Thursday, July 30, 2015

Fear always stands near those who go to sea.

From A Sailor's Pay by Jack Cady in the anthology, Sea-Cursed, edited by T. Liam McDonald.
Fear is an old friend. I have known fear in a thousand storms. I have heard fear, and felt it, when my vessel's radio picked up the terrified voices of doomed men; men giving last loran positions as their ship took its final dive. Fear always stands near those who go to sea. At first you learn to bear it, then, finding its true nature and depth, you befriend it.
An interesting parsing of fear. I am not sure I buy befriending it. But I do testify to fear always standing near those who go to sea.

I love swimming, sailing, travelling by ship. And while I do not fear or panic in and on the water, there is a respect that is almost certainly founded on fear.

Oddly, in moments of apparent peril, such as when your sailboat capsizes far from shore, there is not much fear. You have an issue to address and your entire being is focused on that. Even, once, being tangled in rigging under water, no panic: solve the problem.

The fear that I recognize most is that of the unknown and the unmanageable.

You are swimming offshore and fish begin to panic and break the surface of the sea near you, escaping some unseen predator. I feel that fear as I write these words. Sighting a reef shark much closer to you than you thought. That brings on shivers. Spotting what appears to be a poisonous sea snake sinuously close. That's when the adrenaline flows.

And also, but differently, when you are on a big ship in bad weather. A mere bystander to the awe inspiring. I was fortunate to sail in the old Queen Elizabeth across the North Atlantic in the mid-1960s, a wonderful journey for a child. But in the middle of the five day voyage we had an autumn blow when the sky greyed out and merged with the steel sea and the wind blew hard and the ship rolled, further and further, improbably far.

Oddly, what I remember most clearly was my first conscious awareness of the whistling of a key hole. Most people were confined to their cabins with sea sickness. For some reason, I was prowling around, enjoying the absence of adults. There was a fine old solid wood door from some lounge area out onto the deck, the deck being swept by that cold, wet Atlantic wind. I stood by the door, pushing hard to open against the wind but then noticing the whistling sound as the wind squeezed itself through the keyhole. I was fascinated, standing there stock still listening to the wind's song. Then, as a child will, trying to mimic it with my recently acquired whistling skills.

Harder still was a wintertime passage across the North Sea from Denmark to the UK some years later. Hard winds and high seas and nausea and the rolling, yawing and shifting of the huge ship, a plaything of circumstance. That's when I begin to edge towards fear. I had a similar experience crossing from Stockholm to Helsinki in the Baltic on a stormy winter day.

It is not the fear of sinking or getting wet or the waves or the winds. It is the fear of the cold. I was accustomed, having lived in Sweden and England, to swimming in bone chilling water and I think that breeds a deep respect for how quickly it can debilitate you. Riding those roller coaster ships in those storms, it was relatively easy to anticipate how to get off the ship, should it capsize. The fear was in knowing that you would only have minutes in the water to get into a lifeboat or raft before your life energy was drained away. Of course that was all simply anticipatory fear. The ships did not sink. They weren't even in real danger. It was just another rough crossing in northern wintry seas.

Only many years later did I come close to fully comprehending how that fear of cold water was so warranted.

I was shooting some mountain white water rapids with a troop of boy scouts and even though it was a warm summer day, the mountain river was dam fed and dam water is cold, cold, cold. All was going well till I spotted one of the scouts projected from one of the rafts upriver into the water. I could see his panic, flailing, trying to grab hold of rocks, eyes saucer sized.

I slipped over the side of my raft with the intent of lodging myself among the rocks to grab him as he swept by. The plan went off without a hitch. He came hurtling by me and I was able to reach out and latch onto his life vest and hold on tight. I knew one of the other rafts would be able to slow enough to grab us as it went by. We weren't in the water more than five minutes, probably but two or three, before one of the other rafts barged up against us and strong arms pulled us in.

I felt no touch of fear at any point because it all seemed manageable.

But what struck me later, stretched out in the sun, soaking up summer heat as fast as possible, was just how fast that cold water steals away your life energy. I don't think we were ever in serious peril. But in the few minutes wedged into those rocks with the whitewater roaring over and around us, I could feel approaching incapacity. I wasn't incapacitated at all but I probably went from 100% to 60% in minutes, just from that cold water sucking out my body heat. The respect that had been somewhat theoretical is much deeper now.

But for all that fear always stands with you, the inspiration of far horizons and vaulting skies and towering clouds, and deep waters brings you back to the oceans and the seas. A magical, primal draw.

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