Friday, 24 October 2008
Life on the Ocean Wave – The Final Chapter
There was a lingering heaviness in my heart on that last morning. I went to the very smart (as you would expect in Sotogrande) Heads to take my final boaty shower, still mulling over what the guys on the other yacht had said the night before. We’d wandered past on our way back from supper and they’d all been out in the cockpit drinking, smoking and laughing and having the sort of time that strangers do when thrown together in new experiences. The night was still and the boats swayed very gently side to side on the inky water, that familiar chink chink of the halyards filling the quieter moments. I was reminded of the PR trips I used to go on all those years ago – a gaggle of journos thrown together in some foreign land. It was either a blast or plain bloody awful. This little gathering definitely fell into the former category and I couldn’t wait to climb into the cockpit and join the fun. People tell stories and reveal so much more of themselves in these circumstances than in the cold light of day or back on home turf. I always find it fascinating and love watching the personalities unfurl – sometimes dangerously so. They were drinking some hideous hooch they’d found and it didn’t take much to persuade me to try some. Why is it that you always end up buying this stuff abroad and thinking it would be a good idea to take some home? I have a whole cupboard full of strange shaped bottles containing tastebud torturing evil spirits dreamt up by monks and mad mountain men. I suppose they have to do something to fill the time and keep out the cold.
At a certain point someone suggested I stayed on for another week as most of them were doing so. It was a tempting offer. I was so enjoying the learning experience, the freedom, the fun of meeting new people and I wasn’t sure I was ready to go back to my small little world in the Peak District, dividing my time between a Bermuda Triangle of provincial towns, my house and my children. I felt the shackles of domesticity descending again just at the thought and with it a certain loss of my sense of self. Here I was me. There I was Wife and Mother. The ME bit tends to get lost under a pile of laundry, shopping bags and grass cuttings. I was also very flattered that they wanted me to join their team despite their having established a tight-knit little unit. I would have learnt a lot more – about sailing, about them and about myself. N seemed surprisingly cool about the idea, I have to admit, and I went to bed that night pondering the possibilities. Yet with the dawning of the new day my innate sense of loyalty to N and the family woke up with me and I decided I should quit while I was ahead and leave the others to roam the open seas without me. It’s sometimes a good idea to leave the party in full swing, so taking home only the best of memories and avoiding the possibility of things going tits up at the end.
I held that wise old thought while I showered, luxuriating under abundant hot water in a cubicle the size of our boat. As the others came in, I already sensed them slipping away, soon to become people I would no doubt never see again. Our lives briefly entwined, now untangling again by the minute.
Back aboard Manjaro, we drank our morning coffee and listened to Keith’s instructions as to how he wanted us to exit the berth. With more hands on deck, Jambo was able to leave in quicker time than us and I had again that horrible, yet all too familiar, feeling of being Tail End Charlie. Having failed to engage in a race across the Straits the previous day due to the gin enduced hangover of Jambo’s crew, Keith decided to put the Spinnaker sail up once we’d done our coastal navigation exercise. It was thrilling to see the massive sail fill with air against a bright blue sky as Keith told tales of races won and lost. The wind got up as we approached the Rock and we had to take it in again to prevent any last minute dunks. Manoevering between tankers and past a wreck site, the harbour finally came into view with an air of unfamiliarity after our adventures on the briny. We had learned so much in those three days away that it was hard to remember how we had been at the start of it all. It was not hard to imagine how dislocated from their reality returning mariners, ancient and modern, must feel.
Our fellow shipmates were already washing down the decks and making things ship-shape when we berthed for the final time. Keith spared us the domestics, so all we had to do was re-pack our (enormous) bags and get our de-briefing. I’m happy to say that N is now a Day Skipper and I can wear the badge of (In)Competent Crew with honour and pride in the knowledge that I fulfilled all the same practical exercises as N, just skipped the navigational side. You can only have one Captain, after all.
We promised Keith a farewell drink ashore before he went up into the hills to snatch some R&R and much needed time with his wife before starting all over again on Sunday. The others joined us in drips and drabs as they completed their various tasks. Cat and Pia were off to Malaga airport to meet the friend joining them on the boat for their second week. Nol was bundling his dirty laundry off to the laundrette, Erika was psyching herself up for her solitary travels around Morocco and Nick, their instructor, was off home to sleep for the next day and a half. It felt decidedly end of term-ish as we sat round that table in the sunshine for the last time; and the saddest part was that we were just really getting to know each other. Email addresses and hugs were exchanged, pictures taken, another round of drinks bought, and people peeled off bit by bit. Big Mr Tim continued to mix flirty with some genuinely positive and encouraging comments about the woman that he saw me to be. Not just N’s wife, not just the mother of my children. No, in a very short space of time he had observed the essence of me, and in a wonderfully blunt, South-African sort of way, had let me know. It was good to be noticed, it was good to be appreciated for qualities which I’d forgotten I had and to be encouraged to acknowledge them and be proud of them. He was a good man. The fact that he set up his own charity school in West Africa is proof enough. He was also a funny man and I know how much the rest of his crew had appreciated his presence and his strength of personality. It is for all these reasons that I’ve always loved travelling: you never know who you are going to meet and what you are going to discover. It is a reaffirmation of life and all its possibilities. Your heart and mind are expanded, you learn from your experiences and you return home a richer person for it.
We nearly missed our flight, of course, after one too many 'last rounds' of drinks and ended up sitting at completely different ends of the plane to eachother. I tried to make sailing notes but ended up chatting to my neighbour instead after he’d kindly allowed me the last chicken salad and was clearly reading what I was writing. We roamed over many subjects and once again, locked together in the experience of travel, another stranger became a person to me. If the plane crashed I would have died next to him, after all. Thrown together in the air, you then land and life hangs between two realities as you make your way along the endless corridors through Passport Control to Baggage Reclaim, the intimacy of the flight cabin receding by the minute. Then, finally, as you are re-united with your loved ones, eager to embrace you and hear your travellers tales, the world you have been inhabiting slips inexorably away and is replaced again by the one you left behind. I hugged my girls and became a mother again; I listened to my parents amazement that N and I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being cooped up on a boat together and became a daughter again. But I have my memories and I have my pictures – and N and I have come a little closer to realising a dream. That can’t be bad, now, can it?