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The Night I Was Swallowed By the Sea

Vivian Underhill

I floated slowly to consciousness with the sound of lapping waves. For a minute or two I lay there half awake, debating whether or not to roll over, when in a sudden flash of understanding I sat bolt upright in terror. As I had feared, the querulous beam of my friend’s headlamp illuminated the surf, white and foaming, crashing and roiling not six inches from my feet—and definitely inside the tarp we called home. It wobbled our tarp pole and lapped at our toes, threatened to rob us of all our worldly belongings and hinted at nearby waters darker and deeper. And every wave inched a little higher, gnawing away at just a little bit more sand. Our tarp anchor, a huge stump that had taken all three of us to muscle into position that comparatively dry afternoon, was now bobbing uselessly up and down with all the other driftwood that had been strewn around what used to be the beach. Weeks away from anything dry; almost no possibility of rescue or outside help; our nerves palpably buzzed in our little tarp.

I was a member of a 35-day kayak expedition through the fjords and islets of western Patagonia. This whole region used to be solid land, but in the last Ice Age ponderous glaciers heaved their way down the entire West coast of Chile; they carved it and sculpted it, divided it into its smallest fractions and left it as it is now: complex, disparate, and altogether magical. The coast is broken into tiny islands and archipelagos, and seawater permeates deep into the landscape. We, a small group of 17, had been paddling here for almost two weeks, and with our previous knowledge of tide behavior and rack lines we should have known better than to place our tarp where we did. A rack line is the pattern of driftwood, dried seaweed and other detritus left by the highest wave of the previous tide. It predicts how high the next tide will reach, and where it’s safe to camp. Along with a tide chart, a little piece of paper published by the Chilean Navy projecting the relative heights of every tide, we should have been armed and well prepared to stay high and dry above the ocean the entire time. If we had been paying attention, we would have been.

But that day was one of the hardest I can remember. A strong headwind had thwarted any attempt to make forward progress. The tide was going the opposite way of the wind, and in an epic war whose battles are fought daily, the opposing forces of the wind and tide created waves that were higher, choppier, and more unpredictable than usual. Seasickness, of course, accompanied our journey along these wild waves, along with pure exhaustion. If that weren’t enough, it had also been raining for days on end, and a chill had set deep in our bones eons ago. We just wanted it all to end, and were finally granted our wish when the mounting risks of wind and waves forced us off the water and onto a beach. It was a small beach, and definitely substandard to our previous campsites, but at least it was solid ground. Too numbed to think straight, and certainly not in a mood to do the minor math that the tide charts require, we mechanically went through the evening motions with little thought. We set up our tarps, cooked a half-hearted meal, and shivered ourselves warm in sleeping bags constantly damp from prolonged exposure to Patagonian weather. My two friends and I never even gave a second thought to the fact that there didn’t seem to be a rack line, or that maybe it just lurked in the trees behind us.

Now, deep in the dark of a timeless night, we were surrounded on all sides by the most powerful body of water on the Earth. All I wanted to do was hide my head and pretend it wasn’t happening, but instead I wormed my way into rubber pants, parka, boots, and hat and crawled out, armed only with an unfounded feeling of confidence; I would fix our anchor and move our bags and in a Moses-like show of superhuman abilities, stop the water right in its path. I would be a hero of Biblical proportions, and most importantly, I would show I was the best expedition member ever.

As soon as I emerged, though, it was clear that this was not to be the case; there would be no Moses here, no denying the sea. There was water literally everywhere and constantly approaching higher and higher. The ground was overtaken with waves and the air was filled with rain and mist. Even my breath condensed into tiny water molecules. I couldn’t bend to fix our tarp’s floating stump of an anchor without getting soaked and knocked off balance by voracious waves battering my knees. Just as I knelt once more, a wave charged right up my exposed pant leg and down my boot, filling my rubber boat with frothing coldness.

Helpless though I was, shivering and soaking, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the elements around me. I stood cold and drenched, up to my thighs in seawater, as the constant Patagonian wind blew the wave spray into graceful tendrils past my nose. It was so black that I could only see a few feet in front of me with my headlamp, but the sea extended, black and rolling, for miles in front of me. I felt small, and out of control, and I could hear my disembodied voice laughing wild, unbridled, hysterical over the gushing of the tide and the wind. Other headlamps appeared frantically somewhere across the expanse that was once our beach, tiny pricks of yellow bobbing in the darkness. But they were tiny, and silent, and somehow in a different world than mine. For in that moment there was nothing but the immediate: water everywhere, below, above, on, in, and around me, and darkness. Even the tarp behind me didn’t really exist. All of the extras—people, cities, the future, even the very existence of the sun and daytime—had fled my mind, did not have a place in that tiny world. I knew how a lost sailor must feel, adrift in an unfathomable expanse.

It was terrifying and exhilarating, maybe even one of those experiences people call transforming or life-changing. Not, perhaps, in the form one would imagine, but my view of the world was indeed transformed. Normal things were broken down into the most basic elements of water and energy. And, as I gradually reestablished a consciousness of the quotidian, it was also a practical crisis. Stunned into action, my friends and I moved everything we owned, food, clothes, and gear (all soaking wet) as high as possible and re-staked the tarp, but other than that, there was little we could do. We were hemmed in: one side by a steep incline and rainforest-like vegetation, the other by the fast-encroaching sea. The thin reef we had lazily meandered in the low tide of the afternoon was completely inundated, and our entire existence was reduced to just this thin, thin rectangle of sopping sand.

The rest of the night we huddled under the tarp, relieved to be back in some semblance of shelter. It smelled bad, but even the stench was comforting, something mortal and small-scale to focus on rather than the greatness without. Maybe we humans can only witness so much greatness before we must return to the small and manageable. We held our sleeping bags above our heads and watched water pool in the indentations our rubber boots made in the sand, thinking the driest thoughts we could. The Chilean Navy’s tide chart, once a symbol of the power and knowledge of a great nation’s infrastructure, shrunk into just a flimsy little piece of laminated paper, quivering and fatally inconsequential in the face of the current situation. Eventually I drifted off to sleep once more, exasperated by minute tide calculations and the infuriating uncertainty of long division without pencil or paper.

Our expedition ended splendidly. The weather cleared up and so we saw massive tidewater glaciers, crabs the size of a fingernail under the benevolent eye of the sun, and sunsets glowing their myriad shades of orange and red. The evenings were long, brilliant, and filled with the sweet scent of flowers. We got so hot we actually swam and dried within minutes. But to this day, it is the memory of the night I was swallowed by the sea that sticks with me the most, simply because it was so overwhelming, so huge in scale that it defied the human imagination.

It was a clear moment of realizing exactly how small our influence is; we are nothing but a few carbon-based molecules and some metabolic processes, entirely at the beck and call of nature’s omnipotent processes. I am just another (albeit unique) configuration of the 94 naturally occurring elements on Earth, and each one of them is simply a unique combination of protons, neutrons, and electrons, each one of which was forged out of pure energy in the first few minutes of the Big Bang.

Beyond the initial reaction of terror, this is almost a reassuring realization that I am made of the same basic components as the ocean and the earth: water, some solutes, and energy.  The water molecules trapped in massive glaciers are exactly the same as those heaving against shores worldwide and traveling through my veins. Meanwhile, my consciousness, the thoughts behind words, is powered by tiny zips of electricity, just like infinitesimally small strokes of lightning. Both are manifestations of the omnipresent electrostatic force, which also seduces each hydrogen nucleus’ electron into close orbit and is responsible for water’s unique cohesive properties. That which kept each water molecule clinging to its neighbor and gave those waves their strength also shot my knees’ sensory experience of wetness and cold up to my brain and shaped those pure impulses into fear, awe, and the memories I’m reviewing now.

Each individual life, like a whirlpool in a river, is simply a minor anomaly, spatially and temporally isolated, a temporary perturbation of a few atoms’ flow through the Earth’s ecological processes. A whirlpool is not made of the water itself, nor is it tangible like a stone or branch, but is perceptible nonetheless as a manifestation of the river’s current. Similarly, a life is not defined by its constituent elements, nor can it be reduced to simple physicality. Rather, it’s defined by the way it forces matter to flow through space and time. The whirlpool will form, circle, and decay again, over and over, in an endless replay of fluid dynamics, present only fleetingly as an ethereal, abstract form. But the water itself will continue down its course through lakes, sewage systems, rainwater, and the ocean, before finally traveling up a fjord and into my abject and unsuspecting tarp.