Serenity interrupted…

It was a dark and stormy night… this time I actually mean it! This story doesn’t start that way but holy cow does it work it’s way up to it! There are lots of twists and turns in this tale from the sea so please bear with me.

Sometimes the trick with writing these things is figuring out where to start, how much backstory to include and how much detail to overwhelm you with. My thought process is, “do I lose you in the beginning or have you put it down wondering why you spent the time in the first place.” A delicate balance, to be sure!

I went on a sailing adventure. Been working between 60 and 70 hours a week so a little break was earned.  The hours are the main reasons I haven’t been writing. Or going out for dinner. Or sailing. Or staying up past ten for that matter. So I took four days off  (I INTENDED to take four days off…) and help one of my pals deliver his and his wife’s shiny new sailboat from Bay City to Petoskey. I met these proud new boat owners through drinking, of all things. Susan and Rocky would come into a brewery that I used to bartend in a few years ago. These two are the kind of people that instantly made my day better just by walking in the door. The more they came in, the more I knew we would be friends for life. These two were some of the people I was most worried about losing after “the lie”. Thankfully that didn’t happen. They are also the couple that I have to thank for getting me to “Damn Dirty Hippie Fest” aka Blissfest. (Yes, I hope to go back someday).

Susan and Rocky are sailors that temporarily lost their way and slipped into the malaise known as power boating. Please don’t judge them harshly, I assure you that they are fantastic people. We all have moments of weakness. Last summer, Susan went for a sail on my friend’s, Mike and Nancy’s boat. It was a perfect day and decisions were made. Not sure if their powerboat was for sale THAT day as it was a Sunday but it was definitely soon after. The search was on! Boat shopping is almost as fun as boat buying which is almost as fun as boat selling. Rocky went to work and found a beautiful boat last winter. Buying a boat in the winter is like getting a bike for Christmas. A cruel trick but worth it once spring arrives! After some discussion and a few hilarious “planning” dinners, June 16th was picked as the starting date of the maiden voyage.

Mike (of Mike and Nancy fame) and I drove down after work Thursday night for a gourmet dinner and an evening tour of thriving downtown Bay City. I don’t think there are any bullet holes in Susan’s Audi…

6am breakfast at the Police Are On Their Way Inn and Suites and down to the boat. She is beautiful. Spousal pleasantries are exchanged while Mike and I grin and go about our chores. The only reason we are grinning is because we understand the pleasantries but are not currently plagued by them. We hussle up, get away from the dock and make the 7:15 bridge just as planned. It was a beautiful morning and the three amigos were settling in for a few days of stories and sailing. We were off to a great start. Rocky was happily driving his new boat all over the river while Mike and I rigged the sail. Nothing quite like hoisting a crinkly new sail. The sound is something to behold. It really seemed like things were falling into place exactly as they were supposed to. The breeze was super light which gave us time to rig things and enjoy caffeinated beverages and some fun size Twix. The boat just seemed to give each of us our own tasks. I nerded out on the radar and navigation systems while Mike rigged and Rocky sailed. Zen type stuff for sailors.

The breeze built throughout the day and the sun burned through the remaining clouds. Soon enough, the engine was killed and we were making 7 knots downwind on our way home. It was perfect. Until it wasn’t.

There was intermittent cell service up the shore of Lake Huron. We are all weather freaks and none of us the hero type that would intentionally sail into a storm. None were predicted but as all Michiganders know, that doesn’t mean much. The breeze was about 11 knots out of the south and the autopilot sailed untouched for 4 or 5 hours at one stretch. The skies continued to darken to the north and my Dad sent me a message that he was getting nasty weather including hail at his house. The wind started to clock to the north an the temp started to fall. Mike called for a sail drop so I took took her head to wind and down it came. Everyone put their foulies on and in a rare stroke of good judgment, our life jackets and harnesses. Better safe than sorry, especially before you need it! Those words haven’t always come out of my mouth.

The wind was now out of the north at 30 knots. Skies were getting progressively darker and weather radar showed some uglies to the northwest. None of us were concerned about rain or wind. Mike jinxed us (I’m totally blaming him) because he remarked that lightning was the only real concern he had. The skies were unlike anything I’d seen before. Some of the pics are on the How Drinking Saved My Life Facebook page. You could see the rain coming toward us. Soon, shore disappeared behind a wall of water. The sky would light up with lightning from time to time but no cloud to ground strikes. The wind was up, it was raining a bit and the lake was stirred up but still nothing terrifying. I turned around in my seat, one hand on the wheel and one on my phone because I HAD to get a pic of the sky behind us then it happened. It is impossible to describe it accurately but I heard a sizzling hiss for about a millisecond before the loudest BOOM I’ve ever experienced hit. The GPS receiver exploded in a shower of sparks on the stern, the navigation screen exploded in front of me and for a moment, complete shell-shock hit. We took a direct lightning strike. I could see Mike and Rocky talking but couldn’t hear a damn thing they were saying. Everybody was OK and through the chaos, something amazing happened: not one person panicked. All electronics were fried but the engine didn’t miss a beat. Just like earlier in the day, everyone got to work. Rocky started checking to see if we were taking on water, Mike grabbed the wheel and I started navigating us to a marina that wasn’t visible yet. The winds were up to 40 and 50 but everyone was cool and doing their jobs. I called the Harrisville marina and thankfully, the dedicated harbor master let his cell number on the answering machine. Rocky called him and our new friend “Ferg” was there to help us in.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the story but once docked we could see some of the damage. The top of the mast was destroyed and black. There was molten aluminum sprayed on the interior of the hull from the lightning leaving the mast. There was a hole just aft of the bow where the bolt exited the boat. That boat took a full on strike and kept it’s sailors safe. She was sturdy enough that we motored her to Alpena, 40ish miles away, the next morning.

What does this lengthy tale have to do with alcoholism? Let’s see if I can tie this all together…

That sail up was perfect. Everything was going flawlessly. The wind direction couldn’t have been more favorable. The sun was gorgeous. I was sailing with two of my favorite people. I even worked in TWO naps! That combination was what sobriety feels like when it’s right.

That perfect wind direction is what we drunks experience once we finally surrender and stop fighting. Moving through life with the wind at your back is so much easier than fighting the headwind we know as the insanity of alcoholism. We can get where we want to go but we also may have to make a few tacks and now understand that it’s ok. We can’t control everything so we adjust our sales and continue forward.

The warmth of the sun on your face is what we experience once we start to “thaw out”. The amount of shame we carry combined with depression (for some of us) makes for a cold, dark place in our hearts, minds and souls. The boat may look shiny and ship shape on the outside but inside she is a musty mess with serious structural issues. Sometimes not fit to sail.

Sailing with such cherished friends is a luxury few are afforded. Alcoholism is an isolating disease. We crave the company of friends yet want to be alone at the same time. Solitude is a prison yet crowds are a living nightmare. Once again, the insanity that is alcoholism. Sobriety allows us to just “be”. I was able to enjoy the tall tales in the cockpit and the quiet lapping of the waves on the bow as we sailed on. Two completely different but equally beautiful experiences.

That lightning strike was a poignant reminder of how fragile life truly is. Three guys could have ceased to exist had things gone just slightly differently. There were no rookie sailors on board. Experience, trust, faith and blind ass luck got us through. Sounds a little like the systems that AA has built in to the program. The ratios may be a little different but the ingredients are the same, trust me.

That building storm was very symbolic of what I presume a relapse is. Things kept getting worse. Conditions deteriorated. People were warning us. Then the lightning hit. Luckily we took “steps” to prepare for the worst. The lightning was a come to Jesus moment. Our “steps” allowed us to sail another day.

Sobriety is very much like sailing in that it is amazing when it is amazing and treacherous when it treacherous. The common denominator between the two? The amount of effort you put in directly correlates to the experience coming out. Not drinking is a great start but the alcoholic mind requires constant effort. Sometimes it’s tiring but not nearly as exhausting as the alternative.

The title of this post is important. Serenity is something that I had finally achieved after months and months of AA meetings, reading and writing. I looked at how many times I referenced it in writings or hash tags on photos. It was a lot. My serenity was interrupted because I stopped working on “me”. I forgot that everyone is fighting something and that they deserve some understanding and patience. I forgot that I am still a work in progress and that there is still much to do. I forgot to look at the colors of the sunset while listening to the waves and smelling that Lake Michigan water. I forgot to put the effort in so I could enjoy the reward that is serenity.

“Serenity” is also eerily the name of the boat in this story. She was perfect. A dream of a boat. The damage to her is more extensive than we knew. The three of us are very fortunate to be alive. Oddly that didn’t fully hit me until a couple days later. That boat sacrificed herself for us. Serenity is interrupted. Work must commence to see how best to let Serenity begin once more.

I need to take the time to say a huge thank you to my new friend, Ferg of Harrisville Marina fame! The blog pic is courtesy of Mr. Ferguson. Ferg, you were a true savior in our time of need and I can’t begin to thank you enough for your kindness and assistance. The fact that you wanted a confirmation call once we arrived in Alpena safe and sound showed me even more what a stand up guy you are. Look forward to meeting up again on more favorable terms, sir!

Stay sturdy!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Bob Bosch says:

    By now you should know that Mike Franklin is bad luck. Heh, heh. As always I enjoyed your post and the tie in to your journey

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Derek Chowen says:

      Can’t seem to shake the little fella, Robert! Thanks for the nice comments, sir!


  2. Lynnie says:

    Beautifully said, beautifully lived

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Diane Lacy says:

    One of my favorites, my friend. What an experience…..sobering.
    Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

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