When you love the water

Published 11:49 am Saturday, February 3, 2018

by John Railey

When you love the water you will give anything to get out on her, to feed some inexplicable longing deep down in your soul.

If you’re lucky, you will have a parent, maybe one who was in the Navy, to spend time with you by a treasured river or the ocean, imparting stories to you about why the rivers that flow to the sea are so crucial and in your blood, telling you about faraway waters and the fun had there.

You will always love your childhood rivers like the Nottoway, a slow-moving, winding one laced by grandfatherly cypress trees that date back to the times of cool Indians that you dream of while paddling her. You will learn to read the river, to watch for the colors that tell you her depth and the shadows of submerged logs that can swamp your kayak.

And you will love her beauty, the shimmering sun-splashed glisten on some days, the ghostly fog drifting off on others and her ice-trimmed borders on still others.

When she is low her yellow sandbars are riddled with the tracks of deer and raccoon, and, in warm seasons, the slim tracks of snakes playing. You will love the rich musky smell of your river. You will love her sounds, especially the geese honking in V formation above and deer running away from you to secret spots. You will keep going back to that river, paddling it alone or with a treasured cousin from childhood.

You will come to savor the waters where your work takes you, smaller rivers and lakes, your inland seas. You will play in these waters and maybe even pray, daydreaming and solving the problems of the world in your own little head. You will watch the ivory seagulls, envious of the beaches to which they wing.

You will paddle barefoot whenever you can, even in the winter, because you need to feel the water on your skin and soul. You will paddle in rain and thunderstorms and lightning striking around you and you will paddle in icy weather and snow when water splashing on your bow quickly freezes, loving the adrenaline rush of the danger.

You will love these new rivers and lakes and all the waters of your life.

But the greatest of these are the seas. Few things in life are better than the smell of salt air, much less the first sight of a favorite beach as you cross a bridge to her and your heart sings.

If you are lucky, you will get to spend some time with faraway seas, like the Adriatic by some small Italian town or the Caribbean by some friendly town. If you’re really lucky, you discover a spot with the warmth of yesterday, like the tiny island of Bimini in the Bahamas.

But your home ocean is the best, that wild thing with big frothy, wind-whipped waves one day and calm waters the next, all far above the skeletons of the ships and seafaring legends she has sunk.

If you’re lucky, you will have spent much of your formative years learning to love the ocean at a place like Nags Head in its idyllic times in the 1960s. You will have learned to love the ocean under the tutelage of wise parents, ones who taught you about the wonder of collecting seashells and driftwood, both of which are full of character all their own.

Your parents will have taught you to bodysurf and then you will have learned to kayak in that ocean, riding waves when you felt like you are one with her. You will have played with your children in that sea just as your parents played with you there, teaching you to love but always respect that water. You will treasure your solitary paddles, ones in which dolphins play by you and keep away the occasional shark as sea birds dive bomb for fish in graceful splashes.

You will have wild and good friends in beach bars of all sorts, chefs and waiters and fishermen who will keep stretching your mind and keeping you young.

If you are lucky, or at least crazy and reckless, you will have seen that ocean roaring during a couple of hurricanes, never feeling more alive and kissed by her fury than when you are hustling to stay afoot in 90-mph gusts. You will have seen her roll out her majesty and power in 20-foot waves that wipe out piers and cottages. You will have tried to reconcile that mean gray froth with the mill pond she will be in a few days.

If you are lucky, you will fall in love with someone by the sea who cares about it as much you do and she will meet your ocean mentors before they go, someone willing to adopt new beaches like Wrightsville when the time comes. Someone who gets the importance of the immortal sea songs of Frank Sinatra, Otis Redding and Van Morrison. And the power of the sea.

Things die on the water as constantly as new things are born there. She is timeless and she never stops speaking to those who love her.

JOHN RAILEY, who grew up on the Nottoway in Courland, is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, which first published this column. He can be reached at jrailey@wsjournal.com.