I found true love on the high seas and hope future generations will have the opportunity to do the same

Unlike my dad Ray McAnally, our planet won’t die suddenly, but could perish from a slow invasive disease

At the age of 12, I discovered something astounding – in the middle of an Irish winter the sun was shining in Spain. We were on our first, and only, overseas family holiday.

Right then, I learned that sunshine brought me joy. I wanted an atlas for my birthday and as soon as I was old enough to leave home, I would live in the warm places others chose to vacation in.

It was also the early 1980s when people were talking about “saving the whales”. And so, apart from a couple of steady jobs, my life would become centred on the idea of expeditions, volunteering and a life spent on, by, or under the sea.

Lambay, off the coast of Dublin, fuelled my fascination with islands, and Jacques Cousteau’s adventures enticed me beneath the waves.

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In 1993, those passions found me living on South Water Caye, 24km off the coast of Belize. Along with several other divers, I had come to volunteer for a marine conservation programme dedicated to protecting the world’s second longest barrier reef.

‘I came to understand that just as the rainforests are the lungs of the land, reefs are the arteries of our oceans’

We lived in a disused wooden building, capturing rain water and weeding weevils from the rice before consuming. Sunscreen and conditioner were luxuries we’d brought from home. The minimalist lifestyle enthralled me though. My father (and the late actor) Ray McAnally’s abrupt death four years earlier, and the experience of disposing of his possessions amid the rawness of grief had a profound effect. I embraced filling my life’s backpack with experiences instead of stuff.

While floating above colourful sea fans, sponges and invertebrates, documenting fish patterns and coral colonies, I came to understand that just as the rainforests are the lungs of the land, reefs are the arteries of our oceans.

For Earth to remain healthy, we must maintain a delicate, symbiotic relationship between man and nature. But unlike my dad, our planet won’t die of a sudden infarction. If life here were to perish, its demise will come from a slow invasive disease, a disease that has already been diagnosed, but one we are trying to treat.

After my sojourn in Belize, I moved to the Florida Keys to teach scuba and educate new divers on how to experience the underwater odyssey responsibly.

It was a life worth living, but not one where I could make an actual living. Instead, the hospitality industry offered benefits in a myriad of towns.

Having extricated myself from a doomed marriage, I relocated to the tiny, car-less island of Sark. Devoid of light pollution, diamonds pierced the indigo night sky. Daytime saw dogs taking themselves for a walk along the undeveloped cliffs.

I would sit on a bench where land met sea and sky and imagine my true prince. He would come, not on a white steed, but by boat from Guernsey. Perhaps he’d take me away for the weekend so I could experience a life on the ocean I so loved. But the hotel I was managing closed and I once again set off to wander the globe.

At the end of a year spent volunteering five hours a day, five days a week in exchange for food and lodging, in exotic islands in the South Pacific and along the coastal shores of Australasia, I found a final project. It was to help a solo sailor crew his boat from Florida to the Bahamas.

‘As I welcome in 2023 from our new home in Florida, I think about the joy exploring the natural world has brought to me, how it has enriched my soul while I experience life in this physical form’

When you live 24/7 in a 40ft space without TV, internet, cell service or stuff, you get to know each other from the inside out.

Although the project was only supposed to last a month, somewhere on the high seas a spark ignited between us and we kissed the flame.

One month turned into four; a year turned into six. Our union brought forth a love without borders and together, we became greater than the sum of our two selves.

We sailed north past the Statue of Liberty and south through the Caribbean islands. Dolphins rode our bow wake and migrant whales breached in the distance. On board Freed Spirit, I stepped into my true calling as “The Writer On The Water”.

In 2020, anchored off the sunny shores of Antigua, we tied more than a reef knot. Despite the pandemic we still managed to host two weddings – one in Ireland for my family, a second in the US for his.

As I welcome in 2023 from our new home in Florida, I think about the joy exploring the natural world has brought to me, how it has enriched my soul while I experience life in this physical form.

My wish is that we each play our part in holding our planet in trust for future children so that they, too, have the opportunity to sail into the vastness of the blue, experience the harmony of nature, and find love at the end of their ocean.

Niamh McAnally is an Irish-born author, former TV director, and youngest daughter of the late Bafta-winning actor Ray McAnally and the actor Ronnie Masterson. Her book Flares Up: A Story Bigger Than The Atlantic is reviewed here

She has written a short story, Haul Out, about how she and her husband Gary coped when ports closed during the pandemic. It is featured in the anthology A Page from My Life. thewriteronthewater.com

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