Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Sea: A Romance

by James Priory 

My heart was in my mouth.  With the water shape-shifting beneath me I was a bobbing cork with little control over direction or speed. 
It was February and I had taken the plunge- literally- of paddling round Dinas Island on the North Pembrokeshire coast. 
I had only intended to brave the surf for half an hour and return dripping to the car, but somehow the corners of the cliffs kept beckoning me on, siren-like.  I was forgetting that it was a freezing cold day and that if I tipped into the water in my lightweight kit I would be in serious trouble.  
Fortunately for me, Neptune proved to be in a forgiving mood that afternoon.  But as the kayak sliced into sand at the end of my paddle, I knew deep down I had had a real scare however beautiful those bare, beachless cliffs had seemed from the water. 
A year later and a year wiser, I fancied kayaking round the headland again.  It’s funny how the weather can change a place.  The April sun was shining and it felt warm enough to go for a swim.  What had seemed like an impossible odyssey twelve months earlier was now going to be just an hour or two’s potter in the water. 
“Not carrying on round?” I cheerily called to two other paddlers, performing an arc in front of me.
“No, we’ll leave that to you,” came the reply. 
I felt heroic.  Travelling where angels feared to tread, or at least dip a paddle.  If I could endure this place in the winter, what could possibly surprise me in the spring?
Alongside me the cliffs changed like film sets being rolled into place.  With the sun blazing, I leaned back and let the water move me on.

And then I saw them.  One at first, then another.  And then suddenly it was as if I was under fire from the rocks.  Birds were machine-gunning towards from me the face of the cliff.  Heading for the open sea, guillemots whooshed overhead and then looped back to where I was floating, missiles locked on to their moving target.  Razorbills poured down in patrol formation, the diagonal white lines slashed across their beaks like flashes on a uniformed sleeve.    The precision with which bird after bird fizzed past me left me confused and momentarily flapping in the water.  I was under siege.

The northern face of the island had been transformed into an enormous living colony.  Where I had been mocked by bare rock in the winter, now I was surrounded by hundreds of birds; birds which for twelve months had been fending for themselves on the ocean and only now felt the lure of the land. 
But this was no comedy of clockwork puffins.  I felt exposed to the birds’ scrutiny, a lumbering invader in a world of gannet eyes and fulmar wings.  It was as if I had stumbled on to the set of a Hitchcock movie.
I confess that I have been developing a deep romance with the sea.  As I write, there is a framed poster from the film The Cockleshell Heroes on my wall and on the mantelpiece a stuffed Manx Shearwater, which I found in an antiques shop in Wales, curved in an elegant, backwards-facing ‘S’, also framed in a gold-edged glass box.
The attachment to the sea comes from living in Southsea, from living with the hum of the Hovercraft and hearing seagulls muttering down the chimney.  It is like being on holiday all the time, knowing that you could pick up a bucket and spade and be on the beach within minutes.
And yet it is humbling every now and then to be reminded of the power of water, its vastness and the strange, rich life it sustains. 
The writers of the Old Testament referred to the ocean depths whenever they wanted to convey the mystery of God, and in 2012 it is one of the reasons we remain fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic and by Scott’s frozen race to the Pole. 
Even Charles Dickens, usually associated with bustling cities, spent time imagining that space between land and sea, where David Copperfield begins his journey and where Magwitch crawls out of the marsh to startle Pip.  The sea certainly seeped into Dickens’ bones when he was born in Portsmouth two hundred years ago.
The writer Bruce Chatwin had a theory that the reason babies find peace in a rocking movement is because human beings were nomadic and that what we are experiencing is the sensation of being carried on a journey.
At the moment the kayak rests, padlocked to the side of the house.  But knowing it is there and that I can be rocking on the water at any moment means that there is always part of me thinking about the water and waiting for the pull of the sea.

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