MEETING THE OCEAN BEFORE IT MEETS US

Maritime Festival

In East Boston, my family’s home town, there’s a citizens’ action association, dedicated to all things ocean, that bears the name “The Harborkeepers.” The picture above announces one of the many Harborkeepers events that have changed entirely the conversation many are having about what climate change will do to the ocean and the shores that border it. Whatever people may have thought about the ocean 100 years ago, or fifty, or even twenty, today the objective is to get comfortable with  — knowledgeable about — the ocean as a friend who is also an opponent.

If that sounds like paradox, it is so intended. Much in life is paradoxical. T>he ocean beckons; it also destroys. Water is not shy. It goes where it has access to go. It doesn’t care about your feelings, your heirlooms, your garage, your mattresses. At the same time, the ocean exudes great beauty at so many levels and offers opportunity for co operation — as any sailor knows. The great storms of literature — from the ominous calms and mad bursts in Moby Dick and the near capsizing in  Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus : or from the fatal horror in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm to the futile seductions in Homer’s Odyssey — all show communities of human beings overwhelmed by, or brought to the edge of fate by, the ocean unruly — human beings forced to humility, driven to co operate, taught their limitations, by the weakness of wood and cloth, the faith that takes us into the ocean’s carnivorous mouth in such flimsy devices, as if we were a team of Daniels against the lion or one hundred Jonahs inside the whale. To be sure, meeting the ocean involves the entire community. We saw it this winter and Spring as storm flooding inundated many low-lying homes and garages along Marginal Street.

That’s why The Harborkeepers directs its events at the entire community.

The ocean also requires an individual response. We can’t always rel;y on having community back up. Venture onto the ocean, and you are on your own. Just you and the sea, as in Ernest Hemingway’s great novel. Or when the sea ventures onto you, as it does in flood mode.

Each of us needs to prepare himself or herself on what to do — and what to know — about the sea that abuts us. You can’t learn to sail without learning about weather and the sea’s moods and behaviors. This, every kid growing up in a working port,. or near a working harbor, learns early, the way one learns a language : best and most naturally when young. That hasn’t been true, however,m of Boston’s sea-bounded neighborhoods. Ships brought immigrants here, but it did not bring them to sail. East Boston was not a place where anyone other than those who worked on ships or at marinas had anything to do with the Harbor except to dive into it from rotting piers. Most East Bostonians — including all in my family — fixed on Boston itself, across the harbor, and the jobs they could get over that side and beyond.

They could take that tack because in 1900, 1920, 19040, even 1970, the sea was no threat to anything. Today it is a threat. And so we learn first of all how to swim. Mastering that, we often proceed to learn how to sail.

There’s much more to sailing than you might think. You learn about boats, rudders, keels, sails, halyards, helms. You learn charts — of what’s out there and what;s underneath your boat. You learn ship to shore radio, LORAN, life jackets (of several types), horns, whistles and their uses; you learn what to do in a capsize or man overboard. You learn how to plot a course, and how to recognize buoys and channel markers — rules of the road, so to speak. You learn weather. You learn about various harbors and what sorts of facilities you’ll find there : supply marinas, restaurants, comfort stations, diesel fuel fill-ups.

All of t.his you learn individually. You may have crew aboard with you, but it’s not required. many people sail alone. You need to learn to do it, confidently. I’ve been in a small sailboat in a thunderstorm. It’s as frightening as you imagine. What should you do in such a situation ? You had better know BEFORE it happens. On the sea the weather can change on a dime, with little warning. Fog brings its own huge difficulties. Sounds bend in the fog. You may hear a ship’s horn thinking one direction when actually it has come from quite another.

The community can encourage you and advise you, but only you can learn the sea. It really is just it and you. The same is true when t.he sea comes at you in a flood. Today the sea invades East Boston only at storm time, but the year is coming — soon — when seas will live in your house. What will you do to turn nit aside ? Berms, raised foundations, sluice channels, even floating houses — Holland has them — demand one’s attention. This is where The Harborkeepers has offered concepts and urged conversations in which no idea is too outlandish to be discussed. We are going to have to be sailors, soon, even when we’ve not gone out to sea, because the sea has come to us; and having come to us, we the sailors it has sought will need to know all there is in a sailing course that the ordinary sport sailor learns. You’ll see what I mean pretty darn soon if you haven’t seen it already.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

 

 

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