Anyone who has gone to sea for any length of time – and with a wink to my Coast Guard brothers and sisters I mean out past “ankle deep” (out of sight of the land) – knows the sea is vast. And it really does not matter whether the vessel taking the mariner out is a sloop, a ketch, a six-hundred foot Navy cruiser, a thousand-foot aircraft carrier or nine thousand-passenger and -crew cruise liner. At some point, everyone realizes that we are but dots in the ocean.
For poets, scholars, kings, farm boys and fishermen, the ocean casts a spell beckoning us to it, and yet the depths and potential hazards have been a metaphor, even among land-lubbers, for danger and despair. Who today has not heard or used the phrases “in over your head”, “you’re in too deep”, “the deep end”, or being “out of your depth” to describe discomfort.
2 I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me. Proverbs 69:2 (NIV)
But getting in over my head was never a reason for me to avoid doing something. I did venture to sea, most of the eight years I was crew on 3 Navy ships. Perhaps it was due to my early introduction to water. I think I was learning to swim almost at the same time I was learning to walk. My mother used to tell me how, as a toddler, I would venture off the step in the shallows of the community pool – and her lightning-quick mother’s arm would shoot out to rein me in as my head went under. I was a budding Jacques Cousteau. As a young teen, I took a class in Lifesaving, in order to become a lifeguard, and the instructor- as I recall it- tried to drown me simulating a panicked swimmer. I punched him. Later, in the Navy class on treading water, I never understood how some of my peers had never learned to swim. I never feared putting my head underwater. And in my twenties I obtained a SCUBA certification and spent some years going diving.
Still, I have a healthy respect for water whether it is gathered in rivers, large lakes, or the ocean. Perhaps it is due to my experience with lakes that appear deceptively shallow, or water that was particularly frigid on a very warm New England May day. Or with currents in rivers, in saltwater marshes with an ebbing tide where I tried to navigate a little rowboat across. And I’ve lost my footing in a shallow beach tidal outflow and been sucked out to the bay.
There is a magical quality to looking out at the sea, and witnessing the deepening blue hue of the deep ocean, turn gray-blackish and whipped into white foam caps. When a calm sea could become a violent storm in a matter of hours, there were some, myself included, who offered prayers of thanksgiving to Providence for never having been seasick . On a bright sunny day, as the weather turns into a full-force gale.
The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore. Vincent Van Gogh / brainyquote.com
In my childhood, I was fascinated by nautical museums, sea captain’s two hundred year-old homes, touring lighthouses and old ships, steamers, and ferry boats. And today I am blogging about such things now and again. At my keyboard now I remember the first work of fiction I wrote for a college literature class being a blend of all these memories. And I quite clearly pictured Burgess Meredith as the crusty old Salt protagonist.
Dwellers by the sea are generally superstitious; sailors always are. There is something in the illimitable expanse of sky and water that dilates the imagination. Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Strangely, I never bought a boat after my assignments at sea ended. While I have been on several since my career in the Navy ended, I have never wanted to scrape barnacles, chip paint, or clean the salt-corrosion ever again. But I still know port from starboard, and even on the maritime museum, the MIDWAY at the pier in downtown San Diego, I will still request permission to come aboard. And I can wish for others a fond time getting “haze gray and underway”.