This post is about my experiences with the ocean, and is one of a series to support my 39th Birthday Wish.
My maternal ancestors come from the Isle of Man, a peculiar piece of land that’s situated in the Irish Sea. My ggggrandfather and his kin were ship captains, and were certainly smugglers like most who hailed from Manx ports. A few years ago when we visited the Isle we saw his warehouse in the main port city. We also saw the ancestral farmlands and the parish cemetery where nearly every headstone had a familiar name.
I didn’t see the ocean myself until I was 14 years old, having grown up in Oklahoma and Colorado. I’d just completed a year of chemotherapy treatments and my family planned a HUGE trip to California. My first glimpse of the ocean was from PCH, driving towards San Diego from LAX. By that time I’d already lost my leg and was ambulating rather precariously using crutches and an ill-fitting prosthetic limb. I don’t recall actually dipping my toes into the Pacific during that trip, though it’s possible that I did. Much of my memory of that era is long gone–which may be a blessing given how tough a time it was for me.
Shortly after that trip to California my family relocated from Denver to Bakersfield, which meant that we lived close enough to visit the beach a few times every year. However, because none of my prosthetic limbs were water-proof (or even water-resistant), I had to use crutches when I wanted to be on the beach. And the logistics of trying to “crutch” in the waves was so frustrating, I never went more than shin-deep in the ocean until about two years ago. Isn’t that crazy? My first swim in the ocean was at age 36! That summer John & the kids helped me do so by fetching my crutches back and forth as I needed them to enter & exit the ocean. And I had the opportunity to swim in both the Pacific and the Atlantic ocean that year because of our family vacation to the outer banks of North Carolina.
When I decided to take up the sport of outrigger canoeing, I met with my prosthetist and discussed the possibility of crafting a waterproof leg that I could wear in and out of the canoes. He’d never made a leg like the one that I wanted, but was willing to see what he could come up with! He ended up cobbling together a “pirate” pegleg with an ankle joint at the knee (the only waterproof joint he could find that could be locked into both straight and bent positions). There’s a little knob that I turn at my knee when I transfer from walking to sitting in the boat, that locks the knee in either position. Perhaps the most questionable part of this leg was whether it would stay on when I fell out of the boat or needed to jump into the ocean (such as in 9-man season when we change seats for the long races). The first time I tried was on a “huli drill” where I had tip our 6-man canoe to practice the recovery process. I was in charge of tipping the boat because I was the steersman. I can’t tell you how scared I was about that–not even knowing if my leg would stay on once I fell into the water, much less knowing how it would work to swim in the ocean with it attached to my body!
But what I learned from my huli drill & from the other times that I wore it in the ocean, was that leg does stay on and that it’s quite a gift to be able to walk autonomously from beach to water. Each time that I’ve jumped out into the waves and started swimming is a miracle to me. I don’t take it for granted even for a second! It took me 36 years to swim in the ocean and when I did, it felt so “right.”
I suspect that my love for the ocean runs gene-deep, coming from my island ancestors who sailed the seas. But whatever the reason, when I’m in the ocean I feel connected to the universe in a way that I’ve never felt in any other space. With the water buoying me up, the rhythm of the waves rocking my body, the sun warming my skin, and the thrill of the unknown below…it’s there that I feel the complete perfection of my life and this world.