Thursday, 19 June 2008

Life on the Ocean Wave – Part 2

The wonder of travel is that it opens your mind. Once out of whatever rut you have struggled to escape from to make your journey you literally enter a new world of people, places and possibilities. At times it is hard even to imagine yourself back in the rut you left behind - that familiar place which builds up so much importance in your mind and heart when you are there living it, but which recedes with remarkable swiftness once the break has been made. I have travelled most of my life, yet this simple fact, however many times I experience it, still surprises me every time.

So, now back in the High Peak with my familiar routines of family and home, it is hard to believe that Nol, the Dutch-Swiss man, is still out in Gibraltar bobbing about on a boat with our instructor. If he has done what he has set out to achieve he should be a qualified Coastal Skipper by the end of the week. Whether he manages this or not is probably something I shall never know. Some of his shipmates, in the week we were there, were dubious as to his skills – that despite the talk, there was a lack of practical application. Indeed, half way through the week there were reports of a mutiny aboard our sister yacht, Jambo. The crew were tired of being bossed around by their supposedly better informed mate who then apparently didn’t actually do what he was meant to do with ropes and things when in came to mooring. Ah yes, teamwork. There is nothing like handling a boat to sort out the wheat from the chaff and individual strengths and weaknesses. Every body has to be clear what they are meant to do and when, which requires good leadership and communication skills from the Skipper. Be late with your ropes and your fenders and there could be serious damage to an expensive piece of kit – or indeed the boat next to you! More crew makes, in theory, for easier boat handling – but can create misunderstandings and cross-purposes leading to dramatic moments of high tension if communication is poor. Some boats end up being very noisy as they come into port with frantic running around and barking of orders. Our instructor preferred to keep things calm and did everything in a measured way. So despite there being just N and I on the boat, there were never any shouty moments which, frankly, was a relief and made for a more relaxing time of it.

Early on, I discovered my pleasure in knots. Knot knots, not wind knots. Our instructor would show me one or two, then I had to practise them endlessly to get them right, before moving on to the next. It is hard to explain the satisfaction which I found in turning a long piece of rope into something both pretty and functional – each one carefully designed to serve its purpose. Knots which slip when they’re meant to; knots which don’t slip when they’re not meant to. Knots which can be untied quickly in an emergency; knots which tidy up; knots which lengthen. It is an art form. Entire books have been written on ropes and knots. This was a whole new world to me – and totally fascinating! Perhaps that is what appealed to me – it was both art and science, which is the core of my own nature.

There was another surprise in store too. I have a reputation for being messy which, though not ill-founded judging by the evidence, is not the full story. I also get a real kick out of being organised and tidy – it just doesn’t happen very often. Why is this? Mainly because I am always being interrupted or distracted by someone or something; also because feeding the children, doing their homework and getting them to bed and making sure everyone has clean socks and pants is a higher priority, when time is so short, than making sure my study is a temple to tidiness or that all my clothes are put neatly away in the cupboard. Despite 25 years together my husband still doesn’t understand (or believe) this. Unfortunately he is on firmer ground than me here since the first ever message he left me on my door at university was ‘Your room’s a tip!’ No romantic little billet doux for me, then. It sort of set the mood for our entire relationship – practical over passionate, shall we say. My excuses for the room remain that I was far too busy having fun, and occasionally studying, to tidy my room. And also, unlike my future husband who was living in the lap of luxury in a newly built building funded by the Sainsbury family which looked like a country club rather than university digs – all glass, wood, balconies, terraces over water and swish kitchens – my room was effectively a broom cupboard in a clapped out old Victorian grey-stoned gothic building. While surrounded by people with larger spaces than I in which to file their files and make neat piles of books, my room had been shaved off my neighbour’s by way of a partition wall through which I could hear him stir his coffee and fart, in no particular order. I’ll never forget turning the key in the lock with great expectation on my first day, only for the door to slam into the wall of the narrow passage which then opened up into a small square which was the dimensions of the length of the monk-like single bed. There was just room for a small desk and chair, with a bar fire on the wall, and that was it. You couldn’t even get to the window because the bed was in front of it. Oh, the disappointment of it all! Dreams shattered before I’d even begun! I don’t think there was even a cupboard in it and I can’t remember any drawers, so no wonder it was a bloody mess. Meanwhile His Nibs was swanning around in a white dressing gown in his country club down the road overlooking lake, swans and meadows. I think I could just about see the laundry room from my bedroom beyond the small rectangular patch of grass and the concrete steps with their metal hand rail. Ah yes, a room with a view…

But I digress. Before leaving dry land, His Nibs Mr Ship-Shape had taken great pleasure in pointing to the pictures in the book of tidy boats and messy boats (tidy obviously being the objective) and giggling with the girls as to which picture our boat would look like with Mummy on board. So I took immense pleasure in keeping the boat immaculate. I had time, after all. No-one to distract me. This was part of the morning routine. I loved all the little hidy places and pop-out handles; I loved the gimbal (swinging stove to keep it flat at sea) and all the other marvellous little design features. I was particularly happy when I found the biscuit cupboard. Every morning, while doing our checks before departure, I went around tidying away the breakfast, washing up and putting away, making sure all clothes not needed were tucked up in the cupboard and anything that might be required, like hats and waterproofs, was neatly at hand’s reach. Everything had its place. And in a small world, with time on your hands, this makes being tidy easy. On a mechanical note, I enjoyed learning how to do the engine checks and the simple but effective process of pumping out the head (boaty-speak for loo) – although our instructor was less chuffed at having to fix it on the first morning as said simple pumping mechanism actually wasn’t working. Messy job. Rubber gloves and Bio-suit required. And a spanner and a strong stomach. Then a cup of coffee to recover. I think it was that first morning, out on deck and glancing over at the activities on our sister yacht, that it struck me how this sailing mallarky really was a lot of ‘messing about on boats’. Sailing de-mystified. Ok, I know I’m not Ellen MacArthur (who, incidentally, hailed from the land-locked Peak District) attempting some absurd round-the-world-single-handed-on-a-banana-skin routine which is probably a little more demanding, but the world I was being introduced to was really very civilised. Bursts of frantic activity, often very physical, counter-balanced by long periods of relative idleness where the time was filled with chat, tidying ropes (so satisfying – and crucial to avoid accidents on deck) or simply gazing out across the blue waters to distant lands and distant horizons where distant worlds wait to be encountered and explored. The mind is opened and the spirit is free to fly on the winds that play in your sails like the dolphins that danced across our bow as we crossed the straits of Gibraltar. Holding the boat steady against a strong tidal swell, the sun shone down from a clear blue sky catching our faces, our smiles and the dolphins backs as they darted through the waves. Ahead lay Africa, another continent, where the sights and sounds of Morocco would soon be bestowing us with new experiences, new memories, and a carpet or two…

…To be continued.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Life on the Ocean Wave – Part 1

He suddenly appeared, out of the darkness, in luminous orange trousers and white shirt, clambering across our boat as if it was his own. When challenged as to his activity, his response, in a thick German accent, was ‘I’m looking for a nice young girl to rape’. And why not.

So this was my early introduction to Nol, a polite dutch (they like orange trousers) ICT teacher. He had flowing grey hair, kind and knowing greenish eyes and a smooth tanned face for his 57 years. The Dutch do age well too. Must be the blond hair and hippy genes; and he lives in Switzerland, which is very civilised. Takes the strain out of life. His rape comment really was a little out of keeping, I came to realise, and I banished all thoughts of Austrian cellars from my mind…

No, Nol had a kindness and sensitivity to him which I really appreciated as the days went by. He was divorced for reasons I could quite understand: his wife insisted on her sister living with them most of the time, which isn’t ideal, is it? (And I speak from experience, as my brother-in-law came to stay for two weeks when I was first married and left 18 months later. I think I’m very tolerant.). Apparently they’d sit at the table and chat of an evening, largely ignoring Nol when he came in from work. Yet despite this, he had the grace to say ‘I know I’m not easy to live with either’. I liked him. But then again, I didn’t have to be cooped up on a boat with him for five days like his fellow sailing students. I had the luxury of sharing a drink and walking away, so it isn’t fair of me to comment. So I won’t.

We were in Gibraltar yacht basin, bobbing about on a Bavaria 37. German made. Very solid, very stable, very reassuring. This was the realisation of a 20 year old intention – to learn to sail. We’d been on a beach in Rhodes in the mid 80’s enjoying the solitary sands and setting sun when we noticed a little dinghy being launched from a boat in the bay and being rowed slowly towards us. Its occupants were bleached blond little children coming ashore to play at the end of the day. Their father was a retired RAF pilot and they were spending a year sailing around the Mediterranean. It looked like Heaven, it sounded like Heaven and I said to N how I would love to do that one day when we might have young children. Having now reached that potential time in our lives we knew that the dream could never happen all the while we couldn’t tack and gybe and tie the ropes. So here we were, at last, about to start our week’s sailing course where Europe meets Africa (which appealed more than the Solent, it has to be said). N and I had the luxury of the boat and the chief instructor to ourselves; our shipmates on the other boat had to learn to get along with eachother. I was a little envious because I love a bit of camaraderie, but they were here for two weeks while we just had the one, so we had to learn a lot, quickly – hence we’d chosen to go alone.

That first morning, I was out on deck in the sunshine with a cup of coffee, practising my reef knots and bowlines and gently nosing over to the other boat to see how the new crew were getting along. I’m fascinated by strangers being thrown together and I was trying to sneak a peek at the dynamics of all these diverse personalities and ages. Nol was there, appearing slightly dogmatic with his German accent and more knowledge than some of his shipmates (he was doing a Day Skipper refresher course in preparation for two more weeks in which he was hoping to attain his Coastal Skipper qualification). There was a young girl with very blond hair and big brown eyes who was having sun-tan cream rubbed into her back by a large guy with a south African accent and imposing manner. ‘Top of the morning’ he called across to me and we exchanged some further pleasantries and jokes. Two other girls of similar but indeterminate age (30s?), wearing shorts and sunglasses and looking relaxed in each other’s company were also on deck. I ear-wigged as their laid-back instructor was telling them all about flares and then turned my attention back to my knots. N, meanwhile, was holed up in the cabin sweating over charts and compasses. I was glad I had elected just to do (In)Competent Crew. You can only have one captain on a ship, after all...

…To be continued.
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