What's Below the Waterline?

The author pastor and speaker Gordon MacDonald was in Tyler this weekend but I didn’t get to see him because we were both busy. He was leading a retreat and I was helping out with a session on the topic of ethics for a local civic group of young professionals. However we had an email exchange to catch up with our lives since the last time we saw each other ” and I reminded him of the powerful influence his book The Life God Blesses had on me years ago.

One thing almost always leads to another” ” and our conversation made a connection in my mind between his opening story in the book and the whole issue of ethics. Ethics is not so much about solving conundrums and making impossible trade-offs as it is about building a keel that will withstand the storms.

In 1992″ Michael Plant an experienced sailor set off on a solo crossing of the Atlantic in his custom sailboat ” the “Coyote." He had spared no expense in outfitting the boat with all the latest equipment and features. It was prepared for anything. There was nothing not taken into account when he embarked.

Eleven days into the voyage his friends lost contact with him” ” but they waited a few days to issue an alert because they were so certain he was in control. He wasn’t. Days later the crew of a passing freighter spotted his boat capsized and floating upside down. Inside was a partially inflated lifeboat.

It’s a hard and fast rule that sailboats must have just as much weight below the waterline as there is above. For that reason the keel of the “Coyote” had 8″ 000 extra pounds of weight bolted to it when it was built. However when the boat was found the weight was completely gone. Michael Plant had disappeared as well. As Gordon puts it ” “The loss of the weight ended his life.”

It was the perfect image for these young professionals” ” and I asked them to talk about what their own weights were beneath the waterline because it was clear they were all planning to sail far and fast.

In building a boat” ” everything is built around the keel. First the keel and then the boat. The keel is not added later. I wanted them to be clear about the keel around which they were building their boats.

What was the depth and weight of their keel” ” and were they constructing the most important part of their lives to weather the inevitable storms? If you have not read the story I would encourage you to read The Life God Blesses. It's not available to download so the “old salts” can buy the hardcopy.

The book is one of the reasons Gordon MacDonald continues to bless generations of lives.


  1. Great life lesson. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I was answering some questions this morning for a family Bible study my wife and I are in. Your story about the young professionals and the weight that keeps them upright made me think of my answer to the first question. The question was ” “”What are the possible consequences of pursuing happiness without love or holiness?”” I’ve recently experienced someone with this kind of pursuit up close and personal. Here are my answers: Narcissism” used people and relationshipspursuit of happiness with no boundaries for what you are willing to do to yourself or others addictionself-pitydelusions of offenses towards the person that arent realand deception and manipulation.
    Is it possible to teach “character education” in the schools without the right weight on the keel? Is it possible to catch happiness if your pursuit of it is without compass? I think the answer is obvious.

  3. Love this analogy. Simplebut profoundly true. Indeed the true value of character is found when it is needed the most. If its not there at that moment its too late to build it.

  4. Thanks for this. And worth noting ethics without the courage to act on them are not very helpful.
    A friend of mine who does a great deal of excellent leadership development had a number of senior executives from a now defunct company go through his training.When the company collapsed he visited with a number of them and asked what had happened to the “ethics”. The reply was”Nothing. We all knew that what the company was doing was both illegal and immoral. None of us had the courage to speak up.”
    I am waiting for the first business school that has developed a large segment on “ethics” to also develop one on the subject of “courage”. The former without the latter can lead to nothing more than a guilty conscience.

  5. Will read the book. I like a “real book”. Hope my 21st century kids have some weight in the keel. Hugs to a special friend!

  6. Thank you for all the comments. It’s so easy to be “preachy” in these blogs and that’s just exactly why you don’t want to do. Analogies are so easily turned into blunt instruments we use to batter a point home or make it so obvious there is no room for anything but an “Amen” afterwards. I think Gordon MacDonald is the master of using images and analogies because he can take them to the next level and not leave the reader saying “OkayI got it with the illustration and I don’t need you to say it again but only with different words.”

  7. Great metaphorFred! Point well made—thanx!


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