Offshore

On the last day of a family holiday I sneaked out of the caravan just after dawn and walked to my favourite spot on the cliff to say goodbye to the sea. The place was near an old stone hut where fisherman used to keep watch for the pilchard shoals coming close to land. There was a deep cave below eroded far into the cliff and when there was a good wind and a high tide the waves would roll in and boom beneath my feet. That morning there was a gale blowing and the cliff top was like the skin of a drum, tremors rising with each landing wave while the wind tore into me. It was the closest encounter I could get with that white capped ocean which I would not witness again for a whole year. A week after returning home I woke in the middle of the night when a book fell from the shelf above my bed. The floor and walls were shaking noiselessly, the first of a series of minor earthquakes which occurred due to collapsing mine shafts a mile below ground where the two local collieries connected. Ever since I’ve woken up several times a year, wherever I’ve lived, to the feeling that the world is shivering around me. Once I’ve shaken the sleep away the feeling subsides, as if my bones return to forgetting that they are submerged in turbulent water. But a dark mood remains, like the swells that keep rolling, long after the storm has blown out. 

Calm – sea like a mirror.

Light air – ripples with appearance of scales are formed, without foam crests.

Light breeze – small wavelets still short but more pronounced; crests have a glassy appearance but do not break.

Gentle breeze – large wavelets; crests begin to break; foam of glassy appearance; perhaps scattered white horses.

Moderate breeze – small waves becoming longer; fairly frequent white horses.

Fresh breeze – moderate waves taking a more pronounced long form; many white horses are formed; chance of some spray.

Strong breeze – large waves begin to form; the white foam crests are more extensive everywhere; probably some spray.

Moderate gale – sea heaps up and white foam from breaking waves begins to be blown in streaks along the direction of the wind; spindrift begins to be seen.

Fresh gale – moderately high waves of greater length; edges of crests break into spindrift; foam is blown in well-marked streaks along the direction of the wind.

Strong gale – high waves; dense streaks of foam along the direction of the wind; sea begins to roll; spray affects visibility.

Whole gale – very high waves with long overhanging crests; resulting foam in great patches is blown in dense white streaks along the direction of the wind; on the whole the surface of the sea takes on a white appearance; rolling of the sea becomes heavy; visibility affected.

Storm – exceptionally high waves; small- and medium-sized ships might be for a long time lost to view behind the waves; sea is covered with long white patches of foam; everywhere the edges of the wave crests are blown into foam; visibility affected.

Hurricane – the air is filled with foam and spray; sea is completely white with driving spray; visibility very seriously affected. 
The Beaufort Scale

The tide was slack, the wind starting to blow, the sun an hour from going down. The two men dragged the boat across the gravel beach and jumped inside as it floated. A bull seal watched them row out and it dived under the hull as they crossed the bay, heading into open water. As they left the shelter of the cliffs they felt the swell. A mile across the sound to the mainland and home. They rowed hard but as they hit the race they could feel the tide already moving fast. Wind frayed the swells, the boat taking on water as each wave hit. One of them took both oars, the other started to bail. For an hour they made no progress as the sun sank. No moon, the stars overlaid by rain clouds. Another hour and they could tell by the distant lights on the shore that they had moved north. The rain started coming down. The shore lights went out, the faint shape of the mainland faded into the night.

I don’t know how they arrive. I wake up and there’s something boiling in me, my heart beating fast, my thoughts racing. I go to the bathroom and in the mirror is the face I recognise and don’t, teeth gritted, the muscles in the cheeks tensed, eyes glaring but nothing being seen. It happened this morning. The only thing I can do is get in the car, drive to a high place, get out and walk. All week storms have been crossing the west of the country. They reach the Black Mountains, swirl and blow out. This morning the hill was wild. Even the thorn trees were bending. Ravens were using the updrafts to float high and tumble down. The golden plovers were rushing the ground in tight echelons which flashed silver as they turned like a shoal of fish. Plovers are shaped by the wind the way fish are shaped by ocean currents. And we are shaped by the tides inside us. It took a couple of hours of walking and being battered by the gale before the thing thrashing inside me started to calm. Then I headed home.  

On 1st January 1995 on the Draupner oil platform off the coast of Norway, in storm conditions a rogue wave was accurately recorded for the first time in history. It measured 84 feet, twice the height of the surrounding waves. Rogue waves had been observed many times before from the decks of ships, but they had only been recorded anecdotally. The fact that they occur sporadically means that they are very difficult to measure. Gales occur simultaneously in different regions of the ocean. When they blow out the swells travel for hundreds of miles, intersecting and running into later storms or hitting  opposing currents. This interference can shorten their frequency to such a degree that waves sometimes merge and grow to huge proportions. They are so big that they can travel at an angle to the prevailing sea. They are thought to be the cause of incidents where ships have vanished without trace, hitting from the side and causing the ship to capsize in a split second.

Thoughts come in waves we can ride for a time. They roll over us, break and smooth out before being sucked back into the ocean they came out of. We swim in our thoughts. Bad moods are bad thoughts conjoined. A hole opens up and in they rush, barreling over us, sending us down into deep, cold water. I get a couple every week and they used to consume me completely until I discovered that moods don’t like you to be on the move. Walking eases them. Riding something, like a board or a horse, makes them vanish completely. 

This morning I walked while trying to count the thoughts that were rushing into my head, their subject matter, repetitions and  variations. I lost count before I’d gone a mile. Thoughts like voices in a room full of drinkers, jostling for attention, mostly uninteresting, accompanied by the ear-worm of a song I can’t stand . After a week of commuting in the dark followed by a Saturday of freezing rain and fifty mile an hour winds that kept even me inside, my head was as noisy as a colony of seabirds. Bonxies were attacking. As usual I was telling myself that this noise would not be here if I’d only learned to meditate. As usual, I replied that the worst people I’ve ever met  meditate strictly. So I kept walking and the combining waves of thoughts kept rolling over me. Until mile six when a kite crossed the ridge just above me, soaring on the last of  the dying storm winds, primaries splayed, the bird utterly still and moving fast, its blue eyes fixed on all the microscopic details of the seeping ground. I stopped and I watched as it drifted out across the valley. The noise inside stopped. I continued to walk and it started up again, but now the voices were whispers and I could hear the wind. 

They kept rowing into the wind, water spraying over the bow, the boat tilting almost vertically as they rode each wave head on. They took turns to bail as their muscles tired, their hands blistered and bloody from their efforts at the oars. The storm showed no signs of abating. Then a glimmer of moon overhead before cloud once more slid and locked in front of it, but they had seen the sea stack  and now they changed direction and rowed hard towards it, going with the wind for a while until they felt the tilt of the waves lessen slightly, and then again. Now they rowed as close to the stack as they could, and felt the wind subside enough for them to hold the boat in place. All night they held there, taking turns at rowing and bailing, until the tide went slack and the gale started to blow out. At the stain of daylight, when the horizon appeared for the first time in twelve hours, the wind changed direction and calmed to a  breeze. As the shadow of the cliffs appeared miles off, they turned the boat and rowed for home.