Nearer My God to Thee...

I have recently been asked to testify as to how I found God. Or in Born Again terms, how I came to know Jesus. Well I'm not born again I don't think, I was born once, christened once and always a child of the Lord. Now I am a man and while I have sometimes wandered  away from the foot prints in the sand and at times failed to follow the lead of the Lord, I have never ever lost His guidance and always felt His hand on my shoulder. I believe God gives us the vessel, but it is ours to row for the shore. And so I have always been hesitant to allow myself to fully give myself to God's will. That was until that day in November.

The day started beautifully. Crystal clear skies, a gentle breeze out of the North and flat calm seas, temps in the 50's. I knew that the winds would pick up later that day, but my thoughts were at the time, "This is the perfect time of year to sail on Long Island Sound." It was by all accounts a perfect day to sail from Guilford to Bridgeport single handed in a 27' sailboat. Or so I thought.

My mission was clear. CCB (my former non profit) had one more boat that the City had yet to steal from us and our dock was still in place in the Bridgeport Boat Basin. Our lawyer had drafted a Cease and Desist letter to the City of Bridgeport who had threatened earlier that month to illegally seize our facility and fleet and had made good on that threat earlier in the week, by illegally seizing all our boats and storing them at Captain's Cove. But the dock was still there.

I was aiming to make a big public display in protest by sailing back on to our now illegally cleared dock with the last remaining vessel we had and walking across the waterfront downtown with the legal notice strait up to the City Attorney's office. I had called the press and the cops and notified both of my intentions. The press were waiting for a move from the cops but the cops weren't moving for justice, so neither was the press. One reporter from Channel 12 news was planning to arrive when I made landfall in the vessel and would film my walk up to the City Attorney's office. I always loved to make a scene. But I had to arrive on time if they were going to be there.

And so at 6AM I met with one of my Board members who had possession of the vessel and left my car in Guilford by the train station. I figured I would take the train back after my trip and pick up my car- one of the many perks to having a public access boating facility right by a municipal train station- why they shut it down I will never know. But just the same I started out.

I was driven down to the beach where I would canoe out to the mooring where the 27 foot Hunter was being moored. She bounced like a top on the waves and the fresh breeze made her look as if she was a bronco waiting to be set loose in the stall. I could also see a brown beard of growth on her water line indicating to me that she hadn't moved much that summer. But other than the seaweed skirt she wore, she otherwise seemed to be a sound vessel and no worse for the neglect that summer.

Climbing aboard the rocking vessel from a tippy canoe was a bit like landing on a aircraft carrier- you waited for the roll and hoped you caught the line at the right time to pull yourself aboard. We pulled in behind the lee of the vessel and I stood up with hands out stretched. One two three...GO! I was thankful to have shed the extra 40 pounds and I felt the canoe bound back as I launched myself on to the stern of the sailboat at the peak of one of its six foot breaches. My canoe captain jettisoned my bag and supplies aboard and with a tip of his hat he rode a roller back into the beach with the canoe. That would be the last human face I saw as the executive director of CCB.

Once aboard I immediately noticed the smell of funk coming from the cabin. She had a distinct odor of motor oil and mildew. I didn't see any mold, but I did notice a black rim of sooty oil ringing the cabin sole bulkheads. I thought that strange as the boat when I sent it up to Guilford ran great and had a strong bilge pump in it. Maybe the rain had filled it and there was some grime in the bilge that stained the walls. "We'll clean that up this weekend," I thought to myself as I turned on the batteries and made my way to fire up the diesel.

I knew I needed to make a 3 PM  landing time in Bridgeport and I had at least 6 hours of sailing time ahead of me, so I did not have a moment to spare. I quickly checked for water pumping in the stern as I fired the motor and took the cover off of the main sail. This boat was equipped with a roller fuller on the jib, but the main had to be raised manually. I thought once I got out to sea, I could lash the wheel and raise the main in a hurry, but I had to remove the cover before I left the mooring. I had told at least a hundred students who wanted to single hand sail a keel boat that trying to drive and do all that foredeck work is impossible. So get as much done as you can before you set sail. 90% of a successful voyage is proper preparation.

And I thought I had done that. I packed a few things that I knew would be of help and maybe even a few things that I didn't need but thought would be fun to have. My foul weather jacket and PFD(Lifejacket) and GPS, a few apples I had picked at my local orchard and a bag of trail mix. I had a few bottles of water and some sun screen and I even thought to bring my brand new 12-volt electric blanket just in case it was cold out there. The last few things I brought were to keep the trip interesting just in case I had to motor if the wind died. I brought my harmonica and my trusty book of short stories by John Cheever. And of course, I strapped a trusty filet knife to my thigh so I could cut lines loose if I went overboard. That should do it or so I thought, I had made this trip dozens of times.

With the motor running and gear stored, I had but drop the line and I would be off. A strait shot down Sound past New Haven and Stratford Point and I would be there. I ran forward and dropped the mooring gear, peeled out the jib and slipped the motor into forward. A puff of black smoke billowed up over the stern and I had set sail.

I looked back at the shore to see the Canoe was stowed and my ride nowhere to be seen. As the mooring field fell into the distance a fear set upon me of what I would find on shore when I made my way up Bridgeport Harbor. That was some 40 miles off I thought and I will have lots of people there when I came ashore- they wouldn't dream of arresting me in front of all those people, would they?

The first hour was quiet. I looked at my GPS and saw I was making a cool 3.5 knots. Not the fastest but for a boat with a bottom that looked like a 1970's porn star, it was pretty good. I shot a text to my buddy John and told him all was well. He shot back immediately and said he would meet me at the dock at 3PM.

At the start of the second hour I could feel a change in the air. The warm summer sun had turned to steely fall shine and the humidity had dropped. Off in the distance I could see New Haven and the horizon had some broken gunsmoke clouds building in. Behind the first array of clouds,  I could see a darker more angry cloud developing, but no thunder heads or signs of ugly weather. With the change in the air though, a chill set over me and I reached down to unzip my PFD. I quickly darted below and grabbed my foul weather jacket and put it on. While down below I gave myself a squirt of sunscreen and grabbed a handful of trail mix and bottle of water and returned to the wheel. It was too early for apples and although the day was moving along well, I had many days stuck out on the sound for much longer than I expected before and thought I should reserve some food for the afternoon.

When I got back and had finished re-installing my life jacket with my new found layer- the summer had been free of sweaters and foulies, and my PFD was set to t-shirt and summer mode. I had to adjust for the return of wool and gore-tex. When I looked up from the adjustment, that's when I first saw it.

The calm rolling waves abruptly stopped about a mile off and a confused chop roiled in the distance. I could tell a wall of wind was making its way towards me and from the looks of it, it was an angry one at that.

I knew I was somewhere between Branford and East Haven, a far shot from my desired destination. Perhaps this was just a freshening of the breeze that would get me there on time? Maybe this would be a good thing. I had raised the main sail in the first hour and hadn't noticed much of a perk in speed, maybe this was a lucky break?

When the first wall of wind hit, it was actually quite pleasant. A little cold, but fresh like the blast of arctic air that comes in advance of a thundershower on a hot summer day. The boat took a distinct heel and I could hear my gear slam to the floor in the cabin. "Damn," I thought, "I just bruised my apples".

I deduced from the slight song in the rigging and the stiff pull of the wheel that we (the vessel and I) were approaching 15 knots of wind- a little more than I liked, but still very manageable. The GPS came alive as well with readings of 5.5 to 6 knots. That was the speed I needed- Good!

The vessel responded as well as a furry little beast at sea could with its legs unshaven- and despite the short draft keel she took to wind well with full sails and a little too much breeze. I kept the motor running the entire time figuring that would eek us out another knot or two with a head wind. And with that I called John.
John and I trying to look upset for a New Haven Register reporter story on the Bridgeport Boat Basin

"Hey Brother its Chris" I started. "How goes it Cap'?" he said "Well the wind just picked up and I'm a little over powered but we're making way now nicely." "That's good Cap', what time do you think you'll be in?" John had picked the letter up from the attorney that morning and he would be walking with me to deliver it to the City. "I should be there by 3," I said, " Did you get the letter?" "Sure did, I have to do a few things but I will meet you on the dock." And with that I wished him well and he did the same for me and I got back to the business of sailing.

By hour three, the wind had gone from simmer to burn. A zesty 15 knots, quickly became a tempestuous 20 and then an angry 30. Every so often I could swear a gust of 40 would swing through. When the slight song in the rigging became a choir of cat calls and whistles I quickly lowered the main and lashed it to the boom. I also rolled the jib thinking I could inch it out a little if things calmed down. But they didn't and wouldn't until four days later.

The skies took on a look of late winter as flocks of mountain sized gray clouds raced to Long Island. Between each cloud, an azure blue flashed brilliantly revealing the heavens so that my looks of terror could be seen to all the Angels above who peeked from behind the shadows of galloping behemoths. I know they were watching but I am not sure if they were helping that day.

I have often felt the hand of an Angel with me at Sea. As a boy I was nearly sucked below in the Housatonic River when a dinghy sunk beneath me. Somehow I leaped what must have been 15 feet from the stern of the dinghy up to the bow of a 30' sail boat over the life lines and safely onto the foredeck. That time I was convinced I was flown to safety on the wings of my Guardian Angel. But this day, I didn't feel any Angels, just a bunch of demons that had come to call.

The boat pitched and rolled with every wave and the bow slapped down, beard and all.  With each crash, I heard another thing slam to the deck inside, but every time I attempted to go below the wind grabbed the bow and swung us downwind to Long Island. By the end of the fourth hour I realized, I wasn't going forward. Wait what??? Hour FOUR??

Some how in my terror, I hadn't noticed the time. My cell phone was safely stored in my pocket away from the spray of the sea and so I didn't do my usual and customary check every 15 minutes. The last time I had looked at my phone was just after I got off the with John. Somehow I had lost two hours and my position to New Haven had not changed at all. I was in the exact same spot for two hours and failed to notice. The motor was pegged full ahead and the sails were stowed but the boat would not work against the wind in any direction except one- Long Island.

By this time it was close to 12 and I realized my arrival at 3 in Bridgeport was unlikely. I texted the reporter and let him know that the weather had turned foul and that my arrival was delayed. He said to text him when I got to Bridgeport- with that I knew he was gone.

My heart raced and my head was pounding. With each gust I did all I could to keep the ship into the wind and with each lull I pondered what my next step would be. I thought if only I could get a reef in the main I could get another couple of knots and make it to someplace in New Haven and meet John at the train station. Having no line I took a lazy jib sheet and started to lash the wheel to the rail. When I felt it would hold the boat into the wind long enough, I launched myself at the mast ready to raise the main. Just then, the wheel broke loose and the boat spun like a top. The main halyard slipped from my hand and tangled in the shrouds. It took just seconds but with that my hopes of making it to Bridgeport on time evaporated.

Too petrified to be sad, I slithered my way to the cockpit of the violently broaching vessel. I took the wheel and waited for the boat to swing windward. The broach could only have last a few seconds but in the that time the boat slid a half mile to leward. The last hour of progress was lost.

I picked up the phone and called. "John, I'm not gonna make it to Bridgeport. I can't get to shore". "How's that Cap,?" He said, "I cant really hear you?" "JOHN," I screamed "I CANT GET ON SHORE. IM OFF NEW HAVEN AND I JUST CANT GET IN. I DONT KNOW WHAT TO DO?" The last I heard from him was a few garbled words about God and the Coast Guard. The call ended.

I noted the time, 1PM. I wouldn't make it, fine, but now my Main sail was fouled and I couldnt leave the helm to fix it. I wiped my eyes clear of salt and tipped the gear handle with my foot just to make sure we were all in. Suddenly my phone rang. "Sir this is Coast Guard Sector New Haven. We got a report that you were in distress?" "HI THANKS FOR THE CALL" I screamed into the cell, "I'm not currently in distress, but Im about two steps away. I dont want to call you out here, but if you could keep an ear out because if it gets any worse I will need your help." "No problem," He said " We'll be standing by if you need us sir." "Thanks" I replied and the call was lost.

Just then a wave slammed the side and the boat learched sideways. I couldn't tell for sure but it looked like New Haven was getting closer. I looked down to check the GPS and noticed it sitting upside down on the deck, black. For seven years I had never gone to sea without this GPS. It was in many ways my safety blanket because I knew it would always lead me home. I reached around the back to check and see if it was still connected and fine wires brushed my frozen fingers. The chord had ripped out. She would run no more, It was done.

I felt my heart sink lower. Not that I needed this devise to sail home, but it was always there and cost $1000. And in many ways this was the brain of CCB and it was gone. How was I going to do this?

Between 1PM and 3PM I spoke to the Coast Guard one more time. On the last call they suggested I let the boat drift to Long Island and just get on dry land. I thanked them for their advice but assured them I could not do that. But somewhere in that time I managed to wind my way in past New Haven, West Haven, Milford and Stratford. With every gust and every luff  a few more things clunked and smashed and I think it was the repetitive sound of breaking that made the hours pass. That was until I noticed the clunk had changed from a smash to a splash.

As I worked the boat into the lee of Stratford Point where the winds were slightly lessened, I began to notice a sloshing from the cabin. I heard things moving around with every pitch of the boat and the sound was not scraping on the decks but instead slapping. I craned my head over the companion way as far as I could while still holding the wheel and noticed black water filling the cabin and all my belonging sloshing from side to side. I kicked myself for not eating the apple but quickly forgot about it when the vision of me dead at the bottom of Long Island Sound worked into my mind.  The boat was sinking.

I didn't bother to call the Coast Guard or John. I was ready to go down. I wanted to go down. I  had pretty much forgotten the knife strapped to my thigh since I had left. Half of me thought I might need it on the docks upon my return if I didn't fall over board but the other half wondered if I didn't bring it for some other reason. My eyes went back to the knife when it occurred to me that my boat was sinking, my business was sinking, my life was ending and all I wanted was to be someplace else.

I had one last hurdle to cross to get to Bridgeport Harbor. It was now approaching 5 PM and the day was ending. The wind would not stop and to get into to the Harbor I had to go out around the breakwater one more time. Out there the current was intense and the wind howling. My boat was full of water and at any moment, I wondered if it would seize the engine. I had been running the engine for 7 hours now -  and did not know if there would be fuel to battle the winds one more time?

 I took the turn South and made way for the entrance to Bridgeport Harbor. I felt the wind grab the boat and almost shake it loose. It spun like a top and rolled violently from side to side. I heard the engine scream against the raging current. In the hopes that I could eek out just a little more power, I inched out the jib. The wind grabbed it and yanked it out like a towel shaking the sand off at the beach. The sheets immediately tangled and wrapped around the mast. The jib filled with air and the spin of the vessel took on a direct  course to Long Island as the boat screamed southward. The boat,  pitching violently downwind, I hoped would slide past the entrance to the harbor and I could duck in inside the wind shadow of the Harbor. As I inched my way closer to the rock pile at the entrance I could feel the boat starting to turn dead down wind. Just as we reached the jetty, the wind ripping out of the channel grabbed the boat and slammed it down on the water. The jib, full of water and bounding upward shredded under the weight as the boat wallowed in raging seas. The jib was gone, the main halyard fouled, the boat sinking and the GPS dead. I was now out of options except for one.

The Bridgeport Boat Basin Before
With that, the boat came back up and the motor took hold. Somehow, the boat inched its way forward into the wind shadow and ducked into the Harbor. The vessel limped up to the dock and John was waiting there. The street lights had come on and the Harbor glowed. 
The moorings floated empty in the basin and the docks looked useless and empty except for one broken and tattered sail boat. I eased the boat on to the dock and John grabbed the lines. I slid it into neutral, hopped off the boat and fell to my knees on the dock. I don't think I even waited til the boat stopped, John tied it all up. My knees shook and my head hurt. My stomach growled with hunger and my lips cracked with thirst. I just wanted to go home.

I took off my PFD and rain coat and threw them on the decks of the boat. I looked inside at the black water and was struck by the warmth of the water compared to my frozen hands. The smell of exhaust filled the cabin and the apples floated by my brand new 12-volt blanket soaked in oily black sludge. I knew somewhere at the bottom of that pool of ick was my favorite harmonica. I said, "John, Fuck it. Will fix it this weekend. I just want to go home."
I have always been haunted by this photo. This is the last photo taken of the Bridgeport Boat Basin and it caught exactly how I felt walking off that boat- out of focus, angry and confused. 

John walked me up to the train platform. He patted me on the shoulder and said something encouraging, but all I could hear was my heart and head pounding. He grabbed my shoulder and said, "Hey give me that, you don't want to take that on the train",pointing to the knife on my thigh. I unstrapped it and handed it to him.

The ride home was silent except for one last call from the Petty Officer at USCG New Haven. "I made it back," I said. "I am very glad to hear that sir, we would have come to get you if you needed it, though." 'I am glad to hear that," I said, "Ive never had a need for you before, but today I was real close." "We're always here if you need us, welcome home."

I got home around 9 PM that night. I went right to bed and if I dreamed that night and next day I don't remember them. I woke around 5AM Sunday to see the sunrise. My body hurt, my skin burned and my soul was crushed. The sound of waves and stink of diesel were stuck in my ears and nose. I sat down to my computer and clicked it on. For the last month, I had lived at this computer filing petitions, writing letters, cutting videos and watching facebook trying to save CCB. I immediately clicked on Facebook and began to scroll to see if any news had covered my journey. I found nothing. But just before I clicked off the screen, I noticed a friend of mine had posted that she would be preaching at the Cathedral in Hartford later that morning. Something inside me said, get dressed and go to church. And so I did. And when I got there, God was waiting for me.

(Note: This Blog was originally published on Sept 1, 2014, at The Oceanus Initiative on Blogger)

Published by Christopher Richard