Captain Joe shuts off the engine and dozens of new noises emerge. The wind filling the sails of the boat. The water rushing past the hull. The activity of young people taking the slack out of a jib sheet or spotting boats that may cross our path. We’re sailing.
Like many elements of Presbyterianism, this is something of a tradition. The youth of Myers Park Presbyterian have been dispatched on sailing trips since 2003. There’s a unique mix of purpose to this trip, and it’s changed over time with varying degrees of leisure, fellowship, and quiet contemplation of faith.
This year, a new purpose emerged. “I think this trip was really about helping us escape from the unneeded stress that we feel in our everyday lives and to be present in the moment,” said Parker Hanley, a 10th grader. “Our days can be so jam-packed that we under-appreciate what God has to offer.”
That’s why we’re here on the Chesapeake Bay, where the waters waver between salt and fresh. The sparkling lights of the cities become a faint orange glow on the horizon. A small group of young people sits on the deck of a sailboat and meditate. Michelle, putting her sabbatical training in mindfulness to use, leads the group in a series of exercises designed to encourage our minds to STOP: Stop, Take notice, Observe, and Proceed. We practice mindful meditation, mindful breathing, and mindful eating. We’re encouraged to live in each moment as it is experienced, focusing our minds on the present instead of the future-focus or past-dwelling that’s so easy to do. Mindfulness helps us savor each moment as a gift from God, and with each breath recognize God in the ordinary moments of our days.
“The daily meditation allowed me to unload at the end of the day. No matter what happened, I always had the meditation to look forward to,” says Chris Gantt, an 11th grader. “Everyday life can be challenging and have unknown ups and downs. Meditation allows us to escape, relax, and debrief.”
Sailing is a mindful practice in itself. It’s a delicate dance with the wind that requires a focused presence of mind about your immediate surroundings. If you’re at the helm, you have a visceral connection to the water, the wind, and the boat. There’s a more profound knowledge than knowing the relationship of the sails, sheets, and halyards. Our captains (Dan Wohlbruck and Joe Grier) guided many of us through the practice of sailing with patience and care.
“I loved sailing!” said Parker. “It was so cool to able to see our route and help navigate towards where we were anchoring that night.”
The evening Bible studies looked at parables. What they are, how they’re meant to be uncomfortable, even challenging, and, how they can reveal something about how we live our lives. We parsed the language, found ourselves in the stories, and tried to interpret these parables from a different perspective. We learned the parables of Jesus and open our eyes to see parables in the stories all around us.
That’s not to say we had two boats full of sage, low-energy youth. We also savored moments of dance, of laughter, of back-flips and novelty floaties. We explored the creeks and coves of the Smithsonian Ecological Research Center and toured the Naval Academy at Annapolis. We napped. We tried to find parables in the ice cream shops that dot the Maryland coastline.
Before the trip, the youth set their own parameters for the use of their phones while on the water. Take the photo, then put your phone down. Don’t get on your phone in a group setting. Turn off your notifications. Be accountable to each other for your phone usage. It seemed like adults had more trouble with this. In my case, I felt a need to document everything: Remember to take a photo of that, don’t miss the container ship over there, did I get any footage from dinner? Each of us was confronted with how our use of technology has changed how we relate to people and to the world around us. Whether or not this is a positive development is the result of conscious choices we make within our groups, families, church, and broader culture.
Recognizing how we re-engage the world when we return from this sailing retreat is essential. We’re returning more relaxed, but we’re also returning as more mindful beings in a world full of distraction and competition. Hopefully, we can center ourselves around our relationship with Jesus and strive to be present with people we meet along our journey.
“This trip was the first time I ever truly felt at peace,” says Parker, “By being mindful and practicing meditation, your racing mind gets a chance to slow down and focus on what’s really important. That’s something I think everyone deserves.”
Photos via Alex Wohlbruck