On being … in uncharted territory

By Ingrid Sapona

Maybe it’s because I write, but I’ve always been interested in adages. You know, those old sayings that have been around, it seems, forever. Because the general truth is usually pretty obvious (or uncontroversial), it’s easy to trivialize adages and sayings. But, if you’re like me, every now and then something happens in your own life that makes an adage come to life in a way that vividly reminds you of the underlying wisdom. For example, if you’ve ever pulled the one right (wrong?) thread on a machine-stitched hem, causing a long stretch of it to come down before your eyes, you gained first-hand experience of the adage “a stitch in time, saves nine”. 

I recently spent a week sailing with some friends to ports I’d never been to on Lake Ontario. Though I’ve sailed for a long time, this was the longest cruise I’d ever taken. When you’re out on the water for hours on end, it’s impossible not to reflect on sailing. As with most things, technology and innovation has transformed sailing. We have conveniences that make sailing safer and more pleasurable. Auto helm is an excellent example. Not only does it free up your hands, it steers a straighter line than most skippers can for extended periods.

One of the topics of conversation that seems inevitable when you’re spending a week on a boat is the combination of courage and naïveté people must have had hundreds of years ago to board a ship for the New World. I can’t imagine the physical conditions of life on such a boat. I couldn’t help wrinkle my nose at the smell of a leaf of lettuce or a piece of fruit that had started to turn in our cooler. I don’t even want to think of what live animals on board must have smelled like!

Besides comparing the physical conditions those on long voyages endured, naturally there’s also the question of navigation. Thanks to our GPS, we didn’t even need to uncover the boat’s compass. Imagine relying on celestial navigation to cross oceans!

Modern day sailors have GPS that you can program to get you from waypoint to waypoint, and there are charts and guides that tell you what buoys to sail between and what on-shore landmarks to watch for as you approach a harbour. Because some of the places we were sailing were known to have shallow areas, we dutifully put on our depth sounder – something we normally only think to put on if we’re approaching a marina we’re not familiar with.

Though we were never out of binocular view of the shore, we wouldn’t have dreamt of setting out without a well-known reference book that covers all the ports on the lake. It has great aerial shots of different clubs and marinas. It also details what to look for (buoys and landmarks) and describes spots where it’s shallow. That book became our bible, and there were many sections we reread to make sure we knew where to pay particular attention.

But, the book was not a nautical chart. That became very clear on day two, as we came upon what looked like outcroppings branching off a few small islands that were not mentioned in the book. A nearby larger island and the markings and depths around it were described in some detail, but not the smaller ones. We confidently continued forward, figuring our trusty guide would have mentioned any shoals or reasons not to proceed between the islands. We also figured our depth sounder would have alerted us to shallow waters. And, just to be safe, one person was on the bow, keeping an eye out for rocks ahead.

At about the time we noticed that our depth sounder had stopped working, we felt a bit of a bump. Then, before we could hit reverse, we felt a bit more of a jolt and we were stuck. Lucky for us, the bottom was kind of soft. It took about an hour, and a bit of ingenuity, but we managed to get the boat off the shoal.

We were never in any danger and the boat was not damaged, which are really the only things that mattered. But, after more than a bit of blaming the book for not mentioning the shallow water, we knew the fault was our own. The book, however useful, isn’t a substitute for a navigational chart, which would have provided enough details about the depth that even if our depth sounder had been working, we clearly would not have gone that way.

When we were safely in deeper waters, I couldn’t help smile about the fact that I now had first hand experience of what it means to be in uncharted territory. Or at least of what can happen when you don’t have a chart, which (though it isn’t quite the same in terms of responsibility) can lead to the same outcome!

You know, I have a feeling that if you live long enough you’ll have first-hand experience of the wisdom of many adages…

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona


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