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Monday, 6 May 2013

Yo Ho Ho, the Wind and the Waves

A nanosecond before the words "of course I've been sailing" came out of my mouth, I realised they weren't true. Despite spending most of my childhood holidays on a farm perched on an estuary, and having a seriously seafaring uncle, sailing had somehow passed me by.

Julia's eyes lit up. "Then sailing could me one of your challenges! I'm sure Tom would be very happy to take you."  A second later, Julia's eyes filled with regret and resignation. Volunteering her husband's services as skipper was all very well, but she knew at once that he would jump on the opportunity to take her along as first mate. Julia is not big on being first mate. Her idea of a delightful day's sailing involves a maximum of two hours on the water, followed by copious amounts of ice cream. She has embraced Tom's passions of cycling and running with serious style, and has even got me in to both, but sailing is not her thing. When it comes to her husband's other true love, a 20ft yacht called Mirage, she is happy to observe the adage that two's company.

You sail the boat, I'm having a kip.
Julia, however, is not one of my best friends for nothing. True to her word, she signed me up to Tom Upchurch's School of Sailing, simultaneously pledging herself as crew, companion, and official photographer. I count myself very lucky to have a friend like that.

I steal a hug from a non-hugger. Mwahahaha.
First up was an after-dinner theory lesson from the cap'n.

I was given one week to study this diagram, and then it was time for the practical. Why are exams always so early in the morning? It's not often that I see 4.45am. It always surprises me that no matter how early I am up, there are always plenty of other people already out in their cars, waiting at bus stops, cycling around. I resent this. It undervalues my achievement. If I'm going to be up at an ungodly hour, I at least want the smug satisfaction of knowing that I am the only one hardcore enough to not be in bed.

Anyway. Two hours and one appalling cup of Starbucks tea later, we pulled in to the boatyard at Buckler's Hard, in Hampshire. How awesome a name is Buckler's Hard? Seriously awesome.

Here's Mirage, being lovingly uncovered by Tom:

Here's Mirage, being lovingly launched into the Beaulieu River:

Here's Julia, sitting in the car with a book. This more or less says it all.

Can I please just read my book in the car?

There were various things Tom needed to do to the boat, so he suggested that it would be time efficient for me to steer us out of the Beaulieu River and into the open sea, whilst he got on with said things. This seemed like a terrible idea to me, but I had no say in the matter. The basic rules were explained: keep to the right of the channel, move the tiller right to go left, and left to go right, and try not to bump into any buoys. Then Tom started faffing around in the cabin and I took the helm. The motor chugged along and I felt terribly important. I nodded nonchalantly to other yachtsmen and women and wondered just how impressed they were at my clearly wicked skills. When Tom showed me how to steer with my knees I decided I was definitely running away to sea at the first opportunity.

It being a relatively warm and sunny bank holiday weekend, there were lots of other boats out on the water. This meant that we didn't have much room to practice sailing in the nice cozy bit just at the end of the channel. So it was out into the Solent with no further ado. 

Tom is not only a darn good skipper, he's also a brilliantly patient and logical teacher. He didn't overwhelm me with jargon, or too much information, but made sure that I had a clue what was going on. I learnt the following sailing words/terms:

Tiller extension
Main sheet
Jib sheet

As I write this, I still know what all of those are, but I'm not making any promises about remembering. Try me again in a month. About two hours in, and a mere half hour away from the Isle of Wight, I also learnt the meaning of the word Head. I was inordinately thankful for the surprise reveal of the porta-potty, as I had been solemnly informed that if I needed a widdle whilst out at sea it was a question of hanging my bare bottom over the edge of the boat. No one wanted to see that. Except maybe Julia, who was in need of a good giggle, due to the fact that she was extremely cold. In a husbandly effort to warm her up, Tom proceeded to wrap her in a few of his clothes. Seven layers later she looked marginally happier, but a bit like she couldn't move, and a lot like she would have significant difficulty should she need to use the Head.

I taunt Julia with a picnic there's no way she can eat without removing at least five of her seven layers.
Now, I won't say I wasn't cold. It is, unsurprisingly, quite windy out at sea. You can see above that I've added a snazzy headband to my ensemble in order to protect my slightly chilly ears. This turned out to be what you might call a CRITICAL ERROR. The following day I was cursing that headband  - and my utterly stupid failure to apply any sunscreen to my face - for the most astonishingly ridiculous-looking case of sunburn I have ever had.  It was (is) so bad that I cancelled all my bank holiday Monday plans and stayed grumpily indoors applying every home-remedy I could find on the internet/in my kitchen cupboards. For future reference, baking powder compresses are fairly effective. And no, I'm not showing you a picture of the stupid sunburn. Behave.

Back to the sailing. We sailed to Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. Woo yay sailing! With merely the power of the wind, some wood, and some big bits of fabric, we went from one place to another across the sea. Forgive my simplicity, but I think that's pretty cool. Power boats roared past us, making jaunty little waves. Pah! Pah, says I. Who needs a motor when you have wind?

Cowes was lovely. We ate our picnic on a bench overlooking the marina and then wandered down the high street in search of - you guessed it - ice cream. 

We stood and listened to a wonderfully wonky brass band and perused a couple of the local shops, full of sailing stuff. I paused at a display of Breton caps, remembering my seafaring uncle, who died last year. His Breton cap sat on his coffin all through the funeral service. I suspect he sailed the Solent many times, and it was nice to think about him, doing what he loved.

Tom had decided that there'd been enough jollying around. The trip home was all about me doing some serious sailing. Well, as serious as I was going to get on my first go, anyway. We embarked on a tacking exercise, which basically meant zig-zagging back and forth, ideally without losing the power of the wind each time I changed direction. It took me a while to get this, but eventually I started to find the feel of the sails against the wind, and tip the boat in quite an exciting way. I began to wage war on a particularly stubborn yellow buoy, which I'm quite sure someone kept moving further away. Julia was just commenting on my sang froid, and how most first timers freak out and squeal, when I lost control and tipped the boat a lot further than intended. Tom had informed me that it was "basically impossible to capsize Mirage", but at that moment I had powerful doubts. I didn't squeal, but I did swear. Tom however, cool as a cucumber, refused to take back the tiller, forcing me to work through my mini-panic and regain control. I went into an almost hypnotic trance, watching the little strings on the Mailsail that indicated if we were or were not in the optimum position. Only when I was cruising again did Tom take over and give me a break. Well, I say break. What I actually mean is that he took over the helm and me and Julia took over the winching on the tacks. I took back the helm in the last half hour, and steered us home to the Beaulieu channel. Tom was great at making me feel like I was actually doing important stuff, even though we all knew that he was actually the one doing all the hard work.

It was loads of fun. I get why Tom loves sailing so much. I also get why Julia doesn't. It was a novelty for me, and I was mostly really enjoying myself, but there were moments on the sail back from Cowes when it felt like we were making painfully slow progress. Probably due to my inexpert steering. We were tired and increasingly cold and there was nothing we could do but keep going. Head down, hood up, endure. And of course, returning to the boatyard isn't the end. We had to queue for over an hour to get Mirage back on dry land. Then we had to wash her down, park her and pack her up, before heading for London. Start to finish, it was a seventeen hour day. I was completely exhausted when I collapsed into bed.

Left a bit, right a bit

I'd definitely like to sail again, though. It was thrilling, and lovely to be out on the sparkling sea on a beautiful day.  

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) 
it's always ourselves we find in the sea 

Thank you, Tom, Julia and Mirage. You rock.

Twenty-nine down, one to go...

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