Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

The Sea And Me
(This article forms part of the Journal that I am writing to describe my impressions of America since arrival in september, 2004. To begin reading this Journal from the beginning, click here.)

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by

John Masefield's lines may be the most-remembered of any poem about the sea. The rest of the poem is not brilliant but those first two lines, as simple as they are, must express something very profound about how we feel about the sea. I know they do for me.

It is not that I have anything to do with tall ships. I have been on a sailing boat only once and that was a yacht on Seekoevlei*, a freshwater lake near Cape Town. It was a memorable experience, leaning far out from the side to balance the boat as the wind drove her on, spray from the bow spattering us and the water racing past only inches below. But it was not the sea. This does not explain the feelings evoked by Mr Masefield's poem.

Perhaps it is just that the first ten years of my life were spent in Cape Town. It was a wonderful place to form a relationship with the sea. On one side of the Cape Peninsula we had the cold Atlantic and quiet, rocky coves and bays; on the other were long, unprotected stretches of sandy beach pounded by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Most often we would opt for the Indian, where we could play in the surf, sometimes on belly boards but usually just diving through the incoming waves and splashing in the shallows.

The little bays and inlets on the Atlantic side had their attractions as well, however. The waves were much smaller, particularly at the British naval base, Simonstown, but there were rock pools where marine life could be seen in crystal clear water and paddling was possible even though the water was so cold. I can still remember our excitement at finding an octopus that had been trapped in a pool by the outgoing tide. Boulder Beach was not a beach at all but a place where huge rocks had tumbled from the cliff face into the water and become smoothed into pebbles the size of houses by the constant action of the waves. This was not a favorite spot since it offered no chance to swim or chase sea life but it did have a feature that was a portent of the future, had I but known it - a hotel called Rhodesia-by-the-Sea.

Looking back, I realize that I took the sea for granted in those early years. I did not learn to swim but was completely at home in the water, never encountering fear, even when tumbled by waves larger than usual and thrown upon the shore with a mouthful of sand. They were halcyon days.

When I was ten my father was promoted to managing director of his employers' Rhodesian branch and from that time on I lived hundreds of miles from the sea. In seventeen years I saw the ocean only a handful of times, once at Beira (a sordid little port on the coast of Mozambique) and a few times at Durban during my university years in Natal, South Africa. Both beaches are sandy and lie along the Indian Ocean coastline of Southern Africa. They were mere brief interludes in those long land-locked years.

In 1976 I moved back to the land and city of my birth, Coventry in England. If you wished to get as far from the sea as possible in Britain, Coventry would be a good choice; it is right in the center of the island. Even so, distances are small in the old country and the sea is never more than a hundred miles away. Most of our vacations were spent on the coastline and I came to know the seas around Britain quite well. Although these seas go by different names, the English Channel, the North Sea and the Irish Sea, they are all part of the North Atlantic and have one thing in common; they are almost unbearably cold, cold enough to curl your toes in shock at first touch. My need for the sea was so great at first that I did summon the courage to swim, entering the water in gradual stages and grimacing at those who declared it best to get over the initial trauma by instant immersion.

The advancing years brought sanity eventually and there came a time when I was content to paddle in the wavelets at the edge for a few foot-numbing minutes. It became sufficient just to be by the ocean, smelling the salt breeze, hearing the evocative song of the gulls and the constant shush and hiss of the waves on the shore, the grittiness of sand between the toes, the sun (sometimes) burning the skin and the wind, often cutting in its cold insistence, sometimes relieving from an inland heat wave. In these years, too, I developed the tradition of tasting the sea on my visits to reassure myself that it was still salty.

Britain has all types of shoreline, the endless expanses of sand of North Norfolk, the mud flats of the Bristol Channel on the Somerset side, the rocky coves and tiny beaches of Cornwall, the shingle and pebble beaches of the Channel. There are places that can offer all of these in a small area, Wales and Northumberland for example. I know of a cove in Cornwall that is as beautiful and impressive as any tropical paradise, but I shall not name it for fear that any increase in its popularity will spoil it forever.

But Britain is behind me now, with all its seaside delights in miniature. Once again fate has decreed that I live hundreds of miles from the nearest coastline, as though I were meant to be rationed in my experience of the sea. Understand, I do not pine for the ocean; it is more like an old friend, not greatly missed while away, yet warmly welcomed on re-acquaintance. And my first thought on learning that we were to visit Galveston was that I would see the ocean again.

And I was not disappointed. I am happy to report that the sea is still there and as salty as ever. The Gulf coast of Texas is not as I had imagined, a long line of mud flats and swamps, but a series of sandy islands protecting a lagoon and a low but habitable hinterland. Galveston Island is twenty-seven miles long and every inch of the Gulf shore is sandy beach, as inviting as any I have seen. It was winter so the water was cold but not savagely so as in Britain. And, most importantly, I can say that I have tasted the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a name as redolent of romance and adventure as anywhere.

We did the prescribed deeds of the coastal resort; ate seafood at a place called Joe's Crab Shack (yes, it has a sign advising the reader to "eat at Joe's"), picked up shells and paddled along the shore, watched the rain and mist sweep in with the waves on our second day and drove to both ends of the island. In the summer this must be a beautiful place but also over-populated with an influx of visitors. As it was, we had the pick of any parking place along the sea front and had no crowds to fight in our visits to local attractions.

So my hunger for the sea is sated for the moment. The city of Galveston is both beautiful and interesting, certainly worthy of a chapter to itself. I mention only that what surprised me was the similarity to a British coastal resort. The tacky tourist stores line the seafront and amusement arcades abound. Hotels and motels compete with signs declaring their superiority to each other. This being Texas, it is all bigger and better than the English equivalent but the idea is the same. I did not see a fish and chip shop however...

Next and thanks to my good friend, Harry Tippins (Harry's site), I want to see Padre Island, in the summer preferably.

* Seekoevlei: "Vlei" (pronounced "flay") is an Afrikaans word meaning a landlocked body of fresh water; it can be anything from a lake to a marsh. Seekoevlei is the largest of several lakes in the sand dunes at the base of the Cape Peninsula. Please don't ask me what "Seekoe" (pronunciation: "see-koo") means, if anything. I don't know but would guess at "sea cow". Afrikaans, being derived from Dutch, is closely related to English and meaning can often be deduced from the word's similarity to an English word. As with spell checkers, however, this should not be trusted implicitly.

(to go directly to the next entry in the Journal, click here)


Wonderfully expressed.
Date Added: 02/01/2005

Gone Away
Thank you, Matthew.
Date Added: 02/01/2005

Now that interlude had all I needed to satisfy my own yearning for the taste of salt. ARRR, mate! Well-done, and welcome home! (I see your blog beat mine to the press)
Date Added: 02/01/2005

Gone Away
Thank you, Harry. But wait a moment, that means you've blogged too! Gotta hurry on over and read; 'scuse me folks...
Date Added: 03/01/2005

Welcome back! (Well, relatively speaking) Your love of the sea is similiar to mine of the stars. Reading the post made me remember what it felt like to peer through a telescope for the first time, and see infinity. Thank you
Date Added: 03/01/2005

Gone Away
And thank you, Hannah. Good to be back! Stars I groove on (oh ancient and hallowed expression) too; I just wish I knew more of the constellations. So much to learn, so little time...
Date Added: 03/01/2005


Ya Mohandis Gone! Cooleh San'a inta Taib!

I am glad you got to see the Gulf. As for Padre Island - my brother's inlaws (some sort of intangible relations, I suppose) overwinter in South Padre ... So if you see a big RV being pulled by an even bigger pickemup-truck, wave hello. Umm. . . wait a sec. I guess your arm'd liketa fall off if you did that, eh? ;-)


P.S. - the initial arabic was not in any way derogatory :>

Date Added: 03/01/2005

Gone Away
Sheesh, use a little Afrikaans and look what happens! Not sure I dare ask for a translation, either. But an RV pulled by a pickup...on Padre Island...? S'pose I could just wave at all of them. :D
Date Added: 03/01/2005

Hey Captain/Mister/Engineer/Good Guy Gone! All year you are doing good!

Tough crowd. That kills in Damascus.

Date Added: 03/01/2005

Gone Away
Shall have to remember that next time I'm in Damascus. ;)
Date Added: 03/01/2005

Jenny White
Hello there, hit on this quite randomly when I googled Rhodesia by the sea hotel---- saw Seekoevlei and just thought I would give you the right name and meaning-quite interesting really-its Zeekoeivlei and a Zeekoei is a hippo and a vlei, as you said, is a marsh. Back when the Dutch first settled the Cape in the mid 1600's there were still hippos around and they lived in the muddy waters of the marsh and kept it free of weeds and alien vegetation-once they left, and most were killed I suppose, the weeds grew back with a vengence and its been an on-going battle to this day keeping it clean. Its a very upmarket lake and marina now with very expensive houses all over the place, there is also quite a good nature conservation programme that is ongoing-ski boats and all sorts of water sports as well. They drain it as well now , every year, to clean it out I suppose, but how they go about it I wouldnt know. Jenny.
Date Added: 10/09/2006

Gone Away
Thanks, Jenny - my memory of Cape Town is forty years old now and I spelt Zeekoevlei as it is pronounced. In my day it was pretty unspoilt and it seems strange to imagine it with a marina and houses all around. As for draining it - my mind boggles!
Date Added: 10/09/2006

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