I am grateful every day to have been born into a nautical family.
- My father spent his career in the field of naval architecture, at times working on teams designing ocean-going ships, at times teaching others to do so. He also sailed what added up to a small armada of sleek, fast boats, from his early teens until his 80s.
- My mother’s grandfather served in the U.S. Navy not long after the Civil War, including time on the USS Constitution, now a 220-year-old heavy frigate that is still in commissioned service – still armed with live cannon.
- My mother’s sister-in-law, the late Marcia Viard, descended from ships’ carpenters – one just north of the great whaling harbor of New Bedford, Mass., another on the Massachusetts-New Hampshire line in Newburyport, Mass.
- And Mom’s brother, Kenneth Fredric Viard – Marcia’s husband of six decades – sailed around the entire globe on the 6th world voyage of a 96-foot, steel-hulled Brigantine, then known as Yankee, serving as cook to the crew, retelling the experience for his hometown newspaper, and recording it on film. (The footage is still available at The Mystic Seaport gift shop.) Ken also served in the Navy (sometimes in the galley), and later as cook on research vessels docked in Groton, Conn.
The sea is in our blood, in our bones, in the way we see and understand and navigate the world, in the stories we read, the stories we tell – and has been from the long-ago generations that brought our families to these shores, down to some of the youngest in our newest fleet.
All of that may account for why I can so easily envision the sea as a metaphor for Ken’s life – sometimes calm with delicate colors drifting up from the horizon and sea birds singing musical welcomes, other times turbulent with biter storm clouds and the birds racing for shelter. No matter which was in play, the sea – and Ken’s life – were full of the glory of our globe.
Really, there is nothing like the sea – even such inland seas as Long Island Sound or Crystal Lake – to show us more clearly, more insistently, how sweet can be our world and our lives – but also how their behavior can turn on a dime to become vicious and terrifying.
There is a parallel between nature’s deep variety and the triumphs and struggles of our lives. We slide back and forth along the spectrum, from the pastoral to the petrifying, struggling to bring more to our world than we take from it.
Ken Viard is a fine example of this parallel.
In the 1950s, he circumnavigated the very globe that many of us see a few acres at a time – 24,000 miles straight around, but a far longer voyage on the Yankee. He fed the crew nutritious meals and special treats (monthly birthday cakes, for example) – and he fed them humor and kindness.
To see the parallel more fully, imagine Ken circumnavigating his own globe – his life – feeding those in his family, in his restaurants, in his churches, in his communities – nutritious food and special treats, humor and kindness, along with his recipes for the hows and whys of our world, sharing an ambitious vision of what a life can be, needs to be in order to be well-lived.
There were times when the winds were fair, the seas were calm and following, the colors above his head were pastel, peaceful, calming – his voyage was smooth and predictable, his goals were clear.
But there were also times when the seas were tossed and disrupted his way. Overall, he struggled through what sailors call a mixed sea, in which the waves come from every which way and nothing is predictable or reliable – or safe – and the skies overhead are often foreboding, stormy, promising only more rain, more turbulence, more challenges, more struggle.
But Ken had his lighthouse, his beacon to follow, and he had his horizon – his goals.
On a clear day, a 6-foot-tall sailor standing on a 6-foot-high deck can see a little over 4 miles to the actual horizon. If that 6-foot-tall sailor on the 6-foot-high deck knows there is a 75-foot-high lighthouse out there somewhere, he knows he will be able to see the top of the lighthouse – its beacon – more than 11 miles distant. Build the lighthouse 100 feet tall, and the sailor can see the beacon at 13 miles. Guidance, reassurance, a chance at safety and comfort.
The beacon Ken pursued was high enough that he could always know where it was, and it was bright enough that it shone through even the toughest storm and darkness. Guidance, reassurance, a chance at safety and comfort in his life.
Think back for a moment to the examples above: people designing ships, people building ships, people serving on ships – and think again about that parallel between the theater of the sea, and the theaters of our lives.
We all toss on the vigorous ocean. We all welcome times of calm and peace. We all seek lighthouses, hoping the beacons will shine through our turmoil. We all long for joy, we all listen for danger and guidance – as does the young helmsman in this poem from the days of the grand sailing ships. (It is written by Walt Whitman.)
ABOARD AT A SHIP’S HELM.
ABOARD at a ship’s helm,
A young steersman steering with care.
Through fog on a sea-coast dolefully ringing,
An ocean-bell—O a warning bell, rock’d by the waves.
O you give good notice indeed, you bell by the sea-reefs ringing,
Ringing, ringing, to warn the ship from its wreck-place.
For as on the alert O steersman, you mind the loud admonition,
The bows turn, the freighted ship tacking speeds away under her
The beautiful and noble ship with all her precious wealth speeds
away gayly and safe.
But O the ship, the immortal ship! O ship aboard the ship!
Ship of the body, ship of the soul, voyaging, voyaging, voyaging.
To Ken and his beloved Marcia, to their children and their children’s growing families – to everyone on this voyage: I wish you fair winds and following seas, and when you need them, I wish you beacons and “warning bells, rock’d by the waves.”