u n d e r s a i l

[ 20:33 sunday 12 july – river fowey, cornwall ]

i’m sitting in the cabin of dad’s 22 foot yacht “wild rose”. we’re moored in the river fowey about quarter of a mile upstream from the town. the boat sways gently in the ebbing tide. around us the trees press down the sides of the valley stretching their gnarled limbs towards the water. the air is almost motionless. wisps of mist twist and weave among the darkening trees. a grey-feathered heron stands motionless at the edge of the water watching for prey. across the channel a complex mass of girders and ducts juts into the river, part of a structure for loading china clay onto ships.

yesterday afternoon i sailed down the coast with dad and adam. we set out from mylor in a brisk south-westerly, weaving between the traditional working boats racing in falmouth harbour. by the time we rounded dodman point the wind was freshening to force six and a heavy swell had started rolling beneath us. we sped into fowey harbour on an exhilarating run then came upriver seeking a sheltered mooring.

this has been my best ever year for sailing. three weeks ago i travelled down to salcombe to join my friends arthur and gregoir who’d just arrived after crossing the channel from normandy and spent a magical week with them. the plan was to sail west along the cornish coast and cross to the isles of scilly. over the years i’ve arrived in the scillies by freight ship, ferry, helicopter and light aircraft but never under sail. it’s a long-standing dream of mine. however in the face of unremitting westerly winds we only sailed west for a single day, reaching cawsand at the southeastern eastern tip of cornwall. this is where we spent the solstice, starting with a group of villagers at a pub where a band was playing, then sitting on the darkened beach with a bottle of rum. the next day we turned around and headed eastward along the devon and dorset coasts stopping at dartmouth, teignmouth, exmouth, weymouth and poole.

we had some adventures along the way. leaving exmouth a fog bank descended on us and we spent most of the day sailing without any sight of land or other vessels. being isolated in cold, clammy greyness is tremendously unsettling. one’s senses are so amplified by the fear of collision with an unseen boat that one begins to hallucinate shapes and sounds. later that day approaching portland bill we realised with sinking hearts that we’d miscalculated the tidal flows and would be reaching it when its notorious tidal race was in full flow with its whirlpools and 10 knot currents. we could have been stuck for six hours before being able to get around. but following arthur’s instincts we headed close in to the land, as close as we dared go, and sure enough we found a counter-current that swept us around in the direction we wanted to go. the finest sailing was on my last day when we spent several exhilarating hours playing in  the wind before scudding into poole harbour with a force six wind behind us.

my dad worked in yacht-building when i was a child  so i was always around boats. likewise during my year in the isles of scilly and my two years on stromboli i was frequently on the water. a couple of years ago i felt the impulse to start taking it more seriously and did the royal yachting association’s day skipper course. now i’m trying to get out as often as the possibility arises.

one think i appreciate about being on a yacht for even a few days is the way life is stripped back to its essential components. the layers of modern behaviour which occupy so much of our attention simply melt away. if you go for days without seeing yourself in a mirror you stop worrying what your hair looks like. the end of daily showers makes concerns about hygiene irrelevant. there’s no deliberation about what clothes to wear when you wear the same clothes day after day. meanwhile the lack of electricity means mobile phones are turned off and the mass of neurotic habits for checking messages and status updates just fades away.

: c :

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