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A Drop in the Ocean

Dr. Ari Greenspan

It was the opportunity of my dreams: a week on a sailboat bobbing up and down on the ocean waves, not a soul in sight

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


As the sun began to set, I put on proper pants and a white shirt. I looked around for 360 degrees and saw nothing but the majesty and grandeur of Hashem’s world. With flying fish literally jumping out of the ocean in front of me, I davened Kabbalas Shabbos

We all have dreams of things we’d love to do, but they are often not in the realm of reality. One item on my wish list was to experience being in the middle of the ocean on a small sailboat. Just close your eyes and imagine the silence and serenity — without the distraction of another boat, electric lights, or the buzz of humanity. 

Crazy, no? Well, when one of the patients in my Jerusalem dental practice told me that her son — also a client — had just finished serving in an elite army unit and he and his father were planning to take a 38-foot sailboat on a six-month journey from Florida to Australia, lightbulbs started flashing in my head. Gingerly, hopefully, I stammered, “Uh, do you think there would be any chance that possibly he would let me join for a week?” When the answer was yes, I began to plan a halachic adventure I never thought was in the realm of possibility.

I’m not the nervous type, but I did feel a little anxiety at one point, when I realized there was nothing between us and the ocean depths except the thin fiberglass keel of the boat

Chickened Out

Traveling to places off the beaten track carries its own set of obstacles, as my “halachic adventures” partner Dr. Ari Zivotofsky well knows (and as you’ve been reading about in these pages), but this time, going it alone — on a small boat in which the other five sea travelers are not mitzvah-observant — involved a slew of halachic issues. 

Chazal were intimately aware of the halachic concerns of sailing, particularly as it relates to Shabbos. The halachah states (Orach Chayim 248) that one may not set sail within three days before Shabbos. The Rishonim offer a variety of opinions as to this time limit, many relating to how it might lead to Shabbos desecration. The Rif had trouble with most of these explanations, though, because the same reasons would apply to four days as well. He therefore suggests that the three-day rule is for oneg Shabbos. 

Oneg Shabbos? The Rif goes on to explain that since a person will be seasick for the first three days, one should not embark on a journey within that window, since he will otherwise be sick on Shabbos. Well, I can tell you how right he was! Somebody who has never experienced seasickness cannot understand the distress it causes. You just want to do what Yonah the prophet did — go down into the hold and lose consciousness. Luckily, it passes. 

And what about kosher food? Our initial plan was to be on the water for six to seven days straight, depending on the winds. We had all made a communal purchase of basics like vegetables and pastas, so I knew I wouldn’t starve. I brought along a kosher pot, some utensils, and dried salami. My plan was to spend the Shabbos before sailing with my religious friend in Cuba, Yaakov Berezniak [Mishpacha #342] and get picked up by boat from Havana. I thought he’d be able to procure a chicken for me (what would next Shabbos on the boat be like without chicken soup?), but the situation in Cuba is so dire these days that nary a chicken was to be had other than the treif frozen ones imported from Iran. 

While I was already in the air to Cuba from Israel, the boat, which had set sail from Florida, was stopped by the US Coast Guard as it approached Cuba. Because it is a US registered vessel and the US embargo is still in place, they wouldn’t let the vessel into Cuba’s territorial waters. So the new plan was to meet the group in Grand Cayman Island, a mere 45-minute flight from Havana. Sunday morning I landed, sadly chicken-less, yet found to my surprise that Grand Cayman has chickens galore. They run wild on the island, literally there for one’s picking. I couldn’t believe it — the one time I didn’t bring my shechitah knife with me was the one time chickens were as bountiful as the slav in the Midbar. 

Grand Cayman is an offshore tax haven and has over 100 banks. Massive cruise ships dock daily, disgorging thousands of tourists. While walking around, I saw a young man with a kippah in one of the stores. We shmoozed a bit and it turns out he was a Persian Jew from California who owns a jewelry store on the island. He gave me two important pieces of information: that there is a Chabad house on the island, and that I could buy kosher chicken in one of the supermarkets. What joy! I was a like a kid running to a candy store as I set out to find my frozen fowl.

All Aboard

After some initial technical problems, we got our passports stamped by border control and started sailing. Since a small ship can land anywhere on an island, the law is that one must alert the local authorities and bring one’s passport to them for stamping within a few hours of docking. We set sail in a massive shallow, placid lagoon that in some places was no more than two feet below our keel. A lookout up front kept us away from the rocks, although at one point we brushed the sandy shore and got beached; a call to the port authorities helped up get moving again. The lagoon was a bright light-green color, with reefs and small fish, the dark blue of the Caribbean visible in the distance. We soon approached the outer reef where it merges with the open, traversing a narrow channel marked with buoys to avoid the rocks. As we entered the ocean, we began feeling the waves. I looked at the fathometer and was shocked to see that we had gone from a mere seven-foot depth to over 2,000 feet. And the waves… oy, the waves. Maybe two meters high. And the nausea, oy. And I began to ask myself, am I crazy? Is this suffering what my next week was going be like?

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