Setbacks and Revelations

The night air had a bit of a nip in it, but not so cold now that Spring was in full swing. The thought of crawling into my bunk in the forepeak was comforting as I made my way down the long dock to Pamela waiting for me at the end.  My dream ship, waiting for me there in the night, silently tugging on her mooring lines.  I came easily aboard in the dark and felt my way to her companionway, slid open the hatch and peered inside.  Total blackness, no marine smell, and curiously no sound from the de-humidifier.  I stepped in and climbed down the ladder.

Slosh!  My shoe filled with ice-cold water.  My boat was full of water!

Instantly I switched on a light and found six inches of water and floating floor boards.  The hatch covering the fuel tank was lifted by a stream of water.  It was a very terrible, agonizing sight.

I quickly tasted the water — salty.  But my bilge pump — why was it not sucking this water out of my boat?  I went to the pump switch and switched it back and forth — no response, no sound from the pump.

The message rang out loudly and clearly in my head — my boat was sinking!

Like hearing the bark of a wolf under a full moon while you crawl deeper into your sleeping bag beside a dying camp fire, my mind and body filled with raw, primitive fear.

What do you do when your boat is sinking?  My mind raced.  Whatever it is, you had better do it fast.

Taking off my shoes and socks and rolling up my pants I began a systematic search of all the ship’s through-hull valves, also known as seacocks.  Every boat has them — actual holes in the boat to let water in and out.  The engine needs seawater for cooling and then has to push it back out of the boat.  The head needs seawater for flushing and the sinks need to drain.  The air conditioner cycles seawater in and out to cool or heat the boat.  Pamela has 15 seacocks in all.  It was likely that one of the seacocks below the water line had breached, or a hose connected to one of them was leaking.

I closed the valves in the head, the galley, the air conditioner, and the engine intake, then ran up the ladder to the cockpit to find the manual bilge pump.  I was thankful that I had tested it previously and knew exactly where to find the pump handle and how to fit it properly into the pump.  But I had no idea how fast it would work and whether it could get all that water out.  I pumped away for several minutes with deliberate and rhythmic strokes, conscious that I might be pumping for a long time.

I did not want to look into the cabin to see how much water was remaining.  Just keep pumping.  Switch arms before you get too tired, and imagine you may be doing this for a few hours.

After several minutes I dared to look down into the cabin.  Good news — a few inches of water were gone.  The floor boards were no longer floating.  I called Pam.  We were planning to rendezvous on the boat for the night, then attend a cruising seminar the following day.

“Pam!  I need your help.  The boat is full of water!”

“That’s not good,” she said.  I know it’s not good.  With my shoes full of water, my face covered in sweat, and my boat sinking in her slip I can tell you exactly how not good it is.

Pam arrived a little while later and helped me finish the pumping, and together we dried what we could with towels.  We seemed to have the situation under control.  A small amount of water remained at the bottom of the bilge, but the level was not rising.  I arose a few times in the night to inspect the water level and tried hard not to think about what could have happened if I hadn’t planned to be on the boat that weekend.

We left the boat the next morning with her port holes and hatches open.  I left a note on my buddy Johnny M’s boat to explain why Pamela was opened up and drying out.  Johnny M would likely be on the dock that day, and he would be puzzled to find the hatches open and me gone.  I knew he would keep a weather eye out for rising water in Pamela’s cabin.  He was as stout and solid as a post, and he taught me a great deal about how to take care of my boat.

The cruising seminar was taught by two famous round-the-word sailors, John and Amanda Neal.  I introduced myself to both of them straightaway and announced that last night I came aboard my Pacific Seacraft 37 to find her with a faulty seacock and a failed bilge pump, sinking in her slip.  They have tons of sailing experience, and for some reason I felt the urge to tell them this.

“That’s not good,” decided John Neal.

The day was filled with a thousand facts, observations, and warnings about ocean cruising and passage-making.  It was good stuff, some that I knew, much that I learned.  But combined with the uncertainly of what was going on with Pamela’s plumbing, it brought on more trepidation and worry for Pam and me.  The fellow cruisers we met during lunch were supportive and helpful.  They all agreed that a boat full of water was not good.  One man was preparing for a circumnavigation, and thought maybe my problem was the “dripless” seal between the propeller shaft and the transmission.  The propeller shaft is yet another hole in the bottom of a boat, and there is a very important seal that prevents seawater from entering.  On Pamela, there is a state-of-the-art seal called a “dripless” shaft seal, which works on the principle of two metal plates pushed tightly together to allow the propeller shaft to spin yet prevent water from entering.  It is typically very reliable, but when it breaks it can go from dripless to spraying salt water all over your engine and flooding your boat.

A report came later that day from Johnny M.  There was a few inches of water in the bilge and maybe it was rising.

“Let’s not stay for dinner,” I suggested to Pam.  “Although I’d like to get to know these other cruisers, I need to get back to the boat and check on that water level.”

This problem with the boat’s plumbing was happening at a time when my own plumbing was called into question.  A month earlier I had a blood test done as part of a routine physical exam.  The lab results came back with a “high PSA alert” — meaning, something was wrong with my prostate.  A visit with a specialist revealed an internal infection likely caused by an enlarged prostate, possibly cancer.  The recommendation was a series of tests and a special surgery to cut away at the prostate.  Tubes, probes, and catheters going into all the places you cannot discuss in mixed company.  Enough to make even John Wayne want to sit with his legs crossed.

In a couple more weeks I would be unemployed.  My plan was to leave Apple in the middle of April to begin preparing Pamela, Pam, and me for the two-year odyssey to New Zealand.  I had announced this five months earlier to my management team and had systematically prepared my staff to take on all the initiatives that I was running.  But how could I quit work and I take on unexpected and significant hospital bills if this prostate thing turned out to be cancer?  Yet the voice in my head was clear:  this was my path and I had chosen it.

Tax season brought even more financial worries.  It was about this same time that I prepared our 2012 income taxes — whump!  Although the Apple stock had fallen 40% in value over the past six months, by cashing out I now owed the tax man more money than I had paid for Pamela!  The cash I had saved and set aside for “retirement” was dwindling fast.

A sinking sailboat, possible cancer, unemployment, and signifiant loss of wealth — April was turning out to be a bad month.

Back at the dock I half expected to find Pamela completely submerged with only the top of her mast exposed.  What I relief when I found her afloat in her slip with a dry salon and the water level in the bilge continuing to hold steady.  I inspected the dripless shaft seal and found that with a little bit of pressure I could easily move the metal plates and cause a small squirt of water to enter the boat.  Was that supposed to be normal?  My mind churned through the possibilities — should I get a tow boat to pull her across the bay to the yard that had recently replaced her rigging and installed the new feathering propeller?  Should I continue to monitor the situation until I could spend more time troubleshooting next weekend?  Should I drive back up to San Francisco tomorrow night to check on her?  What should I do right now?

That night I did some research on the dripless shaft seal to understand how it functioned.  It seemed reasonable that my forced movement on the device could cause some water to enter, and I had definitely jerked hard on it to see what would happen.  I also noted that all new Pacific Seacraft 37 sailboats, well known for their ocean-going qualities, come with the dripless shaft seal installed.  The next day I called the manufacturer and spoke with a knowledgable technician who explained that it was indeed possible to pull back on the shaft bellows with your hands and cause the carbon rotor to slip slightly from the stainless steel plate, causing some water to enter.  Then letting go of the device, the bellows would push the rotor hard against the steel plate again and prevent any more water from entering. It seemed very reasonable from a mechanical perspective, and my mind eased a bit.  If the shaft seal was not the source of the leak, then no more water would enter the boat as long as I had the seacocks closed.

A few nights later I was lying in a hot bath tub that Pam had prepared for me — full of borax, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide to release a lifetime of toxins that she believed were responsible for my enlarged prostate.

“Cut the deck”, said Pam.  She had a stack of Tarot cards and decided it was time to give me a reading.  I was curious about Tarot, but my analytic mind believed that the process of choosing a card from a deck of 78 was too arbitrary for me to believe in.  “Now choose one”, she insisted.  I went along with it.  I didn’t feel any supernatural urge to choose a particular card.  I mindlessly selected one from the middle of the deck.

“Oh!  The moon!  That’s a great card for you.”

“What does it mean?”  I was curious.

Pam began to read from the book Tarot of the Spirit by Pamela Eakins.  I had met the author a few weeks prior at a seminar at a funky east-meets-west bookstore.  I was impressed with her knowledge, but she came across a little scattered-brained and rambling.  Her hair was long and white, quite attractive, and not too different from Saruman the White in Lord of the Rings, the power-hungry wizard who attempts to help the Dark Lord Sauron take over Middle-earth by manufacturing an army of Orcs and wargs in a mud pit just outside the Tower of Orthanc.  She gushed with enthusiasm as she stated that querists followed the Tarot because of its amazing accuracy.  I couldn’t quite follow what it was all about, but I left the seminar intrigued by the references to the Kabbalah, an esoteric school of thought dating back to early Judaism which defines the nature of the universe, the human being, and the purpose of existence.

You cannot see the future clearly, but you must stay on your chosen path; trust your intuition; at your darkest hour, you will find that you hold your own light; use your own light to overcome your fears; shedding light on your fears will propel you toward self-understanding, strength, and self-confidence; through this process, you will heal and move forward into happiness.

Whoa there. That seemed to hit the nail on the head.  Not bad for an arbitrary pick.

The book went on to describe a mysteriously seductive moon, the darkest nights of the soul, and fears rising up within our sleep in the form of desperate wolves that stalk too close in the night while we lie vulnerable and defenseless.  A cold shiver moved down my spine, and I had to turn on more hot water for the bath.  Pick up that stick! the text urged, and I resolved that I would whack that wolf with whatever stick I could get my hands on.

This reminded me of a forgotten episode in the forest on a black moonless night in the Santa Cruz mountains.  I was lying in my sleeping back under a canopy of dark redwoods and had just nodded off to sleep at midnight when I heard the scraping of hooves, like a deer fleeing a predator, followed by the scream of a mountain lion.  I bolted upright, immediately awake, and listening with every nerve, wondering whether I had dreamed it.  I heard a low growling, very close.  I was gripped by the strongest, most fundamental fear I have ever known, certain that at the next moment I would feel the claws of the wild beast landing heavy upon my shaking chest.  My trembling hand reached for a stick while my heart felt the helplessness of fighting off the lion’s snapping jaws and curved scimitar blades.  I stood up in my sleeping bag, made myself as large as possible and screamed “NO!” in a loud guttural voice that reverberated through the redwood canyon, then grabbed my bag in my arms and moved quickly down the canyon and back to the organized camp where my boy scouts lie asleep in their tents, shouting “NO!” again every few seconds in case the cat was following me.

Pick up that stick, my Tarot card urged.  Whack that fear on the snout.  Deal with these monsters of the moon and keep making progress toward the light, which is just up ahead.

The week wore slowly on, my last at Apple.  Johnny M reported that the water level in the bilge had not risen, and I made my plans for diagnosing the source of the leak and the failure of the bilge pump.  The work week ended with a lively after-work going-away party, where I performed with a rock band formed with four other Apple colleagues just a few weeks earlier.

The leak turned out to be a failure of four screws connecting a galley pump to the seacock that moved water from the galley sink overboard.  The pump was below the water line, so that meant that with the seacock open the pump remained full of seawater.  The salt water gradually corroded the bronze screws that secured the pump to the hose, and with a modest amount of torque I was able to pull the pump completely off its intake hose, bringing in a spray of seawater.  I ordered a new one online, it arrived a couple days later, and I installed it without any difficulties.  Whack!  The wolf felt the blow of my stick and backed off a little.

I unshipped the electric bilge pump and took it apart, immediately finding the problem — a small rivet holding a washer that held the outlet valve had sheered off.  This had caused the pump to stop pumping, and as the water in the cabin rose higher and higher, it eventually reached the electric wire that connected the pump to the float switch in the bilge, causing the wire to short out and melt down the bus connector.  Pamela has a good supply of spare parts, including a rebuild kit for the electric bilge pump, and a few hours later I had the pump rebuilt with new values and diaphragm.

I replaced the melted bus connector, and acting on Johnny M’s advice, installed the new connector in a dry cabinet outside of the sloshing bilge.  I started up the rebuilt pumped and listened with satisfaction as it purred, pumping out ten gallons of bilge water in a half a minute.  Thump!  The wolf howled in pain and retreated into the bush.

“Dennis, this is Dr. Shinghal” came the voice over the telephone.  “I have the results of your biopsy.”  When you’re on a boat, the phone always rings when you’re hanging upside down with your head stuck in a lazarette (a storage locker).

“Hold on, Dr. Shinghal, just a moment as I get my head out of this lazarette.  I’m flushing Pamela’s water tanks clean.”

“Yes, that’s important,” he said.  It sounded odd.  Whether I had cancer or not was important.  If I did have cancer, who cared about clean water tanks?

Did I really want to know the results of the test I had done a few days earlier, removing bits of tissue from my prostate to look for signs for cancer?

“Your results were negative — no cancer.  This is the kind of call a doctor likes to make.”  I would still need surgery to reduce the size of the prostate, but at least I didn’t have to worry any more about cancer.  Thud!  The wolf howled once more and ran away.

“Time to choose another card,” announced Pam as I soaked once again in the relaxing bath she prepared for me.

“Are you sure I should have another card read?” I asked.  “The last card was pretty good.  What if I get the wrong one this time?”

“It doesn’t work like that.  Pick one.”

I selected again from the middle of the deck, again without any premonition of what I was choosing.

“Wow!  Ten of Earth, the Great Work. That’s really good.”

“Really?  What is it about?”

She read the description from Eakins’ book.  It explained that my life was now moving with a wonderful rhythm, with a sense of order, balance, and harmony.  I was now realizing a new kind of wealth based on the spirit.  You have learned so much, now is the time to put what you know into words or other art forms in order to communicate it to others; you have long been a student, but you are a great teacher as well; following the spiritual path is the greatest of all your works.

I liked the sound of these words.  Could this be true?

I was cycling from light-hearted elation, feeling the freedom of life without deadlines, to fear and worry about the financial prospects of life without deadlines.  The word “retirement”, a really bad word, kept coming up.  It tightened my stomach.  It signifies a gray-beard stooped and shuffling in a meaningless direction with time and money running out.  The word “sabbatical” is no better.  It conjures up the security of returning to a significant position after you recharge your batteries.  I don’t have batteries, and there’s no corporation out there waiting to take me back.

What shall I do today, or this week, or next week?  Each step on the path is of far greater importance than where I’m going.  I realized that in a single moment I can become centered, imagining the Great Work, feeling my feet on the path.  This was true liberation.  I was beginning the journey homeward.

It was time to stop thinking about materialism.  I was now on sacred ground, beyond materialism, beyond the anxieties of material gain and loss.  It was time to play my guitar, to write my story, to take Little Bear on long walks, and to say kind words to Pam.  In my hand were all the tools to create.

You have learned that you can bring your ideas into manifestation.  You can teach these ideas.  It is clearly time for you to create newness:  to use all your resources to do your part to re-new and to re-enchant your world.

There would always be mechanical breakdowns, and I would simply work my way through them until I reached the state where systems were whole and complete once again.  Each fix brings an enormous uptick in confidence.  I don’t need to worry anymore about what to do when the toilet breaks, or the refrigerator compressor stops running, or the wind generator stops making electricity, or the diesel gets air in the fuel line, or the bilge pump fails.  I’ve been through each of these breakdowns and fixes, and Pamela’s seemingly complex systems are becoming gradually de-mystified.  The point is not to be afraid of these eventualities, but to experience and learn from each of them in turn, for they are nothing more than waypoints along the path.

Bath time once again.  I lounged back into the warmth and felt the slipperiness of the borax on my skin.  My hands were full of nicks and abrasions from the recent repair and maintenance jobs on the boat, and the hydrogen peroxide in the bath made them tingle.

“Do you want to pick another Tarot card?” asked Pam.

“Certainly not — I just picked the Ten of Earth a few days ago.  It’s not time to have another reading, it’s too soon.”

“It’s OK.  You can have a reading each day if you want.”

“How does that work?  Besides, I just drew two good cards.  Suppose the next one is a dud.  Suppose it has nothing to do with me and I lose my confidence in it; or maybe its a symbol of death or something bad like that.”

“It doesn’t work that way.  Here, cut the deck and take a card.”

This time I selected the card with great deliberation.  I did not want to pick a bad card.  Selecting from the middle of the deck was too obvious, and no one would select the cards at the very edge, so perhaps I should take one from slightly near the left end, about a quarter of the way … my analytical mind need some kind of rationale.

“Oh!  The Hanged Man.”

Oh no!  It happened.  I drew the card of death and eternal damnation.  I blew it, my good luck had run out, or the cards had somehow confused me with someone else.

“It’s not what you think,” Pam attempted to reassure me.  “Listen.”

It is time to retreat, withdraw and surrender to quietude; when the internal waters are stilled, you can see and hear your deep eternal self which is your own truth; your glorious nature is revealed when the clear waters of your mind cease to be disturbed by rippling thoughts; this is a time of voluntary withdrawal.

The Hanged Man is not being hanged from a tree, he is letting go.  He is voluntarily withdrawing to go inside himself, going deep.  Quieting his mind.  He will emerge later in a more highly evolved state.

How this did ring true!  Now that I was no longer working for a living I was determined to spend more time in reflection and meditation.  I would withdraw from my previous work-a-day life, retreat to the woods or the sea, and descend into deep introspection.

I would sit for long hours on the bow of my sailboat, quieting my mind while I stared out at the endless sea ahead.