Rails & Sails and Echoes of Home

Christopher Hunt

I love board games. So when I heard about a new title in the hugely popular Ticket to Ride series, I couldn’t wait to try it. Ticket to Ride: Rails & Sails jumps the tracks and introduces seaway routes to the classic railroad-themed gameplay. I expected another fun installment in the series. What I experienced, however, was a game that reconnected me spiritually to my roots among generations of merchant mariners on the Great Lakes.

Rails & Sails uses the same basic mechanic as Ticket to Ride: players earn points by connecting routes along a map. Yet it offers much more than a twist on the original. Adding shipping routes to the experience significantly changes the way players approach the game. Railroad and shipping routes are linked, but managed separately, meaning players must plan further ahead and manage resources carefully. What’s more, the game comes with two maps: The World and The Great Lakes, each with slightly different rules. There is tense competition to grab needed rail and sea routes, as well as harbor cities.

I remembered that I came from somewhere—and not just a place.

It was the Great Lakes board that most engaged me. Rail and shipping routes crisscross the map, connecting Duluth to Erie and Montreal to South Bend. One route across Lake Michigan transported me back to my roots. I grew up in Frankfort, Mich., home port for several rail car ferries once operated by the Ann Arbor Railroad. Their blasting horns punctuated my childhood days as they carried train cars and automobiles back and forth across Lake Michigan. In my young world, I only vaguely understood my own significant connection to these ferries. My grandfather, Carl Frederickson Sr., began his lifelong career as a Great Lakes mariner and tugboat captain serving under his father, perhaps the best known of all the Lake Michigan car ferry operators, Capt. Arthur Frederickson. And just as his son would follow him, Arthur had gone to sea with his father, Capt. Charles Frederickson. To this day, my uncle Robert carries on the family tradition, working the tugboats that assist the massive ore-carriers transiting the channels between Lake Huron and Lake Erie.

As I examined the Great Lakes map of Rails & Sails, this heritage swept into my consciousness more fully than ever before. I remembered that I came from somewhere—and not just a place. Perhaps for the first time, I yearned to claim my own part in this heritage, to connect my identity to it. This should not be strange. In the Gospels, we see the bloodlines of Mary and Joseph, orchestrated by God down through the ages, generation after generation, culminating in one person, Jesus. And so it is that every human being—body and soul, created in God’s own image, each entirely unique—can be traced back generation after generation, age to age, to the moment God first gave humanity breath. For a stunning second, I perceived myself in that vast history.

Just as God safeguarded his Son through his ancestry to his Incarnation, so too did he ensure my own arrival past countless obstacles through history. Indeed, I can point to a single incident when God sustained whole generations of Fredericksons. On the night of Feb. 14, 1923, a freak winter storm struck the Ann Arbor No. 4 about halfway across Lake Michigan while the ship was on a routine voyage bound for Frankfort. My great-great grandfather, Charles, was captain, and his son, Arthur, was one of his junior mates. Shrieking winds kicked up 30-foot seas, tossing the ship about, causing several rail cars aboard to break loose. One crashed through the sea gate at the stern; two others went halfway over, pushing the ship down by the stern and causing her to take on perilous amounts of water. For hours, my grandfathers and the crew fought to secure the loose cars, keep the steam boilers lit, and pump water out faster than it came in, expecting to founder at any moment. Miraculously, just as the sun came up, the ship struck the break wall inside the channel at Frankfort harbor. Ann Arbor No. 4 sunk alongside the wall, but all hands survived. Not only did Charles and Arthur walk away that morning, so too did grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and too many cousins to count, all not yet born, generations preserved by God’s providence.

It might seem unlikely that a board game could move me in this way. Although I’ve been a fan of this series for years, Rails & Sails challenged me in new ways and stoked my interest in the Ticket to Ride series anew. God’s sovereignty encompasses all things, including the ordinary, which he often uses to highlight the extraordinary. It should not surprise me, then, that God would illustrate the immeasurable worth of those who bear his image, and the efforts he exerts through the ages to bring each of us to life, through so common a lens as a board game.    

Topics: Games