Swimming With Sharks

K. has a little poster in her room, stuck up above the desk where she does her homework, that reads: “A smooth sea never made a skilful sailor.” She’s only 12, it seems like a hard lesson for one so young to learn. I hope it is many years before she has to leave the smooth seas. You wouldn’t send someone out to learn to sail in a stormy ocean no less that you’d recommend a learner driver acquire the rules of the road by negotiating the streets of Rome. Then again, clearly that’s how the Romans learn to drive: they’re thrown straight in with the sharks and told to snap back at them. I have a friend from Naples who told me that a red light in Italy is advisory only; that everyone knows it and drives accordingly – by which I took him to mean recklessly. It sounds just as terrifying as swimming with sharks. I’ve not driven in Rome but I have driven in Paris, which I think is quite a step down in terms of the crazy explosion of Latin temperament to be found behind the wheel in Italy. Even in France, though, I had to morph into a fire-breathing monster to survive; window down, fist wielded, hurling my best French swear words towards the rival vehicles intent on mowing me down. My dad was in the passenger seat beside me and I could never work out if his speechlessness masked disgust or delight at his demented daughter. I got us through the Arc de Triomphe in one piece, though!

Maybe it’s true then, about the smooth sea. Maybe my Paris experience made me into a less fearful driver. I’m not saying I’m a skilful driver, but I’m not a frightened one. Is it always the case, however, that we have to navigate the rough seas of life and survive the sharks of this world in order to build resilience? I think we can make decisions and choices that can help us avoid metaphorical seasickness but we can’t avoid all of the gurly* seas that life has to throw at us no more than I can control whether or not it is going to rain today.

There was one man from these parts – just over the Firth of Forth in Dunfermline in Fife – who had a name for a skilful sailor. The fictional Sir Patrick Spens came to a grisly end all because one other knight, who seems to have harboured a grudge, advised the King that Spens be the man to navigate the inhospitable North Sea across to Norway. In this case, skill was useless, and Patrick now lies fifty fathoms deep. If you have hit a rough path of ocean, bear with it; the wind will abate and the sea will calm. And if you’re asked to navigate a route through what seems to be impossibly rough water that you know will sink your boat, trust your gut, learn from Sir Patrick Spens, and say, ‘No’.

Sir Patrick Spens (Scottish Folk Ballad, author unknown – abridged version)

The King sits in Dunfermline town,

Drinking the blood-red wine;

“O where shall I get a skeely skipper

To sail this ship or mine?”

Then up and spake an eldern knight,

Sat at the King’s right knee:

“Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor

That ever sailed the sea.”

The king has written a braid letter

And signed it wi’ his hand,

And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,

Was walking on the sand. 
The first line that Sir Patrick read

A loud laugh laught he;

The next line that Sir Patrick read,

The tear blinded his eye. 

“Who is this has done this deed,

This ill deed done to me,

To send me out this time o’the year,

To sail upon the sea? 

Make haste, make haste, my merry men all,

Our guid ship sails the morn.’

‘O say na sae, my master dear,

For I fear a deadly storm.’ 

I saw the new moon late yestreen

With the old moon in her arm;

And if we go to sea, master,

I fear we’ll come to harm.”

They had not sailed a league, a league,

A league but barely three,

When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud,

And gurly grew the sea.

O lang, lang may the maidens sit

With their gold combs in their hair,

All waiting for their own dear loves,

For them they’ll see nae mair.

O forty miles of Aberdeen,

‘Tis fifty fathoms deep;

And there lies good Sir Patrick Spens,

With the Scots lords at his feet.


* Scots: ‘Gurly’  = rough, boisterous, stormy weather

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