I submitted this whimsical piece to The Oldie. The editor said: "It sounds idyllic, but it's not our thing..." Well, the Oldie's loss is this blog's gain.
There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats...
Ratty, of course, had it absolutely right, although he said these words just before he rowed full-tilt into the river bank and fell off his seat because he wasn’t looking where he was going. And therein lies the rub. Boating, particularly sailing, can be the most glorious activity. Whether tacking across a river in a lively wind, ghosting along in a gentle breeze, or lying at anchor in a sheltered bay, a glass in one’s hand, there are few things more satisfying. However there are also hazards, the obvious ones being sinking and drowning, and there is the ever-present danger of running into something above or below the water. Nevertheless, I agree wholeheartedly with Ratty, and retirement has encouraged me to do more sailing, enjoying the East-Anglian coast and the companionship of like-minded people.
I do have my own boat, but I frequently sail with Chris 1 and Chris 2 in Chris 1's boat; he supplies a well-appointed 33 foot sailing cruiser; Chris 2 and I crew, cook, or just generally laze around. I usually navigate and Chris 2 is more imaginative in the kitchen; we take turns at steering and pulling ropes, although Chris 1 takes the helm in conditions potentially hazardous to the boat (or crew). We sail around the Suffolk, Essex and Kent coasts, and once made it over the channel. We have had some splendid trips.
But it is a truth universally acknowledged, that misfortune and disaster are more memorable (and newsworthy) than when everything goes to plan. I once steered another friend’s boat on to a mud-bank in the river Roach at high tide. An account of the circumstances, and the twelve hours we spent there with the boat precariously angled towards the sky, was readily accepted for publication by a boating magazine. When I submitted the story of our next trip, a glorious three-day event across the Thames when everything went right, I never heard a word.
Of course, the two Chrisses and I have gone aground on many occasions. The Essex and Suffolk coasts are for the most part muddy, and grounding on mud is a relatively benign process: Chris 1’s boat does have a power-operated lifting keel. However, there have been some sticky moments. Once we accidentally bumped alongside another boat, the only vessel for miles, on a perfect day in the Thames estuary... The owner was at anchor enjoying some fishing. Our cruising chute had obscured forward visibility, and we had not been keeping an adequate lookout (we had not been drinking). The only lasting damage was the memory of the quite justified abuse hurled at us by the owner of the other boat. On another occasion, during heavy weather, we watched in horror as an uncontrolled gybe caused the boom to fly across, the main-sheet wrenching the steering-gear from the deck of the boat. Fortunately, no heads were in the way, and we were able to rig the steering sufficiently to limp home. That incident aborted our first attempt at crossing the channel.
Nothing daunted, the following year we tried again. The straights of Dover encompass the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The big ships are constrained to two five mile wide lanes, with ships travelling south on the Dover side, and north on the Calais side. Since these ships proceed at a speed of at least five times that of a sailing boat, crossing must be done with care; but with care, it is quite safe.
There was little wind and we were using the engine to minimise the time spent in the danger area. We had crossed the traffic lane on the English side, passed through the separation zone between the two, and were well inside the lane on the French side, anticipating a decent dinner that evening. Suddenly, there was a loud bang and the engine stopped; the propeller had fouled a 100 foot length of thick mooring line that someone had thoughtfully dropped in the water. Forward motion ceased, and we lay there wallowing. All eyes turned to the south looking for ships. There were none, but we knew that they could be on us within minutes, with no ability to stop in time. Visions of the Six o’clock News that evening swam before our eyes...
With great speed we hoisted the sails, turned back, and attempted to sail for the relatively safety of the separation zone. The light winds and our 100 feet of rope towing in the water meant progress was slow. I radioed the coastguard to inform them of what had happened and warn the other shipping. I could see the coastguard radio masts on the cliffs above Dover, but there was no response. Our radio wasn’t working. Fortunately, we were close enough to France to get a mobile signal, and Chris 1 was able to telephone the British coastguard. When he mentioned the boat’s name the man at the other end said, ‘didn’t we speak yesterday?’ (The incident with the anchored boat had happened the previous day and Chris had reported it.) The coastguard decided to despatch the Dover lifeboat which duly towed us into Dover harbour... God save the RNLI.
We survived, and made the crossing the following year without incident, spending time in Calais, Dunkirk and Niewpoort. Later on in the same trip, now back in England, Chris 1 and I travelled up the Thames, and spent two nights in St Katharine Docks in the shadow of Tower Bridge, surely one of the most iconic and exciting marinas in the country.
And as Ratty said on the general subject of boats,
In or out of ‘em, it doesn’t matter...that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else...or never get anywhere at all...
That is the charm of it. So if you see a rather nice blue and white sailing boat in the coastal waters off Essex or Suffolk, crewed by three gentlemen in their third age, do not be alarmed but give them a cheery wave. Do, however, give them plenty of room...
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs