Why do I do it? Why do I scare myself with the ocean…? It is true, it is merciless, literally; it’s not conscious, so it has no feelings, no remorse, no pity, no awareness.It would be wrong to say it is inanimate, because it is certainly animate.And not alive, yet contains so much life within it might as well be.
Like a Frankenstein body filled with cells and bacteria and nerve impulses yet no consciousness. My worst nightmare – I don’t have it very often but it’s a strong one – can take a variety of forms and happen in a variety of places: it’s being overwhelmed by a tsunami.
I sat watching one of the biggest waves in the world – at Teahupoo – with my friend, a psychologist. I asked her what a psychologist would say that fear of a tsunami meant. “I dunno. Probably something to do with your mother. Normally is, eh? ”. But I can’t help thinking I’m also just simply scared of death by drowning. Why then do I travel by freighter ship, why then do I want to sail across the ocean in a tiny sail boat? Funnily, the tsunami dream never occurs at sea. It’s always the shore that is inundated. With that wall of approaching death. But the sea still scares me.
As well it should. It is the only sensible reaction to be cautious of such a beast. I keep on wishing to anthropomorphise it. Should I? Cautious, yes… but scared? I’m trying to work out is my fear rational or irrational. Do I think the sea, the ocean, symbolises something, someone? Do I think something – like the tsunami – is coming to get me? Or someone? Or is it myself that’s haunting me? Even here on the bridge, of a vast freighter ship, 150 feet above the calm dark waters of the Pacific, I worry. I am outside, I hear a horn. Was that ours, I ask?
The watchmen say no maybe it was the radio. It wasn’t a radio. I check the radar – nothing. I skip outside again this time with binoculars. Give me a man with binoculars over your electronic instruments. Or is it just my lack of faith? Faith in what? In technology? In buoyancy? In myself? Every time I stand at a railing I crouch slightly. I am secretly terrified that someone might come up behind me and just topple me in. Even during the day to drop off the side of this ship would be practically certain death. No doubt about it. You would be gone, gone, gone.
No one would see. And by the time they noticed your absence at dinner they would never, ever find you. Maybe the worst thing is that I know the ocean could swallow this whole enormous ship and not care. Not even show a trace of where it had been. Two miles deep in a matter of hours. The first mate assures me, helpfully, that yes, that could happen. Sometimes, they break in two, he says. And sink in minutes. So helpful. Not what I expected or hoped for him to say. And maybe that’s another thing. That if you die in a car crash at least there’s a body.
There’s something for your family to cry over, to mourn, there’s a proof that you existed. Die in the ocean and they’ll probably never find your body. Your life, and the physical proof of your existence, will both be gone at the same time. We like to think we would live on in other’s memories. But it would be nice to have a grave. And there’s no substitute for still existing. I never realised before: yes, I want to lie in a grave. I want to die in a bed, and then be put in a grave. An orchard, where I can turn into sweet apples. Don’t tell anyone.
But here, I don’t belong. This is not where I came from. As beautiful as it is this place, under the moon, the light on the ocean (or is that glimmer some obstacle we are heading for a collision with? ) it is not our home. We are not returning to the ocean, because it’s not where we’re from. Our bodies know this. They are averse to the endless waters where we could be lost, forever, completely, and never nurture the lands of our home again. On the horizon there is lightning. We can see a long way here: we can see everything – so we see lightning striking on all sides.
Far in the distance. Out here, this is the wilderness, the wildnerness that was always here, and always will be. So much the same, and yet it keeps changing. Yet never for the better – not for good. You can never truly know it, and never make it your home, not here; however good your bushcraft. On land, in the wilderness, you could find a cave, a tree, build a cabin, protect yourself from the elements. Former wildernesses are communities, pubs, shopping malls. But the sea will always be a wilderness. Simply enough to lay your nose and mouth in will kill you.
Just imagine what a whole ocean of it could do. What if that lightning suddenly strikes, on all sides, the rain lashing down, the waves lapping up? Already every time a furniture fitting shudders I worry. I stop writing to judge our pitch, our roll, is everything okay? I think I’m becoming more like my mum. But what if that lightning animated the sea, struck, lit it up with its ferocious flash of energy and gave life to that unconscious Frankenstein body? It’s alive, and it’s all around us, it’s angry and wild and immense.
The combination is overwhelming, impressive, and terrifying. It’s alive, it towers over you; it’s coming to get you. You wonder why it hasn’t got you already. What watery trickery these sailors have with their heavy keel, with their well-shaped hull: to cheat death and rob the sea of its would-be prize. But the sea doesn’t care. It is poised over you like a skyscraper, one that comes crashing down every few seconds. And it does that again. And again. And again. Every few seconds, on every side. For hours. And then it’s calm. And as quickly as the storm came it relinquishes you.
After all, it doesn’t care, it’s not a man, an intellect, or a vengeance. It’s not your subconscious. It’s just a storm. And all that you have to protect yourself from it – all that I have to protect myself from it – is not luck or fate or talismans or wishes or even hopes or life plans or dreams. Nor technology nor skill nor discipline nor toil nor anything earned. Only yourself – only myself. Relying on myself, knowing myself, trusting, completely, myself, my mind, my body, my thoughts, my actions. And maybe that is why the ocean is so so scary.