I was aware that some in the Episcopal Church do not go in for the veneration of relics. It is a practice considered by many to be on the wrong side of the line between faith and superstition. The Articles of Religion [which are part of the historical documents section of the Book of Common Prayer] state say so very plainly, if not even a little rudely: “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”
But just as surely as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no ecclesiastical lawyers among frightened sailors on angry seas. I decided to carry the cross.
I had found the boat in a lonely marina way up north right before Christmas 2012 and, in a moment of weakness, bought her for a song. She was an historic, 1965 model of the same ketch that became the first production fiberglass vessel to circumnavigate the globe in 1963. (When I tell people this, they ask me whether I dream of doing the same thing, someday. I always laugh and say no, as if it were a silly question, and I am always lying when I do.)
My first adventure on this old boat, aptly named Prodigal, was to be far less ambitious than a tour of the world. I was however taking her offshore on a solo voyage from Annapolis to Charleston by way of Bermuda over the course of a month in May 2014. There is plenty of ocean for a boat to sink in between here and Bermuda, and for that reason, preparations for the voyage were undertaken with great seriousness and great expense over the course of a full year.
My planned day of departure was only three months away when I got a call from the shipyard in Annapolis with news that the wooden bowsprit had been found to be rotten and would have to be replaced. A bowsprit is that wooden plank or pole that sticks out from the front of a ship—often with a figurehead mounted at one end. It serves an important purpose as a point of attachment for the wire stay that holds up the mast and on which the forward sail is hoisted. It must be rock-solid strong. This one was not.
A skilled carpenter would remove the existing bowsprit from the deck in which it had been laid, fifty years ago, fashion a heavy slab of solid wood to fit in the same space, and bolt and epoxy the new bowsprit firmly in position. Laying a bowsprit is like laying the cornerstone of a church. It is usually done only once. Before it was done a second time on Prodigal, I had an idea.
A group of Polish nuns who have dedicated their service to the memory of Pope John Paul II were raising money for their order by selling prayer cloths that had been touched to the “True Cross” in the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I ordered one to be delivered to the shipyard and interred beneath the new bowsprit before it was laid. When I arrived to take delivery of the boat last May, the master of the yard told me with great solemnity that he had personally witnessed the laying of the prayer cloth and that I could rest assured it was, in fact, a part of the vessel. Whatever unknown seas and storms I was sailing into, some little piece of the cross of Christ would be sailing on before me.
Of course, the idea of literally taking refuge behind the True Cross didn’t originate with me. The crusaders tried the same thing to disastrous effect in 1187. But I have to say, it was no small comfort to know that a physical remnant of something as tried and true as Calvary was with me as I watched the bow of my vessel plunge farther and farther out into the Atlantic that May evening off the mouth of the Chesapeake.
The sight of land disappeared beneath the western horizon. I would see no land at all or another human being for thirteen days. In that span of time, I experienced some of the most abysmal weather of my forty years of sailing. There were fierce storms and maddening calms. There was even a plague of biting flies that flew sorties against my boat from carriers of floating Sargasso in the Gulf Stream. Hundreds of their corpses littered the cabin. Hundreds more flew around my head. But most surprising of all was the fact that the direction of the wind shifted, as if it had a mind of its own, to oppose my efforts to reach every destination. A nor’easter rose up out of nowhere when I was forty-five miles from Bermuda and prevented my landfall, there. When I was coming back across the Atlantic from Bermuda toward Charleston, a westerly gale forced me to alter my heading to the north and come ashore in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. When I headed south, hoping again to fetch Charleston, a southerly gale forced me ashore in Georgetown.
As I worked through my frustration over this weather, it occurred to me that if what I wanted in life was smooth sailing—on land or at sea—aligning myself and my vessel with the cross of Christ, while certainly the best plan in the long run, was just as certainly going to lead me into some storms in the short run. Not for nothing did the world reject and crucify our Lord, and while it is tempting in our peaceful, largely Judeo-Christian country to assume that the sign of his cross is as welcome as Christmas, the forces of this world still oppose him and those who sail under his banner. If you don’t believe me, read the 27th and 28th chapters of Acts to learn what happened to the Apostle Paul when he stepped aboard a sailboat bound for Rome. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The voyage ended badly for the vessel and some of her crew but wonderfully for St. Paul and the faith and hope of all mankind.
So, when you see a boat out in Charleston Harbor that seems to be fighting for her life and buffeted by contrary winds at every tack, there is no cause for alarm. Rest assured it is only Hurley aboard his beloved Prodigal, carrying his cross as best he can.
“In this world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
— Michael Hurley, Grace Church, Charleston