Raise your hand if you’re tired of hearing that or any of the variations on that theme. I’m tired of hearing it and I’m tired of saying it.
There’s no such thing as safe in this world and never has been. In the words of Helen Keller, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing.” But it seems more apparent to me every day that “safe” is a cousin of “perfect”, neither strictly achievable and yet both worthy, within limits, of our efforts.
If you want to understand the contradictory nature of safety, spend some time on the ocean. Nowhere do humans more regularly display their stubbornness, ignorance, and hubris than on those bodies of water that cover most of our world.
In the Bahamas, I watched the Atlantic Ocean change from a glassy picture of idyllic calm to a raging, roiling monster in a matter of minutes…right beneath me. While the wind sheared the tops off waves and hurled them into our boat, Fred clung to the wheel, and I hunkered out of the elements shivering from cold and fear. We were as safe as we could be—Fred is a skilled captain, our boat and motor were sound, we both wore our PFDs with safety flares securely attached, and we had an EPIRB locator aboard to aid in a search if a search became necessary—but the ocean could have easily swamped us, driven our boat (and us) into the jagged coral, chilled us to the bone and dragged our hypothermic bodies wherever it wished before anyone could save us. That we made it through the squall soggy and shaken but unharmed had as much to do with luck as it did with planning.
But we did plan. If we made that trip again, we’d plan again. We’d strive for that elusive, perfect safety. We’d plan again because we’re both gamblers by nature and one thing that a good gambler always knows is to keep the odds in their favour.
To be safe, or safer, on the ocean, requires four things: knowledge, preparation, experience, and humility. When we lived on Aitutaki, in the Cook Islands, our home was an island surrounded by a barrier reef. There were only two openings through that reef through which boats could pass. One opening was on the windward side and was extremely dangerous on most days. The other opening was a human-made channel dredged during WWII, wide and safe for all boats to pass through most of the time. Fred’s was the only boat, however, that journeyed through that channel, outside the safety of the reef to the open Pacific Ocean, to take tourists on adventure snorkel tours. Thrill-seeking guests loved his tours and the chance to see Giant Humphead Wrasse, schools of Eagle Rays, and friendly turtles. It didn’t take long for word to get out that Fred’s was the tour to take if you wanted to see the wild side of Aitutaki.
Fred is safe. People often misunderstand that those who make a living taking big risks are usually the folks who understand danger best and who prepare most diligently. Stunt performers don’t just walk off the street and start jumping off buildings. Along with years of training in various disciplines, there are rehearsals and safety equipment and every damn thing a person can do to make sure the danger is mitigated and controlled as much as possible.
When Fred took guests snorkelling outside the reef, he would put his keen sense of safety into hyperdrive. No matter how fit or willing his guests may have been, ultimately it was Fred’s responsibility to bring them back to the dock in once piece at the end of the tour. Some days, when the weather refused to cooperate, that meant staying inside the reef and enjoying the more sedate magic of the lagoon.
On one of these days, one of Fred’s guests balked at the announcement that the tour could not venture outside the reef and insisted that the conditions were “not that bad”. As Fred stood on shore, watching the waves break in the distance, years of knowledge and experience informing his judgement, he could have easily told that guest that no means no, end of story. Instead, given her insistence, he decided to make it a learning experience. “Okay, if you think it’s not that bad, let’s go,” he said, and loaded the guests onboard.
The closer the boat got to the channel, the bigger and louder the “not that bad” waves grew. Fred watched the woman’s body language change, her back stiffened, her hand grasped the gunwale. Soon she was glancing back at him, eyes wide, waiting. The crash and roar of the waves thundering through the channel ahead, which now resembled a god’s washing machine agitating on high speed, finally won over the woman’s pride and she waved frantically for Fred to stop. He slowed the boat and, at her request, turned away from the danger, back to the calm water of the beautiful lagoon.
When I sat down to write about safety during a pandemic, that story and so many other ocean adventures came to mind. That woman who thought the weather was “not that bad” wasn’t a terrible person, she merely lacked the four requirements to navigate the ocean safely. Without knowledge and experience, the waves hitting the reef probably didn’t look all that threatening from a distance. Because she was traveling as part of a tour, she didn’t have to prepare for the journey or consider the safety of others—that was Fred’s job. And because she did not come to the danger that is the ocean with proper humility, she refused to listen to the more experienced voice of her captain. She was smart enough to recognize the danger once she could see it clearly, and I think, (or hope), that after Fred’s lesson she learned to respect both the ocean and those who spend most of their lives working on it.
I’ve seen these same missing requirements frequently this year in the ways people have responded to COVID-19. The masses of people who continue to insist that the virus is “not that bad” are no different from the woman on Fred’s tour—lacking knowledge and experience, they can’t see the threat in something that seems so insignificant from a distance. Because these people are not the ones who will have to spend their days and nights clad in PPE, watching people suffer and die en masse, they see no reason to consider the safety of others—that’s someone else’s job. And lacking humility, they refuse to listen to the experienced voices of experts, or to anyone who does not reinforce their misguided beliefs.
Since March, I have been, by turns, amused and annoyed by the people who chalk up the actions of anyone willing to follow the advice of those on the frontlines of the pandemic to fear. These folks laugh at the “sheeple” who strive for safety in an unsafe world, confusing empathy and humility with blind obedience and childish naivety. I find myself wishing that I could, as Fred did, take them right to the precipice, let them see the threat up close, and wait for realization to dawn.
The lack of a perfect state of safety in the world does not mean we abandon reason, or each other.
I’ve spent thousands of hours on the open ocean with Fred as my captain. His degree of risk tolerance is higher than mine simply because he’s more experienced. I trust him out there on the water but it’s not a blind trust—I’ve lived through some hair-raising ocean experiences thanks to my husband’s knowledge of ,and respect for, the elements. Despite my trust, however, I’ve never lost that little ball of cold fear that settles in my stomach when the weather turns nasty while we’re offshore.
But here’s another interesting facet of safety—sometimes it’s easier to feel safe when we protect others.
Coming back into the Ucluelet Harbour (interestingly, “Ucluelet” means “safe harbour”) one afternoon, after a hard day of fishing, the wind, which had been mildly unpleasant for the west coast, turned up several notches and we found ourselves pounding slowly through rough seas and driving rain. We had some friends with us that day, including our friend’s young son “E”. Since we were getting thoroughly tossed around, I put E on my lap in the passenger seat next to Fred and wrapped my arms around him. E was wearing his lifejacket, and I was clad head-to-toe in my survival suit, with tons of flotation and warmth. I knew, deep in my soul, that if anything ever did happen to us that I would hold this kid tight and keep him warm and safe. In that moment, for the first time, the cold ball of fear vanished.
Keeping the people you care about safe is the opposite of fear. Keeping the people you care about safe is a kind of superpower.
So here we are, more than a year since this new strain of coronavirus burst into the world and turned our lives upside down. Are we safe yet? No. Vaccines are rolling out and some parts of the world have made deep sacrifices to stop the spread of the virus. Sadly, there are still too many out there who lack the requirements to accurately assess the danger, and many of those who also demean those striving for that always elusive safety—for ourselves and others.
I am tired of telling people to stay safe but I will keep saying it. When it comes to ocean safety, Fred likes to say, “Humans get tired, the ocean never does”. I could say the same of COVID. We’re all tired. We’re lonely and sad. We miss the big things like concerts and parties, and the little things like taking a leisurely stroll through a grocery store without a piece of fabric covering our face. Some of our captains have not done a great job guiding us through this storm, others remain steadfastly at the wheel no matter how towering the waves. Regardless, we are all done with safety…and we must not quit.
Humans get tired, the virus never does.
On the cusp of Winter Solstice, let’s remember the light will return. The rain will stop, the storm clouds will part, and someday the waves will cease.