Keep your hand on the rudder

A “Tools for Tough Times” post.

Years ago, I sailed in a 14-foot racing sailboat from Vancouver Harbor (Canada) north up the Inside Passage. The “skipper” of the little boat was an 84-year-old sailor known as “Salty Ken.” A competitive sailor for most of his life, Ken was comfortable in almost any deep-water situation, even in such a small, flat-bottomed racer.

The breezy conditions in the inner harbor quickly gave way to strong winds and high waves on the open water. We were sailing close to the wind and fast. The boat was getting a lot of air as we cleared the crest of each wave, crashing into the next trough with a bone-jarring slap. For this new sailor, this seemed a pretty darn risky sailing venture.

At one point, I yelled over the roar to ask Salty Ken if he was afraid. He laughed with childish glee and yelled back, “Not at all!”  I must not have looked very convinced, for Ken laughed again and shouted, “As long as I have the rudder, we can manage the waves.”

Soon Ken had me take the rudder, telling me to keep the boat close and fast. There were always sheets and the boom to mind, and constant shifting from side to side. Whenever Ken thought I was losing my focus, he would yell to me to “Keep your hand on the rudder!”  It was like he could see me losing focus on the rudder to do other things. If I let go of the rudder, we might meet disaster.

It was a frightening, riveting day, with few words passed between us as we sailed fast, hiked out to keep from tipping, and caught a lot of air. In the end, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Not because it was easy or predictably safe. Not because it was what I expected or run of the mill. It was one of the best because I was stretched, frightened, exhausted. I grew stronger through it.

An doctor at Children’s Hospital, Minnesota, closed a recent email with the these words:

“Keep your hand on the rudder, stay the course, and we’ll see our ships through this fog.”

These are timely words for all who are in this pandemic fight. Joe gets the nature of the situation. The problems of getting through this time are compounded by our inability to see what is next. We are navigating uncharted passages while blinded by the fog of uncertainty, unpredictability, and unending conflict. 

These words are sound wisdom, as were Salty Ken’s – “Keep your hand on the rudder.” Don’t let go or lose your focus. Don’t give up or give in to fear, fatigue, or flagging commitment. Stay focused on the mission and journey before you.

Stay the course.” It is easy to consider walking away from the turmoil, the uncertainty, the conflict, and the relentless nature of the fight. Yet, we also need this fight, perhaps as much as those we serve in it. It is wearing us out, yet it has the capacity to build us anew. We will not get that newness if we do not stay the course. The victory is found in large part in our perseverance. Staying the course is itself very much the victory we seek.

We’ll see our ships through the fog.” The doc’s words are well-chosen here. It is not just that we will see “the ship” through the fog. We will see our ships through the fog. The battle is not only for our organizations, or even for the patients. The battle is for a group larger than ourselves.

We are not yet through the fog. Still, we can stay the course. We can see our ships through the fog, becoming more than we ever imagined we could be in the process.

Stay strong in the storm, and Godspeed.

Image via Pinterest, 14′ Lightning class sailboat, exactly like the Salty Ken’s.

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