While working at sea, travelling the world, for nine months of one year, it so happened that I didn’t see, hear, touch, smell or speak in person to another female, or a child. I was working for one of the biggest oil companies in the world and I was sailing as an engineering officer on board their oil tankers. There were no other females on board, and no children. In fact for an eighteen month period at that time, I did not work with another female.
This world that you inhabit for months at a time is a surreal place, it is different to what we know, to what we have grown up with and to what we have become accustomed to. It is different to what we can imagine the functioning life of a human being to be. There are three elements to this strange existence, the sea, the ship and the sailors.
The ocean becomes your garden. When you look outside the window or step through the door, you can almost touch it. You feel it. Mesmerised, by its sweeping and wild, rolling, or serene expanse. There may not be another human being for hundreds of miles. It is visceral, it is free and it is isolating. It has an unhurried calm connectedness to mother earth, gently absorbing your worries and fears, leaving you in a state of wonder.
The ship on the contrary is solid. Base. It is constructed from metal and wood, with a palette of neutral hues - green, black, grey and beige. Every surface; floors, bulkheads and deckheads, the same beige layers of skin, covering bare steel. It is basic, elemental and uniform. Life slows down. You work, with these materials, with machinery, and with men.
Machinery speaks to you in a different way to humans, but it speaks to you none the less. Again, it is basic, working on the same principle that it has done since the creation of the engine, the turbine, the compressor. Power! Metal on metal, pressure, movement and fire. Life becomes about attention to these elements, attuning yourself to these mammoth machines, attention to detail becomes about preservation and operation. You go from A to B. You move the cargo. And you arrive on time.
There is a special connection here and there is a very important relationship here, but there is no emotion. There is nothing subtle, there is nothing empathetic and there is nothing soft.
This, in ways mirrors the self-preservation of the crew. If we do not have these things, if we cannot feel, then we cannot miss the people we have left behind. Our hearts cannot break with the isolation of the distance between us and our loved ones, the loneliness of parents passing, of babies born and of celebrations missed. This soaks into your bones, you absorb it and you live it. For months, until it is time to go home. And it affects you, it actually affects your brain.
I did this twice a year for ten years, and it never got much easier. But it built resilience, self-efficacy and character. As the years went by, I uncovered gems of positivity. Time spent getting to know myself, the pace of life having wound down logarithmically, appreciation of the smallest things in life. The vividness of colour, the scents and sounds of my loved ones and home. The garden, my land. The luxury, the luxury of seeing children so often that you don’t notice them growing, listening to Grandparents old stories over lunch. The freedom to go where I wanted, when I wanted, to see who I wanted, and to really be present in the moments spent with them.
I can still feel and picture the distinct memories of seeing a child for the first time, having been at sea. The airport becomes a place of marvel. Every time, it surprised me, that I could forget how small a child is, how small a human being could be, so pure and fragile, and so delicate. And the female, a hug, a smile, a connection. Both embodying the gift of life, of growth and of balance, the yin to the yang. A part of me that was missing, returns to fill my heart.