I’m just back from almost three weeks leisure sailing off the coast of Ireland and Scotland. Like many people, I have a boat-daft partner and he’s been sailing for more than fifty years, from the days when he used to take sightseers out to the pirate radio ships off the East coast of England. That’s going back to the 1960s and, for anyone who has seen the film “The Boat That Rocked,” he says wistfully that it was just like that – with courting couples in cars lined up on the shore, flashing their lights out to sea on cue from the radio presenters offshore.
He also used to take out fishing parties and swears that he once had a group where one man lost his false teeth overboard (he was feeling more than a little queasy at the time). One of his pals borrowed a set of dentures from a third party and fitted them into a cod they had caught as a joke – telling him the cod must have swallowed his teeth. Apparently, none laughed quite so hard when the intended butt of the joke tried them in his mouth and threw those overboard in disgust too, when they failed to fit. Cue two expensive trips to the dentist.
People make the mistake that owning a yacht and leisure sailing is glamorous and the preserve of the rich, but anyone who owns one will tell you that the quickest way to make sure you can never again be rich OR remotely glamorous is to buy a boat. I’m not talking about chartering a mega-yacht with fresh water desalinators, jet skis, chilled champagne and a crew of eighteen to tend to your every need. That may indeed be glamorous – I’m never likely to know. But if you own your own boat, then life consists of bad hair; dubious hygiene; occasional rope burn and facilities that would be outlawed at most pre-war holiday camps. And that’s BEFORE you cast off.
I had a couple of indulgent days in London with friends before joining the boat in Ireland where my nice sandals, white linen trousers and any semblance of makeup had to be packed away before I came on board. Instead it’s castoff navy sailing trews of my partner’s (Admission 1; I wore them every day at sea for 2 weeks); T-shirts that still vaguely pass the sniff-test and a hairband to keep tresses that soon look like bleached seaweed out of your eyes – unless the rain gets there first to weight it down.
There’s no point in donning makeup or smart clothes, unless they mix well with salt water, diesel, occasional fish guts and several virulent colours of deck-based equipment slime. To be clear, this yacht has a fully functioning shower and toilet, but the irony lies in the limited water supply you can carry on board. You try telling the captain that washing your hair on day two is more important than him having water for tea on day three. Or that you can’t be ready to catch the appropriate tide since you first have to straighten your hair…
The motion of the ocean is something you get used to. As is lifting and tying fenders back on a moving deck while leaning over a flimsy wire at a forty-five degree angle and staring into a watery abyss. It’s usually raining. But it’s fine, the captain tells me. Boats are typically chock-full of gear to get a “man-overboard” back on deck and there are safety wires you can be tethered to so you won’t fall far.
Frankly, I’d rather stay ON the boat since the water off Scotland is blooming cold and survival rates merely from immersion can be too few minutes to be comforting. When making that cup of tea on a long passage too; how do you fancy having to light a gas hob while being thrown about by unpredictable waves; then pouring the boiling water and carrying mugs back on deck?
My claim to fame last year was putting one foot on the ladder to bring a mug of tomato soup back on deck when we were hit broadside by a rogue wave. I pirouetted through 360 degrees, sending soup like a spout from ceiling to floor, taking in the chart table and tool drawers en route for maximum impact.
I was about 90 minutes clearing it up. Even hardened leisure sailors will feel queasy doing this below decks, away from fresh air and in choppy seas. (I’m still finding flecks of red on the ceiling and in corners of upholstery, a year on.) Then there’s the fact that absolutely everything has to be stowed away since space is at such a premium. Around twenty per cent of any holiday on board is spent just retrieving stuff and replacing it where it can’t either come to harm or do any damage in rough conditions. Filling lockers and closing catches when sensible people are applying suntan oil on a recliner.
Around boats, you “wear” much more hazardous substances, such as toxic antifoul, designed to prevent weed and marine life attaching to the boat hull. In the spring, you’ll see endless busy sailors sporting this stuff like age spots, despite the dire warnings to wear safety apparatus when applying. The irony is that most sailors own endless safety equipment but it’s no accident that the packaging even on life jackets feels the need to state in large letters, “useless unless worn.”
But before you conclude that I actually loathe leisure sailing, let me tell you the other side of the story. While water on the brain may be one possible explanation why people subject themselves to yachting, the feeling of flying through the water in virtual silence when the breeze has lifted white sails is unique and extremely special.
I think in my five leisure sailing seasons, I’ve had no more than four days when conditions were almost perfect, but I have to say, I wouldn’t have missed them for the world. Even when conditions fall short, the gentle rocking of a boat at a safe mooring means that we tend to sleep ten hours a night on board – and I’ve known us to have a morning conversation, then both crash out for two hours more.
And even as you’re questioning your sanity for donning three layers of clothing and waterproofs in July, for a day when the wind is stubbornly absent or in the “wrong” direction, you may end up motoring slowly past beautiful coastline scenery which looks entirely different from anything on the road. Endless fresh air while you “bag” Scotland’s historic lighthouses and castles leaves your lungs, eyes and brain feeling sparklingly refreshed and clean.
The experience of being close to marine mammals like dolphins, seals and even the occasional whale is very grounding; watching gulls dive bomb shoals of fish – I’m still looking out to see a basking shark. And lastly, with the contrariness of humanity, people ask me if I’m not scared being out on a vast expanse of water in a small craft and the answer is honestly, no.
With care, leisure sailing – scraping the hull or getting a soaking is infinitely preferable to road traffic problems. And if you hit a car on the road, the possibility doesn’t exist to get into a life raft (and even if that prospect in itself doesn’t thrill me, if you have to hit something, it’s better to do it slowly, AND have a Plan B).
Ironically, the water doesn’t scare me, but if I spot a tiny spider on board, I’ll wince. Go figure!