Sunday, 3 March 2013
Green and All at Sea
Have I ever told you about the time my husband decided we should take up boating? No? Oh, you must hear this one.
Having saved hard for some years he decided that a boat would be just the thing for our future holidays and going fishing as well. It would save us money in the long run. No matter that none of us had ever been boating in our entire lives and knew nothing whatsoever about boats. That would easily be remedied. He could do anything he put his hand to, right?
Well, we got our boat. We drove to somewhere up the Thames where it was berthed, haggled a bit no doubt, and came away ten grand the poorer and the proud possessors of a twenty six foot, twin screw, five berth boat. Lovely. He, naturally, was to be the skipper, which meant he sat at the helm and issued orders.
Me? I was to be the navigator, first (and only) mate, cook and general galley slave. You're wondering about that navigating bit aren't you? I know, I wondered about that myself.
"Go to the public library," he said. "Borrow a book on it."
So, dutifully, I went to the library and in fact found a very helpful book; one of a series of Teach Yourself books, called Teach Yourself Navigation. It's true, I swear!
I took it home and read it, studiously. Me, who'd left school without a single qualification. Me, who'd been called stupid all my life! I leaned about the effects of tides: high tides, low tides, spring tides, neap tides. I learned about charting a course, compass directions and weather warnings, sea conditions and all manner of stuff I now can't bring to mind.
Ok. Good. I was now ready to navigate for our first holiday at sea. I made sure he knew that I would cook breakfast and lunch, but evening meals would not be down to me; we would eat out. He was less than thrilled at this. Appalled is the word that comes to mind. The thing had a galley didn't it? Hadn't he spent enough already? Nevertheless I insisted, which isn't something I did as a rule but it was my holiday too, after all.
The boat was duly brought down the Thames to the harbour at Whitstable where we lived at the time. We bought suitable clothing, stocked the galley with non perishable food - I even pickled a large jarful of eggs for the trip - and set off into the unknown.
I haven't yet mentioned our three teenagers who were to accompany us on this journey of discovery. Our daughter was seventeen then and fairly typical of the breed. Scathing of her brothers and wanting little to do with them. The boys, fifteen and fourteen, and already six footers give or take an inch, were also fairly typical. Either fighting or the best of mates. And they despised their sister.
These three, then, had to share the sleeping space in the bow, in separate sleeping bags, naturally, while hubby and I shared the double berth made from the dining seats and table in the galley area.
We got out of the harbour without mishap and motored round the coast to the marina at Ramsgate and put in there for the first night. So far, so good. The next day we went as far as Brighton marina, where my husbands over inflated sense of importance convinced him that we would be allowed to use their yacht club. This was not the case of course so we had look round the town instead before heading off to Cowes on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England. There we moored amidst assorted yachts of the more or less wealthy, from huge luxury Yachts with a capital Y that dwarfed us, to proper sailing yachts. The thing I remember most is the clanking of ropes against masts that I was aware of all night. I found it a curiously comforting sound, somehow.
Later we discovered that we'd arrived just in time for this leg of the Round the World Yacht race, which explained the huge numbers present. No wonder I felt so insignificant. He didn't, of course. I don't think he ever did though.
The next morning I listened in to the early weather reports for the English Channel. They seemed ok, and the weather looked fine enough, so the skipper had me get out the charts I'd prepared for continuing on to the Channel Isles.
Off we went. Cowes is on the northern tip of the island, close to the the mainland. Imagine a rather flattened diamond shape with its topmost point close to land and you get the picture. For some reason I can't now remember, possibly the tide, we decided to head out for the journey in a south easterly direction then round the eastern point and southwesterly before heading out towards the Atlantic ocean.
All was going fine, though the sea was rather choppy for such a small boat and we were being bounced around like peas on a drum. The captain sat at his wheel, smoking his pipe and looking every inch a skipper totally in charge of things. The operative word there is "looking".
When we were about half way round the island the sea mist started to roll in. Gradually at first, but nonetheless I questioned the advisability of continuing. I suggested we turn back. "Oh no," was his considered opinion. "It probably won't be much."
Ha! By the time we got to the open sea you couldn't see more than a few yards. I should probably point out at this juncture, for anyone who doesn't know, that the English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Massive tankers of all types use it to go from northern Europe to just about everywhere, and in addition, cross channel ferries travel between France and England on a regular basis.
And here we were, a tiny little boat, in a thick fog, attempting to navigate said channel. It was like wandering around on foot on a multi-lane highway with everyone blindfolded. Every now and again the haunting sound of a fog horn would eerily encroach upon us above the noise of the engine, but with no real indication of direction. Echoes made it seem to come from everywhere.
Our older son, all of fifteen and a half years, was sent to sit astride the railing on the bows and periodically hoot one of those canned foghorn things. My daughter and I, devout Christians as we were, huddled on a seat on deck and prayed incessantly, or sang uplifting religious choruses to keep from going completely insane.
The weather was not conducive to being on deck you understand, it's not as if we were sunbathing, but the continual motion meant that being below resulted in rather severe nausea. When the boat wasn't tilting forwards or backwards, it was getting lifted by waves then dropped into the gaps between them. Being on deck was definitely the lesser of two evils.
Besides, we wanted to see whatever we were going to crash into. Our youngest was below however, lying down as he was feeling unwell.
Then, as it was getting pretty cold, the captain helpfully suggested cocoa all round.
Now, I don't know if you've ever tried making five cups of cocoa while being hurled about by high waves whilst traveling at a rate of knots, but I can tell you now: it isn't easy. It involves putting the cups in a row on the draining board, preparing the cocoa while the kettle boils - trying to remain in one spot - then using the motion of the boat to run past the cups as you pour. The direction isn't important. What you don't get in the cups on the first run doesn't matter much, you get another go on the way back. They get filled eventually.
Then came the challenge of carrying them up the ladder. Again, not an easy task under those conditions but I made it. It was while drinking my cocoa, which I managed to do without spilling too much, that I suddenly had this awful thought.
"Suppose," I said, "we miss Alderney in the fog? It's only small. We could could end up in mid Atlantic rapidly running out of fuel."
"Good point," agreed the skipper. "Go and plot a course for the north coast of France."
"Right," says I. Adding under my breath: "Anything to oblige."
I scrambled back down the ladder and got out the chart, a ruler, a pencil and the other necessary paraphernalia. Now, I don't know if you've ever tried to draw very precise lines with a pencil and a ruler while being hurled about by high waves whilst traveling at a rate of knots, but - ok. You get the picture. The damn things kept leaping off the table as the boat smashed down between the waves.
After much trial and tribulation and liberal use of an eraser, I plotted a course to Cherbourg. It was almost directly opposite where we were. He couldn't go far wrong, surely. Even he could manage to steer in a straight line. I gave the figures to the man in charge and went back to praying.
With the undoubted help of all our combined guardian angels - and my navigating - we did in fact make it to Cherbourg in one piece, sighting the marker buoy easily.
We ate on shore in the town and went to sleep that night hoping for a better day on the morrow.
The next day dawned bright and fair. Clear skies meant we had a relatively easy journey ahead of us. Unfortunately by this time my youngest son was in a bad way. He was clearly burning up with the worst fever I'd ever seen. Although he'd complained of feeling unwell earlier the situation had clearly escalated.
I set about sponging him down with cold water to try to get his temperature down, as the pills I'd given him didn't help at all. He was a big boy for his age but too ill to care about modesty; almost delirious in fact. His temperature was something like105 degrees.
When we arrived at the harbour on Alderney the first thing we did was ask about a doctor at the sailing club. They told us the quickest thing would be to go to the hospital in St Anne, the only town. It's in the centre of the island but only a mile away from the harbour, so off we went.
They examined the poor kid, who was pretty delirious by this time, shook their heads, and asked if we'd been in Africa recently. Africa? What did he have? Swamp fever?! Apparently they'd never seen the like, such a high temperature...etc etc. Africa! We'd never left England before!
The only ward they had empty was the maternity ward so, in order to isolate him, that's where he was put. I wonder how many fourteen year old boys have had that experience. Later we decided that he'd picked something up in Cowes from handling the mooring ropes. With visitors there from the four corners of the earth who knows what it might have been.
He was in the hospital for a week. His father and brother went fishing each day while his sister and I visited him. He was loving it. The nurses were giving him blanket baths every day to reduce his body heat, as I'd been doing on the boat, and he had iced water on demand. And although he might sound young to some, this was a very precocious fourteen year old. Very.
So passed the first week we spent on that boat. We did eat out in the evenings; I made sure of that. We visited Guernsey and Jersey and Sark before returning to the Isle of Wight, where we had to leave the boat and get the ferry and train back home. The engines had packed up.
Sadly that was the only holiday we ever had on it. Hubby went off the idea of boating after a couple of fishing trips and it was left to rot in Ramsgate marina until it sank and had to be lifted out of the water. Then it was seized and sold to pay outstanding marina fees. That was years later, some time after I'd left the man to his follies.
Considering he'd bought the boat to save money on vacationing, that was one expensive holiday.