Sara Whitestone, The Blue Boat
As we walk along the beach on Emerald Isle, my friend Eric recounts some history of the Outer Banks’ Crystal Coast—naval attacks from Spain and Great Britain, and even more thrilling, the exploits of Blackbeard the Pirate. Eric scans the horizon and notes a tanker anchored out at sea. He is stationed at Fort Macon and has served in the Coast Guard almost twenty-five years. Boats are what he does.
I have always been enamored with boats. When I was little, a visit to the Northwest and my grandparents was never complete unless we rode a ferry. Once, we took an ocean liner from Seattle through the Inner Passage to Prince Rupert in British Columbia. The weather was so rough that most passengers had to retire to their staterooms. But I sat outside, as close to the bow as I could get, not feeling anything but excitement.
As a child, I often wished I could have taken part in the Noah’s Ark adventure. To live in that massive vessel with an exotic zoo during extreme weather, to experience that great display of personal faith: this is appealing still. But since that childhood dream is impossible, I grasp at another, a more adult-yet-still-improbable dream that Sheldon Vanauken introduced me to in his book A Severe Mercy. He and his wife lived for a year on a small sailboat named Grey Goose. Whenever they needed money, he would come ashore, type out an essay for a magazine, and then go back to the timelessness of the water. Like him, I would gladly raise my sail to the unknown, putting into harbors only to sell my stories.
I would write stories of Blackbeard, a fearsome sailor, who was named for his long, dark beard that was plaited into pigtails. I would write about how he kept his sinister reputation by looking the part—slow-burning cannon fuses smoking under his hair and beard and fully-armed with six primed and cocked pistols strapped to his body; and by acting the part—burning and looting ships and even marooning some of his own crew on a sandbar near Beaufort Inlet. I would write that on the sea, a man can be both more and less than what he seems. Despite the legends surrounding him, there is no firm record of Blackbeard murdering anyone, or even of him harming his prisoners. As I sailed my own boat into Beaufort Inlet, I would write how Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, ran aground on the shoals there in 1719, splitting the mainmast and cracking the timbers—not far from where Eric, his wife, Judy, and I are now, walking with our children. And I would write how, despite Blackbeard’s mercy toward others, his life of piracy ended in a violent death at the hands of Lieutenant Maynard of the Royal Navy, who then hung Blackbeard’s head from the conquering vessel’s bowsprit.
We have brought our dogs with us to the beach, and they run along the surf with my daughter, splashing each other and us. Our teenage boys (three of theirs and one of mine) are more daring and end up beyond the waves, even though they are not dressed for it. They are already pulling away from us and pushing into their own adventures. I wonder what worlds they will seek and what challenges they will face. And I pray that all of our children will choose to explore what is worthy rather than to exploit and that they will offer help rather than cause harm. Eric, a career Coastie, is a strong example to them of what is decent and good. Back at the house, we get cleaned up so that he can take us on a visit to the Coast Guard station.
Eric shows us the range of boats that are anchored at Fort Macon, from the small but swift police patroller to the medium endurance cutter to the largest buoy tender. We learn that the main jobs on this base are keeping navigational markers working and aiding mariners in distress. Eric’s assignment is to organize and direct operations in the event of a hurricane or other natural disaster. He has been involved in many a rescue in his years in the Coast Guard, but unlike bombastic Blackbeard, Eric is humble. Rather than give me details of any heroics, Eric simply says, “I just do my job, like all the guys here.”
But there is no denying that Eric also enjoys action. “Isn’t that why most of us join the military?” he asks. Whether on land or water, Eric is on the move. He owns two motorcycles and has already restored several muscle cars. I joke with him about helping me find and rebuild a 1964½ Mustang convertible, or better yet, restore an old sailboat. But big boats and antique cars are expensive hobbies. So instead, Eric has a new love that is within his budget: kayaks. Leaving the teenagers at home, Eric, Judy, and I go boat hunting.
The shop is on the bay side of Emerald Isle. We paddle around in all different shapes and sizes of kayaks, test-driving them on the calm waters. There is a boat of aqua blue I particularly like the feel of. Its color reminds me of another I once had.
I was about ten, living in a Seattle suburb. Somehow, I managed to find a tiny, blue plastic boat that was meant to be a baby pool. Strapping it to my back was not easy, and biking with it to a nearby pond was even harder. Then, waterborne, I had to sit on my knees just right to keep afloat, while I paddled with my hands. After only a few minutes, the plastic cracked under my weight, and my maiden voyage was over, with not even a Coast Guard rescue. I left my shipwreck behind and biked home in disgrace.
Now, I am in a respectable kayak with a real paddle. Eric buys a total of four for his family, and even though I shouldn’t spend the money, I splurge to become the proud owner of a new blue boat—a boat, this time, that is not only pond worthy, but lake, river, and sea ready.
Most houses on the island are built so that their backyards face canals. Several of Eric and Judy’s neighbors have yachts moored to their docks. I let the dream of a sailboat fade as my contentment rises. I admire the beautiful boats (while also pondering the time and expense needed for their maintenance) as we paddle our carefree kayaks.
I, like Eric, am always on the move, both in mind and body. As I glide on the water, I question man’s infatuation with the sea—from the first raft journeys of those who settled the Hawaiian Islands, to the Vikings who navigated the world, to Columbus who searched for a westward route to the East Indies, to Blackbeard who pillaged America’s coastal seas and then died because of his unquenchable thirst for more. Why would these, and so many others, continually put their lives in danger just to sail the oceans? I decide that this pushing forward is not about the sea at all. Using a boat to cross an ocean is only a means to an end. The real motivation is exploration, discovery, adventure.
My small aqua kayak is now my symbol for adventure. I will paddle rivers with just enough whitewater to keep me looking forward. I will navigate inlets and islands in anticipation of what I may find at the next turn. But I’ll also remember my desire for movement doesn’t come from a need for more of what I already have, or from a thirst to dominate, or even from the water itself. And I pray I will be content to paddle both slowly and swiftly on my passage, learning as I go that this life-journey—this discovery of both the outward and the inward—is a constant exploration.