The sea and man.
Thousands of years ago, the first sailor that saw land disappear must have been struck by a feeling of immense solitude and a profound anxiety. The land is the natural habitat of man, the place where he is born and grows, the place where he can live reasonably comfortably and safely. The sea is the habitat of fish, whales, sharks, lobsters, etc. Man is an intruder in the ocean.
The sea is an inhospitable place for man as he can only survive a few hours in it without a good floating shelter, freshwater and food. It is also a potentially dangerous environment, where the forces of nature can express themselves extremely violently.
The sailor who enters this world is confronted by the unknown and danger; he becomes vulnerable and fragile, at the mercy of the elements. And yet 70% of our planet that we call “Earth” (as we were born on land), is covered in water; it should be “Waterworld”…
First impressions at sea.
The first time that I went to sea on a boat (I was 5 years old), I felt several very strong feelings: entering another world with different colors, a different smell and different sensations; the impression of travelling on a living being, which moved and smelt very salty. I also felt a certain humility, the impression of a great vulnerability but also the strong desire to discover, to experience and tame this world full of mysteries.
The first time that I crossed the Atlantic Ocean, I discovered the immensity of this liquid dessert and I realized that out planet was really very big. We were heading westward, towards America, the days and weeks passed and we still hadn’t seen land in front of us yet. Life seemed absent: no sea birds or fish and few whales. A solitary and wild world, with no other guide than the stars and so far from man and civilization.
At sea we move around within a large circle of approximately 12 nautical miles (20km), it is the extent of our visibility; this circle moves forward with us and at our speed, which is that of a bicycle travelling at a gentle pace (10 miles per hour). At sea we move within another space/time in which distances are counted in days or weeks, the progress of the sun in the sky determines our midday and the time we keep.
At sea, we are in the middle of nowhere in a place where nothing can be identified, a precarious and furtive place. There is no trace of our journey over this surface in constant motion. Without landmarks, how do we steer? On land we can orientate ourselves in relation to a hill, a river, a bank, a house, a valley or a tree. At sea there is nothing. So how do we do it?
Near to land, we will look for noteworthy points on the coast that we carefully observe: a rocky point, a small beach, a house or, of course, a lighthouse!
On the high seas we will look for our bearings very far away: in the sky and in infinite space; our noteworthy points are, in some instances, hundreds of light years away! But they have been there for millions of years and their position is well known! They will therefore allow us to position ourselves on our planet, like noteworthy points that we notice on the coast.
Therefore, travelling at sea is similar to an odyssey in space where the vast distances do not allow for details to be noticed, we are in another world, liquid and moving. At night we progress without seeing the landscape pass-by, the celestial sphere is our only vision and we feel alone in the universe.
In the day, the sea is there with the waves, the clouds, the sun and sometimes a sea animal or a bird of passage; we can get very close to land without seeing it and that is very frustrating. I remember having come close to the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean; the land was roughly twenty miles away and we could smell the slightly spicy odor of its vegetation, see the coastal clouds and simply sense the presence of this great island, but there was nothing on the horizon, it was as though the Earth was imaginary.
The competitors in the Vendée Globe Challenge will cover over 24,000 miles, or right round our planet without ever seeing land unless it is a few faraway summits of some isolated island. For three months they will only see millions of cubic meters of salty water that make up the sea and the oceans. In these great desserts of solitude that they will cross, civilisation will seem very far away to them and everyone, at a given moment, will wonder if mankind still exists. Is it real? It is in these great liquid desserts that man feels insignificant and vulnerable, and it is there, more than anywhere else, that he must be aware of the need to preserve and protect what is, after all, a fragile sphere of life.