There is something curiously contradictory about gazing out over a seascape in silence. You might get to understand a little about the sea and her moods, but chances are you’ll learn more about yourself.

For a summer there my wife and I spent long days in a French boatbuilding yard. Every evening after work, I would peel off my dusty overalls, kiss my wife and go down to watch the sea. It became a necessary ritual, the shedding of my skin and the short walk from the boatbuilder’s yard to the shimmering waters of the Bay of Biscay.

We spent our days in the yard, working on a beautiful Swan ketch named Talina, with the air filled with the whine of electric sanders and the soft banter of boatbuilders’ French. By the time I escape the place on my daily ritual, the heat of the day is radiating off every surface.

Along the way to the sea, I note which brand of beer the derelicts are drinking and know that it is on special at the supermarket on the corner. I nip in and buy my obligatory icycold can of beer, which chills my hand as I walk the remaining distance to the sea wall.

“I see the sea and the sea sees me,” repeats softly in my head, the words recalling an old childhood game that my sister and I would play in the back seat of the car on the way to our favourite bay.


My pace begins to slow as I gain the sea. From a low concrete sea wall, I take in the unfolding vista. Unnecessary functions such as speech and thought seem to slow as I dedicate myself to watching, observing and seeing the sea. There is a wafting sea breeze ruffling the water that is twelve kinds of blue. The tide is on the ebb, leaving telltale signs of the paths it has dug in the sand. Out beyond the beach is a white sail hard on the wind. I perch on the wall while my eyes dart around the feast of language offered by the sea.

It is a summer’s evening and there are plenty of people promenading along the sea wall. Most of them see the sea as a stage set, a static background on which they act out their lives full of trivial importance. Occasionally they will toss a glance at the sea while deep in discussion of their woes with another.

Among this throng, I have noticed there is one other sea-gazer like me. I can tell by the way he is standing, as if in a trance, and by the way he looks at the sea. He is a Frenchman to the core; his teeth clamped on a cigarette and on his feet the trademarks of a fellow boatbuilder, old trainers covered with epoxy resin.

We nod greetings, the language barrier too great to strike up a conversation. There is a faint smile as he notices that I have the same brand of derelict special beer in my hand as he does. Our eyes turn quickly back to the sea and all that it is telling us. I secretly name him Monsieur Mer.

Good sailors are natural sea-gazers. At a glance, they can take in the wind and its effect on the ocean and have some assurance of what the immediate future may hold. Bad sailors do not gaze; like the promenaders along the sea wall, they see the sea as a static thing, like a canvas that their ego might skip across without getting its feet wet.

From the outside, it may look as if the sea-gazer is depressed. On more than one occasion I have been asked, “Are you alright, dear?” by kind old ladies out walking their dogs. From the inside it is quite the opposite of depression; in fact, it is more like a form of warm reassurance that the sea is going about its business, oblivious to the irrelevant workings of humankind.


Even before seeing the sea, a good sea-gazer will have noticed the wind. For the most part, the wind will set the character of the sea. On land, the influence of wind is mostly ignored, yet when it blows over the sea it becomes the sculptor of waves and the engine of currents.

The wind brings the ocean to life. For the sea gazer reading the effect of wind on the water is a fundamental literacy. It provides understanding and a glimpse of the near future of the sea. To a person of the land this may seem like sorcery and on more than one occasion I have been confronted by the statement, “But you can’t see wind!” On the shores of the Bay of Biscay, Monsieur Mer makes no such bold allegations and merely sips his beer and watches the sea in companionable silence.

Sea-gazing, like all good addictions, has its degrees of affliction. Maurie was, if anything, worse than me. A lifetime ago he was a fellow crewmate on an icebreaker that traversed the Southern Ocean between New Zealand and Antarctica. I enjoyed sea-gazing from the low aft deck of the ship as this gave a sense of danger from being right on the water among the towering swells of the wildest ocean on earth.


Maurie preferred to do his sea-gazing from high above the bridge of the ship, where he recorded it all on video. As night fell he would retreat to his cabin and watch hours of footage as we steamed south.

Sailors and sea-gazers are naturally obsessed with the weather. It is the marine equivalent of a tarot card reading. Modern internet technology has much improved the technical side of this dark art; however, old-fashioned sky-gazing still has its place.


The sky above the Bay of Biscay is foretelling a blow. Way up high there are wispy mares’ tails in the clouds, which are confirmed by the latest weather charts and a dropping barometer. Monsieur Mer has no doubt noticed all this too and soon we will experience one of the notorious gales that fill the bay with their rage.

By now the last dregs of my beer have gone warm. It has rinsed the gritty taste of sanding dust from my mouth and the sea has filled my lungs with its salty breath and dulled the whine

of electric sanders from my ears. I raise my eyebrows in goodbye to Monsieur Mer and amble off home for my dinner in that reluctant way a child leaves a playground.

By the next afternoon, the gale is upon us. Each wind direction has its character that seems to fill the sea and the sailor with its personality. This is a Nor’wester and it has a violence that suggests a prisoner destroying his cage.

Down in the hull of Talina, there is a haunting din of the wind in the rigging. Talina has become a musical instrument with taut strings of wire plucked by the wind and amplified into the curved soundbox of the hull. This renders a form of music from the wind.

At its most benign it is a lullaby, but today it is a chorus of demonic moans. All day I listen to the eerie music from the rigging; each time it climbs a note I can feel an involuntary clenching somewhere deep inside me.

The wind has got under the skin of the other boatbuilders in the yard. They have retreated into the cafeteria and are consuming more wine than normal at their afternoon happy hour. A quick “à bientôt” to my workmates, a kiss for my wife and I am off battling my way down to the sea.

As I zig-zag through the grid of streets that lead to the sea I am leaning hard into the wind. Even the derelicts have been spooked by the fury of the sea and are nowhere to be seen. I have to waste time finding my can of beer on special in the supermarket on the corner.

I can hear the ocean well before reaching the sea wall. It is a deep booming roar and has transformed from blue into a brown foaming rage. I lean on the wall and into the wind. “I see the sea and the sea sees me” is torn from my mouth. For the first time in a while, I do not have to whisper those words; there is no chance of anyone hearing them. The promenaders are nowhere to be seen.

The drink from my beer can tastes salty as the wind picks up the fine spray and drives it inland. I am in seagazers’ heaven and the only one mad enough to be out here. From the corner of a watery eye, I spot a figure struggling against the wind along the sea wall. It is Monsieur Mer.

He stops nearby and removes a can of beer from his pocket. It is the supermarket special. He opens it and toasts me; the wind blows the froth clean out of the can. We grin at each other and then turn our eyes back to the spectacle of the sea like two lunatics staring at the full moon.