By John Close
Rikki Bjerke's e-mail was initially exciting in an academic kind of way. "I'm taking a 41' Bavaria to the Canaries prior to our crossing to the Carribean for Christmas. Do you fancy some sailing in the sun?" For someone who hadn't set foot on a boat for twenty years and whose overt interest in sailing was now limited to flicks through the sailing magaazines the prospect had some nostalgic interest. But common sense intervened and my response was regretful. "Look," I said, "I'm coming up to 76. My arthritis is killing me, I take pills for high blood pressure - and I'm probably senile. Thanks for the offer." The following days were difficult. A small voice in my head said, "You're a wimp. Older and more afflicted people than you do it." "It's a long way. The seas are big, and you can't sail boats with painful knees", I replied. "You're afraid", said another weasel voice. At which point, "I'd really love to come" I said through teeth gritted with apprehension.
So, in the last days of September Ciao, crewed by Rikki, Roy Edwards and me cast off from Shamrock Quay and puttered out of the Itchen river.
The Bavaria, is an impressive piece of nautical hardware. I viewed her impressive array of tackle and gadgetry with awe and little comprehension and took comfort in the knowledge that two weeks previously she had left Oslo in a Force 10 with no sign of consequent damage. There is roller reefing to main and genoa so there was no question of inadequate scrambling about on the foredeck with wobbly knees.
I have a 3am watch. What have I let myself in for? I don't even know what three o'clock in the morning feels like on dry land.
I stumble up to the cockpit and into a different world. We are alone on a small island of dim light. The top light illuminates the sails. Forward, the navigation lights cast an eerie glow. There is an after light and in between, the instrument panel hints at its presence in a reticent gleam of neon. The rest is unfathomable dark. No moonlight cuts the black water around us. I seek reassurance from the first handhold.
" Lots of traffic", says my companion. And sure enough, as I raise tentative eyes from our immediate presence I see lots of traffic indeed. A mile off to port a block of flats slices through the night, brilliant in display. An illuminated cathedral is away to starboard and somewhat nearer. Others at greater distance are spaced about the separation lane. All hold their courses as do we. 244 degrees.
"That one still has to make its mind up."
That one, follows us at some distance. Both its navigation lights are clear. The Westminster Tower tracks us purposefully. And quickly. I view its position in the way rabbits are said to eye an approaching stoat. When only its starboard light shows I am left alone with instructions to wake the skipper if anything out of the ordinary occurs. Anything out of the ordinary?, Everything is out of the ordinary. I respond with an insouciance I'm proud of and am left alone with a pair of binoculars, a hundred thousand pounds worth of boat, a floodlight- and a great line in unalloyed terror.
A day of misty sunshine; another night watch. I am roused. I tumble into my clothes and stumble out of the hatch into dense fog. Another new experience. Slack jawed, I note that I can see the navigation lights on the prow and the after light. Above, the mast head light (for we are motoring) throws a dim radiance. There is nothing else.
"We just rounded Ushant."
To round Ushant in this fog, with never a glimpse of the light that penetrates eighteen miles is cause for wonder and respect in our navgational aids and for the competence of my skipper. Nonetheless the blood ran a bit chill for a minute. The Ushant light, totally invisible. Our boat almost invisible to ourselves, making 6.5 knots and just two miles from the tip of the Isle and a lot of traffic about. Now, at six thirty, fog bound and making good progress through it, despite my very real confidence I cannot resist a niggling apprehension. "What if.". "Well. What if what ?" And it's really all about the differences between what passes for normal and the current experience. I wouldn,t drive a yard in fog like this, I wouldn't put one foot in front of another unless I knew what was there. But here and now, off Ushant I am doing both of these things thanks to a little plastic mushroom sitting on the after rail quietly communicating with space. Of course there are no ifs, and for the rest of my watch I ease my back against the binnacle grab handle, I shift from one foot to the other, stare into the fog and practice slipping my glove off to punch the Manual button should the Marie Celeste put in an appearance.
Mercifully the Bay was quiet and remained so for the entire crossing.
To be roused at midnight with, "We have dolphins," is a wonderful way to awaken. They may be common sights to old hands, but to the shore bound their presence is a gift of great value. They cruise alongside on both sides of the boat like a naval escort. A wash of phosphorescence rides with their passage as they rise, appear briefly and become phantom shapes gliding through the water, keeping pace, then suddenly streaking ahead to appear again behind us. Never more than a couple of feet from the boat we move together in close order. Now they are clear shapes; our eyes meet; I swear they smile. Certainly I smile back - a great soft grin of unalloyed delight.
Suddenly they are not there any more. They have left us to go about dolphin business whatever that is, designing dolphin computers, communicating dolphin myths and legends, who knows? They spend so much time talking to each other it can't all be about fish.
The swell comes at you quietly, without fuss. Horizontals disappear. New ones form a hundred yards away and then you are through it. Or over it with the boat heeling sharply down into the trough. Then creaming up to the next which might be twice as big. It is an odd feeling to look astern to observe a mass of deep blue water high above one's head. This is at first disturbing but soon, as one realizes that the boat is designed to cope with these conditions the feeling changes to exhilaration. This is what sailing is about, I think. I note, with a kind of objective curiosity that I have not considered my knees for some days and have quite forgot the tablets. Perhaps I've found a cure.
Night watches are not without their satisfactions. There is a prevailing sense of peacefulness. The alone-ness is not to be confused with loneliness. It is the most elemental of circumstances in which to find oneself. And perhaps finding oneself, is precisely what one has the opportunity of doing. The world and its obsessions is no longer a priority. There is nothing clamouring for attention beyond the confines of the boat and its demands. The awareness of one's position of isolation and the frailty implied by it is ever present. And yet there is total acceptance of oneself as the epicentre of a universe composed of some forty feet of plastic and a limitless expanse of sea, beyond which there is only the vast sweep of the star strewn heavens.
And it is what makes my night watches not only tolerable but things of quiet ruminative pleasure.
"In to La Coruna", I thought as watch capped, sweatered and blousoned I popped out of the hatch, cuppasoup clutched in gloved fingers. "How's it go..?" and "Oh gawd!" in quick succession. The fog was impenetrable. The foresail had been furled, the main strapped in and we were on motor. There were no lights, no stars, there was no sea. There was nothing beyond the limits of the boat. the Global Positioning System ignores fog and dark alike. I know it works. And yet - And yet. I look into the murk and wonder can I trust it all. I do! I do! I protest to myself. But am I lying ? The reason that I cannot entirely trust it is that I am in the middle of the ocean in a forty one foot boat proceeding determinedly at 4.3 knots to a precise spot where we shall have to turn left a precise number of degrees in order to go where we want. I substitute myself for the electronic gadgetry and find myself, a normally competent being, wanting. And if I am not confident why should I trust the silent binnacle? My senses tell me that this is the point in the scenario when I should start to utter little whimpering noises intermingled with bat like squeaks of terror. Instead I gaze with purpose into the pit hoping to look like square jawed Jack Hawkins , Royal Navy cap at jaunty angle, bringing in Compass Rose.
What if a tanker is heading out of La Coruna at this time? What if a trawler is heading in? After all these mariners are sensible and logical people. They will take the best and most straightforward of routes. Rikki Bjerke is sensible and logical. What, I ponder, do these two statements mean in terms of the possibility of dreadful intersection? Are there rocks? The chart admits of no such impediments. But can I trust the chart? What if a new rock has chosen to erupt from the sea bed since yesterday? Computers can fall over. What if the depth sounder has gone out of flunter? I take a quick look. One hundred and ten metres. Well that,s all right... BUT WHAT IF IT'S WRONG?
"Fog horn! Directly in front ", I bellow, but Rikki has already materialised. He switches off our engine. We listen. The next blast is nearer, and paralyzing.
"What's he want me to do?", I gibber. I can't see him. He can't see me. Has he radar? (We haven't.) Is anyone watching the screen? ""He's over there. No problem". Engines clatter away into the distance. "Twenty minutes to the breakwater." I snarl in disbelief.
Roy, who has been sleeping soundly through this exercise joins us. He enquires as to our position. " Just coming up to the breakwater," I reply with that easy confidence adopted by the experienced mariner.
" Gosh! " looking around at the murk. " It wasn't like this when I went to bed."
"U-mm . Pretty thick," I say. And at this very moment, thirty yards away the breakwater appears with an unlit light on the end. "Like I said. Just coming up to the breakwater."
I take the compliment lightly. Go below and guzzle the rest of the coffee.
We sampled the delights of La Coruna and on the stroke of midnight trod a pathway of stars out of the harbour and were on the way to Madeira.
When I take over next morning the breeze, from its usual NE quarter, is fluky. It is difficult to keep the course above 210. I decide to let the boat accommodate itself to the wind by bringing it directly aft. I move the head through ten degrees, the boom eases over in a gentle gybe. I loosen the genoa off a little and we are away, goose winged and on course. Dawn comes slowly and the day becomes bright, blue and sparkling with light. This is a wonderful way to travel. I experience a satisfaction and thrill I could not have imagined in immobile domesticity.
Towards evening a large school of dolphins comes charging from the west at speed. There is something in their motion other than simple swimming. Short loops of silver flash by in close order. They want to be somewhere else - and fast. Behind them a darker shape surges. The flight of the dolphins is purposeful. It is about self preservation. Unlike the land world of tooth, horn and claw the terror and savagery of the hunter beneath the waves is largely hidden from our view. I know it is all part of the grand scheme of nature's balance but I hope the dolphins got away.
Today was the day of the whale.
But before that, the night was the night of blackness and wind. Bible black. Black as the pit. We have been skirting an electrical storm. The front system we were in was creating difficult wind patterns. Behind the boat a great stream of luminescence spread in a shining column. There was fifteen/sixteen knots of wind and rising. Eighteen- twenty- twenty two! Speed over the ground was greater than eight knots. And so it continued until I retired with twenty five knots the average. Down in my cabin the boat rolled from side to side and back again. I squeezed myself cross wise and ceased to roll. In the morning we had 30 knots gusting to 34 knots. And then as we passed through this complex front system the wind died away to nothing. A very confusing pattern of sailing. A cry from above brought me topside. "A WHALE!" The others had seen the back rise from the water. A moment later the whale blew and a white spout of water rose in a tall blast a short distance to port. And that was my whale.
At latitude 34 46'N 15 07'W we go for a swim. A rope is trailed from the stern and one at a time we dive in from the swimming platform. The depth is 3,000 metres. Marvelous! We launch into warm water - and grab the rope. Even barely moving it is surprising how quickly one gets left behind! So, creating our personal bow waves we haul in, step aboard and grin like loons.
When we see the light at Porto Santos the wind has changed and we are beating in the most moderate of breezes. At 6.30 we are all on deck admiring the advent of the light and contemplating our first sight of land since we left La Coruna six days ago.
We go about. We sail hard and tight. We go about. In the eye of the wind, the genoa flaps, the lee sheet is hauled in like crazy, the winch screams, the winch handle goes in and the foresail is tightened hard. I begin to have delusions about a winch hand on the Whitbread. After several hours it is clear that a combination of current and head wind is dooming us to a much longer and frustrating battle with the elements than we had bargained for. It took until eight in the evening, then we were close inshore under ochre cliffs. A scatter of lights adorned their topmost reaches and ahead lay fairy land. Funchal harbour and town proclaimed itself in myriads of sparkling points of light illuminating the harbour, the town, and, climbing steeply upwards into the mountain above, continued to shed light throughout the vast amphitheatre that encompasses the town. It must be the most dramatic and theatrical entry from the sea anywhere.
We had had a lovely couple of days but it was not what it was about and we were urgent to be at sea again. The sails were set and we watched the first lights appearing in the town dropping astern. A good and satisfactory breeze was taking us away from Madeira.
Twenty minutes later a white horse had appeared on a crest. Another some distance away. The sea suddenly became lumpy. The breeze was still good and we were moving well. "Tell you what," said Rikki, "We're going to shorten sail." It didn't seem necessary to me from my vast experience of a fortnight's sailing but he was the boss. So we took in both main and genoa, and continued to move. Five minutes later the wind hit with force, we heeled sharply and bucked like a live thing. Water was coming over the foredeck and the cockpit was assaulted with spray. 25 knots- 30 knots of wind. I took comfort from R's earlier dictum, If the boat's well found the safest place is out at sea provided that you are not carrying more sail than the conditions warrant.
We slammed along. White water over the decks. Sea heaving. Ciao, sliding into the troughs, rolling and pitching forward through the crests. Negotiating the confines of the boat became a matter of, wait for the moment, move, grab, hold, flex the knees to accommodate the up coming heave, move, grab, hold. This was a new mode of sailing on this voyage and great for arthritic knees.
The sun went down in a carmine streak. The sky was curiously clear except for the south east horizon's line of gray cloud. Above the mast, the moon now half way through its course shone brilliantly on to a swelling, lumpy sea laced with crests of white and blown spume.
Speed over the ground better than seven knots. Wonderful!
And finally there is Gran Canaria. We sail to Puerto Rico. We have fun. We swim in secluded coves with the boat riding at anchor. But there is a sense that it is all over. It is an end too soon. For two whole weeks I have ignored my arthritis. I have given little thought to tablet taking. I have miraculously shed a few years. But, "what", I ask myself, "What do I do now?"
And that, after fifteen hundred miles of deep water cruising, is a very good question. Ciao, is going to Venezuela. She'll be coming back in a couple of years. I'll only be 78, and now that my arthritis is cured.......