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Child of the Sea


On the east coast of Scotland our Earlsferry home was but a few steps from the sea.


Winter gales caused the seas waves to crash on to our shore.  At high tide the sea would come right up into the Cross Wynd where was our home and our way to the beach.  In my birth month of February the sounds of the sea are loud as winter gales come roaring ashore.  The high tides leave behind all kinds of tangles, seaweeds, shells and all kinds of flotsam and jetsam.


There is something primeval, magical, mystical and captivating about salt air, the wind and the sea and I don't remember a time when I haven't been a beachcomber. Since I was old enough to be trusted on my own I roamed the beaches. Seashells have always fascinated me.  Even though shells of a type may look alike, they're not.  Not even limpets.  Each shell is as distinctive as you or I. 


 Limpet shells on Earlsferry beach.


Any time I get near a beach, in short order I'm walking the tide line. Soon my shoes and my  pockets become filled with sand and the treasures of the sea, gifts to the finder. Sea shells are indeed wonders of creation. My extra special ones are the tiny cowries that are to be found on the Earlsferry and surrounding beaches. Some are ivory white and some are delicate shades of pink.  To this day, except for the shells that I've given away, I have about every shell I've ever picked up.  Our home and garden has shells everywhere.  Not just hundreds of them, thousands of them. Each shell started as a tiny speck to became shelter and home to the creature that lived within it. On rainy and blustery days when I'm kept indoors my shells are great reminders of the sunny days when I picked them up as I walked barefoot along far away deserted beaches.

Fortunately my parents never worried about me even though I'd sometimes disappear for almost all day. They knew where I was and what I was doing. Depending on the state of the tide I'd spend hours laying beside the low tide pools straight down from our house or I'd be at the high tide stickleback dubs at the Dome Park, watching the movements of the many creatures that lived there.  Whelks, hermit crabs, sea anemones of every color, urchins, starfish, cockles, periwinkles, myriad hued seaweeds, bladder wrack, little fish, all living in harmony with the sand and the pebbles in the bottom of the pools.  There were times when I'd come home from school and the tide was out and in a flash I'd be down in the rocks where the sea creatures live. The once heard, never to be forgotten, lonesome, haunting call of a long billed curlew, the harsh cry of a herring gull, the shrill call of an arctic tern and an oyster catcher mingled with the ever changing voice of the wind and the waves was my music.




 The Bakin, The Earlsferry beacon, just off the point at Chapel Green


I always had a small wooden boat of some kind.  My first was a raft that I made from driftwood.  Later John, my brother, made me a beautiful and very seaworthy canoe.  With this I ventured far out to sea. I fished with a heavy chord hand line that I baited with lug worms that I dug on the beach at low tide.  There are monsters in the deeps. One day I was fishing, just drifting along on the incoming tide, about a half mile offshore in the vicinity of the Earlsferry beacon.  Wham.  Something took my bait. Hard as I tried I could make no headway trying to pull up whatever it was that was on the end of my line.  Whatever it was, it pulled all of my line out then pulled the boat. It dragged me for about a mile before the line, that I always had tied to the front of the boat, parted.


Another day when I was anchored and fishing, a whale about a mile away started jumping straight out of the water.  As I watched, it repeatedly surfaced, each time in a straight line and heading straight towards me. When it came so close that I knew that next time it surfaced it might toss me into the air, boat and all, I furiously grabbed the oars and rowed with all my might to get out of its way. I made a great commotion in the water with my oars then discovered to my horror that in my panic, I'd forgotten to pull up the anchor.  Obligingly the whale skipped a surfacing and passed right under me to come up again behind me.  Was I ever lucky that day. It doesn't bear thinking about what would have been the outcome had the whale snagged the anchor rope.


Another day I was anchored and fishing in about the same spot.  When I set out from the beach it was an absolutely beautiful dead calm, warm sunny day, so much so that I decided not to take the little Seagull outboard engine but rather just to leisurely row out and back with the incoming tide to take me westward and the outgoing tide to bring me back home.  As I fished I happened to look to the East in the direction of the May Island about ten miles away. I couldn't believe my eyes. The sky there was pitch black and a wall of water was standing up to form a giant wave on both the northerly and the southerly ends of the island. I hauled in my line as fast as I could and to save time I cut the anchor rope. Despite this, before I could get underway I was engulfed in a maelstrom, a screaming  wind and a torrential downpour.  Instantly it became very dark and very cold.  The waves grew  huge and I feared that this was it for me.  All I could do was lie in the bottom of the boat and bail as I struggled to keep the boat  from broaching. I feared that if I could keep the boat from getting swamped at best I'd be very lucky if I got driven right up the Firth.  Inwardly, I prayed.  I really did pray. "Oh Lord, your waves are so huge and my boat is so small." The howling storm and the huge waves raged past.  With my row boat about half full of water and almost awash I finally made it to shore at the nearest point which was the Kincraig cliffs. Soaking wet and shivering, I bailed out the water, hauled the boat out, tied it up as best I could and walked home.  I'd just used up one of my lives. So much for a not a care in the world, beautiful, dead calm, warm, sunny day. 


During World War II many ships were torpedoed and sunk in the North Sea.  After finding several gold braided Royal Navy and Merchant Navy sailors hats mixed in with the sand on the tide line, it dawned on me that these were the hats of seamen whose ships had gone down and their hats had floated off their heads as they sank beneath the waves.  I placed them in a special part of our garden. The sea can be cruel and unforgiving.


One of my favourite places to go was to lie on top of the Croupie Rock, an outcropping that's at the beginning of the Earlsferry Cliffs just above the 14th tee of the golf course.  From this vantage point there's a 360 degree view.  At most any time the might of the British navy, battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers, submarines and merchant ships of all varieties could be seen plying the waters of the Firth of Forth.  As these ships disappeared over the horizon I always wondered who and what was on them and to what far away place on the surface of the world were they going? 


My horizon


Sea Fever

I must go 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,

And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.


I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that will not be denied,

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.


I must go down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gulls way and the whales way where the wind's like a whetted knife,

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

  John Masefield


A few of my shells and bits of glass from Mexico's Sea of Cortez.


Gifts from the Sea