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How a Death-Defying Sea Voyage Helped Mend the Relationship With My Kids That Divorce Destroyed

02/26/2014 11:11 am ET | Updated Apr 28, 2014
  • Sprague Theobald Author of The Other Side of The Ice: One Family's Treacherous Journey Negotiating the Northwest Passage
Sprague Theobald

Divorce. Every couple has their own reasons for ending a marriage. In my particular case my marriage was simply like trying to mix oil and water; no right, no wrong, no damaging external influences, just a mixture that simply never coalesced or blended. In the interim of the past twenty years I have had the opportunity to revisit my decision many times, each time reaffirming my action. But thinking about my son and stepchildren is a different issue altogether.

How can the innocents who suffer the collateral damage of divorce ever truly understand the thinking and actions of those whom they hoped would forever provide trust and safe harbor? At the time of the divorce my kids were young; four, nine and thirteen, ages where I felt my primary role was protection, not harm. With the help of many counselors, books and wonderful friends I learned how, with effort, "time would heal." I knew that my consistent presence in their lives would play an even a stronger part in that healing. If only it were that simple.

After the divorce we lived on opposite sides of the country. My son and I saw each other perhaps twice a month at best. I tried to call three or four times a week and I wrote many letters to them all. During these 15 years my son and I had wonderful talks and visits in which we both grew closer and developed a better understanding of each other. I wish it had been that fruitful with my stepchildren. We slowly grew apart until I almost lost contact with my stepdaughter, and in fact did lose complete contact with my stepson. In each circumstance I knew I wasn't doing enough to facilitate growth or repair but was doing the best I knew how. Ask any parent, and they'll tell you: it's never enough.

Enter Divine Intervention

I'm a filmmaker and avid boater. I've done well with my documentaries and have amassed about 40,000 offshore miles. In 2006 I had the notion that I wanted to try and do what hundreds had lost their lives trying to do; find and transit the Arctic's infamous Northwest Passage on my 57 foot trawler, Bagan, and make a documentary about climate change. For many years my stepdaughter had been working on boats and was more than capable of such an adventure so I approached her wondering if she'd be up for the trip. Without batting an eye she said, "Yes!" Over the years my son and I had spent almost every one of our visits together moving boats, hanging out on boats or simply talking about boats. Due to college requirements he would only be able to do a small portion of the trip. Some was better than none, so I was delighted to know that we would be together, if only for a brief part of the voyage. As for my stepson - we unfortunately were not speaking at all at that point in time.

Reenter Divine Intervention

Two months prior to our departure from Newport, Rhode Island my son found out that he was able to do the whole trip. And for the first time in 15 years I heard back from my stepson via a text, "If there's room I would love to join you for the trip." He had no offshore boating experience but I jumped at the offer.

If I was seeing this correctly, for the first time in 15 years we would all be together, all under the same "roof" for five very long months. Surely the metaphorical large elephant would also be aboard but I had no agenda other than trying to listen and acknowledge, making my best effort not to justify or defend.

Once on our way to the Arctic, we quickly found that we had no time to sit back and uncover the past. There was no time to untangle half-truths and unknown facts. Very quickly we had to contend with ship-killing ice fields, polar bears, extreme desolation and mind-numbing isolation. It was not a trip that allowed for much idle chitchat. What it did provide was the opportunity for each one of my children to learn who I was and for me to see and know exactly who they were, who they had grown into. Nothing tells the truth and strips away preconceptions as much as adversity.

And there had never been more adversity in any of our lives than on August 16, 2009 at 2:00 a.m. when our small boat became brutally trapped in the Arctic's ship-killing ice. In the distance we could see thickly packed ice being driven onto a rocky shore, shattering from the pressure. It was only a matter of hours before we would meet the same shattered fate.

Many times that summer but no more than during those 72 hours I truly saw who my children were. Not once in the entire five months was a voice raised in fear or acrimony. They showed me that they were strong, forthright adults who, literally in the face of death, met it and dug down to find the strength of character that helped us do what hundreds have died trying.

By the time we reached the docks of Seattle we were a family again, hurts were starting to be healed, non-truths were exposed, a sad and difficult history had started to be repaired. A safe and loving foundation was built in preparation for further work.

Looking back at the events that brought us together and allowed us to see each other's truths I can't say that I'd advise going off to the wilds of the Arctic to do "family work." But what I can say is that the key is to given it time, to avoid making an agenda out of family togetherness and instead allowing any hurt or hurting family member the space to feel comfort. Divorced parents need to allow their children to feel the possibility for sharing and eventual acceptance of untold hurts, and that is more than half the battle. With children, sometimes a postmortem isn't needed, sometimes the cause of the demise doesn't need to be found, sometimes all that's needed is a sense of the freedom to live, to experience, to express and to let the truth breath.