Saltwater sores and all

“Out on a line boat, it’s like you’re in purgatory. The other world, the one you come from, you sometimes just ache for it.” – Big Red Shutterstock photo

Romance: a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life.

I was in my mid-20s. A hopeless romantic. Alongside me sometimes stood a mailman or a UPS driver, sometimes both, by the pavilion on the right bank of the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota. Silent beside each other, we looked out at the river, yearning for lives beyond nasty nipping dogs, constant hasty deliveries, or, in my case, being a teacher dealing with eighth graders on a daily basis. We watched the towboats pushing barges filled with grain, sand, or gasoline around the bend to some unknown destination. And somehow, from our viewpoint, that was romantic. And we wanted to be there. But I soon learned there were two sides to and of the river, and of romance.

A veteran river pilot has a different point of view, as he looks from out on the river back to the shore. Here’s how Big Red, a river pilot I knew and wrote about, said it:

On the river, especially hooked to a big tow and against some bad current, the world goes by at about two or three miles an hour. You can stare at the same tree stump for just about forever, thinking about something over and over. You wonder where the river stories come from? They come from all that idle time: time in the pilothouse, time in the galley, time waiting to lock through, time waiting for a busted lift bridge, time waiting for a crew change. Plenty of time. Just waiting. People aboard get plenty close when the world moves that slow. And the other world, the one on the bank, that one’s so close you can see it, hear it, and smell it. But you can’t touch it. Like your life, it’s just going by, with a lot of stuff just out of reach. In the daytime you might stick your head out of the galley and spot a yellow school bus on a river road, maybe watch some kids run along the river bank to school, maybe wonder about your own – if you were lucky enough to have some – wonder who’s raising them, where they are right now. Then other thoughts barge in, and you try to push them back as you know they ain’t no good for you. Like at night, when there’s less to do and less to see, you might get to wondering about the woman you left ashore – wondering what she’s doing, if she’s warm in bed, and if anyone’s in that bed with her. Them thoughts can get out of control. Them thoughts can crush a man. Out on a line boat, it’s like you’re in purgatory. The other world, the one you come from, you sometimes just ache for it. And then, when you get back ashore, everything’s new for a while, but sure enough, after a few days you start meandering down to the riverbank, maybe staring out at a line boat headed south. And somehow, despite it all, you can’t wait to get back aboard.

For many of us by the sea rather than by the river, it’s no different.

How many times have we looked to sea, our eyes searching the empty horizon over a roiled ocean, and still yearned to be out there? And how many times have we then been out there, cold, wet or shivering, yearning for a yet-unsighted shore, uncertain about our timely and safe return, and imagined the warmth of a fire or hot shower, or the comfort of that placid existence we’d left behind? Yet then, upon our return to that place, safe in our house as the wind builds and the trees scrub our shingles as if to remind us of what it’s like out there, we think of heading back again, though perhaps this time only to a well-situated point of land, where we can behold the sea.

Propelled by the power of the romance of the ocean, many folks have gone to sea unprepared, only to have their dreams fractured. Back in my boat delivery days, I’d been hired to take a couple on the first leg of their dream cruise to circle the globe. They were new to sailing, but they’d read many books. Unfortunately, those books were mostly the romantic ones, rather than those filled with unvarnished truths. So, this couple quit their jobs, sold their house and cars, and even cancelled their marina slip. And off we went. But out there, out of sight of land, and not 12 hours later, the dream was drowned by the reality of the sea; there were no swaying palm trees or sun-soaked isles. And when the seasickness came, along with the saltwater sores that rose from their wrists from the constant chafing of their foul weather gear, and things on board started to roll horribly, pound and then break, it was then that the dream broke, too. All the couple wanted then was what they had left behind. And so we turned around. The reality of romance had a new perception.

Yet, somehow, despite all this, there is romance. At least, for the past 40 years it’s seemed so to me. Perhaps romance is perception. But is perception reality? Perception does have a potent influence on how we look at reality, acting as a lens through which we view it. Our perceptions influence how we focus on, process, remember, interpret, understand, synthesize, decide about, and act on reality. In doing so, our tendency is to assume that how we perceive reality is an accurate representation of what reality truly is. But it’s not. The problem is that the lens through which we perceive is often warped in the first place by our genetic predispositions, past experiences, prior knowledge, emotions, preconceived notions, self-interest and cognitive distortions.

As Gabrielle Bernstein wrote in her book, “The Universe Has Your Back”:

“We are not responsible for what our eyes are seeing. We are responsible for how we perceive what we are seeing.”

Most of us will always love doing, talking and writing about our waterborne experiences. Most of us will keep going out there. I know I will. My perception, clearly, is that it’s been a long romance, one of mystery, one of excitement and one of remoteness from everyday life. So, I wouldn’t have it any other way . . . saltwater sores and all.

Look for David Roper’s forthcoming book, “Beyond Mermaids . . . Life’s Tangles, Knots & Bends.” It’s a sequel to “Watching for Mermaids,” a three-times bestseller available on