Reflections On Life By the Sea

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The sea is like a non-living character in my life — a constant yet ever-changing presence, depending on the season. But it wasn’t until I returned to the seaside, having lived away for some years, that I truly appreciated how important it is to me.

I feel very lucky to have lived a fair proportion of my life so far within easy reach of the seaside, albeit different seasides and with a long stretch in the middle spent about as far from the coast as it’s possible to get in the UK. There’s something very special about being by the sea; it draws me towards it, and whenever possible I like to head down to the seafront — even if only to drive along there with the windows open, taking in great lungfuls of fresh sea air.

I read somewhere that human blood has the same proportion of salt as the oceans did when life was first emerging from the water and taking hold on land. I’d love to know whether this is true or a romantic fantasy, attempting to give our ‘special relationship’ with the sea some pseudo-scientific basis in fact. The sea is deeply symbolic; the late American president, John F. Kennedy, said in a speech in 1962: “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch — we are going back from whence we came”. And I think that’s part of it, regardless of whether or not our blood chemistry is still linked to that ancient ocean or not. The human race is descended from creatures that first evolved in the oceans, and individually, we each spend nine months in the liquid environment of the womb before emerging from it on to ‘land’, just like those incredibly ancient ancestors emerged from the sea.

Either way, I think the sea is ‘in our blood’. As an island nation, Britain has always depended on the sea — for food, for trade, for defence. The English language is full of words that derive from naval or seafaring traditions, too many to count. The sea and all the trades, professions and services associated with it are part of our heritage and our common history. Where I live now, on the south coast of England, the sea is an ever-present part of life; the presence of the dockyard and the harbour, with Navy ships and scores of civilian vessels coming and going, means that there is always something to see. Even on the coldest days, there are usually some hardy souls camped out on the beach, huddled behind wind breaks, keeping a close eye on their fishing lines. In summer, the beach is dotted with families and large groups of students, and the sea air is further perfumed with the smoke from portable barbecues. Perhaps because the beach is stony here rather than sandy, it doesn’t get overcrowded, but there’s always a sense of the community out and about and enjoying themselves.

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The sea is a sort of wilderness, I think; a different kind of wilderness than jungles or desolate plains, but curiously a more accessible one to me as a disabled person. On a boat, I can venture out into that wilderness on pretty much equal terms with any able-bodied person, whether as a passenger or as a member of the crew. And there have been some tremendous news stories recently about the achievements of disabled sailors — such as Geoff Holt, the first quadriplegic sailor to sail solo across the Atlantic, recently honoured with an MBE for his services to disabled sailing. Going out on the sea is, for me and others I know, a way of recapturing the thrill of being out in the trackless countryside away from ‘civilisation’.

The sound of the sea has a particular mesmeric quality too. At the counselling centre where I work, we have sound generators outside the therapy rooms to enhance the privacy and confidentiality of the conversations going on inside. They have different settings, one of which is the sound of waves rolling on to shore. From inside the rooms, with the generators on, you can just hear the sound of the waves in the background in the moments of silence. It’s very peaceful.

In contrast, the real ocean is often far from peaceful. Last week, the seafront road here was closed because high winds were throwing huge waves over the sea wall and across the carriageway, and it was just not safe for traffic to use it. A sensible precaution, but there’s still something thrilling and primordial about a stormy sea lashing against the shoreline, so long as you know you’re safe from the worst of its fury. The sea is unpredictable and therefore highly dangerous, as all those lost souls killed by floods and tsunamis tragically found out.

Here in Britain, we have a relatively benign relationship with the sea. When I first moved to this area, I soon realised that it was very difficult to get lost for any great length of time, because sooner or later, I’d find myself by the seaside again and could get reorientated — if the sea is on my left, then I’m going in the right direction… It’s a signpost, a touchstone, pointing out the way. The sea for me is both a constant and yet an ever-changing part of my world. In summer, it’s a succession of dazzlingly bright, lazy swells coming in to shore; in winter, it’s slate-grey, white-capped and choppy, breaking hard on the stony beach. Or on gloriously still and sunny days like today, it’s a flat calm, beautiful blue — deceptively welcoming, but perishingly cold. The sea is like a huge animal presence in my world, with its own rhythms, cycles and moods. It may be utterly oblivious to anything or anyone — being non-living and yet full of life — but I’m often enthralled in its company.

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