Sharing Our Stories

A sea of meaning: How the sea changes me.

There’s no two ways about it: being out at sea changes me.

It’s hard to write about this without streaking off on a tangent of froth.

To an artist, the sea is a moody canvas of light, texture, color and motion to capture, but to a sailor, it’s more than that. The surface of the sea is a living membrane between two worlds.

Both have oxygen and carbon, light and darkness, calm and tempest. Both worlds move fluidly, even if the creatures that move within them at times seem clumsy.

Offshore, the boundary between sea and sky is delineated by density, gravity, a 360-degree horizon, and by the form that water takes—mostly vapor in one, mostly liquid in the other.

But there’s also a boundary of the imagination.

The air is light, heavenly, knowable; the sea, innately un-knowable, thick and dark, a place of slimy predators, witless prey, and terrors of the deep.

It symbolizes the fear of unknown deeps within ourselves.

Architeuthis, the ship-killing mythical Kraken, is actually a giant squid not known to grasp ships and pull them under, but we still harbor its menace beneath the conscious surface of our imaginations.

Its existence is sometimes hinted at by upwelling and unnamed extremes of emotion, whose release we fearfully block lest they pull us under.

When we say someone is “all at sea,” it means they are feeling lost and confused.

When a sailor goes to sea, she in fact confronts 3 worlds: Besides sky and water, there is also an ocean inside us.

Before Jim and I left Port Townsend aboard our Pacific Seacraft Dana 24, Sockdolager, we asked a few friends for advice.

Much of it was useful, some was funny, but the most profound suggestion came from Lin Pardey:

Once you head out to sea, turn off all shoreside communications and feel the delight of truly being at sea, letting the sounds, smells and vistas take over your whole mind.

I had no idea how right she was.

I found that letting the sea take over opened an elegiac doorway into an unexplored chamber of the mind.

It’s as if my amygdala, the brain’s center of primitive emotion, became mesmerized and could no longer repress thought snippets, memories, and occasionally, endless annoying song fragments.

There was a tidal freeflow in and out, an ebb and flood between the conscious and unconscious, until things I hadn’t remembered in years spilled out on night watches as I braced tiredly against ceaseless rolling.

Oh look, what’s that thought flopping down there? Talk about unguarded moments. The sea bent me to its will through heave and toss, pitch and yaw, a form of sensory overload combined with the empty-horizon sameness that can induce sensory deprivation. I felt a nameless gate opening.

We’re from the Pacific Northwest. There the sea is cold and mysterious.

At night off-watch, I lay in my warm, dry bunk, left ear six inches from the Pacific gurgling at the hull, 100 miles off the Oregon coast. I imagined the billions of unseen shelled, feathered, finned, and toothed lives, of which we know next to nothing. Some crawl in freezing darkness 12,000 feet down; others are near the surface. Some are large, intelligent; others are invisible, microscopic, but no less alive. Some lives span whole oceans as they migrate with the seasons; other lives are confined to a drop of water.

On watch I emptied my mind while barely hanging onto my stomach, and watched the birds fly.

Look at how that delicate petrel reverses direction, doing cartwheels! Even over the nausea I wondered, how is it not broken by the wind?

The albatross barely moves its long wings on wavetop swoops, and stares with soulful dark eyes. And the shearwaters, so curious at this green contraption with its tanbark sails and foaming wake. What are they wondering as they fly, land, stare and repeat the sequence?

One could also argue for the presence of another boundary between worlds…

… the one that existed between my mind and body, now a disagreeably nauseated blob of protoplasm which still required the same basic maintenance I would normally give it on land: eat and sleep, pee and poop.

In this watery, out-of-sync world, I tried to “manage” the body by drinking less (so I didn’t have to go below as often to ride the wild toilet) and by restricting what I ate (less bilious product at risk if I’m seasick) but this invariably fails. Somehow, by the time my body feels ready for an IV infusion, it becomes used to the motion, and I resume drinking lots of water. And the other seagoing bugaboo—constipation—is narrowly avoided, too. The meaning of a whoop when someone emerges from the head is instantly clear to everyone aboard a sailboat. Little things mean a lot at sea. Becoming closer to one’s own bodily rhythms is not a bad thing.

By the fourth day out, the sea has turned me into a creature of the moment, which is exactly what one must be in order to survive (and thrive) so far from land. How strange for modern humans to do this! To go from our preoccupied selves with frenetic lives punctuated by 8 hours of sleep to this mariner’s world, where the past dims, the future is far away, and all you have is the voyage.

I can’t enjoy the distraction of reading a book yet, because although I’m not queasy now, reading might trigger it in these big seas.

At first the huge aloneness with myself feels a bit empty and slow.

I notice a disappointing twinge of boredom, and wonder: Why? It’s just me now, am I bored with that? Maybe it’s a truth about our lives: without the past and the future to buffer us, the pure present can feel uncomfortable, so we seek distraction, even escape. But there’s no escape; at sea, the present tense is everywhere.

This flatness of mind is not welcome at first; I was hoping for something more… poetic.

But one needs this flatness out here to be able to recognize changes: a tiny dot on the radio’s AIS screen means a ship is within range, and suddenly I become all alert and sensory, searching the foggy horizon where the bearing says it is, listening for the sound of its engines (sometimes audible through the hull first); perhaps even sniffing for its exhaust, if the ship is upwind. This is not a game, and sailors know it.

Going to sea on a small sailboat is about letting go.

It’s a dropping of allegiance to certain ways of thinking.

Like the idea that you need a lot of space to live in, and a lot of possessions with which to fill that space. Or maybe the idea that adventures are for other people, who fail to heed the conventional wisdom: none of us will ever have enough, so we can never stop working to get enough, because none of us know how much is enough.

Voyaging requires work: planning, preparation, and a high degree of organization, but voyaging makes me feel so alive. Everyone I know who’s done it lately says why didn’t I start sooner? What’s so frightening about feeling more alive? It’s admittedly a lot easier to turn on the TV, pop a can of Bud, and fart into the couch. Or go shopping. But none of that would make me feel alive.

There’s also a notion that life off the grid is slightly shabby, second-rate, a glorified form of camping out, which implies a degree of sustained discomfort or doing without. You do give up a lot when you move aboard a small boat and then sail the boat around on the world’s oceans. We’re doing without schedules dictated by others, nightly apocalyptic news broadcasts, utility bills, commutes, car payments, and too little exercise. We traded that for self-reliance, including sometimes being pushed past what we thought were limits. It isn’t convenient or easy compared to land, but it’s simpler. And in a time when nothing seems simple, that’s a lot.

So I finish my watch and lay down in my bunk, more grateful for being horizontal than I ever thought possible. It won’t be enough, but it’ll get me through the next watch.

To the sea’s chuckling sounds I drift away, between two worlds, but beginning to feel at home now, equally, in both. The sheer richness of life is making itself known; a richness that, from back in my other, land-based life, I know is under terrible threat. Out here I see its exuberance, and begin to feel something resembling love, for its sheer crazy variety and the joy of being alive and in a still-vibrant world.

About Karen Sullivan

Karen Sullivan has been sailing since the mid-1970s, in New England, the Caribbean & Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest.  She studied oceanography in school, held a 100 ton license for 20 years, from 1980-2000, and ran some big boats, but is back to her small-boat roots on a Pacific Seacraft Dana 24.

She and her partner Jim left Port Townsend in July and are enroute to Mexico and beyond, in the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.  Their blog, Karen and Jim’s Excellent Adventure, is at:

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8 comments to A sea of meaning: How the sea changes me

  • Terry Boram

    Your paragraphs on aloneness and letting go really touched me. The visual of being buffered between past and future was an amazing way of describing the present. Also the “enough” analogy is something every person on this earth should read over and over again in hopes of even 1 out of 100 get it. Well said.

    Thank you very much for this thought provoking article.


  • Loved your story Karen and love knowing you’re OUT THERE on the blue part of the globe. That space you mention between the sea and sky is where I too, found great peace. It’s there I found a most profound faith in the universe, knowing that I was held between that sky, it’s winds, that 3/4 inch of plastic called boat-i-love and the briny depths. Letting go of everything, powerless, but filled with faith in something beyond. A poster I had on my wall growing up said it this way: “Solitude. Where you are least alone.” Thanks for the reminder. Happy sailing, my friend.

  • Don Marken

    Beautifully written. Thoroughly enjoyable. It struck me that some aspects of your description of voyaging applies to the “home-free-by-choice” lifestyle that Karla and I are enjoying. I hope we will see you in Mexico.

  • Karen Sullivan

    Thank you all! Sometimes writing something like this feels like I’m having a nice long talk with an old friend.

  • Paul Codd

    The paragraph ending “there’s no escape; at sea, the present tense is everywhere.”
    Pure genius. Thanks.

  • Fausto Buitron

    Dear Karen,
    Thank you! Wow! What a wonderful and amazing story. I really loved the way in which you blended actual scientific biological terms to fully described the emotional feelings of your sailing experience. One can easily see that you found your point of comfort in this chaotic world of our. The sea is a beautiful place to be, although mysterious, it is always rewarding. Thank you….
    P.S. I once had a wonderful science teacher who expressed the world of science so wonderfully…she is never forgotten and I am forever grateful!

  • Karen Sullivan

    Dear Fausto,
    Well what a wonderful surprise to hear from one of my favorite and most memorable former students! I will write a note to you shortly via regular email.

    Paul: Thank you–I meant to say that earlier. -KS

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