Human Ballast and the Soul: A Lesson From My 16′ Snipe

I used to own a 16′ Snipe sailboat.  Loved it!  Sailing is exciting in a smaller boat because you’re right on top of the water, you can sense the speed more easily, and handling strong wind is a wonderful challenge.  The issue of ballast is quite different, too.  Small sailboats don’t have the heavy keels that larger boats do.  They have dagger boards – a smaller, thinner, lighter board often made of wood or metal that can be retracted (pulled up or pushed down through the hull) depending on the depth of the water.

So since there isn’t lots of weight below the water line (like a large sailboat), the people in the boat provide the ballast and balance.  When the wind is blowing, the crew leans out over the edge of the boat to provide more weight counter-balance to keep the boat from tipping over.  Fairly crucial!

My 16′ Snipe was basically a 2 person boat.  Which meant that the two people have to work together to keep the boat in good balance when tacking back and forth in the wind.  Human ballast.  Get the balance offset and the result can be disastrous, especially if you’re in a race and trying to beat the opponents.

My youngest son Julian and I were sailing in Lake Washington, on the edge of Seattle, several years ago in fairly heavy wind.  It was very exciting and exhilarating!  We went into a tack – “Ready to come about!”  I shouted.  “Ready to come about!”  he responded.  I turned the tiller across the wind, and shouted “Coming about!”  He shouted, “Coming About!”  As the bow of the boat rapidly flew into and beyond the wind direction, I shifted sides immediately, but he was a bit too slow to shift to the opposite edge that was now leaning way up into the air – he was still down on the water side.  The balance was all wrong!  And with the new gust of wind pushing the sails down toward the water, and his weight down there, too, the boat went completely over, and we both flew out.  It felt like everything happened in slow motion (that is, I could see everything so clearly), and yet we capsized in lightning speed.

We still laugh with good humor at this exhilarating memory.  A great lesson:  get the ballast wrong and you can expect an undesired swim.  Lose concentration and you pay the price.  Effective sailing in a 16′ Snipe in strong wind requires strategic balance.  Working together.

I’ve learned the same lesson in the rest of life.  You can’t stop the wind from blowing (crisis at times is out of our control).  But you do have control over the depth and balance of life so that when the wind blows you have enough ballast to carry you through.  Your own personal depth is crucial.

And, as we experience in smaller sailing boats, having people in your life who work together with you in supportive ways is also crucial.  Balancing each other in meaningful and strategic ways.  Have a “team” in your life that is journeying with you to encourage and nudge and empower.  When I look at my times of greatest crisis, it has been the gift of supportive people, in combination with a inner reserve of determination that I never thought I had, that empowered me to not just survive but end up flourishing.

And truthfully, those times were far messier, chaotic, and painful than that sentence conveys!  Capsizing might produce some good stories along with meaningful lessons but it’s still wet, cold and debilitating!  And some people do drown.

All of this is often referred to as paying attention to what matters most.  I call it spirituality – taking the time to pay attention to the internal issues of life, the heart-soul stuff that deals with the depth of life, the “below the waterline” concerns, developing healthy balance.  Paying attention to spirituality is what ends up providing stability and ballast and depth.  The result is that when the storms of life blow, there’s enough internal weight to weather it and end up not just functioning but flourishing.

So how do you do it, this thing called spirituality?  If a storm blew into your life right now, how would you handle it?  How would you rate the depth of your life (1 = shallow and exposed, 5 = deep and stable)?  What are the internal issues you need to deal with to give yourself more stability?  Do you have people in your life who are supportive of your journey?  People you can count on to be there?  How intentional are those relationships for you?  How hard do you practice with your “team” to do life well?

These are the things I want to explore in this blog called Soul Ballast.  The posts won’t always revolve around a sailing metaphor.  There are so many other analogies and symbols and metaphors that describe this process of spirituality and developing soul depth.  Thanks for joining this journey with me.  Pass this blog on to friends who might be interested.  There’s power in supportive community!

As my son and I were treading water in the lake after our capsize, our bodies beginning to feel the effect of such cold water, a Coast Guard boat suddenly appeared and the megaphone voice sounded, “DO YOU NEED HELP?”  I have to admit it felt good to have them providing a watchful eye of support as we worked to right my Snipe and sail on.  And Julian and I worked pretty hard after that to keep our balance together.  Lots of good tacks.  Even in heavy winds.  I love him for hanging in there with me!

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2 thoughts on “Human Ballast and the Soul: A Lesson From My 16′ Snipe

  1. Thank you, Greg. I am realizing how much I needed this, right now. And, I need to remember that sometimes keeping the correct balance in life means that I have to control my reactions to things so that my balance isn’t thrown out of whack!!!

  2. This is reminding me of a time when my dad and sister managed to capsize a catamaran in Mission Bay. I clearly remember my dad saying that it was pretty much impossible to tip one of those babies over…

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