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March 30, 2012

I should of course be working, but my mind is still on boats and the sea.

The sea always has had a moral element and boats have served as the correct form of transport to the afterlife or for the exploration of metaphysical questions. My off-the-cuff line of thought follows: Egyptian funerary model boats, crossing the Styx, Columban sea travel (‘there is an island there is no going to but in a small boat, the way the Saints went’), Viking ship burials, Birlins on the burial slabs of Highland chiefs (not just symbols of power, surely), The Wreck of the Hesperus, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, by Waterhouse, ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’ by Gavin Bryers, ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Dead Man’, with Johnny Depp. I highly recommend you making up your own list over a cup of coffee.

Until pretty recently (it was still being discussed following the sinking of the Titanic) there was a ‘scientific’ and commonly held belief that as water pressure increased with depth, seawater grew more and more solid until a point was reached beyond which a sinking object would sink no further. Thus, somewhere in the middle regions of the great abyss, there existed ‘floors’ on which objects gathered according to their weight. Cannons and anchors would sink deeper than wooden ships which in turn would lie beneath drowned sailors who themselves lay at slightly different levels from one another, depending on their relative stoutness, the clothes they were wearing and quite possibly, the weight of their sins. Clearly, I would be down there with the anchors… Hence the expression ‘ to find your own level’. Tie this in with the imagery of Dante’s Circles of Hell and it makes a sort of sense.  

We now know that whilst there is a stratification of the sea due mainly to salinity and temperature (why sound underwater travels better horizontally rather than vertically) water is barely compressible, so things do actually sink ! If you were to trail your hand in the deepest part of the ocean (the chillingly named ‘abyssmal depths’) you would find the water to have virtually the same texture and viscosity as at the surface, but your hand would be crushed unrecognisably by the pressure of something like 8 tons per square inch.

This all adds a frisson to clinging to the surface skin of the sea in a little boat, locked between the sky and the deep. Whether ten feet deep, or three thousand, it is all rather academic: what is below is impenetrable, unknown and laden with symbolism of a profound sort.

And lastly, if you were to see what is below, say, between Iona and Staffa, you would want to weep. The pristine surface that we see and that is essentially the reflection of the sky is a kind deceit. The slum that is now the sea bed would cause public outcry if it were visible to the eye. This seascape has been ruined largely by trawlers and scallop dredgers: the spawning grounds reduced if not destroyed, fish numbers have collapsed and plastic rubbish soils the seabed, testament to the lives that we lead and our parts in this process of spoiling. Recent tests in the European Sea have found examples of over 100,000 pieces of plastic debris (not microplastics) per square kilometre. Likewise, examples have been found of beaches with over 5,000 microplastic fibres per litre of sand. Try saying that again, slowly.

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