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By the sea, by the beautiful sea

!cid_ADDEC6AF6B8A492190D3018551E3E622@helenPCThis post is my contribution to the Nautical Blog Hop, organised by Helen Hollick. Please do not miss out on all the other posts on this blog hop  – right at the bottom of this post you will find a list of all participants. Further to this, why not participate in my little give-away – but more about that further on.

PaulGauguin-RocksontheBretonCoast1I love the sea. In particular, I like it when it is me and the sea only, like when I’m standing on an isolated clifftop and before me spreads a vastness of blues and greens, here and there dotted with frothy caps of white.

To gaze out across the sea is to inspire a journey, conjuring up pictures of far away places. If that is how it feels today, how must it have felt back in the 17th century, when the lands beyond the waters were essentially unknown, when there were no photos of what would be waiting on the other side? No wonder people imagined the strangest worlds, places full of savages, of impenetrable forests, of gold. Always this gold, this promise of riches unknown, lying waiting for the man intrepid enough to set off towards new horizons.

Columbus_AllegoryToday, it is difficult for us to understand just how distant the American Colonies, South America or Australia were from Europe back then. Yes, yes, I know the continents are no more far apart today than in the 17th century, but essentially travelling is about time, and in our world we can go from London to Sydney in 24 hours – compare that to six to eight months in the late 18th century!

MayflowerHarborFor us to properly understand the enormity of the endeavour it was to emigrate in the late 17th century, we must imagine taking off for the moon. Should we decide to travel by high-speed train (and yes, I know we’re not at that point yet), it would take us approximately 80 days to reach the moon. That is roughly how long it could take to travel from Plymouth to Jamestown – except that the level of comfort in a ship at most thirty metres long, with no plumbing, no sundeck, no nice little pool and very little private space would have left a lot to desire in comparison with that high-speed train…

800px-JEAN_LOUIS_THÉODORE_GÉRICAULT_-_La_Balsa_de_la_Medusa_(Museo_del_Louvre,_1818-19)Add to the long journey the imminent risk of not making it across. Shipwrecks happened regularly, vessels swallowed into the deeps with not a trace left behind. Further to this there were pirates, some with the intent to rob the passengers of their worldly goods, some with the far more dastardly intention of stealing away the passengers themselves. And even if they made it across, what if they didn’t like it? Buying a return ticket wasn’t an option for most of the emigrants. Some couldn’t return due to religious persuasions, some had fled the long arm of the law, and the majority simply didn’t have the money to pay for more than a single. So, once landed in the unfamiliar land that was now to be their home, there was nothing they could do but adapt.

Many never did adapt. People went about with broken hearts, yearning for the home they’d left behind. Obviously, broken hearts are rarely fatal, but imagine living your entire life longing for another place, other people. For many there was the further complication of language. When the emigration from Europe grew into a flood, in the 19th century, people from all over converged on America, on Australia. Many of them were illiterate, only a handfull spoke English (with the exception of the Irish, of course) and the only assets they had were their bodies and the courage that had led them to emirate to begin with.

Map of VirginiaIn the 17th century, emigration was to some extent controlled: Spanish colonies were mostly colonised by Spaniards, British colonies by British and so on. All colonial states would now and then succumb to the desire to use their colonies as disposal heaps for the unwanted elements in their societies. Loud, opinionated preachers? Send them off – preferably to the West indies where the hard work in the sugar cane fields would surely curb them of their desire to question church and king. Flighty women, unwed and with a sullied reputation? Off with them – with the added benefit of improving the imbalanced gender ratio in the early years of the colonies. Thieves? Vagabonds? Unwanted orphans? Take them all – the colonies consumed labour at a horrifying speed.

Over time, the colonies would foster a tough people – testament to Darwin’s theories re natural selection. The weak died, the strong thrived. Actually, one could argue that most of those early colonists were damn strong to begin with. It takes guts to slice the ties to family and neighbours, to familiar landscapes and well-known homes, and set off across a dangerous sea to start anew. And I would guess that those that settled close to the sea, would oftentimes walk down to the shore and stare eastwards, towards home, the place that they came from and would never see again.

Columbus in the new worldThe world has always had its fair share of eager-eyed explorers, young people who have stood for hours with the waves lapping at their feet, wondering what might lie beyond the beckoning horizon. It’s lucky we have them, these visionary men and women. Had Columbus or Vasco da Gama cringed in fear at the thought of braving the unchartered seas, history would have taken a very different turn. Had Francis Drake frowned down at the map, tapped his finger to his mouth and said “naah, on second thoughts I think I’ll stay home instead, cultivate my garden or something”, the world would have been one dashing adventurer poorer.

WikingerIntrepid Vikings steered their Viking ships from Norway to Iceland to Greenland and onwards to Newfoundland. Not because they were looking for yet another choice monastery to plunder, but because they were curious enough to do so, well aware of the fact that the world was round, and sometimes things came floating from the other side of the endless ocean.

The Pilgrim Fathers set off to found a new society in a boat the size of half an Olympic pool. One major storm, and the Mayflower and its cargo would have been reduced to driftwood and bleached bones, rustling for ever through the vast forests of seaweed in the mid-Atlantic. (As it was, the Mayflower had a pretty rough crossing, but the experiences at sea were like a spring breeze compared to what the first winter on land would be like)

Peter_benoisI stand at the clifftop and extend my arms, relishing the wind, the infinite horizon of the sea that lies before me. The waves slap at the rock-strewn shore, the scent of brine makes my nostril flare.
“Come,” the sea whispers, the froth of the breaking waves like gigantic, ephemeral lace petticoats on the damp shore. “Come to me, come and see.” I take a faltering step in the direction of the singing waters. “Come,” the waves hiss, “come and ride with us, ride with us across the sea, to other places, other  shores.”
The sea, the sea. So beautiful, so vast. So utterly unknown,  so wonderfully enigmatic. Millenniums ago, life crawled out of the water to conquer the land. I guess that why all of us listen when the sea calls, why none of us stand unperturbed before the majestic sound of waves crashing on a beach.
“Come to me,” the sea whispers, “come home, come home.”

800px-George_Bellows_West_WindToday it is somewhat safer to answer to the sea’s siren song than it was back then, in the 17th century. And yet they went. Young couples packed up their few belongings, gripped each other by the hand and set off across a sea as frightening to them as the concept of a Space Odyssey is to us.  Most of them went with the hope of a better life. Many believed in the tales of gold and other treasures. All of them had to brave the capricious waters of the sea.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown
(T.S.Eliot, The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock)

The sea, the sea. As untamed now as it was then, as yet a mostly unexplored world of darkest depths and sunlit shallows. Who knows, somewhere out there maybe mermaids swim slowly through turquoise waters, and now and then they surface to sing, ensuring that we, landlocked creatures that we are, never forget from whence we came.


In the second book of The Graham Saga, Like Chaff in the Wind, my main characters experience wretched crossings over the Atlantic. Matthew Graham because he’s in chains, an abducted man sold as indentured labour, Alex Graham because it takes far too long, and every day away from Matthew might mean the difference between him surviving his ordeal – or dying from it.

The last few weeks on the Regina Anne were miserable. Alex was torn in two with longing; she yearned for her son during the day and dreamed of her man at night, and the dreams were of a man that stared at her in supplication, hazel eyes dulled with months of toil. She woke to pillows that were soaked with her tears and a certainty that she had to hurry to his side, and she twisted in frustration because there was nothing she could do, no way she could hasten her voyage towards him. She avoided them all, sitting in solitude by the bow, her eyes locked on the west as she pleaded with him in her head to not give up.

Sometimes she pretended she could fly and saw herself beat her way swiftly to the as yet unseen shore. And she found him, a small speck that grew recognisable as she dove towards the ground, and she swished by like a daring swift, turning to dart by him time and time again, until he lifted his face from his work to follow the bird’s spectacular flight. She hoped he knew it was her, that the bird he saw was her longing reaching across the world to softly graze his cheek. 

In honour of this Nautical blog, I am giving away one copy of Like Chaff in the Wind in paperback, and one as an e-book (Kindle). To enter the giveaway, all you have to do is to leave a comment before Sept 22nd and tell me what possession you would take along, if you had to leave your old home behind and set out for new lands. Oh; don’t forget to leave your e-mail and let me know what format you prefer. Winners will be drawn by my 16-year-old-son to ensure total impartiality.

Well, dear readers, that is all from me – but please be sure to visit the other participants’ blogs. Pirates, smugglers, famous ships and maybe a sea monster or two – now doesn’t that sound just the treat?

J.M. Aucoin
Helen Hollick
Doug Boren
Linda Collison
Margaret Muir
Julian Stockwin
Anna Belfrage
Andy Millen
V.E. Ulett
T.S. Rhodes
Mark Patton
Katherine Bone
Alaric Bond
Ginger Myrick
Judith Starkston
Seymour Hamilton
Rick Spilman
James L. Nelson
S.J. Turney
Prue Batten
Antoine Vanner
Joan Druett
Edward James
Nighthawk News

Man, mud and jeeps – a reflection on human perseverance

I spent Christmas away from home – very far away. On Christmas Eve, I lay awake most of the night listening to the hyenas scrabbling at the canvas of our tent. On Christmas Day, I lay just as awake, listening to the two lions that roared in chorus (or maybe they were roaring AT each other) not all that far from our camp. Need I say it was a fabulous Christmas?

Doing a safari has never been high on my list of things I want to do before I die, but it has always been right at the top on my husband’s list, and as married couples should support each other in the achieving of dreams, off we all went to Africa to see lions, giraffes, elephants and hippos. Hippos are EXTREMELY boring. Ostriches are quite fun, wildebeests are … well, sorry to say so, but they’re quite ugly, zebras all look quite fat, this due to the stripes being the wrong way round, and hyenas are my absolute favourites. Strong matriarchal societies have that effect on me, and female hyenas not only call the shots, but they’re actually bigger than the males – a first as far as I’ know when it comes to mammals.

As adventures go, the safari was perhaps a bit tame – and it gave just as much opportunity to study people as animals, seeing as the Serengeti plain was full of four wheel drive vehicles with tourists on board. Cameras protruded from windows, from retractable roofs. A movement in the grass and twenty lenses swiveled towards it, the clicking noise loud in the relative silence of the savanna. The landscape was mind blowing, single trees silhouetted against multicoloured evening skies, blue hazy mountains in the far distance and the grass covered, flat savanna extending endlessly in all directions. Now and then it rained, tropical storms that resulted in waterfalls from above. As a consequence the dirt roads became waterlogged and muddy – too muddy at times. Which is why our jeep got stuck in the middle of nowhere …

We were actually looking for lions and had spent the best part of two hours circling one potential outcrop of rock after the other. No lions – in retrospect probably a good thing. For the last ninety minutes we’d seen nothing – well, apart from grass, bushes and water, the odd bird or two. There were no recent tracks in the road before us, the sun was beating down and the jeep growled and bucked its way through one mud-hole after the other. Until we hit the hole. The motor roared, the wheels spun. It roared some more, the wheels spun even faster and after a couple of minutes of this our guide Emanuel switched off the engine, slammed the driving wheel and said “we’re stuck”. (I actually think he said something very colourful and rude first, but seeing as that was in Swahili I can’t be 100% sure).

What was the first thing everyone did when Emanuel said that? Out of seven pockets out came seven mobile phones, arms  were extended, windows were opened but to no avail. No coverage. I studied the landscape around us. As far as I could see it was empty of animals – and of cars.
“No choice,” I told my family. “We’ll just have to push.”
No major enthusiasm met this comment, but as I believe in setting a good example I opened the door, told my kids to shape up and jumped out. My shoes sank a decimetre into the soft mud …
To cut a long story short, it took us almost two hours to dislodge the damned jeep. We picked armfuls of grasses to wad in front of the wheels, we pushed and shoved, got it out of one rut only to see the vehicle slide sideways into an even deeper rut, and at one point my hunk of a son (the eldest) looked at me, lowered his voice and said “We’ll never do this, Mum. The wheel’s sunk all the way to the axle.”
“We have to,” I told him. And we did, all of us cheering like mad when the jeep finally was on firmer ground. All of us were plastered in mud, our shoes were insalvageable, and my husband dislocated his shoulder, so it was a somewhat bedraggled group of travellers that finally made it to the hotel later that day. Oh, did I mention that there were fresh – and huge – cat prints in the mud beside the jeep?

As we struggled with our jeep, I kept on thinking about all those intrepid explorers and colonisers that dot human history (I know, I know; somewhat strange. But I tend to go into daydreaming mode when confronted with a major task). The first Homo Erectus that stood looking out across the Mediterranean, the Cro-Magnon man that decided it was time to up and leave and find a new cave somewhere, the ancient hunters and gatherers that set foot on the the ice bridge that spanned the Bering Strait. They were always alone, dependent on themselves and their family for survival. They had no jeep in which they could hide if the sabre tooth tiger decided it wanted a snack, and the lions back then were (I imagine) much, much bigger than they are today.
In more modern times, there were the thousands upon thousands of emigrants who crossed the unknown wilds of North America, the brave settlers who made their way through South American jungle – and all in the hope of achieving a better life than the one they’d left behind. Progress is about taking risks. It’s about taking a deep breath and setting foot on the shimmering band of ice that temporarily joins one continent to the other and start walking, even when the ice cracks and sighs under your weight. It’s about having the vision that surely there must be new land on the other side of the waters, load up your canoes with people and water and paddle all the way to New Zealand.

In difference to our ancestors, I live in a time and age where I could take a long hot shower and wash away the grime. I didn’t need to catch my dinner, all I had to do was carry my plate around and fill it from the buffet. The long gone settlers who got stuck somewhere between St. Louis and California had no such luxuries. The German wife who carried one child on her back, steadied a second one by the hand and carried a third in her womb, had no choice but to trudge on behind her husband as he chopped his way through the impenetrable jungle in southern Brazil. To stop was to die, a injury however minor could prove fatal, and to return home was an impossible dream.

We had an adventure during our safari, an episode we can milk as a conversational gambit for years to come. But for a little short moment it made me realise just how small we are in the overall context of things,minute little dots in the canvas of life, and who – but us – care if we live or die?

I don’t know if our ancestors were given to ponder the existential aspects of life – I think they were, as to me this is the distinctive trait in all humans. I have no idea if they did a risk analysis before setting off on their explorations, or if it was simply a matter of having no other options. Whatever the case, I am humbled by their fortitude and perseverance, by their ability to adapt. I will never forget our jeep episode, and as I write this I see my beautiful men – husband, sons – as they bow their backs and set their shoulders to the jeep, roaring in unison as they struggle like fiends to dislodge it. We did it – together. Seven people moved 1,5 tons of jeep. Just imagine what we’re capable of, as a species, should we all decide to pull in the same direction!

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