Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Why You Need A Rudder

Few things are as pleasant as relaxing by the sea on a summer afternoon, watching the boats go by and breathing the sea air.

One afternoon some years ago I was specially enjoying the beautiful weather.  The previous day a major storm had moved eastward over the Gulf of Maine, grazing the shoreline with showers, and pulling out to sea the heavy heat and humidity that had hung over the region for a week or more.  Clear skies and dry air followed in the wake of the showers, and so it was with extra pleasure that I enjoyed the view.

About mid-afternoon I noticed a medium-sized dragger (a kind of fishing boat) heading up the bay.  The channel at that point was about a mile wide, with rock reefs on both sides.  What caught my attention was the strange way the boat moved.  It was moving in long arcs, first toward the shore where I was watching; then the engine quieted and restarted, taking the boat on another long arc toward the reefs further out.  Roar, cruise, cut engine, roar, cruise, cut engine, back and forth from one side of the channel to the other.  The same pattern held until it was out of sight.  “Huh!” I thought, “Guess the Captain broke out the grog a little early today.”

Easy enough for me to think, sitting comfortably on the shore.

It was later, on the evening news, that I learned my speculation on the captain’s drinking was not only premature, but ridiculously off target.

The 6:00 news began with a shot of the dragger I’d seen, and an excited announcer declaring, “Our lead story!  A crippled fishing vessel, feared lost in yesterday’s northeaster, makes port with no rudder, and only the captain’s skill to bring her in.”

As the story unfolded, we learned that during the previous day’s storm, 20 ft. seas and a cyclonic wind pattern buffeted the boat, and the combined forces tore off the rudder.  Fortunately there were twin engines, one on the starboard (right) side and one on the port (left).  Against all odds, the captain succeeded in balancing the speed of the two engines to keep the bow headed into the seas and, as the weather calmed, he used the same technique to bring her home.

Responding to the reporter’s questions, the captain elaborated: “Out at sea, it wasn’t too hard, because there was plenty of room, and as long as we were going more or less in the right direction we were okay.  It got tricky, though, when we hit the channel.  If I put too much power on the right engine, we’d get pushed up on the shore.  Then I’d engage the left, and we’d nearly fetch up on the reef, so we had to keep firing them up and shutting them down, because either one by itself would wreck the boat.  That’s why you need that rudder right in the center, to manage the power coming from the right and the left.”

In this strange and fractious election year, let those with ears to hear heed the counsel of the fishing boat captain.

In the church, as well, there is too often a strident voice speaking on one side or the other of some issue on which reasonable people can and do reasonably disagree, a voice that seeks to dominate and silence those who disagree.  Whenever this happens, in church or in our civic life, we do well to heed the captain’s advice, using the rudder to maintain course, and steer the vessel into harbor.

Howard MacMullen
© November, 2012

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