Sea Legs

Mike McGough
August 2020

He entered World War II after high school.  He enlisted in the Navy for the duration and six months. He was discharged in the spring of ’46.  Although he was happy to be headed home, he quickly found that he missed being on the open sea.   After three months at home, he decided to go back to sea, but this time as a merchant seaman with a shipping company.

He had been a quartermaster in the Navy, so he was familiar with the bridge of a ship.  When he signed on, he began as a helmsman.  From there he began learning each and every operational aspect of a major cargo vessel.

In time he got married and was the father of five daughters.  The company had a liberal vacation policy and several flexible work schedule options.  His work schedule had him at sea three months then at home for three months.  He and his family adapted well, so he got to pursue a career he liked, and he was able to be a committed family man.  Over a forty-four year career, he rose to the rank of Captain.

As much as he enjoyed his time off, he did pay a bit of a price each time he returned to sea.  As he aged, that price, although not significantly, did increase.   Shortly after his retirement, he learned that he needed surgery.  He was told there would be a recovery period of about a month, followed by several months of rehab.   He knew he could decline the surgery, put it off, or have it, and work his way through the recovery and rehab.  He chose the latter.

His post-operative roommate was a much younger man, who too had had a serious surgery.  For the captain, his surgery was no real surprise.  He knew he had a problem for several years.  For the young man, his need for surgery came as somewhat of a surprise.   As a result the young man was a both anxious and frustrated.

During a late evening chat over some not-so-good broth and jello, the captain tried to calm and reassure the young man.  The captain told him that every three months for forty-four years he went from sea to land, then three months later went back to sea.  He said that mariners develop what they call their sea legs, when they’re onboard ship. He shared that no matter how many times he made that land-to-sea transition he had to earn his sea legs again.  He said the first few times it was frustrating, but over time he learned that trying to hurry the process only added to his frustration and made the process far more difficult.  

He then said, “I know you’re a little discouraged with where you are just now, but with a little patience and some cooperation with those who have and will continue to work with you, you’ll get your proverbial sea legs back.  When you do, this experience will be a valuable one for you the rest of your life.  You will have learned that even though you will lose your sea legs from time to time, you can get them back, and when you do you’ll appreciate them all the more.“

The captain rose up in his bed to see if the young man was listening.   It looked as though he had drifted off to sleep.  The captain wondered if the young man had heard anything, but then he concluded that whether he had or not, it had been a good reminder for himself.  When the captain woke the next morning, the young man had been discharged.  Later that day he was too.

Three weeks later the young man spotted the captain coming into a regional rehabilitation center. Approaching the captain he said,” It’s good to see you.  I’m sorry I didn’t get to thank you before I left the hospital.  I appreciated our chat the night before I was discharged.  The first thing they told me when I started rehab, was that my attitude was an important part of what would make rehab work or not.  They asked what I wanted to accomplish through rehab, and I said, ‘I want my sea legs back.’”  

My therapist smiled, and said, “Great.  We’re ready for you, and it sounds like you’re ready for us; let’s get to work!”

Life transitions, personal difficulties, and any number of other life circumstances can weaken or even paralyze your sea legs from time to time.  This is true regardless of how strong you may be or how much life experience you may have.  Regaining your sea legs, strengthening them, and using them again are really up to you.  No one can give them back to you; you have to earn them!