The Pacific Ocean is a magical place where I would often lose myself. The sea was where leviathans and tentacled monsters lurked. On a paddle to Anacapa Island, a pod of dolphin breached the surface of the sea and escorted me for a mile. On a return trip from Santa Cruz Island, I was escorted by another pod, pterodactyl-like birds with outstretched wings gliding over the breaking waves. Circumnavigating Catalina Island, I was circled by two tiger sharks. These were unforgettable experiences.
The sea is great and I am humbled by its power. Gentle winds riffle the surface of the waters when the sea is tranquil, but this same sea smashes steel ships when stirred. The sea is powerful and great. It cracks open hulls and pounds the rocky coasts into shape. What would it do to my bones? It kills without remorse. It apologizes to no one; it explains itself to no one, the murderous sea, the snot-green sea.
I tread the waves like a pilgrim on holy land. Here, I know God is great! Here, I understand the meaning of the verse: “The fear of God is the beginning of all wisdom.” I seek out the Great Mystery at sea. God breathes through me. I jettison all that is not me and cast off who I thought I was to become who I am.
The sea challenges my illusions of self. I am not of the sea, but of the city. Although the city is not far from this watery world, it is a vastly different place. No, that isn’t right. I am not of the city, but of the sea. Although I live in the city, my origins point to the sea. I can trace my marine ancestry back to something ancient and wondrous.
Our ancestors crawled out of this briny soup and ventured onto land. “Our blood is very similar to ocean water,” writes Roberto Malinow, a neuroscientist with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. “ It has sodium chloride and magnesium and all those things that are in the ocean. All the cells started as single cells in the ocean, and they were in a solution, which was sea water. In a sense, a lot of the solutions that we make to maintain nerve cells in their happy, alive state are approximating blood, which is approximating sea water. And this all connects us to where we started, in the ocean.”
I would often paddle out to the islands for perspective. The getting there was itself an exercise in courage- courage being not the absence of fear, but the willingness to keep going despite fear. When you’re 8 miles out to sea, there aren’t many options. Paddle forward or paddle back, but, whatever you do, keep paddling. Tired? Can’t quit. Pain in your wrist? Better keep moving. Hands blistered? Can’t stop.
Every thought and stroke and muscle was trained on getting me to shore. I paddled with my attention on my breath and strokes, praying ceaselessly. Hannes Lindermann, who had spent 200 days and nights alone at sea, wrote, “I had learned a great deal that could help castaways. I know that the mind succumbs before the body, that although lack of sleep, thirst and hunger weaken the body, it is the undisciplined mind that drives the castaway to panic and heedless action. He must learn command of himself and, of course, of his boat, which is his strongest and most resilient ally. Morale is the single most important factor in survival. Prayer, which brings hope and with hope, optimism and relaxation, is a powerful aid to self-mastery.”
He called prayer “the invisible weapon of man, which brings him healing power and relaxation and renewed energy. True prayer penetrates the unconscious bringing peace to the individual thereby helping him to overcome disturbing traits in his character.” It’s enough for me that I believe it works. I pray and paddle, paddle and pray.
One weekend, I decide to paddle 30 miles to Santa Cruz. Halfway out, the winds begin to stir and churn up the sea. Soon I am surrounded by whitecaps and waves are breaking over my kayak. I worry and paddle in desperation, but tire quickly. My muscles are tense, my breathing is shallow. Anxiety corrupts and siphons off energy. I must take command of my mind. I begin to chant a mantra with each breath and time my thoughts, stroke, and breath. I think “calm” on the inhalation and “strong” on the exhalation. Soon, I am in rhythm. My mind settles. My limbs relax. The muscles in my face soften. I assess my situation with a calm mind. Although the wind has slowed me to 2 knots, I am still making progress and decide to continue paddling. My confidence invigorates me. Soon I feel strong. I smile. I sing my haka to the winds. Hours later, I beach at Scorpion Anchorage. I am grateful to be alive.
I often meditate on death when I paddle. Before I was born in this skin, billions of years of non-existence. After I die, I am not for an eternity, or am I? Do I take another form? Does my Spirit live on?
How brief is a life, and how miraculous- this much I know. Before we were conceived, life asserted itself. Events unfolded, wars were waged, and we emerged from the carnage. We die, but life continues to breathe and press forward.
San Miguel is one of the more remote of the Channel Islands and the most inhospitable. It is the westernmost island in the chain. San Miguel is the most dangerous of the islands to paddle. Extreme weather is common. Marine conditions are usually severe enough to warrant small craft advisories. Numerous shipwrecks are buried beneath the waves that batter the coastline.
I catch the right day and ferry out. The ranger comments that the sea is unusually calm. I know this can quickly change. Conditions here are unpredictable. I launch early and begin circumnavigating the island. I can hear the elephant seals bellow from shore. Their call sounds like the rumble of taiko drums. Oystercatchers with orange beaks and brightly painted feet call as they pass. Western seagulls circle; brown pelicans fly in formation. Everything is in its place. And when the mind is disengaged from thought, we find our place within this precious order. I did not have a hand in creating any of this and marvel at the workmanship of the Creator. It took 13.7 years to create this universe. The Creator didn't need my help. So, I relax into just being... until I see the monstrous waves ahead of me.
As I approach Point Bennett, the westernmost tip of the island, I watch one massive swell after another barrel through the sea stacks that litter the coast. These 20-30 foot giants crest, curl, and smash down the surface of the sea like an angry fist on a desk. I must turn back or time my approach. Scared, I decide to go for it. I check that my marine radio and flares are secured to my life vest in case of emergency. Not that they would do me much good in such a remote location.
A colony of pinnipeds sunbathe on shore. Some of the males crane their necks and begin to bark as I advance, but they remain on shore. I remember, then, that great white sharks patrol these waters and feed primarily on seals and seal lions. I ignore the worry thought. The present threat is getting past the massive waves that would pummel me like they did the 3 ton steamship Cuba whose cracked steel hull litters the sea floor just a few hundred feet away.
Several alpha males waddle in the surf and dive in, zipping toward my kayak. They circle aggressively. I can only hope they are bluffing. I paddle closer to the break point. A wave crashes. At a distance, I see the next swell beginning to approach. I think I can summit the wave just before it crests and breaks. I lean in and paddle fast toward the advancing wave. It grows. I am now at its feet and begin to climb the face of the wave that looks like it is about to crest. I will not make the summit. I watch the top of the wave curl. It crashes down on me. The mind remains calm during this moment of uncertainty! When I surface, I am sitting atop my kayak, drenched, but unscathed. I paddle quickly around the tip before the next wave strikes.
I am exhausted, but feel euphoric. I pushed through fear. The leeward side of the island is calm. There, I am greeted by a litter of adorable seal pups who swim alongside me, who are as curious as I am to meet them. I am ecstatic. Happy to be alive and enjoy God’s beautiful handiwork.
The next day, I take the ferry back to the mainland and return to the city where I am swallowed up. In the city, I am nameless. But out at sea, I am free, I an expansive; I am one with All-That-Is.