I’ve always been a little afraid of the sea. Not a cold, paralysing fear – but one imbued with respect. The sea is a cataclysmic giant, influenced by the moon, weather and wind. I still much prefer land. I like dirt, not sand. But there is something alluring about the sea that perpetually draws me back.
As a child, going to the beach was daunting. Waves are always crashing against the shore. Lakes lull, rivers roll, but the sea always crashes. It crashes onto the sand as though, this time, it will finally break through. But it never does. At high tide, the sea is feeling triumphant, it has made headway, there is progress. At low tide, it has retreated to lick the sand into unusual patterns. Perhaps the sea is jealous. Perhaps it likes the land too. Maybe it wishes to see the rugged mountains, or walk through a rainforest.
My initial dislike of the beach was the sand. ‘It’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere,’ as Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars puts it. My childhood years at the beach were spent trialling various methods to deal with sand. At two years old, I would sit on a towel wrapped in another towel. Any attempts to remove me from my sanctum were met with a loud vocal refusal.
At about ten, I attempted the complete opposite solution. Figuring I just had to embrace it, after I went swimming, I’d roll in the sand. It sounds awful, and I now cringe thinking about it. But after being in the cold sea, the sand was hot from the sun and it made me feel the kind of warmth you get from having a bath in winter. That bone-deep, seep through your soul kind of warmth. Of course, this method had a fault: I would always be sent back into the sea before we had to leave.
Eventually, I found a middle ground. After some observation, I figured out that my mother was the best at taking the least sand home. So I set about learning her methods. They are as follows:
- Never, ever, put books directly on the sand. No matter how briefly a book touches the sand, you will always find grains in it later.
- All clothing and other items should sit on a towel.
- When you shake your towel out, make sure you are standing upwind.
After finding these tactics, I mostly got over my dislike of sand, and was able to become more interested in the sea itself.
Nippers, or just weekends spent at the beach were for exploration. I searched for crabs under rocks with friends, played beach cricket and chased “toadies”, little striped fish, through the shallows. A particular joy was trying to tackle friends and family in the water, or whipping a water bouncy ball across the surface of the waves.
But I’d missed out on that fearless age where you can be bowled over by waves and feel completely okay about going back in. I hated getting rolled by a wave too big for me, tossing my body around like a sock in a dryer. The sea is a fierce and harsh teacher. Land allows mistakes. If you trip on land, usually the most force pushing you down is your own. Being careful always pays off on land. The sea, not so much. But, if you’re too careful in the sea, you miss body surfing the best waves. You miss the feeling of twisting and turning, gliding through the water.
My siblings and I used to practice escaping the smaller rip (watched closely by our parents). This was always harder than I thought it would be. We played this game for a while, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. It taught us about the power of the sea, and how best to escape if we ever did find ourselves in trouble.
My love (and respect) for the sea itself had grown too.
At 12, my family moved house. Moving meant that a different beach was closer than the surf beach and boat club of my childhood. This new beach was comparatively silent. The waves were less aggressive and didn’t try to drag me anywhere I didn’t want to go. It was a dog beach, so there were always fewer people. The sand was the perfect firmness for running. It was here that I really learned to love the beach. As years passed I noticed more and more about this quieter beach – which I have now come to think of as “my beach”. Now, as an adult, I know it well enough to notice that each time I return, it is a little different.
My beach has a fascination with sand sculpting. It creates small sand banks, then removes them. It moves sand to unearth one section of rocks, hiding another collection of rocks somewhere else. Occasionally it looks like it has sucked in just one section of sand, making the beach dip in odd places. Every day I go, it is a new place.
My beach also has a lot of seaweed – the plaything of the sea. Some days it is dumped in huge piles that dogs jump in and I trudge through, other days it moves with the waves. It is unusual for seaweed to completely desert this beach. But it makes for a wild character. Some days there are wiggly stripes in it. I tend to dislike the days the seaweed lurks in the shallows, ready to slither along your toes.
Let me tell you about the great, neverending battle at my beach, it goes like this:
Water from inland runs into the sea through a couple of outlets. The beach never appears to want this water, and in summer it creates a sand barrier, leaving stagnant water to sit in a pool. A military success for the sea. However, when winter comes around, it rains, reinforcing the river. The outlet overflows, breaking the barrier and carving its own path through the sand bank. The sea fights back, ferocious at high tide. Sand is moved and pushed by the waves to patch the hole in the wall. This is successful for a little while. But the sea can’t keep up the battle, and eventually, low tide rolls around. And then? Water from the outlets gains momentum, cutting through the sand wall to create its own channel. Victorious, the water rushes to the sea. The tide of this battle rises and falls, never ceasing.
I love my beach. Perhaps that seems strange, after all my struggles to accept beaches in general growing up. My beach is still hardly ever what you would consider “nice”, and seaweed is always dancing along it. But it feels wild, it feels alive. The wind flies along the shore, some days sending the sand stinging, sometimes just hair flying. You are forced to breathe and smell the salty air. I often go running and take a dip afterwards. In winter the water steals my breath away. It makes me feel alive, so so alive and a part of this magnificent, wild, monster that breathes salt and fights the sand. Nature isn’t just about the places that look like postcards, or getting out in “nice” weather. If this is your expectation – you’re missing out on the essence of nature.
The most magical moments I have experienced have been chance, moments where wildlife crosses my path; the cold mornings that pinch my cheeks; the electricity of going running with a storm rolling in. Being out in nature in this way means that you notice the subtle differences that make the landscape come to life, and you appreciate the perfect days that much more.
If I am very, very lucky, the sea gives me a gift. It is a couple of hours, where the wind is gentle, and the water is crystal clear and free of seaweed in the space you go to swim. The tide is in the middle, not too high or too low. The sun shines in a bright blue sky and the temperature is just right. These moments are the most glorious and utterly treasured because they are so rare.
And the rest of the time? My beach is an adventure – and I wouldn’t change it if I could.
Banner image courtesy of Holly Roysmith.