Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Invisible Boat

I guess you know by now that I really like boats. And I like analogies. I also am a member of a rowing team. So what could be better than a row boat analogy? I was listening to a speaker tape this morning. It happened to be Clancy I. who was speaking. He talked about the Invisible Boat. So I thought that I would provide an excerpt from his talk today. It is food for thought.

The curse of alcoholism is that eventually reality gets bad enough so you have to drink and the curse of drinking is that eventually it gets bad enough that you have to get sober. That combination is called alcoholism.

It doesn’t make any difference if you’re the man who put the flag on the moon or if you’re the man who came out from under the bridge, if you’ve got it there’s no way out because you cannot make sustained reality. Because every time alcohol works for you, it interferes with your ability to live in reality. It distorts perception, and that is why it’s such a difficult thing to treat.

There’s been a great deal of controversy over the years about treatment centers. Old-timers who got sober years ago are not very pleased with the treatment center concept. “We got sober and, by God, we stayed sober.” And they did. It’s just difficult.

And, for my first 15 years, I hardly wanted to talk to people who came out of treatment centers. I thought they were jerks. As I’ve gotten a little more sophisticated, I’ve come to realize there’s a difference. There are good treatment centers and bad treatment centers. But it’s hard to tell which are which, and your life depends on deciding which is which. You think, “Why would anyone want to go to a treatment center anyway?”

The best analogy I’ve been able to think of is it’s like going up to Lake Superior, say Ashland, and say I want to go to Canada. And there’s a nice little yacht sitting there with attendants in their white uniforms, and you smell dinner cooking, and they say, “Won’t you come with us on the S.S. Treatment Center?”

And you say, “Maybe.” And over here are two guys lurking in the underbrush along the shore, saying. “We’re from A.A. You want to come with us in our invisible boat?”

Nobody in their right mind is going to get in an invisible boat if they can get on the treatment center boat, I’ll tell you. So you get on there and you’re glad. It’s comfortable, it’s nice, it’s warm, and they feed you and it’s good. And the only problem is you’re just about in sight of the shore and they say, “Well, this is where we turn back. Gotta go back and get another load.’

“What am I gonna do?” you ask. “Well, just swim like hell.” And you’re out there swimming and crying, and here come those two goofs in their invisible boat. “You want a ride, buddy?” “I’m not that sick.” And pretty soon you’re drowning and here they come again. “You want a ride, buddy?” Choking and sputtering, you say “yeah.” You get in and as soon as you dry off, you realize “This is stupid. There’s no boat here. We’re floating in midair. This is goofy.” “What am I supposed to do, you guys?” “Grab an oar and row.” “You’re crazy. You’re crazy.” And right then, anybody with sense says “Adios, pal.”

And finally you’re drowning one more time. “You want to get in our boat?” Choking and sputtering again, you say “yeah” and get back in. “What do you want me to do?” “Grab an oar and row.” “Oh, you silly idiots!”

And the irony of A.A. is that as you begin to row, the boat appears. But it doesn’t appear until you begin to row. And you’ve got to be desperate to row an invisible boat. That’s what sponsors are for. They come along from time to time and say, “Hey, goof, you’ve got your oar upside down.” As you row the boat appears. If you keep rowing long enough, you get a very fine craft. Pretty soon it exceeds the S.S. Treatment Center.

Pretty soon it gets to be as big and as nice as you want to make it. And the only sad thing is no matter how long it takes, when you start to rest on your oar and don’t row, it begins to disappear again. And if you wait long enough on rowing, you’re back in the water.

That is why people with 25 or 30 or 50 years of sobriety get drunk. Because they’ve got where they want to be and there’s no sense in rowing anymore. “I’m there.”

And that’s the function of A.A., to encourage and re-encourage one another to re-commit ourselves to keep rowing no matter how well I’m doing, to just keep rowing. And that’s what the boat is about.

The function of A.A. and its Steps and its sponsors and these actions and involvement is not to make you wonderful. They’re to do something infinitely more complex. They are to upgrade your perception of reality. You’ve got to look at the same things and over a period of time see them differently or they get so depressing you can’t handle it. And you’ve got to keep going and you’ve got to keep trying this.

And, unfortunately for you and me, no matter how you work the program, you will never rise above a basic human being. And human beings are weak and fallible and cross and emotional. No matter how spiritual you get.

And the difference between the “good” treatment center and the “bad” one is simply this: The bad treatment center leads its patients into believing that they are now well enough to swim for the far shore on their own or, in other words, to leave treatment with enough knowledge to insure sobriety on a longterm basis. The “good” treatment center may perform the same functions within treatment perhaps but emphatically tells it’s departing patients, “You are dry, clean, fed and sober. But you’ll never be able to make the far shore on your own.”

So when you see those two guys in their invisible boat, jump in and start to row, whether you believe in it or not. You’ll be glad you did.

Clancy I., Venice, CA
Reprinted from the Harbor Light, Long Beach, which was reprinted from
MIRUS, the Minneapolis Intergroup newsletter.


  1. Syd, I'm linking to you on my blog. This is a must read, the more people that see it the better.

  2. I always remember things better when I have a picture to put with it. God Bless the old timers and speaker tapes.


  3. Syd I am emailing this to people i know - Excellent post!

  4. Glad I didnt have to go the treatment center route

  5. Love it Syd! You like boats? I had no clue. :-)

  6. An incredible analogy. I love it.
    Thanks so much for posting this!

  7. Excellent Syd!
    Thank you for posting this darlin'.

  8. That was incredible. I don't know what else to say. Except I wish that every person on this Earth could read it. I think it would change the world.

  9. Thank you, Syd. This was just what I needed.

  10. Clancy said it so very well.

    I, too, am glad you posted this excerpt from his talk. I am sure it will be a blessing to many who read it.


  11. I am no longer in the relationship that sent me to Al-Anon. So I've thought, "I don't need it." Yet in reading this, I realize that although my circumstances have changed, I'm still the same.

    The really odd thing is that I've been thinking about small boats following in the wake of a large one for days now. For no reason. The image keeps popping up in my head. I know exactly where my little blue book is stored. But obviously it is time for me to do more.

    Thank you.

  12. Beautiful!

    I love boats too. If I could find one that would allow me to live on 'er with my hubby and two dogs for the price of rent or a lease-to-own I'd do it in a NY second! But for now, I'm a constant and semi-content land-lubber with an incredible blessing in rent who goes to the docks and smells those intoxicating smells dreaming of the sea as I wait for God to step up and work with me on the fathoms of debt I've behaved myself into.

    I love the analogy of the invisible boat, it makes sense to me.

    Thanks! You're sharing about your boat trips and rowing allows me to feel the joy of the sea as well.

  13. This posting is worth blogging and commenting for a year--just to get to this point, to read this. Thank You, Syd.

    And Thank you, Lou, for your 'seeing' what I needed to read today.

  14. Wow! This is great! Thanks so much for sharing it, Syd. This part jumped out it me right away: "The curse of alcoholism is that eventually reality gets bad enough so you have to drink and the curse of drinking is that eventually it gets bad enough that you have to get sober. That combination is called alcoholism." I realized so much truth in those statements. Thanks for sharing this.

  15. This is such an awesome analogy. This is so good for EVERYONE. I am printing this to mail to my daughter; she may find it speaks to her too! Thanks for posting it!

  16. Ironic - - - the excerpt you blogged in the 3rd paragraph (has nothing to do with the subject) - today is the 40th anniversary of man landing on the moon and planting the flag. Just a thought - - -
    Anonymous #1

  17. freakin awesome read. Thanks Syd

  18. Amen, and the boat analogy with the rowing, awesome!

  19. That is just brilliant, I am going to print it and give it to my husband.

    Wow great post, a must read!

  20. Great picture of the work it takes to get on the right track and stay there. I think any treatment center that changes you is a good one, but then again so is any gutter. Thanks for the post.

  21. I am tired tonight and I wasn't gonna read this post because it looked so long. Then I went over to Lou's place and she insisted. I am glad I read it.

    I went on the S. S. Treatment Center. They were great people, taught us lots of stuff and insisted we get sponsors and attend AA. They did it right. I went in May 2001 and was back in August of the same year. I stayed sober for a few months, but I didn't take a full seat in AA. That got me drunk. It was the S. S. Surrender I had to finally board to make it.

    Incidentally, my initials are S. S. W______.

  22. Oh Syd! I am so glad you posted this from Clancey. I have seen him speak a couple of times at the PowWow in Palm Springs. He has such a great way of drawing a picture so people "get it"! There is another speaker, Sandy B from Canada, if you ever get the chance to hear him. I'll bet you'll really like him too...

  23. I am no fan of Clancy, but I LOVE this analogy. Thanks for taking the time to transcribe it.

  24. I couldn't have said it better myself. It's EXACTLY like that. Well said dear friend! (Hugs)Indigo

  25. clancy knows how to put words together that sink in for us alcholics.

    i've heard he's not well liked in some circles but i try to put principals before personalities, as well as contempt prior to investigation. i'm not always successful in that practice, but i do try.

    nice post syd

  26. Scary business, picking a treatment centre. I still feel lucky that the one I picked told me that without AA I would not survive. The treatment centre got me going, but AA keeps me alive as long, as the analogy states, I keep on rowing.

    Thanks for posting this.

  27. Well this is an amazing post. Thank you Syd. We have gone all routes with our daughter...we had a dysfunctional treatment center, a good treatment center, and we had AA/NA. She got the basics of recovery in all, but has chosen not to apply the principles in her life....until she does it doesn't matter where she goes she won't be whole.

    Can I share this post with my sponsor?

  28. Syd:

    Thank you - I've probably heard 30-40 of Clancy's talks and have read many of his article but have never seen this one. I'm going to link to it as well - I love the metaphor.

    Many thanx...

    Blessings and aloha...

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