Water. It's what's to drink. Water is used to replenish the body, to bathe in and to clean with. It's also something to wash your car with or splash about on a hot day. Water does what water does, it's the liquid that defines the term but on a much simpler level it's just a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen and even though tremendously useful is nothing more. Water is inanimate, not living, just a substance - or so I believed before that day – the day I went to sea.
The day in reference was the day I went to sea, the day that would change forever my views of our most abundant resource. Before that day my vision of water was that of a relatively insignificant element of our environment that occupied rivers and lakes and could always be sized up in a single glance. Even almighty Lake Michigan felt like as if it had an opposite shore even if it wasn't always visible. I was warned by those more experienced than I to take motion sickness a day before leaving the security of land. I of course viewed this as an overreaction because I was one of those people who could read a book in the back of a car on a winding hilly road with forest shadows splattering my page without incident. I figured that either way my breakfast was going to stay where I put it so there was no harm lost. Either because of this action or in spite of it I did well that day.
We met the boat before the sun peaked it's head from under the proverbial sheets of darkness. The boat pulled away from the pier and the water was a bit rough but overall my impression was that the voraciousness of the sea was overrated. Just as that thought had passed from my mind we rounded the breakers and the ocean's snarling face appeared! The hull or our 45 feet boat reared in the air and then crashed down upon the first of many waves. The ocean pushed us about like a raging river. Undeterred the captain headed directly into the waves hopefully aware of what he was doing and accompanying each wave rudely invading the deck was a 20 foot spray of water.
The prospective fishermen, myself included were huddled in the stern of the boat in view of our past but uncertain of our future. Following in our wake were some smaller cabin cruisers of about 30 ft. They were the kind you see "well to do" folks taking pleasure cruises on lakes with - the sort that sleep three or four comfortably below deck with little room left to squirm. Even inside our wake they were struggling to keep up and one by one they were unable to fight the opposing forces and turned back toward land until finally we were alone.
Land itself shrunk to the point where we could only see it when cresting a swell and then it too was no longer visible leaving us surrounded by an unfathomable expanse of water. Alone at sea I thought, how disturbing. The swells were 30 foot hills that we had to climb and once we got to the top the boat raced down the other side only for the diesel motor to spew a dark cloud of smoke into the air as the vessel strained to climb the next. Not completely alone, there were other boats, how many I don't know because they were impossible to count as you couldn't actually see any more than a few at a time. The swells were large enough that when at the bottom you could only see water beneath and next you. Even the early morning sun would disappear but as the boat would clamor to the top of a swell your vision would open up to miles of water and anything in it would appear before you. It seemed you could see the whole world but in fact only the other boats that had risen to the top as well were visible. Countless others were making their way down the swells or climbing out and for all practical purposes didn't exist, at least for a few moments at a time. The old adage about a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it came to mind. If you're in the sea and nobody knows do you really exist?
When we got to our destination the boat appeared to stop. It's really impossible to know if you're moving on the ocean because the illusion of the current moving beneath you betrays your sense of motion. When the boat is not under power it appears as if it were still moving because the water under it is flowing by and in fact the vessel may be standing still or not - there's no real way to tell. I think that we were probably going with it toward the shore but at a slower pace. That's only a theory because I couldn't prove it if I had to. I also don't know for sure if the direction we were moving in really was toward the shore come to think of it. On the way out I tried to stay oriented as to the direction of land with the idea that it would calm my fears but after a few minutes things started to get turned around. Once you've lost your point of reference in the land you only have two things to keep you centered, the direction of the water and the position of the sun. After about 15 minutes the two of them no longer agreed and without a third witness I no longer knew the way to the safety of good old Terre Firma.
Things in the ocean are not measured on the same scale as things on land, a lesson I learned that day. The creatures themselves grow without the same physical limitations of space that restrict our familiar land animals. Blue whales dwarf anything existing on land including the largest dinosaurs from the prehistoric age. Even fish barely worthy of saving are fifty pounds. Coming from a place where a 10 inch trout was reason enough to go to town and boast at the local pub I didn't know what to think. The scale is so out of proportion that you lose your point of reference. Someone hauled in a giant King Salmon and the crew didn't even bat an eyelash. It was at that time the largest fish I'd ever seen but in comparison to a Blue Marlin or a Sturgeon it must have seemed like a minnow to the experienced fisherman.
After moving to several new locations for reasons only the captain knew since they were indiscernible to us we headed back toward land or or what we hoped was land and not toward being a statistic. Twenty fishermen lost at sea on a perfectly calm day was not what I wanted to see in the papers when I returned, if I returned. Perhaps being lost to a great battle with a giant sea monster that threatened peaceful life as we know it would have been more appropriate. But try as we might the sea monsters didn't come out to play.
The ride back was calmer and more serene. It was then that I realized something about the sea - it was alive. I'm not referencing the parasites that live off it like the crustaceans and fish or even the humans riding upon it's surface but the sea itself. In my little experience I had learned the sea could be angry at us and thrash us about when we came unto it uninvited, I saw it cross it's arms and sulk when we proceeded for hours with unwavering determination. I saw it happy, almost playful and accepting of us when it tossed us about as if we were a small toy. I swear I could hear giggles of audible glee emanate from it as it rocked us and watched the smiles come over our faces. Now on our return trip I saw something else in the sea, something I never knew was possible. The sea turned toward us and offered us it's hand. We'd gained it's respect and in turn it offered us safe passage home. I saw an animacy in the sea that day, I saw a living thing with personality. On the journey home the sea cuddled us like a small child, protecting us from the dangers that lie in wait. With each rolling wave we were gently carried over the crest and put down so very delicately to avoid harm. A close friend of the Sea from the beginning of time had appeared and was bathing us in it's warm rays of light - as if by association we'd gained another friend, the Sun. The ancients saw something in us that they admired but I'm not really certain what it was - in relation to them I felt like I barely existed - insignificant to the indescribable degree - barely more than nothing at all. How incredibly humbling..
As the sea carried us I stood on the bow and watched it rise up and heave us forward, powerfully carrying us on it's back like a mighty stead carrying a knight toward his destiny. Something had changed about it - it was no longer water, the stuff you drink, splash about in and satisfy your plants thirst with but rather one large entity, thick and powerful. It didn't seem thin and frail like water from the tap, it didn't splash or slosh but rather flowed slowly forward like it was heavier than liquid gold - it was massive and muscular to say the least and very much overwhelming. Although it's power on this earth is unequaled and with one crashing blow can wreak massive destruction it also has a tender side, a humane side. The sea is a very personal being with mood swings not unlike our own. During the first half of this journey I couldn't wait to return to the unmovable security of land but as it came into view it seemed, well, disappointing, so inanimate and lacking energy or feeling - in a word - lifeless. The place I'd always clung to was simply nothing but dirt and rock with little to give short of a place to stand - meaningless in comparison to the vibrant energy and power of the sea. As I stepped off the boat I turned to the sea and with regret and a tear in my eye I bid it farewell.
The following year I returned to the same location anxious to be reunited with my new friend but something was different. I came carrying arrogance and pride and neglected to take my medicine until the night before. The next day was spent either leaning over the side of the boat giving offerings to the sea or hiding in the galley. Myself and the sea I'd previously met never crossed paths and this time unlike the last I looked forward to land with great anticipation. I left the shore humbled and sad, saying nothing of my disappointment and have to this very day never returned. On occasion I wave from the security of land but the sea rightfully pays me no attention.