The wreck

It appeared like a gift from the sea. For more than 20 years I have been dragging treasures off the beach in front of our house. Of course, they are treasures not everyone recognizes: twisted pieces of driftwood, seal skulls, weathered planks, and logs – lots of logs. Enough, in fact, to build a log cabin for my children to play in.

And while I built it I had dreamt of dragging up an old boat beside it, old but with a strong prow and a proud wheelhouse from which to imagine hunting down Moby Dick.

And then one morning it appeared. It was an old wooden fishing boat, hard aground with a falling tide, barely a stone’s throw from my property.

“Derelict” was not the very first thought when I saw the boat but I ran back home and called Search and Rescue.

“Yes, we know about it. It’s a mess. It’s already been turned over to the Receiver of Wrecks.”
Perfect! I could do someone a big favour and have the best playhouse in Canada. Truth be known, I might play in it myself.

However, you don’t just seize boats that come floating in. There are rules around that.

So for two days, I watched as the tide carried her along the rocky part of the beach and then I saw my chance. That morning she was lying on her starboard side in two feet of water, a crude patch clearly visible on her exposed side. Again the tide was receding.

Two men in a skiff were sitting there staring at her. Probably the salvage crew, I thought. They were the ones I needed to talk to.

“Hey, are you looking for a place to drag her?” I volunteered.

“You got somewhere?”

“You bet! Just over there. If you want, I can take her off your hands.”

I explained my plan to turn her into a playhouse – now for my grandchildren. It made perfect sense to them.

“Give us your number. She’s 15 tons, though.”

“No worries. I’ve been thinking about this for years. I have a plan.” I gave them my phone number and directed them to my property.

Then a third man came wading around the bow. I started to explain my offer to him but something made me pause. I realized by the look in his eyes that this was not a salvage crew. This was his boat. These were his friends.

“I didn’t know there was reef out there,” he said, pointing north along the shore. “It was the middle of the night and I was confused… The Coast Guard said they aren’t in the salvage business.”

The look of pathos in his eyes said it all and I knew immediately that she was not just an old decommissioned fishing boat; she was also his home. This was his life and there it was: wrecked on the rocks on a beach full of curious children, overlooked by the well-kept houses above it.

Now it was the neighbourhood curiosity, like the massive sea lion carcasses that also wash up and lodge themselves on the beach occasionally and are the object of school field trips until the smell of rot overwhelms the area.

I was one of those curious onlookers probing around the bones of a tragedy.

I had just offered to drag his entire life off the beach and turn it into a plaything. I don’t know if I have ever had a clever idea deflate as quickly.

Jesus once told a story about meeting  strangers in need. “Lord, when did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?” (Matthew 25:37).

I don’t want to get overly sentimental about who he is. The marinas and ports of the coast are full of men whose lives have slipped into the dark edges of society. Skid rows are almost always near a port. On another day you would do well to stay clear of his home.

But you don’t always get to look into the eyes of a shipwrecked sailor when he is stone cold sober, when he really is trying to explain to you how he ended up on the rocks.

There was nothing I could do for him. His friends in the skiff had dragged boats off the rocks before. They would know what to do.

That evening the boat was gone. And I called out to the divine Receiver of Wrecks on his behalf. I pray that he finds a new home.

I wish I had asked him his name.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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