For the last ten years I have been recording ten to twelve minute pieces for our local Radio for the Blind organisation’s audio magazine; these recordings also get broadcast on local hospital radio. I can write about anything I want and they provide a good forum for an amusing rant, sharing happy memories or just a good story. In my mind they are my ‘Alistair Cook pieces’ but I make no claim to emulate that great broadcaster, their only similarity is duration. They are fun to write and sometimes I have used them for my blog. Scanning back through my archives, I came across the following true story I wrote in 2008 about the often unpleasant sailing conditions recreational sailors have to endure off our English coast. My story records the last sailing trip I took; rereading the narrative is a timely reminder that I must never again succumb to the tantalizing offer of a sailing holiday in British waters.
The story is a bit of a saga so I have split into two parts. Part 2 will appear, same time next week
When my annual invitation from an old friend to sail to France turned up in my in-box, I conveniently forgot about the cold, cramped, damp conditions of my last trip and only remember the laughs, companionship, conviviality and the occasional adrenaline rush of fear when a mild brush with danger forced us to pit our wits against nature.
As I left Yorkshire to head to the south coast I can still recall my implausibly misguided optimism that sunny and calm conditions would prevail, taking the view that, ‘it’s always sunny down south’. Our rendezvous was at the exquisite Bucklers Hard mooring on the Beaulieu River, a haven of unsurpassed tranquility and charm; even when it rains it oozes a timeless loveliness, the yacht would bob gently in its sheltered, leafy creek, a bucolic scene far away from the crashing waves of the English Channel. How quickly I succumbed.
My trips were typically in July and I would arrive with a fellow northern crew member at around noon for an on board lunch (probably M&S sandwiches purchased en route) followed by a gentle, shake-down trip, drifting on the turning tide along the Beaulieu estuary to Lymington for an overnight stay. The for’ard sleeping berth stacked with sleeping bags, booze, warm clothing, swimming gear and sailing waterproofs and of course plenty of Euros. Normandy here we come!
The boat owner, a kindly ex-army officer, who eccentrically enough, taught sailing to squaddies in his early army years. He had reams of amusing tales of daring do: sailing without any engine in the Baltic Sea in winter was just one of his yarns that would enthrall us with wonder and trepidation. As a consequence of his army training our boat would be well prepared and nothing left to chance, although his idea of provisions still revolved around basic army rations of indeterminate age and all coming out of a tin. He barked orders at us in military style and soon his crew mates, despite all being in late middle age and successful business people in their own right, would immediately revert to eleven year olds and desperately try to carry out the skipper’s demands without either falling in or winding sheets the wrong way around the winch. This necessary hectoring added to the tally of reasons why each year I vowed never to step aboard his thirty three foot ketch again.
However, a refusal to join the usual crew would be seen as a mutinous insult to its proud owner. As the years rolled by the boat had become to show its age; mold gathered inside the cabin, the ageing fibreglass hull permeated more water than was healthy and on the last voyage I undertook, the heads – the toilet to you land lubbers – was on the blink, issuing forth a malodorous effluvium.
On our first night we dined at the local yacht club. Our captain had recently been admitted as a member of this illustrious body of tottering, gin imbibing, ancient mariners and us crew members were all on their best behaviour, minding our Ps and Qs. The fare was reminiscent of school dinners – cabbage soup a menu staple, although the lasagna was quite acceptable but the oil and vinegar dressing for the salad had been made a few days earlier just to prove that modernity in the club’s kitchens was a slow process. Our fellow diners were all aged about one hundred with plenty of claret-scarred faces in evidence; respect for etiquette essential and having well-connected relations an important asset- an admiral in the family even with vice like tendencies was helpful and hastened the bar service – you can never get a pink gin fast enough after an exhausting evening pulling on your monogrammed blazer. It was like stepping back into the worst golf club you could envisage, a time-warped anachronism and another mark in my inventory of reasons not to sail in England again.
Next morning we plan to set sail for Cherbourg, with favourable tides and good winds it should be an agreeable ten to twelve hour sail across the busiest shipping lanes in the world. After an overnight in Cherbourg we’d then have an easy to four to five hour sail to our destination at the pretty little fishing port of St. Vaast la Hougue, on the Normandy coast. Here, we planned to rest up, eat, drink and be merry on local oysters, moules marinière and good wine – once the crew took over the galley and responsibility for purchasing the ship’s stores. But there’s a snag. The weather.
We checked the BBC and Met office forecasts in the chart room of the yacht club. It did have some uses. Both forecasts were very poor. Six to force seven winds gusting to storm force eight & nine, visibility poor, seas rough or as they say in France, ‘trés agitée!’ Sailing was a non-starter. We looked at the following day: force five to six gusting to seven, seas rough but becoming force four to five later – a better if still bumpy prospect.
We filled in the day with a short dash across the Solent to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. Here we ate in an already flagging restaurant which had only opened six weeks previously, even then it looked as if it was going to close for good after we left. It needed a severe dose of Gordon Ramsay’s bad language to breathe some life into the place. I felt sorry for the owners, the dreadful summer and an incompetent cook had not helped their fledgling venture. We pined for the yacht club across the water.
End of Part 1. To be continued, same time next week