Packing Ballast (on gaining weight, for good)

One of the things I really love about belonging to a book club (okay, I lie, I belong to two. Three over the summer…) is that I get introduced to books I would not otherwise have picked up. Most recently, I read Lansing’s book Endurance: Shackleton’s Amazing Voyagea biography which tells of the ill-fated attempt by Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 to cross Antarctica in 1914. Spoiler alert: it did not go well.

The ship Endurance got stuck in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea before the crew even set

foot onto Antarctica. The terrific pressure of the ice crushed their mighty vessel, andShackleton and his men spent the winter, the following summer, and yet another

250px-Endurance_Final_Sinking winter adrift on make-shift camps of ice, surviving on a diet of seal, penguin, and heroic courage.  In the final unfolding of the drama, the crew (all of whom survived: a testament to Shackleton’s remarkable leadership skills) rowed to Elephant Island, just off the shore of Antarctica, and made one of their ramshackle lifeboats as seaworthy as they could to try and make it over the Southern Ocean. No one in the world knew where they were and there was no technology to make contact: if they were to survive, six of them would have to cross the stormiest sea on the planet – 800 miles in a 22 foot yacht (and just for perspective: that little vessel would be facing hurricane-force winds and waves measuring up to 60 feet.) Biographies are not usually my thing, and maritime ones even less so, but I stayed up late in the night reading what happened to this feisty crew. Here’s a little documentary if you’re curious:

That final leg of the journey had me holding my breath – that one voyage even has its own wikipedia page.  The crew slept in snatches, the rest of the time bailing water as if their lives depended on it (they did), spending every last breath on holding their course through wind and waves. And, they repacked the ballast.

I don’t know that I had ever given a moment’s thought to what ballast was or why it was needed until I read this part of the book, but it became clear why it was critical. In preparation for the James Caird’s voyage, the men had devoted significant time to finding stones to pack into the base of the boat as ballast. The weight was needed to make the boat stable against the waves, giving it balance and a center of gravity (in as much as anything on the sea can have such a thing). These days, elaborate pumps push water and air in and out of the base of sea-going vessels to add (and lose) weight as needed for stability, but Shackleton’s men had to do as the seafaring Vikings had done centuries before: they packed stones in the hull.

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Reconstruction of ballast in a Viking vessel, by Stephen Fox (archaeofox.com)

As the James Caird was buffeted by walls of water, one of the many brutalities the men endured was being bashed and bruised by rocks as they tumbled around the base of the boat. And no sooner had rocks tumbled their way to the starboard side, the little boat would once again be somewhat unbalanced, and the crew would have to pick up those rocks and repack the ballast. So much of their energy in preparation had been to making sure they had enough weight for the voyage. And so much of their energy in the arduous journey involved repacking and redistributing that same weight so that they would remain stable.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ballast. I won’t be so dramatic as to compare my life and calendar right now to crossing the Southern ocean, but it certainly has had its ups and downs and is requiring a focus and discipline I can’t remember having needed in quite the same way before. To be sure: it’s an adventure. I’m working hard on writing a book, I’m loving working as an editor and curator for Propel Women’s ministries, I’m delighting in the preparation and study and teaching of a 9 week series on the parables, and there’s no small amount of travel and house project and kid stuff going on, too. But the possibility of taking on water and the feeling that I’m about to sink feels all too real. I’ve long loved the image of Jesus being my anchor in a storm, but I didn’t know until reading this book that a ship being buffeted in a storm needs more than an anchor: it needs ballast. Something weighty to keep me from keeling over. Some centering stones, which may need to be tended to and re-packed from time to time.

My ballast comes in the form of sleep, setting aside time to exercise, and to be quiet and pray . In truth, those are the first things I tend to chuck overboard when things feel choppy, but if I think of them as ballast – things that will not sink me in a storm, but in fact keep me stable, it helps. I’ve set reminders on my phone to go to sleep on time. I’ve got calendar appointments to “be with God”. I’ve installed an app that reads Scripture to me, and set a reminder so that it pops up right around the time I’m usually wiping down the kitchen counters at night. This week things got crazy and I needed to repack my ballast: exercise isn’t working at the same time of day now that daylight savings time has kicked in, so I’ve needed to move it around. Redistribute the ballast because I feel myself tipping.

But paying attention to the ballast is the thing: some items on my to-do list feel heavy, but others are weighty. Weighty is not the same as heavy. Weighty helps us stay the course, even when the going is heavy.

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