Sailors are notoriously superstitious. Just as there are no atheists in the trenches of war, there are no atheists in the storm troughs of the sea. Something about the ocean, its vastness, its depths, its many unknowns, cues an ancient, ancestral response in the human breast.
In a way, when we launch our boats it’s a sacred act. Land and sea are two different elements each with its own rules of survival. Since we’re not marine mammals, we’re uniquely vulnerable on the ocean. It’s unpredictable. Its mood can change in a heartbeat. Just doing its thing, it can kill, and it’s easy to see the ocean as a supernatural force. Consequently for millennia it’s been traditional for voyaging peoples to acknowledge this force by propitiating the sea and its gods before leaving the land for the water roads.
Early on the Tsunami Rangers established a ritual of saluting the sea every time we launch. During this ritual we ask for permission to pass and look for a sign. The sign could be as little as nothing at all – no sign, nothing to worry about. It could be a flight of seabirds inviting us seaward, or a wave that softly embraces the ankles with its last breath before it ebbs. It could even be a bulky swell hiking up into a crashing wave that promises an exciting day. The sign itself is not as important as the pause before launching when we offer respect, acknowledging the sea’s superiority.
I remember Eric telling me how with kayakers there’s often a rush to get on the water. He identified this haste as a manifestation of nerves. I’ve felt this urgency myself. It’s the result of many things but I think its primary cause is an element of uncertainty, a primal fear of the unknown. One never knows what will happen. It’s always an adventure.
On a deeper level, humans belong to the land. However much we love the oceans and rivers, we always return to land at the end of the journey. Call me fanciful but I think that there’s a veil at water’s edge that separates two wholly different dimensions, and passing through this veil gives some people the jitters. Some who brave the portals of this other world never return, and there’s this urge to go, go, go so the solemnity of the occasion doesn’t overwhelm. Once underway, it’s possible to settle.
Eric’s advice was to approach the ocean in a leisurely fashion. Check out the gear, make sure nothing’s forgotten, check out the weather, watch the waves, do some warm up moves… and then pause to salute the sea. Pausing, we open to the elements. We engage the five senses. We see the ocean and sky. We hear the waves. We smell the sea tang. We feel the breeze. We taste the salt. Without taking a step, we enter the water world.
Pausing allows us to focus. Pausing allows us to set an intention. What’s the plan? What are the variables? How do we feel, physically and psychologically? Pausing allows for space in which intuition can function. Pausing settles the mind. Pausing allows us to change our minds. If there are internal or external warnings, they’ll show up. Possibilities fan out in an infinite array of choices including turning around and going to the pub for a beer because damn, that wind is howling! Seeing the big picture, we choose wisely.
When I paddle, my personal salutation is the “Water Spirit” song. I sing it at least four times as I put in. And I always get wet, swimming and ducking my head under the waves before I launch. It’s kind of like dipping your fingers in holy water and crossing yourself before you enter a church. At Surf Sirens at the beginning of the event on the first day we do a salute to ease the jitters and get wet (we’re going to get wet anyway, right?) First we “Touch the Sky”, stretching our arms high overhead. Then we “Touch the Earth”, reaching down to our toes. Then we “Embrace the Sea”, opening our arms towards the waves. Then we run, Water Amazons screaming and yelling into the surf. It’s energizing and fun, and a direct offshoot of the Tsunami Ranger salute.
Many believe the sea appreciates recognition and smiles on those who love it. It seems to work for the Rangers. We’ve been around a long time. Our oldest member is pushing 80 and still paddling extreme conditions. Over the years the Rangers have broken plenty of boats and had their share of injuries but considering the drama there’s been very little damage. The only ones we’ve lost were not lost in a kayak. Due to a combination of audacity and humility the Rangers have managed to go down to the sea and dance for over 30 years and the sea has always rewarded them. By now it must know us pretty well.
This is why we salute the sea. The ocean can put you away in a heartbeat but it doesn’t. Instead, it offers an opportunity to paddle, explore, surf, play, forage, see wildlife, and enjoy some of the most exciting and beautiful environments on the planet. Saluting the sea honors all those gifts and puts the paddler in a proper frame of mind to kayak safely: alert, open, receptive and humble. Next time you paddle, I suggest you pause before you leave the land. Recognize the amazing opportunity to do something completely different from what you do in your land life. Incorporate a salute of some sort, anything at all, a way to propitiate the ocean so it’ll play nice with you. Even a nod of recognition would be helpful. Most important, give yourself a moment to relax, breathe, and focus before you engage.
Do you pause and salute the sea before launching? If not, why not? If so, how?