Notes from the Ocean

Dolphins nudge

each other

at the bow

and then a push

of momentum

and they’re out,


into the ocean,

slamming on the brakes

and turning back

to do it again

and again.


A prison of ocean

encloses us all.

There is no escape.

A prison of fear

ensnares my thoughts.

The light of experience

suggests a way forward.

I wander as if in a dream.

A prism of a rainbow

glides across the ocean

towards me and only me.


I sing what I cannot understand.

I mouth the words because I know too much.

Volume is not meaning;

silence is not understanding.

I am standing at the stern,

my arms aloft, looking back,

bidding farewell to what have I missed,

and what I failed to make sense of.


Ten days without washing,

we stand on deck embracing a rain shower.

The rain is cold, it stings our sunburnt backs.

Then we warm. We put soap on our bodies

and the real downpour arrives.

Rain and rain and rain. Off the sails

it flows, then gushes. It slides

over our sun creamed skin,

so we can feels pores coming alive.

Water renews.


Slight is the thing which bends.

It is a filigree twisted into strength.

Flight is the thing which ends

with the withering wind and

begins our motion through the seas.


Songs make sense of the night.

On watch at four a.m. we retrieve

a night in a bar in Dublin

and the words of the Wild Rover.

I see Danny the Ducie fiddler

with his beatific expression

going through his Friday paces

and George the toothless barman

who played the spoons and downed Guinness

with the restless stealth of the guilty.


Spotted East of Guadalupe:

a red billed tropical bird.

Then we knew we’d arrived.

The bird circled the boat not once but twice,

curious at this strange sighting,

a wandering dream in rough watery reality,

a tropical figment in a world of sunlit glimpses.

It appeared to pause and then headed away,

its long tail bearing off with the wind.


If it was easy everyone would do it.

Discomfort and the imprisonment of days

is the true coinage of experience.

Over the time staring to sea

we are building our own currency

which will lie in our minds

as a hard-won and deserved treasure.

It can be shared but never repeated.


I have never understood that urge to tweak,

to change and alter in the name of improvement.

Why tinker when the weather is set fair

and we are on course? Sailing is an art.

There is science, but all sailors

believe they are artisans of the breeze,

tailoring their sails to an exact angle

every time, reeling in and letting out

the genoa when the timing is spot on.

Art is improvement –

the final brushstroke, the change of tint,

the vital word added to proofs,

the touch of the chisel on the capstone.

Science is explanation

and, in time, even the wind on the sails

and the waves on our bow will be explained.


After sixty metres the depth gauge goes blank,

too much sea to contemplate.

Sometimes at night the gauge flashes –

at 78 metres usually.

I imagine a whale swimming beneath us,

bemused at the blank black space above,

keeping us company for a mile or two

and then diving deeper and deeper.


The fish fight. Twenty minutes

and then the line snaps dead.

We had readied the grill and the limes

so sit and wait for another

to take the hook, diving long and deep,

wriggling for life on the surface

before being landed, killed

and prepared within the hour.

The fish tastes of life, vigour undimmed,

purity of spirit and diet,

and cooked up on a plate for us.


As I sleep the Atlantic is alive.

I can hear the swoosh and inhalations

of water like wet urgent breaths

somewhere through the hull.

The sea rushes back and then,

with a giant exhalation, pushes

us forward. Push and shove,

glide and grate, the sea is force,

power at our sides, coaxing

life where none existed, renewing

with each fresh wash of sound.


A prayer is extinguished by the salty wind

and what sounds like a cry

is heard and fades at our beam.

What voices of the seas are these?

Onwards we sail. The air is sugared and tropical,

Barbados threatens to come into view

but then disappoints us, hidden from our eyes.

The seas are never silent. The winds

winnow through the waves, sibilant

with movement, a fizz of Atlantic life

comes in glad response. What swirls

of current, circles teased from the straight,

the force of waves captured in an angle.

For the Atlantic, the land is the myth.

This is the ultimate force, watery cradle of being.

From Atlantic Crossing (St Giles Poets, 2015)

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