On January 1, 2000, I walked along the promenade and was especially struck by the sea’s tranquillity on that day.
Indeed, it was a day which many had feared could have led to computer systems around the world crashing because of the unusual change of digits in the date, perhaps leading to aircraft crashing or even bombs being unintentionally launched.
But in Northern Ireland it was a calm day and the sea was supremely untroubled.
I was recently struck by the words of a former seaman of 22 years who changed his course in life to pursue ordination in the Church of England.
Lee Higson worked as a captain onboard what was a cross between a ship and an oil rig, 120 miles east of Aberdeen in the North Sea.
He said: “When you have experienced the power of the sea and storms at night it makes you open to something beyond the secular world.”
Yes, observing the sea can easily raise one’s thoughts to higher things.
The sea also, of course, can be very dangerous and its perils are being experience today in terrible ways.
Many people are risking their lives crossing the seas aboard inadequate vessels in search of a safer and better life.
Not long ago, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director in Libya, Dax Roque, reported that over 600 people had lost their lives in this way in 2021 alone.
He added that more than half a million migrants, refugees and asylum seekers were in Libya, many living in dire conditions, and stated that they faced “arbitrary detention in inhumane conditions, exploitation, kidnapping, sexual violence, high rates of torture, disappearances, extortion, amongst other abuses”.
He said that safe and legal pathways to reach Europe were “practically non-existent”, pushing those concerned to risk their lives by trying to cross the sea themselves, and pointed out that with the arrival of summer, more people had been undertaking the perilous journey.
The sea can indeed be perilous.
It has to be respected for the force that it holds and anyone bathing in the sea must be careful.
I remember many years ago walking along a beach in Co Donegal with two German friends.
We found a rock and sat there for quite a while putting the world to rights.
Then one of my companions looked back and was immediately thrown into a state of panic when he saw that the tide had come in and we were completely surrounded by the sea.
Thankfully, it was sufficiently shallow for us to wade back to safety, but I will never forget that incident.
It is a constant warning to me that we can all be overtaken by the deep.
During my time at The Church of Ireland Gazette, the chaplain to the Mission to Seafarers in Belfast, Rev Colin Hall-Thompson, wrote on a number of occasions for me about the life and work of the Flying Angel Seafarers’ Centre at Prince’s Dock Street.
He highlighted the fact that in July every year a special Sea Sunday is observed, especially within the Anglican Communion.
Mr Hall-Thompson told me for this column that because of the coronavirus pandemic many companies have not been allowing crew members ashore, although they are “well tested prior to boarding, then form a hub on board”.
He pointed out that most are not vaccinated and come from countries where vaccination programmes are “very poor at present”, but the Belfast chaplain also issued a reminder that “these are front-line workers helping to keep the global economy moving”.
Finally, when one considers the sea it is impossible nowadays to fail to be acutely aware not only of the damage being caused to it by pollution, not least by so much plastic waste, but also of rising sea levels.
National Geographic magazine has reported: “Plastics revolutionized medicine with life-saving devices, made space travel possible, lightened cars and jets — saving fuel and pollution — and saved lives with helmets, incubators, and equipment for clean drinking water. The conveniences plastics offer, however, led to a throw-away culture that reveals the material’s dark side: today, single-use plastics account for 40 percent of the plastic produced every year.”
Regarding rising sea levels, Niall Deeney strikingly reported in this newspaper (August 20) that the ‘coastal screening tool’, produced by the authoritative US-based non-profit organisation Climate Central, showed much of Belfast city centre — including several landmark locations such as St George’s Market, the City Airport, and the Titanic Quarter — being at risk of severe flooding by 2050 unless action is taken.
Most people do not live by the sea but it is important for everyone not only to appreciate its beauty but also to understand the huge issues it raises for human safety and for the very future of our planet.
• Canon Ian Ellis is a former editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette
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