There’s a thing that happens in boats, that has really caught my attention. You get out onto the water, and suddenly an enormous number of total strangers care about your well-being. I am fascinated by this, and am studying.

The basics are pretty simple: you do your very best to stay out of trouble, taking care with everything from knowledge to equipment to weather, tides and currents. Your judgment develops with each passing experience, whether it goes well or not quite so much. And all the time, people on the water are looking out for each other. It’s even in the law – the requirement that if a boater is able to provide assistance to another boater in distress without placing her/himself at risk, one is legally bound to do so.

There are all manner of safety equipment and distress signals carried on board: radios, EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons), flares, flashing lights, distress flags, dye markers, signal mirrors, and more. Items strapped to lifejackets, and the lifejackets themselves. If you float longer, there’s a better chance that somebody (including yourself) will be able to fish you out of the water.

I carry most of these items, but I draw the line at the EPIRB. This is because I question whether I am willing to set off a signal like that. Not put to the test, I think that if I get myself into trouble, I should get myself out. And even more importantly, I should not invite other people into trouble in order to solve a problem I made for myself. Though I do have a satellite phone and GPS, so the door is not entirely closed. And I am very aware that even thinking about this as a question is a luxury of sailing alone.

On the broader plane, there are so many too many people on the planet presently, with the Earth utterly overburdened by our expanding presence, and our incredibly extravagant use of resources. So although I like it here, and it would, I know, be personally sad to the people with whom I am connected, one more person leaving the planet, honestly, does not seem worthy of ships and helicopters and enormous effort and materials just to stave off (postpone) that end. Never mind that in other situations the powers that be are actively trying to do people in, for one reason or another (thinking drones in Pakistan, for example.) The question is: why does going to sea suddenly make one person’s well-being so incredibly valuable, and important?

This is the voice of an abuse survivor. Total strangers talk with me intently, obviously caring about the outcome, encouraging me to be safe and well, in this time on the water. It is perfectly clear to me that if the boat were sinking they would instantly come to my aid. And that’s a good feeling, but it leaves me asking: what about before? Child in the hands of people who should not be so entrusted. Why is it that suddenly, you go out on a boat, and everybody cares. They will move mountains in order to rescue one little person who has, even stupidly, with poor planning, preparation, or judgment, gotten themselves into trouble. But on land, children, people with poor health, all those who have “fallen through the cracks,” are so terribly, terribly on their own.

I lived for many years, as a child, at the bottom of one of those cracks, and then it happened again, as an adult, as a result of combinations of poor health, finances, and a learning curve for dealing with life changes that was beyond my capabilities at the time. They were long, long emergencies, which I guess is exactly the problem. Eventually things changed, probably in both cases because of aging and developing maturity, and now here I am, sailing the salt water. But I look at those emergencies, and I look at people on the water so quick to respond, and I ponder. Child inside asking, “where were you then?” And even more important, in this present, “what about the children now?”

So this is the big question: how is it that our society is so carefully, and effectively, structured for ocean rescue, while in so many settings people live or die, suffer, unaided.

But before I rush to judgment, thinking about family members, neighbors, who hesitate to intervene, to perceive, officials who don’t understand what’s happening, or worse, are part of the problem, I have to look directly at myself.

Nowadays, I am blessed with the resource of a comfortable amount of cash. Abundant enough that if I’m careful, and pay attention, I can do pretty much whatever I want (fortunately I have no interest in fancy cars, fancier houses, or quite a few other things that could make a decent amount of cash look small.) Anyway, I have more than enough. And here’s the tricky part: not everybody does.

So how do I address the long emergencies of so many people I know. Not to mention the broader community on the planet. What happens to relationships when you “simply” share. What happens when you don’t. I have tried this so many ways, and the gift from this terrible question has been understanding my past. And coming to some kind of answer about the question of ocean rescue.

I think that ocean rescue is so well set up because it’s easy. The resources aren’t easy, and the tasks aren’t easy. But it’s immediate, it’s anonymous, and it doesn’t last. If I died tomorrow I could leave money to 10 different people, perhaps helping. Or perhaps not helping, which is another one of the ironies of money, and of attempts at help in general. But if I’m living, and offering that help, it is endlessly complicated. And nowadays, I am much slower to do it, for those reasons.

Ocean rescue, it seems to me, is so successful because it deals with the other side of the same issue. So many of us so intensely want to help, in so many situations. But in so many situations the action of help is utterly fraught, and leads to outcomes that do not necessarily inspire doing it again. On a boat on the water, “helping” is so much simpler. People are free to care, and they embrace that freedom, with intensity, and with commitment. They rescue small boats, they rescue small people – and big ones. Nobody asks questions when somebody is floating in their life jacket, and nobody hesitates. They pull them out of the water. It’s the same dynamic as a land emergency – fire, traffic accident, some natural disasters – but on a boat, in the everyday non-emergency, this care for other people’s well-being seems to be more routinely expressed, in that intent look, and wishes for staying safe.

So now the challenge is this: how do we translate that enormous triumph of spirit, that unconstrained caring, to our everyday lives, once again on solid ground. How do we translate “helping” into a community standard, so that falling through societal cracks elicits the same response as somebody on the ocean tumbling out of a boat. I’m continuing to study…