Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tales for the journey: The sailor

There was once a man who lived aboard a boat.  It was just a little boat in the middle of the ocean,  but it was built of strong timbers and it had a commodious cabin. The boat was anchored with a chain a mile long, for the ocean was a mile deep.  He could feel the tug of the anchor when the wind blew strongly and he lay in his warm and cosy cabin and it made him feel safe.

For many years the man remained in the cabin, for he had no need of telescope or sextant.  The helm was fixed to move forward and the sails were down, so that he had nothing to do.  The anchor held him fast and he could relax in safety

But one day he heard the call of the wind and the gulls  from the other side of the hatch above his head. The call became more and more insistent until he decided to open the hatch just a little and see what was going on. So he arose from his bunk and reached out.  He opened the hatch just a crack and a sweet smell of sea air came to him.

He realised how stuffy and stale the air had become in the cabin, because it was a long time since he had opened the hatch.  So he breathed in the sweet air and felt the wind in his hair.  For a brief moment he tasted freedom.

And  every day he opened the hatch a little more, until the hatch was open all day  - unless the rain came splashing down, and then he remained inside, safe and warm and protected. It was a good life, but he had tasted freedom and the taste grew bitter when it rained, for he was trapped inside the cabin.  The walls were restricting and there was little space for movement. He was not able easily to stand upright.

But then he noticed that there were oilskins in the corner of the cabin. They were hardly used. So he dressed himself carefully in the oilskins and opened the hatch. The rain came down into the cabin, so he quickly climbed up to the deck and closed the hatch behind him. The wind blew in his face and the rain was in his eyes and he could not see clearly. He was afraid that he may fall over board so he climbed back into the cabin again.

It was not a smooth ride. The boat twitched and strained against the anchor, like a terrier at its leash. The boat was restless but the anchor held her safe. There was always movement. The boat rocked from left to right, left to right up and over and around and down. Sometimes the boat seemed to move rapidly forward,  but the anchor brought it up short, and the boat was jerked back and resumed her normal sideways swing.  And once in a while a huge wave steamed in and sideswiped the boat, and the whole boat was knocked sideways. When that happened, the man held on tight and hoped for it soon to be over.

But then the anchor man arrived, and brought with him a parachute anchor.

"What is this?" asked the sailor.
"This anchor will keep you facing the wind," said the anchor man. "Then you will not be tossed about so much.  If you want to use it you must wait for a calm day and wind in the anchor that fixes you on the sea floor."
The sailor was afraid. "But then I will not be safe any more!" he cried.
"Facing the waves is safest," said the anchor man calmly. "Boats are designed to take waves on the bow, not from abeam. This way your boat will survive the storms that must come."
And leaving the parachute anchor on the deck, the anchor man left him alone in the middle of the sea.

The sailor had to make a choice: would be dare to wind up the fixed anchor and use the parachute anchor instead? He waited until the calmest day, when there was no wind at all and the sea was glassy calm. He dropped the parachute anchor into the water and watched as it disappeared into the depths. As he watched he saw the deep, invisible currents of water fill the parachute, and the anchor line gradually grew taught.

Once he knew that the new anchor was working, he gradually wound in the heavy anchor chain until the iron anchor that had held him for so long lay on the deck, heavy with barnacles and seaweed. He was not certain that the new anchor would hold him, so he remained watchful. He waited for the next storm. And sure enough. when the boat faced the oncoming waves, things were steadier and the boat felt stronger.

Then the sailor realised something extraordinary.  The boat was steady in the ocean surface, where before it has been restless - always on the move.  Then he laughed aloud as the truth dawned in his mind. For his whole life he had been swinging at anchor in a broad circle, round and round!

And the wind in his hair and the sun on his face was so sweet and exhilarating that he spent more and more time on deck. He found a sextant and telescope in an old box, that had always been on the boat but he had never opened it before. The sextant showed him where he was and  the telescope revealed misty shores far away.  His heart burst with longing and he yearned to explore.

Day by day, he grew more certain that he must begin to move.  So he tripped the parachute anchor.  It collapsed and he drew it easily onto the deck.  It was  less of a burden to lift than the anchor he had used all his life until recently and he felt strong and happy.

He waited to see what would happen.  The winds blew and the current carried him,  but he soon realised that he was drifting.  He had no idea were he was going.  He would soon be completely lost.  Then in that moment he knew he had always been lost, and a great surge of energy rose in him.

He opened the sail box, where the sails had lain for so long. Slowly - because he was  not sure how to do it - he worked out how to raise the sail.  He pulled and pulled on the rope and soon the sails flapped above his head.

Then the wind caught the sails and the boat swung wildly round and the boom almost knocked him off the deck. He rushed for the helm and turned the boat into the wind. The wind filled the sails and he felt the boat move, dancing over the sea.  He was steering the boat and now he could decide which way to go!

Laughing, he turned the boat towards the misty shores and sailed away, free at last.

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