Steering my own boat

By Jana

outrigger, originally uploaded by chotda.

Awhile ago I told a friend that my dream life would include paddling on the ocean every morning. It’s part of that fantasy-dream life that includes that two-room cottage in a hippie beach city that we’ll buy after I’ve sold a few bestseller books or hit paydirt in some other manner. I remember as I told my friend this, thinking of all the logistical hurdles that kept me from paddling: a boat, the skills, the time, etc.

So it really was cooler-than-cool when a new friend invited me along to go outrigger canoeing on Newport’s Back Bay a few months ago. And it was hardly any wonder that when she told me about her paddling team that I was eager to try it out. So fast forward a few months–I’ve joined the “novice” women’s team and I’m having a blast learning how to paddle an outrigger canoe.

The irony of this wasn’t entirely evident until attended my first novice practice. Because we’re just learning the ropes, us newbies are practicing on Sunday mornings and not with the regular team yet. We push off from the beach at about 9 and return around noon. It’s three hours of various drills, sprints, and pointed advice on technique. We switch positions in the boat because each seat has different responsibilities. And most of all, we’re building up our endurance because the races are several miles long and we’ve barely just gotten the feel of paddling through the waves (most of our practices are still held in the harbor as we toodle around Lido or Balboa islands).

What didn’t dawn on my until the first practice, was that the beach where we launch…it’s just across the street from the LDS Chapel where I first met John, where we held our wedding reception, where our son was blessed, where I taught early-morning seminary, where I worshiped for most of my adult life. And as I turn right to the beach, all those SUVs turning left are my LDS friends who are pulling into their Sunday meetings.

This really gave me pause on the first morning of practice. I reflected on how much I’ve changed in the past five years, how when I was even a lukewarm Mormon I never would have considered joining a sport team with practices on a Sunday morning, because of injunctions about keeping the Sabbath holy and because of my obligations to my ward.

This week my coach announced that she was teaching me how to steer the boat. The steerer sits in the back of the boat and is basically in charge of keeping the other team members on track–most literally because the steers(wo)man sets the course for the entire boat because they are the boat’s rudder. Using special strokes to keep the craft going in the appropriate direction, the steerer also calls the ‘start’ of the paddling and watches to make sure the other paddlers are in sync. My coach, during the time I was training gave me tips on how to keep a team together, how to help the boat move successfully toward a destination. I was amazed by the trust my teammates had in me, because the canoes are precarious and the ocean current is strong. A slight miscalculation on my part would result in all of us landing in frigid water, which was especially undesirable given the chilly winter temps on Sunday (and we all saw another team with a seasoned steersman tip a boatload into the bay last week, so we were well aware of the risks).

So we zig-zgged around the channel a bit until I figured out how not to ‘overshoot’ with my steering strokes. My boatmates were calm and never expressed concern about my efforts. As we pulled into shore and finished cleaning the canoe, my coach told the other team members (who were in other boats) of my success at steering and they congratulated me on my efforts–a few even offering applause. It was a kind and rather unnecessarily embarrassing gesture, but I loved how it made me feel part of the team.

As I drove away from the beach area and passed the LDS chapel I thought a lot about the way I used to feel a part of the Mormon team. I still feel a thrill every time I entered that building and felt its echoes of memories and special occasions and I don’t think it will never cease being a holy place for me. But when I get out of the canoe and feel the bone-deep satisfaction of having paddled hard, having felt the thrill of being on the open ocean and the rhythm of the waves, of seeing dolphins playing in the wake of our boat, of having dry lips and chapped cheeks from hours facing into the sea wind…I can’t help but feel joy that I’m steering my own boat these days. I don’t have the surety of the ‘final destination’ that I used to when I spent my Sundays on the other side of the street, but I’m okay with that. The open water offers me more now. And I’m up for the challenge.

Picture above not mine, but is of the same kind of canoe that I paddle in with my team.


Jana is a university administrator and teaches History. Her soloblog is

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16 Responses

  1. Alisa says:

    Jana, I love reading about your navigation through the new waters and the theme of building something with a team. I think that in addition to our solitary reflections we are meant to share experiences with others to grow spiritually, whether that’s in the wild (the ocean in this case) or some kind of man-made structure.

    (Side note: I was thinking last weekend when I was rock climbing how much I lack the upper body strength I want, and how you must totally put me to shame with your new hobby.)

  2. EmilyCC says:

    Jana, beautiful post. I think it takes tremendous courage to steer one’s own boat; I’m glad it’s bringing you joy.

  3. Caroline says:

    Thanks for these reflections, Jana. I’m happy that navigating this course is bringing you so much satisfaction. (And some day I want to come out onto the water with you!)

  4. Jessawhy says:

    Jana, your story is beautiful on so many levels.
    I’m supremely grateful that you are happy with your new course, but can still look back on your days “across the street” with fondness and a sense of holiness.

    You are truly a remarkable woman and I am so glad to call you friend.

    Good luck with all of your paddling and steering!

  5. Andrea says:

    You’re a great writer. You bring everything to life for me.

    I’m going to pick up on the Sabbath day issue here. As a mother, I’ve had to redesign rules for my family. I think any physical or outdoor activity is great. Nature is beautiful and most of us don’t get enough physical activity in our lives. Here’s my real grievance though: Has anyone noticed that it is supposed to be a day of rest for everyone but the mother? It can be the most hellish day of the week — get everybody ready for church and looking nice, get there on time, keep babies happy for 3 hours, get home and have a nice Sunday dinner for everyone, etc. AAAAGH!! I know a few Mormon Stepford wives who have nearly had breakdowns on Sunday. As for me and my family, we eat out every Sunday — it’s MY day of rest!! I try to measure all of our church rules against my own common sense. Steering our own boats, inside or out the church, is truly the key to joy.

    I really want to go see the ocean now.

  6. D'Arcy says:


    This post of being part f a team is extremely poignant and helpful for me. As I have moved away from church activity this past year, I have severely lacked that feeling of belonging to a team. I’ve missed my community. I’ve had a hard time making new friends. I’ve felt a big gaping hole that I haven’t known how to heal.

    I still don’t know. I’m still unsure how to find a sense of a team within my llife. I guess I create it. I am steering my own boat, that’s for sure. Sometimes it’s been stagnant and sometimes it’s sped full speed ahead and once in a while it’s retreated in a bit of defeat back to it’s old ways…but, like you, I’ll keep steering and that’s the big adventure!

  7. lil says:

    Beautiful writing…though I suppose technically you *could* have your cake and eat it, too (go to church *and* be a part of a canoe team!). Doesn’t have to be one or the other.

    Andrea, my mother’s side of the family eats out on Sundays (my great grandfather would take the entire extended family out to eat after church, and he was the Bishop!). So I never felt any guilt about doing so myself. However, after I became a divorced single mother who waitressed to support my two little ones, I realized that my mother’s family going out to eat on Sundays was not *just* about OUR Sabbath Day, and whether it was holy, it was also about those who were forced to work and labor for our benefit on Sundays instead of being with THEIR family. When you work in a restaurant you have absolutely NO CHOICE when it comes to working holidays. On Mother’s Day I spent my entire day serving other families their meals while my children stayed with a sitter. Same for Easter, etc. So, while you may be willing to bend the rules for your own personal sabbath day, you should remember that your choices affect those around you as well. Most of the people who arehaving to work on Sundays would much rather be at home enjoying time with their families, too. I agree that that Sundays are often a far cry from being peaceful days (especially when you’re the mom!) but I also know that we Mormon mothers have ACRES of slow cooker recipes that only take a few ingredients and few minutes to prepare. I think its worth it to be able to stay home and give *everyone* around us their right to a Sabbath Day.

  8. Andrea says:

    I don’t live in Utah. We eat at Jewish restaurants.

  9. aerin says:

    This is a beautiful post Jana, thank you.

  10. Davis says:

    “I can’t help but feel joy that I’m steering my own boat these days. I don’t have the surety of the ‘final destination’ that I used to when I spent my Sundays on the other side of the street, but I’m okay with that. The open water offers me more now. And I’m up for the challenge.”

    It is exciting at first, but in my experience, the vastness of the open water without a destination is really just drifting around, going anywhere and nowhere. Best of luck to you. Perhaps you will find a destination.

  11. mb says:

    In this life we decide and learn what we really love the most.
    That’s a good thing to know.

  12. Jana says:

    But Davis, I think I do have a sense of where I’m going! For example, I’m finishing up a PhD in History, I worship with the local Quaker Meeting, and I’m the steers(wo)man for a super-duper canoe team. Not to mention being a Mom to the two awesomest kids in the universe and the partner of my beloved. Sure, I don’t have a belief in the afterlife to guide me, but I’m setting and meeting goals every day and find that my life is no less meaningful, but really it’s even more so because I’m choosing my path rather than conforming to an institutional pattern that wasn’t a good fit for me.

  13. Kiri Close says:

    Wow! It’s been a while since I posted–kinda surreal to return after such a hiatus.

    I really love this idea of ‘steering my own boat’–it feels really, really good to read.

    Anyways, I’m 36, & for the most part, have always been ‘active’ in church–that’s a long time (in my mind) of committed movement in a religion I both love & despise.

    And now, I’m really ready to steer (in my own directions) my own canoe (in Samoa, one word for boat is “va’a”–a vessel made for the great “va” or vastness that is the ocean), bowing out from heavy-duty church leadership callings after this next year when we finally relocate (hopefully back out East–fingers crossed).

    Next Spring ’10, I will truly feel like I’ve served my time in classic LDS leadership (yes, this means if I’m approached to do a large calling in the next ward/branch, my answer will be a very polite ‘NO’–I don’t care if the bishop or RS president had some kind of ‘dream’ about it, and I don’t care if a large fish swallows me for 3 days).

    A lot of this is due to my ready for more inwardness (where all along is where my true worship happens). When, or IF the kids come our way, I don’t really wanna do anything else in church (other than appear for sacrament & be the unofficial big-mouth in Relief Society,& lame Sunday School classes).

    I’d rather just focus on my family, my marriage, writing, being a grad student again, travel, art, scrapbooking, & I’m good. Really good.

  14. Kiri Close says:

    Okay, I’m having trouble with this comment by ‘DAVIS’ re: Jana’s post.

    “It is exciting at first, but in my experience, the vastness of the open water without a destination is really just drifting around, going anywhere and nowhere. Best of luck to you. Perhaps you will find a destination.”

    Apparently, & at the very least, Davis hasn’t read up on Pacific Islanders who decided to ‘drift’–both randomly,openly, enthusiastic for the “unknown” & with great navigational technique for thousands & thousands of miles (& long before Cook or Magellan were even spermatozoa somewhere in Europe! btw, these Western explorers’ lack of ocean navigation-PI style-got them killed, & mostly likely eaten–Cook’s pelvis licked clean, & sent back to England, one story goes).

    So, Davis, what makes you think that your failed ‘exploration’ experience in the ‘open vastness’ will happen to someone else? Why would your experience equate someone else’s?

    On top of that, what’s wrong with ‘drifting’?

    & why would you privilege “destination” only above the actual journey? You may end up like Cook & Magellan, if you metaphorically haven’t already.

  1. April 27, 2009

    […] some people (see these comments on Jana’s post at Exponent II) might believe this. That the only way to spend time with […]

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