I am over cautious. I always have been. In many respects this should put me at an evolutionary advantage but, since my time on this planet places me fortuitously in one of the more wealthy and stable democracies of the world, in the first part of the twenty first century, a lot of my caution is wasted. Generally things take care of themselves and for that I am immensely grateful. So, I admit, mine is a First World problem, my caution holds me back and it is something that I work on, daily suppressing the little voice in my head that whispers ‘but what if’. It is also a truth universally known but feverishly ignored that life is short. On a scale of 0-100 I am not old, but I am older than I have ever been and with each passing year I become more aware of my mortality. It is for these joint reasons that this year I decided would be more than sleep, eat, work repeat, this year I would be ever-mindful that we only live once and that we must make the most of it. And this is how I found myself saying yes when we were asked by a friend if we would help sail their family yacht from Milford Haven in South Wales to its winter harbour of Troon on the West coast of Scotland. It will be an experience I thought. It certainly was.
There is sea-salt in my blood. Both of my grandfathers served in the navy. My paternal grandfather was the navigation officer on a LCT (Landing Craft Tank), an amphibious vehicle used in the Second World War to land troops and vehicles on beaches. But for a fortuitous storm on the night of 5th June 1944, which prevented the newly built boat from sailing down the coast of England from its shipyard in the north, and thereby delaying its arrival on the Normandy beaches until later in the afternoon on D-Day, I may not be here to type these words. Though British, the troops on my grandfather’s LCT were American and they landed on the higher casualty American beaches; I cannot begin to imagine what he must have seen. A decade younger, my maternal grandfather found himself in post-war National Service and stayed, spending many years in the Fleet Air Arm. I have fond memories of learning to sing ‘All the nice girls love a sailor’ with my grandmother as I helped her to dust the treasures brought back from his voyages. And it’s not just genetics on my side. I have never lived further than a few miles from the sea and I have always loved it. Sailing should have been a doddle. It was not.
After a long journey to join the yacht, and a few hours sleep, we set off in to an optimistic morning of sunshine, light winds and calm seas. I was shown the basics; the four hourly watch pattern was explained, charts were examined, tea and coffee preferences established and I even had a go at the helm. Here was the adventure I was hoping for. Eight hours later, as I began my first ‘off shift’, attempting to sleep in the heat and dark of a heavily swaying cabin, the boat pitched high on a tack, waves drumming against the porthole by my head, my misgivings began. I had not inherited my grandfathers’ sea legs. Instead I had my mother’s, and they are made of jelly. I felt sick, more sick than I have ever felt in my life, and then feeling turned in to doing and would not stop.
Going back on deck at 2am to begin my next shift was a blessed relief, the fresh air and the distraction of tasks seemed to help my nausea. The solution, it seemed, was not to lie down, stare at the horizon and hope for good winds and a quick sail. The downside to good winds, as I soon discovered, was that to make the most of them the yacht has to assume a disconcertingly acute angle to the waves. Hatches are battened down, life vests donned and umbilicals clipped between person and boat. I tried my best not to look terrified. I am reliably informed that my best did not work.
There is a lighter side to this tale of woe. There were moments, hours in fact, when the sun was shining and the sea was the right amount of wavy, when dolphins and whales swam alongside us, when birds dived for fish off the bow, when the blackness of the sky was unsullied by light pollution and you could see more stars than numbers can record. There was beauty in the dark stillness, in soft pinks of morning, in the strong blues of noon, in the silence, in the camaraderie, in the satisfaction of physical effort, in the connection to a time when all travel was like this, hard, dangerous and rewarding. Would I do it again? I’m not sure. Am I glad I did it? 100% yes.
I have written before about my love of the sea. To read my post, Siren Call, click here.