I have to admit that I have a strange relationship with water. Maybe it’s because I am not a strong swimmer. Okay, to be honest, I’m not a swimmer at all. However, over the last few years, I have found myself exploring various bodies of water. There was the journey across the channel from England to Belguim and then to France, the cruise around Lake Mead, the voyage down the Colorado River, the expedition to view glaciers in Alaska, the whale watching adventure in Hawaii (which unfortunately, didn’t produce a single view of the large mammals), and even the gentle drift around the lake on a duck boat in Branson, Missouri.
So even though I have experienced a variety of watery journeys, I have to admit that I still feel a tense anxiety starting in my chest and rising up in my throat every time I board a boat. Stress grips my heart and tightens my rib cage. I find myself holding my breath as the boat begins to pull away from the dock. I silently begin to pray, “God, please, don’t let this boat sink. Please, don’t let me fall overboard. Please, I can’t swim and this lake (or ocean or sea or creek) is so deep…please, God, please, don’t let this boat go down…please…”
And then, I sigh an audible “…aaahhhh….” as the boat settles into the water and begins to roll back and forth on the waves. At that moment, an amazing sense of peace and gratitude overwhelms me. Like second nature, my soul just gives over to the need to be part of something larger than myself. I look out at the water and feel amazed by the vastness of the universe. My anxiety always gives way to the most luxurious feeling of peace once I find myself sailing along with the currents. As the saying goes, “When I stop struggling, I float.”
So that’s why on August 30th, 2017, I was filled with both excitement and anxiety as I stood in front of the Hotel Pacific in Cairns, Australia. I was waiting for the tour bus that was going to take me to the port where I would be getting on a boat that would be carrying me out to the Great Barrier Reef. Though I was already praying for a safe journey, I still couldn’t shake the exhilaration that was pounding through me. I was about to experience one of the best attractions in Australia. After ten minutes of prayer and stress, I was finally aboard the Western Winds bus, which was expertly driven by a friendly, older man who looked like the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island. The heavyset, incredibly kind man had gray wispy strands of hair straining around the sides of his head. His blue captain’s hat tilting to the left and his crooked smile leaning to the right may not have inspired a lot of confidence, but felt immensely welcomed and respected by this driver as I settled into a seat near the front of the bus.
The drive to the harbor was going to take about an hour with a few stops along the way to pick up additional passengers. I thought that this would be a great time to catch up on my journal entries. I held my pen over a blank sheet of paper, but I couldn’t concentrate. I just wanted to stare out the window and see as much of Australia as I possibly could through the large, slightly grimy, thick windows. I wanted to climb every tree, smell every flower, and count every blade of grass. I had even stared at all of the hotels and tried to count all of the doors and windows as I tried to commit everything I saw to memory. But, of course, the bus was moving too fast to experience Australia in this way, so instead I was content for a few minutes to relax back in my seat and watch the two lovely bees buzzing around the front window on the opposite side of the bus.
Finally, we arrived at the pier and the bus driver, who would be traveling to the reef with us, pointed in the direction of the dock where our boat was waiting. I was glad he was there to direct us; the harbor was full of a multitude of ships of various styles and colors.
Once aboard, crewmembers greeted the passengers in the cabin with coffee, tea, cookies, and an interesting presentation on coral and sea life by a marine biologist. Twenty minutes later, as the boat revved up and started to move out into the ocean, I once more started to pray, “God, please, don’t let this boat sink…”
But within a few short minutes, the sense of awe overcame me and I started to relax as the boat rocked back and forth on the water. Aaaaahhhh. I couldn’t help the deep sigh of serenity that escaped my lips as the boat moved further away from the dock. With the majority of the other tourists, I climbed the white metal stairway to the top of the boat. My sudden sense of peace had compelled me to sit where I could observe the water, the sun, the fluffy clouds, the pure blue sky, and the other boats that sailed along beside us.
I settled down on one of the red vinyl benches that bordered the top tier of the boat. I closed my eyes and let my body relax with the swaying of the ship as I breathed in the smooth, warm air….at first.
Within a few minutes, however, my eyes popped open and I sat up straight. The strong currents were pushing the boat sideways and the wind was blowing so hard that the red canopy covering the boat began to snap loudly as it flapped up and down. I put my hands down on the bench to grip the edge of my seat. I felt my body beginning to roll as the boat rocked violently back and forth. I glanced at all of the people sitting on the other benches around me. Though everyone seemed to be gripping onto their seats or trying to push the widely blown hair out of their faces, I grew concerned that I was going to embarrass myself by getting sick. I had never been on a wilder ride out on the water. I was now mentally kicking myself for not accepting one of the seasick pills that the crewmembers had passed around before the ship left the dock. I’m not a believer in taking any sort of pills unless absolutely necessary and I had never gotten sick on a boat before. Anxiety and stress, yes, but never physically sick.
I decided then that my best course of action would be to go downstairs to the cabin and see if I could still get one of those little blue pills. I pushed myself up from the bench and started to walk across the white wooden planks that made up the floor of the upper tier of the boat. Oh, my gosh…what was happening!? I couldn’t get my footing with the crazy rocking of the ship. I hadn’t had any of the wine or champagne that the crew had offered earlier and yet I couldn’t walk a straight line no matter how hard I tried! And I did try hard.
My goal was to walk over to the steps leading down to the galley. However, as I tried to walk towards the stairs, I moved my legs straight and yet found myself high stepping to the left! I tried to walk to the right and got my legs all tangled up and almost tripped myself. I straightened my legs and found myself suddenly lurching to the left again. I was suddenly aware, even with the noise of the wind whipping through the canopy, the flags, and various clothing items, that no one was talking or laughing anymore. Everyone had suddenly grown still as they watched me walking (?) rubber legged across the upper deck. Oh, my gosh, was my only thought now, these people must think I’m stinkin’ drunk. I tried to force myself to straighten my back and hips and walk forward, but I was still all wobbly legged and continued moving right in order to go left! I swear I was walking like a drunken sailor back from a three-day leave! I struggled to get my footing and found myself sliding backwards two steps for every one-step I moved forward.
Finally, a young man wearing a yellow t-shirt and multi-colored, striped shorts stood up and took a few steps towards me. He started to reach out his right hand to grab my arm, but he was too late. I tumbled away from him just as he made a grab for me. The man tried one more time, but we missed each other again as he stumbled in one direction and my body was thrown the opposite way. At that point, the man basically gave up as he threw up his arms and backed away, leaving me completely to my own devices. Trying to regain some sense of balance, we both walked wide-legged towards the stairs as the ship rolled back and forth.
And then…success! I did it! I got to the steps first but I don’t think the man had put up much of a fight. I suddenly realized that he had let me win so I would go down the stairs first and avoid falling on top of him if I fell. So, now I was anxious to prove that his assessment of my awkward movements was completely wrong. I was determined to get down the stairs without a stumble. I gripped the white metal railing and carefully lowered myself down one-step at a time as the man followed cautiously behind me.
I now walked across the lower deck and entered the galley. It wasn’t until I was on the carpeted floors of the cabin that I was finally able to walk straight. Thankfully, the crewmembers had placed numerous little blister packets of the seasick pills in a large, plastic, blue bowl on a wooden counter by the door. I still grabbed two of the packets and placed them in the pocket of my jeans as one of the male attendants reminded me that the pills only really work if taken before leaving port. Oh, well…I would save them for the journey back.
After leaving the galley, I decided not to even try going back to the upper deck. Instead, I carefully edged my way across the lower level and sat down on a bench. Now, I felt more relaxed and calm as I sat by myself watching the tall waves as they splashed up against the boat.
About 30 minutes later, I was amazed to see a tall lighthouse situated on a small island come into view and the boat slowly began to drift to a gentle stop. Our ship didn’t dock on the island. Instead, like all of the other boats in the area, our vessel dropped anchor and we continued to bop up and down on the waves, the island still 100 feet away from us. To get to the island, all passengers were transferred on to large sailboats. Now, maybe from sheer relieve that I had survived the journey to the Great Barrier Reef, I joyfully and gracefully stepped across the gap between the two boats and settled myself into a seat. I was now on a glass bottom boat and eagerly leaned forward to view the reef as the marine biologist pointed out various varieties of coral, fish, turtles, and clams. I was so fascinated by the view that I completely forgot for a moment that I was still on a boat that was rocking with the currents. I felt as if I was peering into an alien world, an advanced civilization that I could only see from the outside looking in. I really wanted to be a part of that world but decided not to go scuba diving. Again, I am not a strong swimmer (okay, honestly, once again, I’m not a swimmer at all!) and was afraid I would hold back the group that would be following along on a guided tour led by the biologist.
Instead, I carefully exited the boat and sunk my feet into the warm deep sand of the island. I roamed around by myself for a while as I waded in the cool Pacific water, took long deep breaths, played in the sand, and snapped a lot of pictures, filling up a single memory card. I probably overdid it with the pictures , but the scene was far too beautiful to trust it just to my memory. I didn’t trust my jumbled and scattered brain to take it all in or remember the amazing sights. After a while of roaming aimlessly and purposely, I sat with one of my fellow passengers in the shade and discussed our various travels. The elderly gentleman was from Sydney, and joyfully informed me of all of the main attractions I had to visit when I explored that area of Australia the following week.
After a tour around the island with the marine biologist, the passengers and crew explored the lighthouse and the small grave that held the remains of the first woman to be the caretaker of the lighthouse. I stood for a few moments over the grave and imagined what life must have been like for this woman, who had lived in solitude while her husband was away on the continent for the majority of their lives. She had lived on this island, fighting the elements, surviving alone while making sure the lighthouse would always be bright to save the many ships from harm. So many years ago, what had life been like for this strong, courageous woman?
All too soon, the sailboat arrived to take my group back to our boat. Once again, everyone was settled into the gallery with cups of tea or coffee and cookies. I sat in a booth with the elderly Sydney man and his wife as we talked about our homes and travels and waited for the boat to rev up again and carry us back to port. Not taking any chances, I covertly swallowed one of the seasick pills and prepared myself for the journey. I was hoping that the ride back would be much smoother. We would be going with the currents this time since we were traveling in the opposite direction now, right? But then, the Sydney man informed me. “The journey to and from the island is always rough because we never go with the currents. The distance between the dock and the island is always going across the currents.” I just smiled and nodded as if I had expected this, but in my head, I had started to pray again. “Oh, God, please, don’t let this ship sink…”
After a few minutes, I decided to be courageous and step outside onto the lower deck. I took a seat on one of the benches as a middle-aged couple settled into seats to the right of me. And this time, as the ship moved across the water, I couldn’t stop laughing! Instead of rocking back and forth on this journey, the boat was literally bouncing up off the water! The waves were so high that our ship would sail up into the air and then flop back down onto the water with a loud smack. I had to jump up and change my seat several times as heavy waves splashed up over the white railings of the boat and flooded the lower deck. A few times, I clung to my seat as the boat sunk down below the surface of the waves and then shot straight up in the air again. Many times, my hands lost their grip on the edge of the seat and my body was basically airborne, with my little skinny legs kicking helplessly in the air, as I flew up over the deck and then smacked back down on my bottom on the bench again.
I don’t know if it was the seasick pills or just the joy of being alive, but I didn’t feel afraid. Instead the wild ride exhilarated me. I had never experienced anything like this before and I was excited by the whole adventure. As a gigantic wave once again chased me out of my seat, I crookedly walked across the deck and stood on the other side as one of the female crew members walked out of the galley. The young woman stood for a moment and brushed her long, blond hair back out of her face before she suddenly said, “Look! Look at the whales!” She pointed excitedly out at the ocean. I turned quickly just as two large glorious whales leaped out of the water, their white and silver bodies glistening in the sun before they flopped back down into the ocean. Their movement caused our boat to roll violently to the right side, but I didn’t care. Oh, my gosh…there were large whales right in front of my eyes! I carefully crossed the deck again and gripped hold of a thick metal white pole just as the two whales shot straight up out of the water again and this time a small baby whale jumped with the them! I laughed out loud as I suddenly realized that the boat had been rocking and flying into the air because of the whales frolicking so closely to us. The whales had been circling around us ever since we had left the island. Now, all of the passengers were crowded out on the deck as the whales continued to cavort around us and follow our boat back into port.
After a few more minutes, our ship pulled up to the dock and all of the passengers carefully disembarked as we tried to now walk on solid ground with our legs still rubbery and wobbly. Everyone settled back on the bus again as our lovely driver drove back to our various hotels. I was exhausted but also feeling very alive as I rested my head against the cool glass of the window by my seat. I was so pleased now to have had such an amazing adventure on the ocean today. I thought of the fear and stress I had felt as I get on the boat and it all seemed so silly now. I love the water! Once again, the excitement, the beauty, and the basic joy of being alive had overcome my stress and fear. And that’s exactly the way life should be…