As the newly hired interim minister for the Congregational Church of Boothbay Harbor, Peter Ilgenfritz could never have imagined what was to come: within weeks of his arrival in January 2020, COVID-19 set in. Everything changed, and the church and Peter needed to change with it.
He was up to the challenge.
The year before coming to Boothbay Harbor, Peter had left a 25-year career as pastor at a church in Seattle for an adventure: a 19,000 mile road trip through the United States. Though leaving was a daunting undertaking, Peter found the strength and courage he needed from—of all things—sailing.
Peter chronicles his journey in his upcoming memoir, Testing the Wind. In it he reflects on change and transition, on life and sailing.
Below is an excerpt from his soon-to-be released book.
A cold blustery day in mid-October 2013. A small wooden sailboat tips in the wind over a white-capped lake. Someone on board is yelling, a frantic cry that echoes across the water, “Are you sure? Are you sure this is alright?”
Sailing’s the last thing I thought I’d ever do. Although I’d spent most of my life near the sea, growing up on the North Shore of suburban Boston in the 1960’s and 70’s and in Seattle for the past two decades, I had never been interested in boats or being out on the water. I’ve never liked tippy things like roller coasters or skateboards. I especially don’t like wind. The howling and flapping of wind, the kind of wind that we’re having today, spitting rain from sheets of gray clouds that scurry across a dark sky.
But a few months before, I’d started thinking about what I might do on my sabbatical that coming winter when I’d have three months away from the church. I thought about all the familiar things I’d done on previous sabbaticals—trips to see family and friends, a study program abroad. And then I dreamt one night of me at the helm of a thirty-foot sailboat in the South Pacific, cresting the waves in a rolling blue sea. Behind me palm trees tossed in the breeze on white sandy beaches. The sun shone bright overhead. Nothing about the dream felt like me or anyone I’d ever wanted to be. Instead, it felt like a dream that had ended up in the wrong person’s imagination. I didn’t tell anyone about it.
There are journeys in life we would never choose to take, but we do so anyway, because we know that our lives depend on our taking them. In a tippy little boat, on a tiny lake in downtown Seattle, I learned to sail. I discovered a practice that helped me let go of the life I had and discover a new life I’d never imagined. Along the way, I crashed into waves of grief and despair but did not drown. I was tossed by anxiety but did not die. Instead, I discovered parts of myself I’d never dared to embrace. Eventually, I learned what was on the other side of letting go.