Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Power of the Sea

When I was in my early twenties and living in Australia, I went one day to the beach with some mates. Not having grown up around the ocean, I was terrified of it. (Plus, in Oz, everything will probably try to kill you...jellyfish, sharks, undertows, spiny urchins). But with no shark sightings that day, the safe zone set up between the flags flying merrily, incredibly hot lifeguards just in case, and encouragement from my friends, I went in. The waves were 7 or 8 feet high (small waves for that beach), but I learnt quickly the way to bob about in them and how not to lose my swim top. As my confidence grew, I felt able to try what my friend was doing - jumping through the wave as it rose. No worries.

As you might have guessed, I failed miserably. The wave hit me directly in the chest and sent me under to be pummelled mercilessly by fresh waves. I knew they would go out again, so didn't struggle (luckily, as there would have been no point), and allowed myself to be half drowned. When I did surface, nose and mouth full of saltwater, swim top askew, and glasses half way out to sea (which were promptly rescued by one of my quick thinking friends), I suddenly grasped just how powerful water is.
Under the rush of the waves, face pressed into the sand, and unable to move, it was as if a large hand was pushing me down and down. Dragging and pulling at me, the ocean roared and crept into every corner, and wrapped me in its warm swells with terrifying intimacy. If it wasn't for logical reasoning, I would have thought I was about to die. And people do this larking about in the waves for fun?? I walked away humbled and overwhelmed, suddenly understanding why hurricanes, tsunamis and rivers in spring are such devastating things.

This week, many years later and on a different continent, I got another up-close look at just how powerful water can be. Northern Europe experienced a low pressure system; within low pressure systems, air rises, and over open water it allows the sea to sort of bulge. This storm surge, combined with heavy winds and uncommonly high tides, can be bad news for coastlines. On the island of Terschelling, situated in the North Sea off the coast of the Netherlands, these squalls are no strangers.

Frothy sea
Since the island is well prepared, having built the harbour wall a long time ago after a particularly bad storm, people here tend to just batten down the hatches and watch eagerly as the tides begin to rise. It's the sort of weather than makes animals and small children go nuts. Horses are frisky, the dogs run in circles as if they've gone mad; birds squawk incessantly in the most annoying fashion, and the children seem to be more hectic than normal. We all could feel the storm coming, and that in itself was exciting!

It began on Thursday with heavy winds whipping the sea into a fury. By the evening, as the high tide was coming in, the jetties were being covered, and soon the road would be under. It was 2.81 metres higher than normal high tide, as I understand it. (That's just over 9 feet!) By 11pm, when the tide was at its highest point, half the village was out looking at the water. It was incredible to see something transform before your eyes - a harbour suddenly underwater, and the shivering thrill as water rushed up to the walls, and seeped through sandbags. In the dark and cold, feeling the strong wind in my face and hearing the whoosh of waves rushing in to claim the higher ground, I understood once more just how powerful water is.

I've grown to love the sea (from the comfort of land...) but I fear it and respect it more than anything else in mother nature. Have a look at some of these photos and see what I mean:

Sea rising to the walls
The harbour going under water

Sandbags at the ready