and looking over the reef, charting a course of entry for us.  He squatted down, tenuously balanced between red reaching claws of coral and then as the water rushed back out to the sea, he threw himself off the reef into the dark blue depths.  He swam out a ways, the orange tip of his snorkel peeking bravely out of the waves, then turned back towards us, lifted his head and yelled, “It’s pretty good!”  Jon and I worked our way out to the same ledge and soon we were all in.  Mask and fins on, I let my legs float up behind me and put my face in the water and suddenly I became the silent observer of a spectacular underwater world.

The coral there was incredible.  There were so many varieties and colors.  Light blue spiky fingers tipped with brown; rows and rows of olive green “cabbage”; yellow, orange, and blue “brains”; small dark green coral that look sort of like christmas trees and huge, wide, flat light teal tables of coral that look like (those trees – bonsai?) from a Japanese Garden. One of my favorites was the tall bluish purple coral that reminded me of lupines spread across the foothills of the Sierras.  Everywhere I turned, there seemed to be more colors and more kinds of coral.  Swimming around and amongst the coral were fish of all different shapes and sizes.  Fish with paper-thin dorsal fins that swayed like a feather; fish striped pinks and greens and blues, flashing neon as they darted in and out of narrow canyons in the reef; fish with “masks” on, looking at you and pursing their lips as they wriggled by; a large mass of black fish moving slowly, turning as one, bunching together then drifting apart, evoking the pulse of the waves.  Every once in a while, I would turn my eyes up to see what was lingering just beneath the surface – schools of teeny tiny fish riding the surges; larger silvery fish so filmy and shimmery that you couldn’t see them unless you looked purposefully; long, thin, tube-snouted creatures barely moving their missile-like bodies as they regarded me anxiously with their big shiny eyes.  Each time I lifted my head out of the water to look around then stuck my face back in, I was astounded by the contrast of the two realities.  It reminded me of opening the door to a nightclub.  Outside, it is quiet and dark, maybe there are a few people walking by on the sidewalk.  But then, you open the door and WOW – suddenly, there’s music and it’s loud and pulsating and bright lights are flashing and hundreds of people are writhing around, sparkles dancing off the womens’ sequined tops, and the walls are blazing with colors and textures, and then you close the door again and it’s dark and quiet and empty.

As I drifted over the multicolor corals, watching the various fish float forwards and back with the waves, some biting onto coral for help (and a quick snack) or bracing themselves within it with their fins, a sentence from chapter two of my book typed itself across my mind.

God could have made an ugly world.

I instantly paused in my slow kicking and looked around the reef again, this time thinking about those words.

God could have made an ugly world.

Instead, out of His own beauty and creativity, He made coral that looks like a field of lavender and He designed a fish with glowing rainbow scales and a beak like a parrot, not to mention that He has made billions of other amazing sights, sounds, tastes, and smells all designed to give our eyes and ears and fingers and toes and tongue and nose and soul just a glimpse of His eternal goodness.

God could have made an ugly world.

But He didn’t.


God is good.


7 Comments so far ↓

  • Phil

    Keep writing. Even after the trip is long over. The journey and the exploration should continue. Some of the language you used in your “sails” metaphor was remarkable and quite beautiful. You are clearly on two journeys at once: one on the sailboat and one into your self.


  • Mackenzie Thompson

    This is beautiful Karen. I am a bit jealous that you have the time to really see who you really are. I would love to have that time, that everyday life just doesn’t provide. I can imagine that it is really painful, but imagine what could come of it! God is so good & has a great plan for your life. This is just a step in His master plan 🙂
    Thank you for being so brutally honest…you are inspiring!


  • Courtney


    Like the other comments, I am really moved by your beautiful writing, and I am so glad that you are taking the time to write all of these thoughts down. Obviously, your entries are documenting your own emotional and spiritual journey (which will be amazing to reflect back on), but you are really bringing us all with you. I am so grateful for that!

    Keep it up, Karen!



  • Cheri

    I didn’t read this post until you mentioned it in your most recent post. I’m so glad I came back to read it. Your writing is wonderful and your personal discoveries are even better. I appreciate you sharing your life with the rest of us. I hope I can see you sometime when you’re back on this side of the world. 🙂

  • Jodi (Elaine's daughter)

    To be published dear – for all of those that need that poke and prod to their insides. And – God gives us the beautiful to give us hope for His plan for us.

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