It didn’t take me long to become proficient at plotting our location and heading via the sextant, compass, and map. I’d even gotten somewhat good at reading the radar. I learned to trust the position of the stars; and when they were behind the clouds, the compass. As a last resort, I referred to the radar screen. The helm, I thought, was the easiest duty the ship could afford.
Manning the helm, especially the night watch, became my joy. I loved the feel of the ship’s wheel in my hands. Nothing on Earth can compare to the feel of the water pressing against the hull, wrapping itself around the rudder.. There was nothing like the sound of the sea as it split along the keel. With the sails full of wind, the power was beyond compare.
The ship had backup diesel engines and mechanical control of the rudder, but we rarely used it. Switching to the engines meant dropping the sails. We hated to drop the sails, even in the midst of storms, maybe especially in the midst of storms that seemed to roll in every evening. It was hurricane season, after all. We had to ‘rock and roll’ as the crew called the experience. To say I learned to sail by being thrown into the storm would be an understatement. I learned much more than just that. I learned to sail through the storms of life with an ease that would carry me through the toughest experiences.
After that first night at sea. Thirty foot seas. Horizontal rain. Tornado-like winds. I learned that when the Captain called out “Squall” all games were over. That first night, I later learned, we had come within a mere five degrees of completely capsizing. We had lost all the sails but one little tiny jib. Our main mast had cracked and fallen into the sea. Sometime in the night as I heaved over the mid-deck railing, I lost my habit to that sea.
I gave up on wearing the habit. The ship’s helm was just too windy. I would save my spare habit for when we went ashore. We were sure a sorry sort when sun dawn that next morning, but we were alive to tell the tale.