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  • Patsy Clark Urschel

Gifts from the Sea

Updated: Jul 2

The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea. -Anne Morrow Lindberg



While I am decidedly hare-brained, our boat preparations are absolutely informed by the tortoise and this stark fact does not care about my protests or preference for expedience. Because we do most of the work ourselves, we spend a fair bit of time figuring stuff out before we actually execute and sometimes our initial efforts are not immediately successful. We have developed a rhythm and capacity to do and learn and we are slowly leaning into the fact that our lives run on a cadence dictated more by reality than hope or expectation. As the Rolling Stones so eloquently offered, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you’ll find you get what you need.”


I’m finding that maxim is not as easy to live or embrace as it initially appears. Most of us seem to prefer routine, order, safety and are relatively risk averse. We also like things as soon as we can get them, whether it’s a package, a meal, political revolution, self-actualization, or hitting that anchorage when we wanted to. We are heavily scheduled in a cult of busy-ness, where it’s a point of pride to claim we’re swamped. We value certainty over the discomfort of continual growth and an engaged curiosity. We are so married to the thoughts in our own heads that when we encounter anything that challenges them, we circle our cognitive wagons and wrestle those uninvited beasts to the ground rather than adjusting to the new data. We are so busy doing and thinking all of these things, that we often fail to pay attention to anything else, like bird calls, clouds, what the air feels like before a storm, or the way mist and fog hover over the mountains like a heavy cloak. We don’t seem to have the time or space in our interior world for that kind of openness.



As an antidote to all that, without a timeline or a Gantt chart, we are trying to approach our tasks and travels with a desire to do what needs to be done with care but without undue stress. We want to keep all of our receptors open so we can invite discovery by responding to the bids that nature is sending out and I can tell you now that those bids are everywhere. If we keep an iron grip on everything, we create tunnel vision and experience only a minute portion of what is available to us.

There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music is its roar; I love not man the less, but nature more. -Lord Byron

Our trip to Knight Inlet in British Columbia this past January is a useful illustration. After traveling up neighboring Bute Inlet the previous January, we suspected (and hoped) we’d encounter similar water and terrain – gorgeous, glacier-cut fjords within the stunning Waddington mountain range. But what we got was unrelenting rain, fog, and in some areas, snow. We knew we were traveling up straits and inlets with jaw-dropping views, but they were shrouded in normal January weather, essentially hiding in plain sight. What we got the prior year was an anomaly – mild temps and blue bird skies.


Bute Inlet - January 2019 - blue skies!


After an understandable but thankfully brief period of kvetching over the unfairness of it all, we began to pay attention to what we could see rather than lamenting over what we couldn’t. We found snug anchorages just about everywhere we went, even with gale force winds blowing up Johnstone Strait. There’s something positively romantic about being squared away in a minute bay while mother nature gets saucy. The nights were ink black and the stars, when the clouds lifted, seemed breathtakingly near. I love the sound of the anchor chain straining in the wind, even though one night during a corker of a storm, we were dragged about .15 miles.


We had porpoises cavorting in our bow wake several times throughout our almost three-week trip, sometimes as many as ten at one time. The clouds and rain were lessons in impermanence as once we settled into fog and drizzle, we’d round a bend to encounter a clearing. As soon as we would rejoice that development, we’d round another bend and be back in the soup. There’s something about not getting what you want that looks a lot like an invitation to look a little harder at what is actually in front of you. When one of our senses is confounded, we tune into the others to get data. It’s this re-calibration and the squelching of disappointment that helped make the trip an enormous success for us.


Providing play opportunities for the trickster porpoise crowd


Near the top of Knight Inlet we woke up to about eight inches of snow. As if that wasn’t enough to get our attention and earn our respect, we watched a nearby mountain shed a layer of snow in a mini avalanche, whose output quickly melted into the inlet waters – a great reminder of the power and sudden force of winters here. Once we dug ourselves out, we decided to motor to the very tip of the inlet where we found an impressive ice layer forming all around us, turning our vessel into a makeshift ice breaker. Had it not felt a little dangerous to stick around, we would have, just to watch it form and then slough away from the hull in orderly lines of sheared ice. The patterns made by the freezing water were intricate and mesmerizing. We felt fortunate to be in a very heavy steel hull boat. It made most of our exploring in these out of the way coves and inlets doable in the absence of any services. The Endeavour is our exoskeleton, providing support, shelter, and sustenance in extraordinarily barren places.


Just after an avalanche dumped into the inlet


Look, ma - we're an ice breaker!

Close up shot of a frozen Knight Inlet


A rare clearing at twilight in Knight Inlet

The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense dessert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides. -Jules Verne

Fast forward five months to today, where a willingness to alter plans also means comfort and safety. Traversing the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Port Angeles and Neah Bay is a notoriously challenging stretch, a wind tunnel on the water with swells 5-10 feet marching in close proximity, one after the other. We were on the first leg of our trip to Ketchikan when the seas made it clear we wouldn’t have a comfortable ride if we kept our planned schedule.



We ducked into Neah Bay where we are now, catching up on work and rest and will resume tomorrow when the route will be more hospitable. When we arrive in Ketchikan, we’ll again need to adjust to reality by most likely quarantining ourselves before we leave the boat. Look, we’ve already lost a year’s worth of research work, our retirement fund has been hit by an erratic market, and we’ve had to completely re-configure our lives. But since we have lives to re-configure, we feel grateful and will do the next thing as it becomes clear to us while keeping in mind the gifts from the sea.

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