About ten years ago, I decided to buy a boat. I passed the word around and the father of a very good friend of mine (himself a brilliant and generous man who had put up with my ignorance concerning all things nautical countless times in the past) called to say that he thought he had found a suitable vessel. Not only that, but he agreed to bring it across for me on the ferry. It was a typical act of kindness from him. However, Fate is a cruel mistress and she intervened by way of the local council’s road maintenance skills (combined, to be fair, with heavy rainfall) in the shape of an enormous pothole. The trailer flipped sideways and the boat was thrown two feet into the air, landing on the now-exposed hub of the trailer and sustaining a substantial punch to the hull, which was punctured right through. Not something you want to happen to a boat, but better, one supposes, that it happens on land than at sea.
This early misfortune was followed, in ensuing years, by attendance at various Drascombe rallies (the boat we’d bought is a Drascombe Lugger – with the design altered to incorporate a boom. Wonderful if you’re a good sailor. Disastrous if not.) We were gently guided and amply advised (as well, let it be said, as fed and watered, as it were) by the Association’s members, on the occasions when we managed to make a rally. But we are a long way from the main centres of activity, fairly constrained by work and money, and lacking in that vital element, confidence, that would have set us experimenting in the local, somewhat treacherous, waters.
However, by coincidence (not entirely surprising coincidence, given that we live close to the sea) we happened to make the acquaintance of a man who had come to live in the area, and who had a sailing boat himself. More, he was willing to teach us some of the intricacies of sailing lore. He offered to take the boat out with us and see what he could make it do.
It turned into one of the most terrifying experiences we had ever had. Bear in mind, we didn’t know this person particularly well. There was a stiff breeze and we were running with the wind, with the jib out to one side and the mainsail out to the other, in an arrangment known as being ‘goosewinged’. We were travelling fairly fast when Mike (for it was he, Swedish Mike, of whom I speak) announced (in his thick German accent – he was not Swedish), ‘this would be a good time to capsize. You need to learn to capsize.’ And just as he was speaking I noticed, almost obscured by the jib, the black jagged edges of a semi-submerged reef. ‘What’s that?’ I said. Mike yanked on the rudder. The boom swung across. The boat juddered and keeled over madly. Mike reverted to German (which neither of us speak) but we instinctively clung to the leeward side of the boat, mainly to get away from the water that was spilling in from the windward side. And gradually we swung back to a less dramatic haul and found ourselves tacking back into the wind. ‘Humm. She doesn’t tip easy, that’s for sure,’ said Mike. ‘Maybe we should try again.’ We both moaned, ‘NO,’ and instead we spent a tremulous hour tacking about Blacksod Bay and establishing where exactly the reefs lay.
Years have passed. The kids were always a liability on board, and neither they nor we enjoyed the sensation as they plopped overboard and we had to bring the boat round to scoop them out. Suffice to say, we came to narrow our ambitions as time went on, clinging to the Association’s meet-ups rather than venturing off alone.
Now it’s looking increasingly likely that we will have to sell the boat. The dream of sailing to Byzantium, following St Brendan’s course to Canada, or even venturing to Inis Glora, fades by the day.
Yet there is something essentially optimistic about getting a sailing boat: you’re recognising a willingness to learn about the art and science of craft, weather, wind and tide. You’re acknowledging that there’s an intrinsic beauty to sails in the sunset (red or white…), to pottering about in boats, and to the entire romantic possibility that you can paddle your own canoe, or at the very least, row yourself, sails stowed, under your own steam. We have a little engine but it would be no match for the currents and winds that quickly swell past force six, often unpredictably, even in summer. What to do?
Eliot said, the only thing to do is to do nothing. I say, keep dreams alive as long as possible. Dreams of self-sufficiency, of learning the practices of survival – how to tie knots, how to fish, how to start a fire – are the very dreams that sustain us. I’ll resist selling the boat, then, until or unless it’s absolutely necessary. This year, once again, I’ll promise myself, instead, that I will learn to sail sufficiently to feel that I can explore this coast. And maybe next year, if not up to Dan Dennett’s standard, I’ll be ready to tackle a trip to Inis Glora. Let the adventure begin (again).