The Crooked Keel

I loved to go lobster fishing with my uncle. I loved being out on the open water; the fresh sea air, the confident growl of the engine, the lobster boat churning through the waves.

My uncle had the fastest lobster boat at the wharf. He had a 454 Oldsmobile Rocket Power engine in a 40 ft wooden boat, and no cabin. When he hit the throttle, the bow of the boat would come out of the water, and that boat would just fly.

When a fisherman got a new lobster boat, it was taken for granted that they had to try their boat out against the fastest boat at the wharf. At this wharf, that fastest boat was my uncle’s.

I remember one day a fisherman coming up alongside my uncle’s boat in his new lobster boat. As they came alongside each other, the fisherman in the other lobster boat hit the throttle. My uncle was only a moment behind him and they were off.

Ironically in this race, it wasn’t the speed of the boat that determined which boat was faster. This new boat had a crooked keel. Below a certain threshold of speed, the boat could be steered to follow a straight line. However, above a certain threshold of speed, the keel took over. No amount of steering could compensate for the course directed by the crooked keel. The boat would veer off at a right angle to the intended course.

This image of my uncle, his boat, and his race with the boat with the crooked keel came to me about 20 years after he died. It just popped up. I was so taken with this image and its meaning to me that I wrote it down. And I made numerous attempts to refine it with the intent to publish it.

I didn’t make it to submitting it for publication, but I did include it in a paper I wrote for a course I was doing for my Master’s in Pastoral Psychology and Counselling. As part of our in-class assignment, we broke off into small groups to discuss our papers. Someone in the group asked me if I’d like to read the story. As I started reading it, a flood of emotion welled up, and I cried. I was startled; my uncle had been dead over 20 years. But my emotion was as fresh as the day he died. As I read this story about my uncle that day, I realized that I hadn’t heard myself talk about him out loud. Or perhaps more to the point, I hadn’t heard or felt how much I missed him still.

I’ve taken this story along with me for many years since I read it in that group. I’ve shared it in situations where it proved supportive for people dealing with difficult circumstances, such as the loss of a close family member or friend.

The metaphor of the crooked keel can tie in nicely with the energy centers of the false self (power/control, affection/esteem and security/survival); we’ve all been led astray by these programs. However, sometimes this connection can be made prematurely, reducing the applicability and depth of the metaphor. Compare this with lectio divina. So often we benefit from repeat readings and exposure to the metaphor, pronouncement or parable, which takes us to so many different and unexpected levels of our own relationships and story.

Connecting incidents, experiences, or behaviors prematurely to our false selves can link us to a “pathology” trajectory. I saw how easy it was for me to see my uncle with the “straight” keel, and the other fisherman with the “crooked” keel. I realize this identification separates not only us, but me. The false self becomes a label and labels have their own keels which lead to preconception. When I see interactions and behaviors without labels, I am more sensitive to these interactions and relationships as unfolding, without labeling one straight or good, the other crooked or bad. This gives me space; where in the past I might have stopped the process short by labelling (whether crooked or straight, mine or another’s).

Perhaps in this open space of our practice in life, our respective keels might be transformed into keels that we learn to trust in the sensitivity brought about by an awareness of them, both ours and those of others. And in so doing, move deeper and beyond our self-interest, to an appreciation of these keels that are our relationships, our stories, our lives.

Paul Wishart
Calgary, Alberta, Canada