God in the Waves

…and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters. Genesis 1:2

There’s a sailor’s proverb. Above 40° south latitude, there is no law; above 50° south, no God. I suspect that’s untrue but the god of the Southern Ocean is implacable, utterly indifferent to human suffering, a god both inhuman and inhumane.

The Southern Ocean is a place of unimaginable violence. In the latitudes above 40° south there is nothing to slow the wind. It blows uncontested the entire circumference of the planet, generating enormous waves. Since the end of the age of sail and the opening of the Panama Canal, it’s an ocean where few sailors travel. Until they began racing around the world.

I’ve recently experienced a strong fascination with racing single-handed, non-stop around the world. It began with reading Peter Nichols’ A Voyage for Madmen, the story of the Sunday Times Golden Globe race in 1968-69, the race that demonstrated it could be done. Robin Knox-Johnston, the only participant to complete the race, was also the first to complete a continuous, solo circumnavigation.

Serendipitously, I discovered the Golden Globe Race will be recreated this year, a race for solitary Luddites using only the technology available during the initial race in 1968.

I went looking for more and found Derek Lundy’s Godforsaken Sea: Racing the World’s Most Dangerous Waters. It was like watching a car crash unfold in slow motion. I couldn’t look away.

Lundy’s book describes the 1996-1997 Vendée Globe, single-handed sailors racing the most technically astute boats around the world, most of that above 40° south latitude. Three boats were capsized in the Southern Ocean and never righted, two sailors were narrowly rescued, and one vanished silently. It was an epical experience of pain, exhaustion, chronic stress and moments of pointed fear.

But why? Why would rational human beings expose themselves to so much suffering?

It’s the wrong question. At least, the wrong assumption.

We have largely become a people more concerned with safety than freedom, creating laws to protect us from ourselves. The thought of someone flirting with their own mortality seems irrational, possibly illegal. We forget that we’re not rational creatures. Our reason is only a rationale for our emotional decisions.

It’s the wilderness where people often go looking for god, in the deserts and mountains and sometimes the wilderness of waves. Their pilgrimage often costs them dearly.

I doubt the god of wild places cares whether we suffer but the experience of suffering, hardship, and tribulation in service of a goal is transformative. God doesn’t become more human. Perhaps we become more inhuman, more godly, as a consequence of our experience.

Of course, many of the callused, pragmatic sailors who race across the Southern Ocean would scoff at talk of god but still have a hard time articulating why they do it. There are easier ways to make a living than outrunning the violence of the high latitudes in a cockleshell boat. Words are the tool of reason. The heart has a different language.

Postscript: I blatantly stole the title for this piece from Mike McHargue’s book Finding God in the Waves. It’s about having faith, losing it, and finding it again through science. McHargue is also the primary contributor to Ask Science Mike, a podcast worth listening to.

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