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The Open Water

After feeling defeated by my divorce, my sister convinced me to go on a whale-watching adventure. Little did I know it would remind me of the hope and faith I had inside me.

Divorced woman reminded of hope and faith on open water

The whale-watching trip was my sister’s idea. She thought I needed something that would jump-start my spirits. It would be a day cruise, leaving the protected waters of San Francisco Bay in search of whales migrating south. “You’ll love it,” Joyce told me. “I know that you’re always up for an adventure.”

Everyone, including my sister, who had seen me at my lowest, thought that I was brave. I knew better. I charged ahead as though nothing fazed me, but that was all a front. Inside I was gripped by fear. Fear of taking the wrong step. Fear of failing. Like I had with my marriage, which fell apart after 23 years, despite my best efforts.

I had tried to be a better wife, to make my husband happier, but in the end all of my efforts weren’t enough to save us. My marriage, and the small fly-fishing business we’d run together in South Dakota, were gone.

I had gone back to teaching to support myself. Less than a year after the divorce, I’d gotten into a terrible car accident. I’d walked away from the crash, but it seemed like there was nothing left for me in South Dakota. So I had moved to my sister’s in the Bay Area. I was working as a waitress, trying to get my life—myself—back together, but I felt beaten, too shattered by my failures to start over. Maybe Joyce was right. Maybe I needed an adventure.

I drove to the San Francisco wharf, took a seasickness pill and boarded the 36-foot boat, feeling overdressed in my parka, long johns and rain gear. Everyone else wore street clothes—tennis shoes, jeans, sweatshirts—even though the brochure had said to dress for wet and cold weather.

I gazed at the sky. Pewter like the water, but with no sign of rain. The boat eased away from the dock. The captain gave us a jaunty wave from the wheelhouse. Just another day at sea for him. We pivoted and churned through the water, the air growing breezy. The boat bounced against a bit of chop. Ahead was the Golden Gate Bridge.

We passengers gathered around the tour guide. “This is the time of year gray whales migrate south to their winter feeding grounds off Mexico,” he said. “We should be able to see a school of them 10 miles out or so. If we’re lucky, we will get close enough to hear the slap of their tails.”

“How long will it take us to get there?” I asked.

“I’d say about an hour. The very first thing you’ll see is the whales’ spray when they surface.”

The wind picked up. We passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and into open water. The seas rose to a rough, three-foot chop. The boat plowed up and over the waves, the bow hitting each trough with a slap.

Ugh…. I went below deck, but that only made me feel more queasy. So I went back up into the fresh air. I gripped the deck rail and scanned the horizon, looking for a plume of spray.

The swells grew to three-and-a-half feet, then four, five. The wind whistled. I braced myself, my knees like shock absorbers. Spray flew up a few hundred yards ahead. Was that a whale? No. Only spray blowing off the crests of the waves.

The boat yawed and bucked. “It’s getting rough,” I said to no one in particular, turning around. Almost everyone had gone below deck. There was a German couple near me and some bikers in leather jackets on the other side of the boat. I shivered. I tried to tell myself that everything was fine. Just a little wind. But fear surged through me.

All at once the captain’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker. “We’re turning back. There’s a big blow headed up from the south.” I looked up. This time his hands gripped the wheel tightly and his face was taut. Better go below, I thought. But it was too dangerous. The deck was slippery. One false step and I’d be swept overboard. What had I gotten myself into? Another disaster. I turned to the German couple. They looked as frightened as I was. “Hold on,” I said. That’s all we could do. That and pray.

Pray. I’d done a lot of praying the last few years, but what good had that done? It hadn’t saved my marriage. My fears had all come true. Why pray now?

The boat pitched wildly. A wall of water loomed. Waves broke over us, soaking me in spite of my rain gear. If we capsized, no way would we survive in that chilly, churning sea. I felt myself start to panic.

A huge wave hammered the boat. I barely had time to close my eyes before icy water swamped us. The boat broke the surface and swept up another swell. Then it slammed into the trough. I fell to my knees and struggled back to my feet, bracing myself for the next surge. My arms felt like deadweights. My fingers were numb, but still wrapped white-knuckled around the deck railing. I was exhausted, from terror as much as from cold. It would be so easy to give up, to let go of the rail and let the sea take me. But something in me kicked in, some survival instinct. “No!” I shouted. “Please, God, I don’t want to die.”

Another monster wave. This is it, I thought. But as the boat reached the crest, the cloudbank broke just enough to show a peek of sky. My eyes locked on that sliver of blue. It was more than not wanting to die. I wanted to live, to experience everything fully, not cling to my fears. What good had they done me anyway? They had only separated me from a power greater than all my fears. Why not give them up to God and hold on to him instead?

The clouds parted further and an azure sky spread above me, as if in confirmation. Surrender the panic. Seize the glory. The sea surged again, but in the sunlight the once-gray water took on a rainbow of colors: turquoise, emerald, amethyst, celadon, lavender. I had never before seen anything so wild, so magnificent!

After nearly three hours at sea, the boat finally limped into the marina. All of the other passengers straggled ashore, frozen and exhausted. I shivered making my way down the gangway, but the memory of that dazzling sea warmed me in a way no parka ever could.

One of the bikers, his leather jacket sodden, his lips blue with cold, caught up with me as we stepped off the gangway. “You were wonderful!” he exclaimed. I stared at him, bewildered. “I watched you stand up to those waves,” he said, “your feet planted on the deck, your grip on the railing. I knew that if a little thing like you could hang on, so could I. You were so brave.”

“Me, brave?” I started to say. Then I stopped myself. I am brave, I thought. Brave enough to look at the world—and myself—not through fear but through hope, holding tight to the one true source of strength.

A few months later I left my sister’s in San Francisco and moved to Colorado, where I met a wonderful man and started my own business.

Life is a glorious adventure, and, as my sister said, I’m always up for that.

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