“Worse Things Happen At Sea”

By Emma Pearson

May 25, 2024

Pictures my own – and scanned hymn from my dad

3 June 2022

Growing up in Brussels in the 1970s and 1980s, there were a couple of sea-related sayings that were oft quoted in our family. Not that we lived close to the sea. Though we did cross the English Channel and the North Sea a few times a year to visit friends and family.

One of the sayings was “Worse things happen at sea”. It’s meant to imply, “Stop complaining. Your lot is not so bad”. I don’t remember it being used harshly – perhaps just to boost any of us children who were struggling with something. To help us maintain perspective. Or perhaps to inject a feeling of safety, security and courage when called on to do something just a little too scary. Such as write an essay for school. Take a school or music exam. Get a tram back home alone for the first time on a dark winter’s evening. Go out into the woods alone for orienteering. Do a sports event or competition. The kind of thing that could feel quite scary. (And still does)

The other saying – indeed a hymn from the Methodist Hymn book – I never fully memorised but knew bits of. My dad would perform it (there is no other appropriate word) as we arrived home, safe and sound, after a long car journey. Particularly perhaps one involving bad weather, or a near miss on the roads.

Dad’s always been amazing at memorising quotes and poems – a skill I have never mastered. He put great expression, drama and emotion into their telling! I can picture the five of us kids in the back of our VW mini-van, listening with sharp ears and wide eyes as dad would recite the dramatic lines, to join him on the last line – which somehow we could remember just in time:

“Safe home, safe home in port
Rent cordage, shattered deck,
Torn sails, provision short,
And only not a wreck!”

(I never knew what “rent cordage” meant, and even now, went to look it up!)

Courtesy of my dad

But do worse things happen at sea? Perhaps it used to be so, centuries ago, when innocent adventure could quickly spiral into drama and disaster. When boatloads of intrepid voyagers waved bye-bye, never to be seen or heard of again.

But today?

My “disasters” have occurred on dry land. Not in the air. Not at sea. Not even on roads. But in houses, hospitals or hospices.

And in a small bit of woodland with a trickling stream.

I accept, though, that most massive, shocking, ginormous disasters occur out in the wilderness, where there is even less control than in the ordinary day-to-day. More variables. And perhaps more significantly, less shared and collective skill. More unskilled people in fewer skilled people’s hands.

All of that preamble to say that…

…Yesterday I was on a boat that sank. Truly and utterly sank.

A high-pitched whine had been going which, later, we realised must have been an alarm sounding.

Our boat stalled. Bang mid-way in the car ferry crossing channel between Palau and La Maddalena, north-east of Sardinia.

Some of us wondered if the skipper had seen the big ferry hurtling towards us. (He had. He couldn’t budge the boat though. The car ferry budged instead).

Our boat sat there and just floated. Until suddenly it was evident, even to the uninitiated sea mariners among us, that something was seriously wrong.

The cover of the engine area was hoisted up to reveal a lot of water. (I did not see this).

The skipper stayed calm. One of our swim group asked him, “Are we sinking?”, and apparently he replied, “Yes”.

And within a handful of minutes, the boat was tipping up, backside first into the water.

To cut a fairly short story even shorter, we all got out, safe and sound. That is all that matters.

Only belongings were lost at sea. And actually, many belongings were retrieved merely hours later – dredged up smelling of greasy oil and petrol. My wetsuit top, bikini, beach sandals, Kindle, fitbit, cagoule, rucksack, and more. I am grateful to have all of these belongings back, even if I doubt my fitbit and Kindle will power up again. Not to worry.

There was little visible panic on board, but my internal panic alarm responded quickly, resulting in me getting teary and weepy. My mind goes straight to Ben and Megan – I imagine them fully orphaned, wholly parent-less, and I cannot bear it. It makes me want to cry.

I do cry. I do not want more loss for them, even though I know they will have more.

Just not yet.


Tom, who I had really warmed to early in the trip when we travelled together, saw, heard and acknowledged my fear. He had heard my story right from the start as we travelled by cab together, our flights coming in at similar times. He held my gaze, looked steadily into my eyes and said, “Emma – this will be okay. You will be okay. We will all be okay”.  

Tom’s eyes reminded me of a diving instructor whose name I no longer remember, but I swear I could pick him out in a crowd today. He helped me overcome my considerable fear of scuba-diving, (not to mention piercing ear pain) back in 1991, when Mike and I visited the Great Barrier Reef.

I can picture his freckled face, his ginger, longish floating hair, ginger eyebrows and eye lashes, his calm steady blue eyes behind his snorkel mask, inches from my face. No words spoken because we were under water with oxygen tanks and tubes in our mouths.

But those calm, encouraging eyes! How I remember them, and their power.

Filled with trust. Generating trust in me.

Filled with courage. Generating courage in me.

Filled with love and care, and perhaps a smidge of concern.

Those were Tom’s eyes too, yesterday, as the boat was sinking. And I chose to trust him.

When he called out, “Everyone – jump into the water”, I jumped. We all jumped. He and Jess were the two who seemed to know something of boats and seas and water.  And particularly when there is just too much water in a boat.

Some very calm people collected mobile phones and put them into dry bags. Some people only had dry bags!

I heard Tom say, “Attach your bag to the boat – it might be more easily found again that way” – which I did. And indeed, it was retrieved.

More good luck on top of our already considerable good luck.

Good luck resting on the underlying foundation of bad luck.

But by golly. That fine, barely visible line between “incident” and “disaster”.

That line, between something that ends up being “just” a scary incident, that we all walk (swim) away from. Alive, even if somewhat shaken, stirred and sobered. Versus another live(s)-altering, world(s)-shattering tragedy.

The later retellings of the “almosts” and “nearlys” and “thank gods” that could so easily have resulted in far worse outcomes. Like the person whose backpack got caught as he abandoned the boat, and was trapped for a while before he was able to release himself.

It doesn’t bear thinking about.

It’s always okay until it’s not.

We were lucky. So very, very lucky.

Back on dry land, people called their favourite people.

I wanted to call Mike.

No Mike though.

I sat on a bollard, away from the group, pondering what was, what had been, and what might have been.

I used to call Mike when I was scared. When I’d had a near miss. A close shave. Even if I was okay.

He didn’t take on my stress or fear. Or if he did, he held it without absorbing it. He loved that capacity in me too. Particularly when he was very ill.

I thought of calling Medjool. But I hesitated, and just wrote him a note asking if he was free to talk. (Code for, “I need to talk to you. Now”).

He wasn’t free. As makes sense at around 10h30 on an otherwise random, working Thursday morning. We are not yet well-versed in one another’s distress signals. Wonderful as Medjool is – and he truly is – and calm and receptive as I know he would have been if he’d picked up the phone and heard me sobbing, I just feel I can’t put that on him. Not yet. Perhaps not for a decade or more.

Perhaps I have become too skilled at holding big scary moments alone for long periods of time.  

Perhaps I haven’t seen Medjool enough yet in his own, deeply scary moments. I don’t know what he can handle. I don’t know what he can hold. Not yet.

I don’t want to assume he will just absorb additional stress that is not his to carry. Especially when I know that right now, in this moment, all is okay. That I am fundamentally alright. Safe. When my world has already been put back to rights.

It’s a tough one though. When to call and talk about stuff like this? During the impending disaster itself? Of course not.

But if not immediately afterwards, then when? Only when it’s already evolved into an anecdote? A somewhat surprising event? A mere incident?

When the fear and sense of impending doom and horror have already been absorbed – at least to some extent – into my cells?

I love Medjool. I love, and am so grateful for, his deep love and the ensuing comfort I enjoy with him. Undeniably powerful, tangible love and comfort. I have been so very lucky in love. Really. Despite my losses, I am lucky. So much love and luck cohabiting with the layers of loss.

And yet, I wish I had Mike. Alive. Breathing. On the end of a phone line. Available to listen and speak to. In such moments, I only want – I need – Mike.  

I so very much miss Mike. His ability to hold tension and fear. His. Mine. The skill and calm he would display. The holding for me, with me.

We had decades of practice at this. I can’t even tell you how we learned it, but we did. And I don’t know how to do it with someone else, even though I want to.

I need to witness this holding capacity more in Medjool. I need to see him in the eye of a massive storm. In a crisis. Sinking.

And the truth is – I do know he can do it. I know he would and could do the holding. With grace and courage.

It is me, and the space and importance I grant myself in his life, that I need to trust more. That is where I seem to have questions, doubts and reservations.

It is me – not Medjool – I need to trust more.

Central port area of La Maddalena

About Emma Pearson

2 thoughts on ““Worse Things Happen At Sea”

  1. Emma, your unvarnished honesty moves me to my core. I’m very glad you ‘got through’ the physical experience, if I can put it that way. And I wish that I could be just 10% as clear and truthful with myself as you are.
    Jane xx

  2. Read this just now, my brave lassie… Wish it had been earlier, though.
    So clearly honest however painful to express.
    Thanks so much, elder daughter mine.

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