The Draw of the Sea
Wyl Menmuir is a Cornish based author whose 2016 debut novel, The Many, was longlisted for the Man-Booker Award. This July he releases his first full-length non-fiction book, The Draw of the Sea, and has written our guest blog about what the sea means to him and those he met while researching the book.
I am lucky to have spent much of the last three years spending time with the people who make their lives on and around the seas and coastlines of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, and seeing the sea through their eyes. Surfers, sailors, swimmers, artists, beachcombers, rock poolers, conservationists, and fishermen. And the one thing I’ve noticed is that each of these people sees the sea in a slightly different way.
Surfers sit low in the water on submerged boards and look for that longed-for ‘bump’ on the horizon that signals an incoming set of waves. Rockpoolers seek out sheltered coves in which they can observe the St Piran’s hermit crabs, scarlet and gold cup corals, and snakelocks anemones, as they go about their mysterious lives. Sea swimmers look for flat, sheltered waters in which to plough their lane. Freedivers take a huge breath of air before plunging into the depths – they look for the stillest, clearest waters in which to commune with the ocean. Photographers rise in the early hours before dawn in order to capture the first light of day from sea level. And there are few people I’ve met who don’t dream of finding the perfect white sands of a hidden beach on which to let go of the cares of the world.
We’re lucky here. We have access to all of this. Cornwall is uniquely placed. Only one short edge borders the rest of the country at the Tamar. The rest of our narrow promontory that sticks out into the Atlantic, is surrounded by sea. I particularly like Richard Carew’s description of Cornwall in the early 1600s as a ‘demi island’ because it often feels that we are entirely surrounded by water here. And the sea feels entirely different depending on where you are on the coast. When there is a 15-foot swell on the north coast and it can be millpond flat on the south. The sea shows itself in all its moods here – the beautiful, the awe-inspiring, and the terrifying – often all in the space of a single day. Head further west and you’ll find all of this and more on the tiny gems that make up the archipelago of Scilly, in which the stillest seas can turn to raging torrents in a matter of hours as the wind switches.
The other thing I discovered while researching my book is that, while we all share the same waters, the draw of the sea is a deeply personal thing. I talked with the filmmaker Jane Darke about the ways in which she felt held by the sea after the death of her husband, the playwright, Nick Darke, and the legacy of their decades together searching the shore for wreck. In the workshop of wooden surfboard maker, James Otter, near Porthtowan, I met a woman who is using the sea as a way of helping her to recover from a serious brain haemorrhage. In Porthkerris, I dived with a mermaid for whom the underwater world offers respite from her ADHD. On board a traditional Cornish gig boat, I met a crew of women who take out their frustrations by ploughing through the sea off St Michael’s Mount, and near St Ives I swam with a group of men who have what I can only describe as the nicest of self-help groups, floating in dark waters in the early hours on the north coast. The stories of these people filled my notebooks and later the pages of The Draw of The Sea, a book that celebrates the many ways in which we are drawn to and held by the oceans that surround us.
I have a theory that the sea is far more important to our lives than we can possibly imagine. I saw it in the shine in people’s eyes as they talked about their relationships with the sea, in the way so many of them campaign tirelessly for its protection, and in the impassioned pleas from marine biologists that we must act now to save it. Whether we realise it or not, its health is key to all of our lives, whether we live in earshot of the sea or we’re entirely landlocked. It is comforting and embracing, wild and unpredictable. It’s the source of life and a bringer of death. It’s the inspiration for dreams and nightmares, a place of play and joy, and at the same time of terror and fear. And whatever else it is, it’s impossible to be ambivalent about. Its fate and ours are entirely intertwined and we can’t help but be drawn to it.
Wyl’s book, The Draw of The Sea, an exploration of our relationships with the ocean, is released on 5 July. He is also running sea-related events all around Cornwall throughout the month. To find out more, visit wylmenmuir.co.uk/events