My Boat is so Small
Bernard Henri Eldredge
“Lord, Thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.”
Anyone who’s ever gone to sea can relate to this sentiment. Especially those of us who’ve gone beyond the green water to the open blue, and then submerged beneath the waves.
The sea is so vast that even massive Battleships and Carriers are naught but a speck on the surface. Nature’s immeasurable power can be braved, but never truly conquered. In its more docile state, the temperamental surface of the waters awes and inspires. In its wrath, it terrifies and destroys.
In submarines, we often had the luxury — if you will — of diving the ship beneath the tumult of the tempest. But not always. The diesel-powered “smoke boats” of eras now passed had to surface or come to snorkel depth to run the diesels and recharge the batteries. The sea had no regard for the status of your power plant. Thus, submarine captains of days gone by were forced to discern which would be the lesser of two very real evils… risk losing propulsion in the relative calm of the deep, or brave the rolls and swells of the surface in heavy seas. This was not a realm for those with a weak constitution.
Nor were the modern nuclear-powered boats immune. Transits through certain waters had to be conducted on the surface, and in several locales on the globe these shallow waters can be especially treacherous. Certain missions called for the necessity of remaining at periscope depth for days at a time. Riding out a typhoon at periscope depth in waters labeled “international,” yet deemed the sovereign territory of a potentially hostile foe, one quickly comes to realize that national security trumps your own by a considerable amount.
To dive beneath the waves often provided for a respite from the turmoil above. Yet, to enter this third dimension of the most foreign and hostile environment on the planet… well, it quite literally adds a whole new dimension to the equation. Yes, our boats were DESIGNED to enter this realm, but the process was anything but automatic.
True sailors are not merely passengers aboard their vessel. Rather, they “sail” the vessel, and submariners are each quite intimately involved in multiple aspects of the process. This is especially true at depth, and the personal intimacy of this sailor-ship relationship increases at a rate consistent with the increase of the forces of the sea on every square inch of the hull. Unless you’ve heard the groanings of HY-80 steel straining against the pressure of the deep, you simply cannot truly relate. But even if you’ve never been there, perhaps you can understand the dynamic I’m speaking of. It is no wonder then, that we old submariners, whose boats have been relegated to the recycle bin, speak of them in personally possessive and nostalgic terms.
My nostalgia also increases at a rate consistent with the increase in the gray in my hair and the years I’ve walked this Earth. It is at times a strange and dichotomous mix of both pride and humility, and very difficult to explain.
Yes, Lord… Thy sea is so great, and our boats were so small. But they took my brothers and I into harm’s way and brought us back again. Most of us. In reverent awe, we remember those who remain eternally in the dark deep, and commend them to Your care.