I remember an afternoon in Arviat, over a decade ago, talking with Joe Karetak about the sea. Joe has lived his life on the west coast of Hudson Bay, travelling across the open sea by boat in summer, and on the sea ice by snowmobile in winter and spring, hunting seals, beluga whales and polar bears, and fishing for arctic char. He knows a thing or two about the sea. Like all Inuit hunters, a great deal of Joe’s time at sea is spent watching and waiting – waiting for the tide to turn, waiting for migratory animals to arrive, waiting for a seal to surface – and weighing up alternatives. So many hours, days, years, lifetimes of waiting, quietly being attentive and watchful, preparing for sudden bursts of activity and action. The anthropologists Nuccio Mazzullo and Tim Ingold refer to this as ‘alert idleness’. As a result of all this watching and waiting, Inuit hunters possess a deep knowledge of the marine environment and its animals.
And something Joe said to me that day has stayed with me ever since. Being at sea is a ‘humbling experience’ he said. ‘The environment leads and you follow. The sea controls you’. Wise words. We need to accept our own humility in our engagements and interactions with the marine environment. The sea is awesome and powerful. We, by comparison, are puny, and no technology we have invented can match that power.
Life lived on the sea moves at a different pace. It can take a while to accept that. Each time we’ve move aboard Carina we’ve had to readjust to a slower pace, to moving with the rhythms of the sea, to staying put when necessary, to moving on when the time is right. It can be difficult at times to explain that we don’t know when we’ll reach our destination, and we don’t know how long we’ll stay there once we arrive. Wind direction and strength, tides, currents, swells, waves, storms, fog, hours of daylight – these are what guide us.
Sure, we can tweak our sails to gain an extra knot of speed, but a distance that took two hours to cover yesterday might take seven hours to cover today; and the calm seas of today might be whipped into a frenzy tomorrow. Who knows.
The trick is to let go, to accept that the sea is more powerful than we are, and to go with the flow. To wait it out when that’s what’s required, and to be ready to move on when the sea permits. And, like hunters in Arviat, to wait and watch, and in that waiting time to grow into ever deeper knowledge and understanding of the sea and of ourselves.