Did a painting ever take you in so far that you needed to power your way out? JMW Turner’s “A Shipwreck off Hastings” is my quagmire. The work, part of an exhibit of watercolors at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, was painted on his European tour of the Doge’s Palace, Lake Lucerne and the fortresses at Bellinzona in Switzerland. And while paintings of stormy seas are a commonplace, “A Shipwreck off Hastings” suggests that Turner knew how it feels to face down death by drowning. Me, too.
It was a blustery day in the early summer of 1981 and I was gliding freestyle in the Atlantic off Long Island’s south shore. The sea was rough, but I like it that way. It meant I had the water to myself. The lifeguard on duty didn’t whistle me back when I swam out far. He knew me. I did that a lot on his watch.
Stroking through the choppy water from the beach where my children played under their father’s watchful eye, was freeing, until I was ready for the return trip. I couldn’t get back. A storm was blowing in, the sea was swelling and a riptide was in my way.
Between the waves, I could see the lifeguard chatting with a colleague, but I was too far away to tell him I was in trouble. Treading water in the crosscurrent was work and the mighty swells made it hard to get air without swallowing sea water.
I knew about riptides. I needed to swim parallel to the beach to get out of their path. But the raging water held me fast. The quickest route to the beach would be straight ahead if it weren’t for the unyielding underflow. Uncertain I could, I pushed back with the last bit of arm strength. Plowing through felt like the wings of angry birds flapping at me.
Sometimes when I swim now, a line from Stevie Smith’s poem The River God plays in the head: “They take a long time drowning as I throw them up now and then in a spirit of clowning.”
Whoever says painting is dead doesn’t know what he’s talking about.