Why I love the sea – and what does it have to do with meaningful life?
Sea is my element. If I haven’t fully understood it before, now I know it. Having stayed inland for more than three weeks I remember the sudden burst of excitement I got when I first filled my lungs with the salty smell of the sea on the way towards Bluefields on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. And when I closed my eyes on the boat-ride that finally took me to Bluefields the sound of the engine and waving motion of the boat immediately sent me to my childhood boat-rides to our summer cottage. Next evening eating in a restaurant built literally above the sea on poles I was looking out in the darkness when I noticed two lights – the left one green and the right one red – somewhere in the darkness. A warm sense of familiarity, emphasis on the famili-part, filled me as I knew that it was a boat approaching the harbor.
Childhood is when the basic elements of our identity are put into the place; who are we and where we belong to. And the sea was strongly present in my childhood. If someone would ask me what is my favorite place on earth I would immediately know the answer: a certain tiny island in the Finnish Gulf of the Baltic Sea. That’s where my family’s summer cottage is and where all my childhood summers were spent. Except of course for my dad’s month long summer vacation which was spent on a sailing boat. Calculating these summer months on a sailing boat together with the nine months I spent in the Finnish navy ships whilst serving the obligatory military service I could say that before the age of twenty I had spent around two years of my life sleeping on boats surrounded by the salty water.
Now I am 9.844 kilometers and one ocean away from there, in a different culture and without having met a single person from my home country in over a month. Traveling alone for such a long time one can’t avoid the moments of homesickness. Although one meets a lot of people, sometimes the loneliness grows on you and you look sadly into the distance thinking about and longing to the people and places dear to you. But when I got to the sea, half of all this was suddenly gone. That’s because I grew up with the sea. It is as much a part of my story as are many people who are close to me. Sea is part of my identity, it is part of my answer to the question ’where I belong to’. It is like a good friend – almost a member of the family. So when I am with the sea, I am no longer alone.
That’s also why sea is able to inject meaningfulness to whatever place or activity that is connected to it. Watching a sunset with a dear friend is a different experience than watching it with some random acquaintance. Although one does not speak too much, just knowing that the other is there makes the experience more meaningful. It is people we love who make our lives meaningful. That’s why experiences and activities connected to people one care about feel meaningful. And that’s why the meaning of life is to make oneself meaningful for other people. For me, the same applies to the sea. As it is like a dear friend to me, anything connected with the sea is more meaningful for me. Sense of belonging is a basic human need and I belong with the sea.
Notice that in the above text I explain my love to the sea solely by reference to the amount of good times we spent together and don’t say a word about the internal qualities of the sea itself. This of course is only half the truth – concrete buildings, for example, were abundant in my childhood neighborhoods also but I haven’t grown up to love them in the same way. As in any love affair, there are also the internal qualities of the sea that matter.
And in here, having seen all the oceans from both sides and many other waterfronts, I must say that the Baltic Sea is something special. The oceans of the world in their hugeness are something majestetic. Often one encounters them standing on a beach that stretches in both directions as long as the eye can reach. Looking out, one sees only sea, only sea – and the tireless rolling of the vast tidal waves. One is filled with awe in front of this royal highness. But as with any royalty, it stays distant. One can admire it but one can’t have an intimate relation with such a giant. It is too much above the human being that one could ever call it a friend.
On the other hand, it is not a real sea if you can see the other shore. As long as you see the other coast, be it as far as it may, you feel somewhat entrapped. The world is narrow. The clear horizon is essential. It speaks of endlessness, it whispers the winds of faraway continents and gives room for your thought to wonder around the world.
The Baltic Sea is a perfect combination of the intimateness of a small lake and the vastness of the ocean. When you look out at the sea sitting in the porch of our summer cottage, between the few tiny islands in front you see nothing but the horizon, the sea and the sky coming together in the sharp and distant clash of two shades of blue. On the other side of the island, the unique archipelago of the Finnish Gulf filled with tiny islands one next to the other spreads out. The bigger ones are covered with wood but the smallest ones that are only a few square meters wide are solid rock. There, just on the borderland between the inviting archipelago and the open sea lies the island where my parents decided to build a summer cottage on.
And the sea in front takes so many shapes depending on the winds that one can never grow tired of it. Mostly it rocks with small waves on which the toy boats we had as a child could have an adventure. The sound of small waves invites one to take contact with the water. Sometimes, however, the sea shows its power and wildness and builds itself into a storm in which huge waves crash against the solid granite rocks that cover the southern side of the island sending spatters high up in the air. One is reminded of one’s own smallness and how mother nature deserves our respect. But a few days later the sea has again calmed down and in windless evenings it can be as smooth and clear as a mirror reflecting the clouds above and the occasional boat that breaks the clean surface. To add to this summer spectacle, in the midst of the winter the whole archipelago changes face totally when the sea freezes to ice and the snow covers everything with its whiteness.
This is why I feel that the Baltic Sea with its archipelago is something unique. It is like having as a friend a wise old man with noble past. Most of the time he can be intimate and friendly, inviting and close – yet the horizon in the far distance and the occasional storms remind that there are unfathomable hidden wisdoms and forces just beneath the surface. This, in a nutshell, is why I love the Baltic Sea – especially around that tiny little island.
With the above comment I join the long line of writers who pronounce their love for their home neighborhoods whilst far away from them. As said, travelling is also a way of learning to appreciate more your home and be grateful for what you have there.
It might also be noted that this wave of nostalgia for the Baltic Sea filled me now that I am on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and not when before I was in San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast. The reason is the difference between these coasts. On the Pacific coast the ocean stretches to the shore and I admired and tried my luck with the huge waves that are excellent for surfing. But this unending roll of the big waves is not inviting one to float around and accordingly I learned that many native inhabitants of this coastal town don’t know how to swim.
On the Atlantic side the islands protect one from the roaring of the ocean and accordingly the sea was calm and tender, much more resembling the sea where I feel at home. In the small villages of Orinoco and Pearl Lagoon I watched how the local children joyously jumped in the sea and played around. It was watching scenes like this that I felt the nostalgia to capture me from time and time again.
Finally, if this sea-related introspection hasn’t bored you out already, this revelation about my relation to the sea also explains what happened to me in Léon a few weeks before. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the city and everything was fine but somewhere in the background a feeling of wanting to escape was present. It was like a whispering panic that was almost beyond notification but that in the end forced me to leave the city before it grew into an angst.
When I spend a longer time in a city that doesn’t have a defining water in the center – preferably sea but a big lake or a big river already provide much comfort – I feel suffocated. Lucky for me, the enormous importance of water for transportation and trade in the old times, has made sure that almost every major city on earth is either on a shore or has a big river floating through it – think London, Paris, New York, Shanghai, Stockholm or Barcelona. And think also how different, shapeless and ungraspable they would be without the water element. To escape the constant attacks by the pirates, Léon was built in the 17th century twenty kilometers away from the sea. And that twenty kilometers was enough to wake in me the feeling of having to escape.
It is easy to share your thoughts here where I am glancing over the sea at the moment. Alone on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland, the island you so well know.
Last night the nature was showing its forceful side. Winds were occasionally blowing above 20 m per second, parallel with heavy rain showers in the darkness. Those moments you minimize the time you spend outside, and instead concentrate to sit inside in the warmth. Then you can let your thoughts be inspired by the strength of the nature, feeling small.
Today it is calm with some soft waves left from the windy night. The sea looks very friendly now, the autumn sun is glittering warmly in the water surface. It invites me to think about how it would be to sail to the other side, to the Estonian coast. The invisible coast which luckily became reality and part of our sailing life more than twenty years ago.
I agree with you that the real sea is such where you do not see the other side. It is only then you are able to see the horizon – one of the most magic elements of the nature. The beauty of the Baltic sea is that you still are able to sail to the other side beyond the horizon within reasonable time, in this part of the Baltic only after one long sailing day. Reaching the moment in the open sea when you start to see elements from the coastline – lighthouses, hills, forests – that creates the peak moment of the day, as you certainly remember from your childhood.
Living at the sea people often have this constant desire of coming and going – as if you cannot decide should I stay or should I go. Leaving the harbor is a fantastic moment – as well as coming back home. Loving the sea – is it part of our DNA? Let this be unanswered but as your Dad I feel very happy that we can have this great feeling together – even in the opposite sides of the ocean.
I also love the sea even I’m afraid of being surrounded by water.
I love the odor of it, its sound, the winds, sand beach, sunshine, including sea foods.
My house in Bangkok is close to the sea. When I was at home I can sense about the sea by my nose.
The sea in Bangkok is not the sea with sand beach. But it’s the mud beach where the mangrove forest are. In the past, this area full of mangrove forest. Untill the shrimp farm industry took place. The mangrove forest declines. Something change in our biology.
Once in my life, I used to be on a Navy ship rode to the Gulf of Thailand. It tooks just some hours but it’s a great experience in my life. It made me feel something more with the sea. Because normally, I look at the sea from the beach. I never be in the sea surrounded by sea water. It made me feel something when I saw only the sea and the sky.
Now I’m living on a mountain which is very high above the sea level. I miss the sea very much.
Thanks for sharing this topic. I like it very much especially the date you posted it.
I enjoyed reading the comments of both father and son. I have a summer cottage on an island in Lake Superior, the U.S. side (vs. Canadian). Our four children were very young when we built it, and we hope they will have the same attachment as Frank has to his island in the Gulf of Finland.