“Like unto ships far off at sea, outward or homeward bound, are we.” ~Longfellow, Building of the Ship
Walking into the boathouse sent me immediately back to the forecastle of the ship. The smell of oil, steel and haze grey marine paint never leaves your memory. My sea time was short, and was during one of the most tumultuous times in my life, or perhaps it caused the most tumultuous time in my life, but either way the overwhelming sense of pleasant nostalgia overcomes me when I am reminded of it. Sitting here now, in the ‘garage’ of the Point Reyes Historic Lifeboat Station surrounded by gray walls, exposed steam pipes, steel tracks on the deck, a Coast Guard lifeboat, and other relics of the era when this was an active assignment for the poor souls tasked with saving lives of wayward Sailors I am calm and at home. The waves creeping up the shoreline as the high tide nears are chaotic and rhythmic at the same time and certainly welcomed.
Perhaps it is the sea that calms me and not the scent-memory of the ship. Sitting near the shore, hearing the roar of waves breaking at a distance, feeling the warm sun, smelling the damp air, breathing the sea-charged oxygen into your blood, tasting the salt on wind-chapped lips and allowing the soul to settle…it is a whole-body sensation. Many times on the ship, I would steal away to a catwalk nearest the bow just to hear the lapping of the waves breaking the bow and feel the wind and all of those things that made the rest of the world melt away. Due to my work schedule, this often happened at night when the stars were so bountiful you believed you could touch them merely by reaching a hand skyward. Better than any massage or aromatherapy, this would calm me and dissipate any stress the day had brought. There was a peace and a clarity that could not and has not been attained anywhere else in my 40 years.
I am quite certain that it isn’t just the happy recollection of pleasant memories that makes the sea such a pleasant experience. In fact, I am near-phobic of being submerged under water thanks to a childhood incident in a friend’s pool and spent many years of my life avoiding rough surf. I have been at sea when disasters have occurred. I have been to sea during war-time. I know the ravages of tidal waves. And even in my personal life – not all near-sea experiences have been pleasant but nearly all have been life-changing.
Looking back, many of my life decisions have been made under the influence of this chaotic natural environment. It was a family-day visit aboard the USS Klakring that first gave me the idea to join the Navy. It was while stationed in Spain that I accepted a marriage proposal. It was while living near the coast in Charleston, SC that I decided I was ready to start a family. It was while at sea that I realized I wasn’t meant to be a wife to the man who had given me my precious son. It was while living in Pensacola, FL that I realized I was destined for a career in the Navy. And it was while stationed in Diego Garcia that I willingly and knowingly gave my heart away. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it was also near the sea that I decided I needed to follow a different career path that led me to this garage on this desolate peninsula on what may be the most western shore of the lower 48. Sure, a life in the Navy puts you near the sea more often than others and maybe it is all sheer coincidence. But I know when things get chaotic, I long for the coast and when I am there, all is well.
Perhaps it is the potential that sea represents. Always renewing, always shifting and changing. The endless horizon with no limits to the direction you can take. The constancy of the sound and the smell. The welcoming but teasing embrace of the waves as they lap at your feet when you dare to dip them into the surf. The risk of danger as the waves grow with a passing storm, or the fog temporarily limits your view.
Or maybe it’s just the sea.