The U.S. Deep South is known for heat, humidity, and the occasional hurricane. But two years ago, we were in the midst of a drought. If we weren’t exactly hoping for a hurricane, we would have welcomed a tropical storm.
It was early fall, and after weeks of little to no rain, the oak trees wilted. The leaves faded to a greenish-beige, like day-old avocado flesh.
The soil turned sandy in some places and hard as terra cotta in others. The pastures were parched, and what grass was left was brown and crunchy underfoot.
After several more weeks of dry weather, our lake receded. The water retreated from the maple trees lining the shore, revealing more and more of the lake floor. Bream, bass and mud turtles crammed into an ever-shrinking stagnant pool. The ground cracked into muddy puzzle pieces that didn’t quite fit together.
It was about this time that our twenty-odd Katahdin sheep broke through the fence, wandered into the yard, and ate my potted red geraniums — retaliation for confining them to their pasture.
Over the next few days, we got into a pattern: they would escape through the fence, my husband and I would lure them back with a bucket of sweet corn. Again and again.
Eventually, they wore us down; we knew we were beat. They needed more vegetation than their small pasture could provide, so we closed our front gate and let them roam over the whole fifty acres. And though I resented the loss of my flowers and the pebble-size droppings sprinkled over the yard (walking was tricky), the sheep were quite happy with this arrangement.
They ranged far into the woods during the day, and at night, they’d camp in the front yard close to the house. We’d peer out our bedroom window and watch them, frozen in place, sleeping on their feet. Or more eerie still, the ghostly figures would drift across the lawn in the darkness, their emerald eyes glowing.
As the drought persisted, I’d walk past the dying lake on my way to the mailbox and bemoan the water loss.
I missed the reflection of the trees and clouds on the mirrored surface. I missed the gray heron and the snowy egrets fishing in the shallows. The not-so-attractive Muscovy ducks and loons. They’d all left for deeper waters.
The lake bottom was an ugly wasteland that smelled of rot.
But sometimes the death of one thing gives life to another. And just when you’ve filled your empty cup with cynicism, a dry lakebed surprises you.
At first, the dirt took on a mossy hue. Then vegetation sprouted from the mud which, over the next few days, grew tall and thick.
Glossy, lush grass. The flock feasted on it, spending long days in the lakebed, until their bellies grew big and round and they were satisfied.
When winter came, the rains returned and replenished the lake. The drought ended, but so did our days as sheep farmers. After years of battling predators, especially coyotes, we were losing the war.
Quite unexpectedly but providentially, an elderly man in overalls knocked on our door one afternoon. He’d seen the sheep from the highway and wondered if we would sell them.
Yes, we said reluctantly.
This Baptist preacher said he knew a lot about raising sheep. I suspect he knew something about shepherding humans, too. In the end, no money changed hands. We gave them away.
He called not too long ago. “I didn’t want you to worry,” he said. “The sheep are thriving.”
As sad as I was to give them up, his call reassured me. They’re in a better place now. A safer place, with a good shepherd, lots of fresh grass and, hopefully, a lake of their own.
“None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.” Jane Austen, Persuasion
I beg to differ, Jane.
It was going to be easy. We’d done it before. We knew the route.
The plan? Motor our Pearson 365 sailboat from the Carrabelle River in Carrabelle, Florida through the Intracoastal Waterway to Panama City. A twelve-hour trip.
Why Panama City? Because the boat would be easier to sell there. Because after two decades of sailing, we realized that neither of us has the stomach for blue water. My husband was once seasick for thirty hours straight crossing the Gulf from Tampa to the panhandle. And I get sick within five minutes in unprotected waters. It is time to furl the jib, so to speak.
The first morning of our trip was cold — 43°F/ 6°C. My husband, aka the Captain, untied the six ropes which held the Pearson in the slip while I stood on the bow, boat-hook in hand, ready to push off the pilings. Leaving the dock is always a nerve-wracking process (especially for this anxiety-prone INFJ) because the river current pushes the stern sideways, putting our boat — and any vessels in the vicinity — at risk for damage. The Captain has learned how to compensate for the current, however, and is now an expert backer.
But this time, the bow swung sharply to the left. Nimble first-mate that I am (think Gilligan), I dodged the boom, leaped over sheets (ropes), and pushed off a wooden piling to keep our hull from scraping the cruiser beside us. The Captain was pushing from the stern, too. After a stressful half-minute we were free and clear of the dock and the pilings and the neighboring boats.
We were also drifting backwards downstream.
“I’ve lost forward and reverse!” my husband called out to me. “I don’t have any control!”
He raced down the companionway, and I heard him talking on the radio. “We’re dead in the water!”
We floated past the marina office where a man in a brown work jacket stood on the dock with his hands in his pockets, watching us. A woman came out of the weathered building, hugging herself to stay warm. She spoke to the man, and then she shouted to us, “He’s gonna get his skiff. He’ll pull you back.”
We were drifting dangerously close to a sandbar which rose above the surface of the river like the back of a giant white alligator. Just in the nick of time, the small white boat appeared. The Captain threw a rope to the man in the skiff who pulled us to the large dock adjacent to the marina office. We tied up and a few phone calls later, we had hired a diver to take a look at our propeller.
The diver, a twenty-something man equipped with wetsuit, knife, and scuba gear, plunged into the frigid water. Bubbles broke the surface for the next few minutes while he unwrapped a frayed rope from the propeller. Another fifteen minutes and he had scraped the prop clean of barnacles.
With our reverse and forward restored, we were ready to begin again.
Getting Underway — Again
We traveled down the river and out into the bay, following the buoys which mark the Intracoastal Waterway (IW)– green on the right side of the boat, red on the left. The St. George Sound is shallow on either side of these markers, and with a keel draft of 3’11”, we’re always careful to motor “between the lines.” A couple of nifty tools help with this: a depth finder, which tells us how deep the water is, and our Garmin GPS, which shows us exactly where we are on the map. The latter is a great aide for guiding us through the shallows.
Only this time, it didn’t.
We were well inside the IW near the four-mile-long St. George Island Bridge, in what should have been deep water, when the boat suddenly lurched. We had run aground. No amount of revving the engine or changing directions freed us.
It was low tide. If we waited another three hours, we might float off. But we’d already been delayed once that day.
The Captain launched the dinghy, grabbed an anchor and a lot of rope, and climbed in. He rowed off some distance and was about to drop the anchor in deeper water — a clever trick for pulling your boat off a sandbar — when the boat freed itself.
He rowed back and scrambled aboard while I motored under the bridge at a manatee’s pace in case we hit another shoal.
Without further incident, we navigated through the bay and down the Apalachicola River for a short stretch. Then we veered west when the IW split from the river.
I love this part of the Waterway. The canal is narrow, lined with lush palmetto bushes, oaks, palms, wild magnolias. And lots of birds: seagulls, herons, eagles, hawks, ospreys, owls, cormorants, and my favorite, pelicans. It’s rare to pass another boat, but you might pass an alligator. I’m 99% sure I saw one about five feet from shore. His pointy back broke the surface of the water, then he disappeared in our wake.
It was near this alligator sighting that we ran aground again, in what should have been deep water. It felt like the boat was skimming up a hill, but just as quickly as we hit it, we were free of it.
And thus, I have drawn the following conclusion: In the Intracoastal Waterway and in life, even calm water holds surprises. Expect Sandbars.
We overnighted in a horseshoe-shaped cove. And now I know what they mean when they say, The silence was deafening. The pure absence of noise was remarkable. And a bit spooky. Like we were hundreds of miles from civilization. (I checked: the nearest road was only a mile away.) The hoots of Barred and Great Horned Owls added to the eerie atmosphere. And in the distance, a high-pitched screeching cry (a bobcat?).
To state the obvious, that night was dark. Very dark. No street lamps. No car headlights. No farm poles. Not an electric light in sight. And yet, the sky was brighter than it is at home near the city. I saw more stars than I’ve ever seen before. More stars than void.
The next morning we continued on our way which took another five uneventful, pleasant hours.
We docked at the Panama City Marina around three in the afternoon. After being fingerprinted, signing a hundred pages, and undergoing a credit check, polygraph test, and FBI background check (I exaggerate), we were allowed to rent a slip.
After that, the marina personnel did everything they could to make us comfortable. It almost made me question our decision to sell the boat. I enjoy certain aspects of sailing — salty air, warm sun, cool wind, friendly dolphins, and the only sound coming from the lapping of the waves on the hull, the ping of the sail on the mast, and the laughing gulls overhead.
But sometimes, when I’m dealing with sensory overload, the ocean becomes too much of a good thing. And as I lay that night in the V-berth with a migraine, rocking, tipping, and bouncing with the waves, I felt seasick. I missed the calm water of the canal. This was why we needed to sell the Pearson.
Back to Carrabelle
We had reached the end of our journey, but we’d left our car in Carrabelle.
Plan A* was to rent a car and drive back to get our own, but nothing was available. ALL the rental cars in town were booked. So we settled for Plan B: call Uber.
We’d never used Uber, and being naturally wary, we downloaded the app with skepticism. My husband typed in our destination. A driver would arrive in eight minutes.
And he did. Like clock-work.
Our bags and gear piled around us, we stood next to the dock at the PC Marina and flagged him down. The trip had taken two days, but we’d been on board for three, and we probably looked like the weary travelers we were. We loaded our luggage into his Toyota Camry and took off. But when he realized the trip would take two hours, he balked: he couldn’t take us all the way because he had a doctor’s appointment.
Forty minutes down the road, we left our first Uber driver and took up with another — a thirty-something immigrant from Uganda. During the 80-minute trip back to Carrabelle, we learned a lot about him: how he’d lived in the slums but decided to leave his country, join the U.S. Air Force, become a U.S. Citizen, learn to drive, buy a car AND a house. He’s starting his own business in cybersecurity and driving for Uber on the side.
This up-and-coming Ugandan-American didn’t get where he is today by staying in calm waters, that’s for certain. No doubt he’ll accomplish something impressive, even if it’s not his current plan. Even if it’s his Plan Z. He’s a high seas sailor.
I am not. I don’t have the constitution for it. And that’s okay. I celebrate his achievements while realizing that different people are suited for different waters.
And our new plan? Sell the Pearson and get a trawler. A vessel that will take us places inland where the water is flat and the shores are filled with wildlife. Where we can hear the silence and see the stars. A boat that will navigate the Great Loop — a system of canals and rivers that spans the Eastern U.S. and part of Canada.
I haven’t told the Captain yet, but I have a name for the new boat: Calm Waters.
“He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.” Mark 4:39 NIV
*Fracturedfaithblog.com has a great post on Plans A to Z called “A Tree on the Line.” It inspired me to write this post. You can read it here.