Growing up with saltwater in my veins
One of the hardest elements of lockdown has been missing the beach. We live close enough: you need to drive, but not for long. Until recently, we might have well have been in a landlocked county. It’s been too long since I regularly got to look out upon the sea.
Next Monday (June 8th) will be World Oceans Day, so I thought I’d write about what the ocean, the sea and the coast mean to me.
I grew up in a small fishing town in South Devon. Like many in such circumstances, I took it for granted. The sea was just there … it was always there and it was perfectly normal to have it within walking distance. Every kid grew up with that, right?
As I got older I realised that what I had on my doorstep is quite special: people are travelling from all over the country, sometimes from around the world, to be here. That revelation came at the same time that I understood my father had a different relationship with the sea to most of the visitors. The beach was for walking dogs on, not lying on. His primary interaction with the sea was on the foreshores of creeks at ungodly hours, or walking cliff paths with us as children to escape the crowds.
So much of my love of the sea was influenced by others, particularly my father. An example: his time on the fishing fleet convinced him that he didn’t want anything to do with boats when he got older, so we were never “boat people”. My father interacted with it from the shore, so that’s where my love grew. The quays and slipways of town. The beaches, the foreshores and the cliffs of south Devon.
Contrasting this with my partner’s upbringing, we ended up together but we started at very different places. She grew up inland, one of those whose families holidayed in the southwest every summer. She dreamed of the sea because she didn’t have anything like it most of the time; I took it for granted.
But teenagers want more than sand and saltwater. They want parties and bars, they want more than one nightclub, they want something to happen in the winter. Most of all they want independence, so I moved away without really giving the sea a second thought. It would always be there.
I moved as far inland as I could go to study in Nottingham. When I missed the sea I went to the nearest body of water: the lake on campus, the canal or river in later years. It didn’t happen often. I returned home or travelled to other parts of the country often enough to get my fix.
My next move to Swindon, equally landlocked. Here I really missed the sea. Swindon doesn’t have a waterway, and at the time I remember thinking it crazy that it had no open water flowing anywhere in the town. They’d filled in the canal years ago.
I returned home to Devon 10 years ago. A large part of the move was motivated by saltwater longing; I knew how much I missed my coast. I sought out job opportunities in Devon, rather than following the work as I had in the past. I can get to the sea in less than 20 minutes, and that’s good enough for now. We can get closer and we will.
The sea has been ever-present in my career. Believe it or not, I moved to 50-miles-from-the-sea-Swindon to work as a maritime engineer, designing structures for ports and harbours. I worked on the edges of the ocean in my head, on paper, and on screengrabs from Google Earth. Later I helped design ports themselves, and later still designed coastal edge protection and marinas. It has always been there.
These days I manage maritime projects and I manage the people that work on these projects, and my heart remains in the saltwater. My current passion is in the sustainability of maritime works and of the marine environment as a whole.
My career also bought me my partner, as we met working for the same firm. She has an equal passion for the sea and the coast, but like our childhoods, she’s come from a different work background. She studied as a marine biologist, before working as an environmental scientist and consultant. I love that we’ve arrived in the same place and can share so much about it. Our love of the same locations, and our little customs when we get there. I can watch the effect being there has on her, and know she’s feeling the same way as I do.
Finally, there’s our dog, who may possibly love the beach more than either of us … and more than anything else in his life. He smells it before we see it, and pulls so hard on his lead we worry he’ll injure himself. He’s never happier than when he’s plunging into the waves or digging a big hole … he would always be there if he could.
I’ve always loved the coast more than any other part of the marine environment. I love it as the boundary between two states, a shifting border never the same. I love changes all the way from the micro to the macro: the heartbeat of waves, to the rise and fall of the tides to gradual re-sculpting of the land. At the coast, the sea does what it wants and the land has no answer. It builds what it wants, and destroys what it wants, sometimes so slowly that we hardly notice, other times in ways that are catastrophic and dramatic and beautiful.
I love that every time the tide recedes you don’t quite know what will be revealed, even when you’re familiar with the shore. I love that there is so damned much coast on this planet, all unique and most of it gorgeous.
I find it instantly calming, the salt-tasting breeze and the myriad sounds of water moving. I find it endlessly fascinating.
I hate what we are doing to the oceans. I particularly hate that that damage wrought is most visible here at the coast, because that’s where most of us are. The ocean will always be there, but so could the damage; a permanent stain on its surface and poison in its body. A permanent testament of how shit humanity was.
But there’s reason to be hopeful. There’s a lot we still don’t know about the oceans, but right now we are more informed than we have ever been. Internationally there is more interest in it, and more people working to put right the damage done than there has ever been. People care and are ready to start doing something about it. A lot of the damage we’ve done can be stopped or even reversed, we just need to want it, and start doing something about it.