Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 12, 2010


Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

One of the most memorable openings of any work of literature is that of Moby-Dick. After beginning with the iconic, “Call me Ishmael,” Melville’s narrator continues to describe how,

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet … then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

“Ishmael” then describes something that he’s observed about the human condition: that there’s a nearly universal urge within every person to stand at the furthest brink of land and gaze out on the water (he’s writing about 19th-Century Manhattan in this next passage):

What do you see?–Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep.

Fear not, I’m not going to quote the entire text of that massive work. I encourage you to read just those opening paragraphs some time when you’re in the library. Well worth it. Another way to get out-of-copyright classics like Moby-Dick is at The Gutenberg Project: You can download the entire texts of many works to your computer. You e-book readers probably already know this.

Probably all of us who are here in southern California are water-gazers to at least some degree. Why else tolerate the crowding and the expense and the commutes? We have the blithely beautiful Pacific right here. All along Santa Monica Bay there are legendary beaches, and north and south there are stunning drives along dramatic bluffs. Up the road near Santa Barbara, mountains come nearly down to the shore, and a little farther north from there are dunes and wild country. Water-gazing, indeed. I’ve written before about various aspects of water-gazing, though at those times, for whatever reason, I didn’t recall Melville’s signature line. On weekends and holidays, of course, getting to those beaches or views can be a contact sport, since you may be vying with tens of thousands of other Ishmaels with the same idea in mind.

IMG_3608 Cayucos Pier Brad Nixon

But the rest of you, too are water-gazers, out there in Boston, over in the Netherlands, Indonesia and wherever you live near an ocean. Nor does it have to be an ocean, as Melville himself points out: almost any water speaks to us in a way that nothing else in nature does. Gazing at mountains is good, and millions of people set out on vacations to look at the Rockies and Sierras and Appalachians and Alps and Pennines … everywhere in the world. But water moves, it implies a path to somewhere else, and our minds follow that track, even if, unlike Ishmael, we never sail there.

I have a somewhat didactic point to make. I was stricken to hear last week about 6 children who drowned in a Louisiana river when they waded off an edge into a deep part of the river. None of them could swim. There were adults present, but none of the adults could swim, either. Everyone thought the water was shallow, but it concealed a dropoff.

A Centers for Disease Control study cited on determined that between a third and half of the U.S. population cannot swim. We’re all drawn to water, and especially kids. Anytime you can do something to promote water safety, or support local programs that do, remember that it may do more than give someone a chance to enjoy the water for a lifetime. It might save a life. And make sure your children and grand-children learn to swim.

There are also some precautions to take for non-swimmers: floatation devices is the official term. Yes, they’re dorky and kids especially will not want to wear them. Adults won’t want to wear them because they’re not macho or they hide your svelte figure in your new swimsuit or whatever. If you’re in a boat, wear the darned life vest. If you end up in the water, you’ll be wondering how to get out of the water and into the boat to get your life vest.

Ignoring such an obvious risk is foolhardy. If you find a chance to help save a life, do it. Thanks.

I wrote this article in 2010. Here are updated figures from the Centers for Disease Control captured in April, 2017:

“Every day, about ten people die from unintentional drowning. Of these, two are children aged 14 or younger. Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States. About one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger.

More information is available at the CDC website. CLICK HERE.

© Brad Nixon, 2010, 2017


  1. Good of you to bring this to anyone’s attention Brad. I felt so sorry for those kids when I read the news account. I was amazed, from my surfer’s point of view, that someone would not know the basics of swimming. It really is important to learn if possible and if you don’t, to take precautions such as Brad mentions if you don’t.

    My parents didn’t swim, both from the farms of Minnesota. When we would go to a pool, they were careful not to go in a deep end with us kids. They were adamant we learned to swim ourselves.


Leave a Comment. I enjoy hearing from readers.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: