A Sailor’s Gait

When the foot ferry lies alongside the Kingston dock and an east wind blows across the Sound, the short wind chop strikes the beam and the boat sometimes develops an abrupt, awkward motion. I’ve watched commuters stagger and pitch across the deck, spilling their coffee, collapsing into their seats, muttering apologies. Nothing is more mundane than the earth beneath our feet—solid, imperturbable, unmoving. Our perceptions are grounded upon it. Our balance depends upon this immutable fact, this unmoved earth. And then the earth moves.

I’ve lived through earthquakes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. When the ground pitches and heaves beneath your feet, your body becomes utterly confused. You stagger like a drunken sailor, unable to regain your balance, much like the commuters on the ferry. When the earth moves, we’re betrayed by our body’s expectations.

The same disorientation occurs after a long passage on a small boat. Your body is again confused but this time by the solidity of the shore. It was especially true after weeks of beating to weather along the Pacific Coast north of San Francisco where the waves are consistent as clockwork, six feet at six second intervals, daylight and dark, and the wind blows without ceasing. Too rough to cook or take a shower; braced with knees and elbows to stay seated in the head; sleeping in foul weather gear, nursing bruised ribs. Days so rough you couldn’t find your mouth with a spoon.

When we came ashore we walked with legs spread wide in a rolling gait, lurching between handholds and never a straight line. Little wonder sailors were always thought drunk ashore. They staggered like drunks even when sober as a stone. Not that they were often sober.

At 7:15 am, I’m pretty sure the commuters are sober.

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