How to Tell a Story About the Sea

In our last days, I ask people how they’ll describe the sea when people ask them about it. I ask because the question nags at me as I watch the end near: our position inches towards land when I duck into the doghouse and trace my finger through the gridded map and more boobies begin to circle the boat—clumsy and heavy until they’re not, diving with a fine-honed point into the water in a flurry of starry foam. I want to know how we’ll look back at these five weeks on a sailing school ship through the middle of the Pacific Ocean and back, what neat category it will fall under, and how to encapsulate the vastness of it. What all of this meant. Whether it meant anything.

Every time I ask the question, though, no one has quite an answer for me. Good is insufficient; bad is untrue; hard is incomplete. In each successive conversation, we fall away after a few words and look out at the ocean, or the sky, as if one will have an answer. The largeness of the water—the waves till the horizon, the clouds that could swallow cities—defeating the purpose of any summary.

When I first get a chance to answer the question, calling my mother at night from the foredeck on a borrowed phone, and I hear her voice from a thousand kilometres away, a little hesitant—“So—how was it?”—I feel a tear spark in my eye.

I say, “It was—” and stop. “It was—so much.” I hang up soon after. I hug my knees for fifteen minutes on a deck box and look at the stars spin over the shadow of Hawai‘i’s Big Island.

It’s important for me to understand what those almost 3000 nautical miles at sea meant. I have never wanted anything as much as I have wanted this. It’s a trivial, privileged desire, but it’s true that I have not chased or centred any experience as much as I did Stanford@SEA. Ever since I came across the blogs before college, the idea of it rooted in my mind in a way little else had. What about it drew me? I tried to figure it out through the five weeks aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, and in the five weeks beforehand at Monterey, and only circled the real heart of the obsession: something about the isolation, about going so far and seeing what so few had an opportunity to see, the sheer beautiful coolness of it, enough to thrill me completely as an eighteen-year-old imagining my life beyond high school.

But as I entered the program, driving up to Monterey in the last days of March with my mother, I realised my eighteen-year-old self was not as close as I thought. After my gap year, three years of college, two years of a global pandemic, remembering how and why this program had excited me—the way I had obsessively trawled through each of the blog posts, moused over the application process—felt like trying on clothes I had outgrown. It put into relief how I’ve changed—not in easy ways to articulate, but enough that I could palpate a difference. It surprised me, finding the definite certainty I’d grown since the last time I’d taken stock of myself—I had hardened in some ways, softened in others, expanded and shrunk.

When I set foot on the boat in May, therefore, I know I want to be there then, but I know that in equal part I want to be there as a gift to the person I had been what seemed like a moment ago. But as we prepare to disembark, I realize giving a gift to someone who didn’t exist anymore means I still have no idea what I—me, my body as I stood four years older—will receive, or, what, indeed, I have received. I want a simple story, but I know the last five weeks resist any simplicity.

So I start to ask people what they will take away, what they’ll tell the people who asked them about it, what they expected to take, how it’s different. After the moments of silence, someone tells me they wanted to feel more alive than they’d ever felt. Someone tells me about what they’ve learnt about their physical limits. I talk with another person about obsessiveness, love, how the mind circles when left to its own devices, the fascination of observing those circles. We talk about control, how you preserve it, how you lose. Someone else about what leadership means, all the ways it can look. The terror of helplessness; how you navigate it. How you find the acts that give you joy and how you return to them. The different textures of being alone. What power looks like and how it’s used and abused. 

In each conversation we see the shadow of everything we can’t quite say, the seismic shifts we sense more than know, and sense might never quite clarify. Any encapsulation is impossible: so many pieces must be trimmed, blurred, and molded for any of this to fit into a neat box.

Though I try not to let it, the impossibility of an answer bothers me in a way it has not bothered me in four years. In the last five weeks we went through more than we ever expected. The fatigue built in layers down to bone—sleepless nights, hard physical labor, the strange loneliness without ever being alone that comes with living on a forty-meter ship with forty other people. I want it all to mean something for everyone, though I know I can’t control it; still, it can’t all come to nothing; it has to all be important; and I want to know why, and for what, so I can walk away from it with some kind of satisfaction lodged in me, some kind of reward.

I tried to record and summarise—with meticulous journal entries, with photographs—but with the end so close, I’m conscious of how much each record misses out. How many different lies I have told with the framing of each photograph and what I have included and not in each journal entry.

Someone tells me in one conversation that they are grateful they don’t have a simple takeaway. There is so much more to learn from the complication than there is from placing this within a fable: we went to sea, it was fantastic, we came back. There are ways we’ll grow that we won’t be able to capture now, things that have stuck in us that will surface over years. Every time we tell the story there’ll be a different story to tell, and every story will be a different truth.

Afterwards, as always, we listen to the sea as it hums against us. We brace ourselves against the motion of a swell. Track the moment of the sun down to the horizon and then away from sight. Name each colour as it emerges and disappears. Hoping the water offers any answer. Knowing none will ever come. We talk about how many of us came here hoping to find ourselves, whatever that meant. On the first day on the quarter deck a former student had read us a quote about how going to sea is like going to space; we are leaving planet Earth, the gravities we know how to operate within, entering strange orbits and motions and seeing how we stand when pulled apart from it all. We expected a clarity of purpose out here. Apart from the distractions of land and everything we knew, we had expected to see ourselves truly, fully, wholly.

And all of us did, in some ways, but few—if any of us—like we had expected to. The glimpses of truth, or knowledge, or something like it came in flashes if anything. In the rhythm of the ocean we were all surprised by how much everything folded into the routine of the watches—six hours on, twelve hours off, and then again, through the days, sharp afternoons and soft sunsets and the gradual realization dawn brings that we have shifted through time once more. Any clarity glinted in a moment on bow watch, or in a conversation on the quarter deck, or standing at the helm, or more often than not, trying over and over to say something until you found the words for it. Or trying to say it over and over and finding different words for it every time, and hoping that every time you repeat it you approach something closer to the truth. Or at least build towards it, progress as worthwhile and fruitless as standing on the horizon.

A few weeks away from the ocean, now, I’ve answered so many more people who’ve asked me how the sea was. I’ve realized what I want to tell them most isn’t an answer, but about one morning in the last week as we came in sight of land for the last time. We’d all known it was approaching but none of us were sure how we’d sight it—whether there would be lights on the shore so that they would emerge on the night lookout, or whether we’d be able to see where the shadow of the mountain blocked the stars.

In the end, we sighted land at sunrise; I asked my crewmates how it had happened. They had shrugged. With first light, they said, they realized it had been there all along. I climbed up on the mast with a notebook and watched as we drew closer to the island.

What I want to explain to the people who ask now is how it felt sitting up there, the boat laid out in a map beneath me, watching the land come closer. I looked back at where we had come from—a cluster of clouds mottling the horizon-line—and imagined the line our path had drawn through them all the way back to where we’d reached, and every cloud and sun and star and moon and wave we had crossed in the process. 

A weight, as large as the mountain we approached, settled in my chest. It was so heavy I thought it would warp my heart. Or maybe it already had. I waited, watching the island’s trees become distinct outlines, until I felt sure I could carry it once more. 

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