Fearful Reveries, Penal Colonies and Death in the Dark Ocean

In Everyman (Vintage, 2006), Philip Roth writes of his central protagonist’s fears that intrude into an otherwise idyllic sojourn by the sea:

The only unsettling moments were at night, when they walked along the beach together. The dark sea rolling in with its momentous thud and the sky lavish with stars made Phoebe rapturous but frightened him. The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die, and the thunder of the sea only yards away –and the nightmare of the blackest blackness beneath the frenzy of the water–made him want to run from the menace of oblivion to their cozy, lighted, underfurnished house.

I’m perhaps not as anxious about death as Roth’s ‘hero’–perhaps!–but the fear of the ocean, and especially at night, is a familiar one.

Years ago, during the second year of my two-year stint in Australia, as I began reading Robert Hughes‘ epic history of its convict years, The Fatal Shore,  I paused when I came to the following description of the ocean waters around Sydney Harbor:

Long swells boil into the cliff in a boiling white lather, flinging veils of water hundreds of feet into the air.

I was familiar, in a fashion, with the wildness thus described. Shortly after my arrival in Sydney, thanks to a good friend, I had been taken for a yacht ride through the Harbour, under the Sydney Bridge and past the Opera House, out to the heads where the open ocean was visible. As we sailed out, the formerly benign waves that bore our craft became steadily more feral, acquiring a shape, substance and heft not previously visible. By the time we had reached our turning around point, walls of green water were bearing down on us, their impact minimized by the skillful helmsmanship of our captain.  We were not skittled; we rode the waves well. But it was time to retreat into the safer waters of Sydney Harbour.

I didn’t forget those roiling waters, especially because I spent a year living at Bondi Beach, slowly becoming familiar with its crushing breakers, its foaming ‘big ones’, that so delighted surfers and terrorized mere mortals. On Christmas Day 2001, I ventured into the waters for a morning swim before heading out for the afternoon’s barbecuing, and found myself retreating a mere fifteen minutes later; I had been flung down, far too often for my liking, face down into Bondi’s white sands, by waves that came roaring in, again and again, relentless in their bruising power.

The thought of those same towering waters at night filled me with dread. What was it like, out on the open waters that were visible from Bondi’s cliffs? It was with some incredulity then, that I read in Hughes’ book of the desperate convicts who, beaten and chastised beyond bearing. had decided to run away from their penal confinement and cast themselves into the open waters at night, hoping somehow to wash up on a distant, safer, shore.

There are many imagined deaths that afflict me with nauseating fear. Among them, occupying an elevated rank, are those of the brutalized souls who thought that a dark roaring ocean was a safer place than the tyranny of their jailers.

8 comments on “Fearful Reveries, Penal Colonies and Death in the Dark Ocean

  1. kathkenny2 says:

    Love this piece Samir. I’ve been a bit distracted lately to pay attention to email but I’m very glad I felt the urge to read this one: I’m assuming you’re referring to the yacht trip we took? I wish I had your memory for detail. It’s incredible.

  2. kathkenny2 says:

    I have been a bit distracted to read my emails lately Samir but I’m glad I followed the urge to look at this one.
    I’m assuming you are writing about the day we went out yachting? I remember that day but wish I had you memory for detail. It’s incredible.
    Great piece. Thanks. Kath

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