Something about tall ships

Something about tall ships

So we’re at the Maritime Museum, looking up at Australia II.

‘Chicky,’ I say. ‘Can you imagine being on the deck of that yacht, with the wind filling the sails and pushing you across the water? It must be so fast and strong!’

‘Yes!’ she says. ‘I can!’ She puts her right arm out like a spinnaker, and then – ‘Whoosh! Whoosh!’ – she’s off, flat-footed and flat-tack across the floor.

I’m glad she’s got her head around it because I’m not sure I have. This thing is big. More to the point, it’s tall. My head is tipped all the way back. There are mannequins all over the display, pretending to pull things and wind things, wearing gloves to protect their ‘hands’ from ropes, but none of it really feels like it’s human-scale.

About halfway down the exhibition space, there’s a crank in the floorplan of the museum that means the horizontal sightlines are mostly obstructed. What doesn’t get interrupted by the building is cut off by the positioning of boats, machinery, and staircases. But wherever you stand in the space, you can almost always see the floor, and you can almost always see the ceiling, 30 metres above. The vertical pull of the space is intense.

For someone who isn’t a fan of heights – I’m not a fan of heights – standing on the upper-level balcony is an act of will. It’s also an act of concealment, given that I don’t want my 3.5-year-old to know that being scared of heights is a thing. She knows what she’s doing, though – she pulls her dad over to show off what she’s learned about pearling divers. She makes sure he’s seen the whaling harpoon. She remembers to ask him whether the Navy has ‘loo-tenants’ or ‘lef-tenants’. She’s pretty sure she’s going to be a ship’s captain when she grows up. She’s sure of everything, at the moment. She’s pretty great.

When we’re done, we walk out onto the wharf, and I realise what’s been sending me loopy all morning. I’ve lived within sight of the ocean most of my life, and the ocean I know is not vertical. It’s horizontal. From Perth beaches, the Indian Ocean is the definition of horizontal, stretching north and south and west, unknowably far. Yachts like Australia II, for me, live there. They fade into insignificance there. Everything fades – super tankers and pleasure cruisers and tall ships alike. It doesn’t matter how big you are; in the ocean I know, you will become small, because the ocean I know stretches out wide, wide, wide.

I think there’s a sermon illustration in there, somewhere? Things that seem big, but are tied down with steel cables and dead. Things that, in the right context, seem small, and not safe, but they’re alive. A big God. A small child. Faith. Wind. Imagination. Awe. Praise.

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