Come What May
Image by John of Wirral
Esmerelda / Come What May sailing in the Sound of Bute, Scotland. Inchmarnock and Arran in the distance
Log of the Dinghy Esmerelda or Come What May
Three seasons learning to sail (1998 – 2000)
For years, it seems, it has been at the back of my mind that, when it was convenient, I would learn to sail my own boat. Life being such as it is, I have spent the last nine years living within ten minute’s walk of the sea but have not been in a sailing boat in all that time. Last weekend, I answered an advert in the local paper. Now, I am the proud owner of a 14ft Lark sailing dinghy! Ian, the seller, kindly offered to teach me to sail her. She’s a modest little boat, but seems worth the price. Adam (my elder son) is delighted and is raring to have a go.
Yesterday evening was our first time out on the water, not on the tide, but on West Kirby marine lake in the Dee estuary. I felt very much an incompetent land-lubber. I have a whole new set of coordination skills to learn, certainly more than when learning to ride a motorcycle or drive a car, but this is part of the challenge. I think it helps to have the limbs and bodily plasticity of an octopus.
Ian took me out in the boat for the second time yesterday evening and it was beautiful! – sun sinking in the west, warm blue sky, a gentle breeze and the boat gliding effortlessly through the water. If I am not yet completely hooked, then I soon shall be. My aspirations are modest: I’d be thrilled simply to learn the necessary skills and gain the confidence to navigate the Wirral coast.
This sailing has really got a grip on me. I spent last Thursday night in Manchester so that I could start earlier on Friday in order to be home by 5 p.m. to take the boat out. It was wild! The wind was approaching force 4 and we managed to capsize twice, (although we were the last boat on the lake to do so). It is a wonderful activity which, like mountaineering, is completely absorbing both mentally and physically, and which, if you’re not actually doing it, then you’re thinking about doing it or pottering around with the equipment. I’m pleased, because it has restored a dimension to my life that has been sadly lacking for a few years. Alix and I have decided definitely to withdraw our house from sale and stay put here on the coast, at least for the foreseeable future.
I hesitate to consider my boat an inanimate object. She has several traits suggestive of animation, and female at that:
a nice shape,
requires sensitive handling,
and on two occasions has been quite upset and ditched me.
Friday 12th June 1998
Stimulating, thrilling, absorbing and therapeutic.
We went out last Saturday and plan to again this Saturday. It is time I took it out on my own though, or rather with someone I can’t rely on to take the initiative in a tricky situation. After all, the whole idea is to sail this boat myself. With this in mind, I persuaded my German colleage Tobias to come over on Sunday to join me. He has never sailed, so it’ll be the blind leading the blind, but it has to be the quickest way to learn.
Sunday 14th June 1998
I took the boat out truly as ’skipper‘ this evening (with Tobias). The wind was northerly, gusting force 4, and slightly intimidating – I nearly called the whole thing off – but once we’d cast off it was magical!
Suddenly after all the flapping and palaver of rigging, all is quiet and smooth as we glide downwind. A slightly anxious moment ensues when I realize we’ll have to gybe before we run out of lake, but this manoeuvre works smoothly and I realize with relief that I can actually tack back against the wind.
After an hour, despite some interesting moments, we have managed to avoid capsizing and are still relatively dry. We are rewarded by the sun peeping out from under the clouds just before it vanishes below the horizon.
Clynnog fawr, Lleyn Peninsula, north Wales, July 1998
Wonderful holiday! – the best I think for several years. Brothers Martin and Chris and our three families (15 of us in all) staying in a farm house together. Best of all was to see all the kids together (eight cousins and one half-sister) – how the older ones looked after and amused the younger ones, and also how the younger ones amused the adults, and how the adults are actually kids at heart and behave as such when they are all together. It was invaluable to have so many young cousins for Adam to play with, and to be able to let Ricky trot out into the large green spaces around the house and to play in the sand, knowing that there were nearly always three or four others keeping an eye on him.
The farm itself was in a beautiful location on a magnificent length of coast, north west facing, catching the best of the sunsets. The whole area is delightfully quiet and unspoilt (and only two hours drive from home, even towing the boat). The weather was not ideal, but we still managed to spend a large proportion of the time outside.
At the beginning of the week high winds, cloud and some rain made it quite unsuitable for sailing but we managed some hiking and some went horse riding. By Wednesday, the forecast was slightly better and we’d discovered relative shelter and what seemed to be a nice launching site at the northern end of Llanberis Lake, so we decided to sail come what may. [At this moment Come What May suggested itself as a name for my boat. Only later did I discern the name Esmerelda almost completely faded written on the hull.]
It turned out to be a delightful, sunny and warm afternoon, the shore had trees to climb, sticks and stones to splash in the water and soft grassy spots for picnics. We launched and I was able to take everyone out in turn. For Adam and Alix it was actually their first time, the complexities of child care being what they are. Adam was fairly excited but not a hundred percent confident, he finds it a little intimidating but hopefully that will change. It was the perfect day for him – gentle and warm.
The next day started fine with a light breeze. Majority interest however determined that we go riding again followed by a pub lunch, but in the afternoon I was determined to get the boat out. The tide was up and three of us succeeded in handling it down a steep track to the shore and then over small, slippery, seaweed-covered boulders to the water’s edge.
I still find it miraculous how, once rigged, with a quick shove and hop in, we are gliding through the water as if by magic (hoping a freak gust doesn’t turn us round before I grab hold of the tiller and get the centreplate down!)
Caernarfon Bay, and first time on the sea! The swell was a little daunting as we sailed into deeper water, especially with four adults aboard (not sailed with that many before), but I practised a few tacks, sailing up-wind and down-wind, and she seemed to handle alright without shipping water, albeit a bit heavy at the tiller, so I was happy. It was a delight with the rhythm of the waves and the late afternoon sun sparkling through the spray and sea to the open horizon; with our course set for the open Atlantic I just wanted to keep going. Fortunately, I didn’t. All of a sudden there was no more resistance on the tiller and we swung round into the wind: the rudder had torn off its mounting! I was glad that I’d invested in some oars as a precaution with which we were able to turn about to face shoreward; then, by holding the rudder (fortunately still attached to the boat by the uphaul line) and leaning right into the water astern, we were able to hold a course back to the shore. I since realised that the reason the rudder felt so heavy in the first place was because it was not engaged in its fixed down position but trailing horizontally behind; the extra leverage combined with the weight in the boat must have sheared the two mounting bolts. I’ve now repaired it with four new reinforcing bolts. It was a learning experience and exciting at the time. The others all seemed to enjoy it and seemed to think it was all in a day’s sailing adventures.
7th August 1998
Last weekend was wonderful. Summer finally seemed to have arrived: it was comfortable to spend dawn ‚til dusk in shorts and T shirt and to sit out late in the garden for dinner with a bottle of wine after the kids were in bed. Adam and I went onto the beach on Sunday and spent a good hour just splashing in the sea and being crabs and sea-monsters wallowing in the deep soft sand. Simple happiness!
More exciting still, I took the boat out twice. First, on West Kirby marine lake completely on my own for the very first time. I was out on the water by 7.30 a.m., it was a gorgeous morning and I had the whole lake and, indeed it seemed, the whole estuary to myself. Second, again on my own, on the high tide for the first time. Two significant achievements which have given me such a thrill that I can’t wait to do it again! In fact, I can now say that I have achieved my long held ambition of being able to sail my own boat on the sea, albeit in very easy conditions: a smooth surface and barely a breath of wind. I sailed for three hours on the high spring tide and was really chuffed to be out there on my own, but it would have been nice to have had some good company too. I feel this is only the beginning: my curiosity is already drawing me to peruse the second-hand yacht sections of the sailing magazines!
17th August 1998
I had my sailing abilities stretched this weekend when I took the boat out on the tide in a breeze that was slightly too strong for me (also my muscles and parts of the boat were well stretched). It was a humbling experience:
On the sea front, the breeze felt rather intimidating. The lifeguard on duty hailed me, having seen me with my boat the previous week,
"Going out today?"
I confided my reservations to him, but he replied, presumably intending to encourage me,
"Only way to learn, by experience!"
This was a challenge I felt bound to accept.
Having rigged and launched, all there was to do was push off and hop in. It was that moment of hesitation that reminded me of the feeling I had as a novice skier on the lip of my first black run: the point of no return. Hesitation over, the first few seconds I spent struggling to lower the rudder, which for some reason would not go down (because, I found out later, I’d hitched the uphaul too tight), while keeping an eye on other boats at their moorings skimming past me at an alarming rate even before I’d trimmed the sails. In the excitement, I forgot to lower the centreplate, which meant that having covered about half a mile in what seemed like about ten seconds I tried to come about into the wind but couldn’t. Hemmed in by a sand bank on one side and an approaching groyne on the other, there seemed to be little room to manoeuvre and all I could do was gybe, but this didn’t work properly either and I capsized. I realised the centreplate wasn’t down when I tried to stand on it to pull the boat back upright, it then took me a few moments to lower it because first I had to untangle the anchor warp from the centreplate uphaul, the two having become intertwined. The boat then righted quite easily and I tacked back against the wind with the water gurgling reassuringly out through the self-bailers; I was determined not to be defeated.
Eventually though, the jib became wrapped around the forestay and I capsized again trying to unwind it. At this point I felt I was doing everything wrong and it was time to come in so I limped back to the slip still half full of water where by now a small group of spectators had gathered to watch me, including the lifeguard and two old sea-dogs who’d obviously been passing comment. Later, the lifeguard told me that the old sea-dogs were "impressed" that I’d got back without assistance. But really I don’t suppose I impressed anyone much. I clearly have much to learn.
7th September 1998
I took Adam out in the boat on Saturday. There was almost no breeze: we seemed to spend long periods just playing with the sails trying to detect what little air movement there was. Adam had a go at the helm which quite thrilled him, and he even tacked. He was pretty good at holding a course when I told him to steer towards particular landmarks.
The dissipated remnants of hurricane Danielle have been lurking off the coast of Ireland these last few days and forecast to be moving across the British Isles; on Sunday the wind got up and there were gales forecast in the Irish Sea and I chickened out of going out on my own although several boats did sail on the high tide.
14th September 1998
Sunday was too windy for sailing. I’m going to have to experiment with techniques for reefing the sails, or sailing on the jib only.
18th September 1998
I saw a centre page pull-out guide in one of the yachting magazines this week entitled, "Your guide to crossing the Atlantic" – I dream.
9th October 1998
It’s been cool and windy here but with a lot of bright sunshine interrupted by occasional showers. The leaves are starting to thin on the trees and most of the apples are in, except the late ripening ones. I was hoping there might have been a chance to take the boat out, but the weather really wasn’t suitable. Most of the moored sailing boats are coming in onto dry land for the winter now.
I did get some useful clearing done in the garden and managed to build up our supply of fire-wood. Richard was following me behind the wheelbarrow and he managed to tumble into the pond!
It is simply beautiful being out in the garden. There is something very special about this time of year: the colours, the earthy smells and the sound of the wind in the trees.
20th October 1998
Autumn has set in a big way: chilly, grey and wet, and particularly dismal now that the nights are drawing in. Definitely time for the wood fire in doors. It was beautiful though in the garden on Sunday: I got a lot of clearing done and generated much material for bonfire night; also, I came across a hedgehog – not so rare in our garden but unusual in broad daylight and nice to see. Adam insisted I tell stories to him about hedgehogs for the rest of the day.
3rd November 1998
At 11 p.m. there was a 10 metre tide bursting on the sea wall with a strong northwesterly wind behind it and a full moon. I never saw such a high tide here. The sea was all over the road. I felt a strange, pleasant, almost terrified excitement because there is one recurring nightmare that I have occasionally had in adult life which involves standing on a foreshore and seeing the monster of all waves rising up and bearing towards me and the growing realisation that I won’t escape it in time.
Our bonfire party is tomorrow. As usual, a huge pile of wood has appeared as though by magic in the night, the local contractors see it as an opportunity for free rubbish disposal and it will take four of us half the day to built it into burnable shape tomorrow, but this is all part of the fun. Adam is looking forward to it and so am I.
2nd December 1998
We like too much where we live: our wonderful garden, horses over the fence, lying in bed listening to the waves on a summers night, the crashing surf of a winter storm, opening the door to the tangy smell of sea air in the morning, sunrise in a crispy dawn sparkling on frost-covered sand, and the pink rays of setting sun over the water glowing off the distant Welsh hills. It’s a clear, frosty night with a full moon. There’s a thin, misty vapour over the water as the tide silently slides past the sea wall and the oyster catchers make their eerie call – I love it!
26th April 1999
Out sailing again – first launch this year. Saturday was a beautiful day and I took Adam out on the high tide in the evening while the sun was lowering in the west. It was neap and there was virtually no wind – very still, we moved like a whisper. It was so still that we went aground (neap tides don’t leave much room to manoeuvre between sand banks) and didn’t even notice that we were stuck for about a minute! It was good to be on the water again.
28th April 1999
The sun is a great red orb above the horizon. The boat is all set for launching at the next available opportunity – this weekend. It is a long weekend with the May Day holiday and there are high spring tides around midday – perfect!
14th May 1999
Sailing has been wonderful! Especially yesterday, when conditions were perfect and I spent three hours exploring some of the far reaches of the sand-banks several miles up and down the coast. I’m looking for the best route across the shallows that will allow me to circumnavigate the islands in the mouth of the Dee estuary on a single high tide. The timing is important in order to avoid being left high an dry.
18th May 1999
Sailing is good exercise: strong on the back and arms hauling the trailer along the road to and from the slipway, and then on the tummy muscles when leaning out to balance the boat when it’s heeling over.
I had an embarrassing little incident two weeks ago in front of the lifeboat. It was a perfect day for sailing, sunny with a gentle breeze. I’d been out for about an hour and was starting to think about coming in for some lunch when I saw the Hoylake lifeboat coming past. This is a big, powerful, offshore boat with an experienced, sea-going crew. It pulled up close to our slipway, and the crew having passed some lines ashore set about some rescue exercises. Meanwhile, I thought I’d better make a good impression. I gave them a wide berth and tacked cleanly round to make my approach to the slipway in such a way as to avoid any risk of entanglement with their lines. Gliding in smoothly, I reached aft to raise the rudder to stop it grounding, but instead managed to pull the tiller off the rudder stock: the boat slewed round out of all control and, before I could do anything about it, heeled over wildly and capsized, right in front of the life-boat! What’s more, a crewman was recording the whole incident on video! I righted the boat without assistance and then sailed out again to allow the self-bailers to empty the boat of water to avoid the embarrassment of having to do so ashore. Afterwards, our local lifeguard, who was also there on duty, remarked that I couldn’t have chosen a better moment: the lifeboat only comes down here about once a year!
We’ve finally booked our holiday cottage for this summer: a house on the shores of Loch Torridon, way up in the north west of Scotland. I’m really looking forward to it. It is in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland and a superb area for mountaineering. Everything is literally on the doorstep. There is access to the loch to launch the boat and the cottage lies at the very foot of one of the most spectacular mountains in Scotland, Liathach, the crest of which, soaring to 3,456ft directly above the sea, is considered to be one of the four classic ridge routes in the country. Of course, scope for serious mountaineering will be limited, but at least we will be four adults to share child minding. Unfortunately, the cottage was only available for one week and not two, but we plan to take the tent and tour for a few days after. I’m already really excited.
10th June 1999
Sailing, it is completely absorbing and I love it! This was my diary entry last weekend:
Onshore breeze, about force 3, which seems plenty strong enough for me single handed. The question arises how to launch at a right angle to the breeze with the sails up; hoisting the sails once afloat would be the better solution but with no means of holding the bow this could be awkward. I wheel the boat on the trolley half into the water then swing the trolley to head the boat into the wind, hoist the sails, rig the rudder, then manoeuvre the trolley so as to allow the boat to float, holding the bow. I’m glad Alix then turns up to retrieve the trolley. Which direction to cast off? Try to avoid the embarrassing and awkward situation of being blown back onto the sea wall before making way, but to make good way, must lower the plate and sheet-in immediately but can’t lower the plate until in deeper water. Conundrum. Oh well, try it. Here goes. Shove, hop in and grab tiller. Impetus of shove already gone, drifting back on shore into small party launching rowing boat; sheet-in sheet-in: yes! now 45 degrees to wind and making way, miraculously avoid sea wall. Rudder down, plate down – no, not enough depth for plate, grounding on sand bank; half raise plate, can’t tack, bear round with wind, avoid moored boats, must gybe – tricky in confined space, risk of capsize. Steady gybe by holding vang as boom swings across. Success! Now on course with clear water ahead.
It takes a few minutes of lively sailing to convince myself that I am really in control. The swell is slight but riding the waves is exciting as every other crest bursts on the bow, shooting spray up my bum leaning out over the windward gunwale. Shortly, the rhythmic plunge and rise through the waves works a very soothing effect, my senses become fully attuned to my immediate surroundings and all else seems a world away.
Hoylake Sailing Club Regatta, 15th June 1999
I actually took part in a race this weekend. The local sailing club held its annual regatta. While I was launching on Friday evening one of the officers of the club introduced himself and invited me to take part. It’s quite an event locally, with a lot of visiting boats from the region and open to non-members.
So there I was on the water on Sunday morning with only the vaguest notion of what was expected. I was confused by the order of buoys and posts that marked out the course, which ones to pass on which side and in which order. Then there was the gun. There were meant to be six minute and three minute warning shots but I’m sure there was an extra one, and on which side of the line was I supposed to be? At the last moment but too late it suddenly became clear and the start gun found me on the wrong side of the line going the wrong way! The other boats were racing towards the first buoy whilst I having recrossed the line lagged hopelessly in their wake. For a while I was able to follow them, but as the wind got up and the sea became grey and choppy the field spread out and even some of the more experienced boats appeared to become confused and eventually I had to admit that I really didn’t know where I was supposed to be heading! Oh well, I’ll know what to expect another time.
I appreciated the opportunity to make contact with the sailing club. They seem to be a friendly and pleasantly informal lot and I may consider joining, partly for access to their rather nice clubhouse with bar overlooking the sea, but partly also because it represents a chance to get to know people whose company I might enjoy and who share an enthusiasm for sailing. It is not a sporty, highly competitive dinghy racing club, although they do organise racing on some Sundays. I have the impression that the competitive aspects are not taken too seriously. It is more a group of people who enjoy sailing in all its forms, which suits me. The attractive clubhouse is an added bonus.
It was not a competitive streak that induced me to participate in the race on Sunday, but an exploratory streak to see how I might enjoy it, and a sense of curiosity to see how my sailing matched up to others. I realised that racing is a good way to hone one’s skills because I did a lot more manoeuvring and trying to maximise efficiency than when out on my own. I can see how racing could be enjoyable because it involves optimizing your performance, which can be thrilling and satisfying (and it would be nice to win sometimes too) but I can’t yet see myself wanting to race regularly. Like skiing, I see sailing as a means of exploration rather than a competitive sport.
Tuesday 6th July 1999
We were sailing on Sunday, all of us together for a change. Rick was very excited before he got in, then once underway he kept saying, "Tip over!" and looking worried, but he got used to it for before long he was scrambling to the stern to grab the tiller saying, "Have it, Ricky do it!" Meanwhile Adam was intent that I tell him a story about some limpets who make friends with some ammonites. I am learning that taking the kids out demands additional skills to normal sailing competence.
We’re soon away to Scotland for a fortnight. I actually bought myself a fishing rod and some tackle just in case the wind drops while out on the loch, as if I won’t have enough to occupy myself with a boat and kids and magnificent nearby mountains. It telescopes down to 18 inches so it won’t take up much space. I thought it might be fun for the kids too (good excuse, eh? Of course I’m just a big one.) I have fished exactly twice in my life and caught one trout about four inches long, so the family probably shouldn’t rely on me for food.
Torridon and Kishorn, July 1999
[Monday 2nd August 1999, back home.] It is hard to be back after such a lovely break. Tragic actually. I suddenly see all the things that are wrong with my life here and what an effort it is to try to force myself to put up with them. Especially I see how drab, ugly and over-crowded are the areas where I live and work, even our little patch on the coast holds no magic compared with the northwest of Scotland.
While we were away it was wonderful to be able to spend so much time continually with Richard and Adam and coming back I realize how unnatural it is for a parent to see so little of his children as I normally do here. I have no illusions that we have a right to a perfect life – there is no reason why working for a living should be easy – but some things need to change.
The northwest of Scotland would certainly have limitations as a place to live, the principal of which would be an acceptable means to make a living, followed by the distance to secondary schooling for the boys. Also, family visits would be much less frequent, the midges bite terribly and the weather would not be as reliably good as we had it at least in the second week. But as for the rest of it – city life – I don’t need it.
We spent the first week on the shores of Loch Torridon nestling at the foot of two of the principal mountains of the area. Torridon is rugged country – one of the last places in Britain to have glaciers as late as 9,000 BC – but like the whole west highland seaboard, sublimely beautiful. Other fjord-scape coastlines in the world are certainly more splendid, but Scotland has a special charm that appeals to me personally.
The peaks of Torridon rise straight out of the sea to over three thousand feet and are composed of thousand Myr old sandstone, which in the larger corries takes the form of shear, dark grey precipices of giant masonry blocks, and on the tops, precariously placed boulders like part-melted stacks of huge dinner plates. Many of the peaks are capped with silver-grey quarzite which when wet glints and sparkles in the sun. The whole is founded on much older bed-rock (up to half the age of the earth) which shows itself in places as contorted swirls of intermingled shades of pink, orange and fiery red streaked with white. The region has remnants of the original Caledonian pine forest still undisturbed after eight thousand years. But the principal charms are the play of cloud and light on the hills and sea, and the unhurried style of life, where people still leave their house doors unlocked when they go out.
We had a fair bit of drizzle and overcast days in the first week, during the course of which ours was the only boat we saw afloat in the whole of Upper Loch Torridon. In fact, one afternoon, Martin and I were sitting in the boat in the middle of the loch, with the clouds low on the hills and the rain dribbling down the sails, awaiting any movement of air that might get us back to shore before tea, and I did start to wonder what it might take before I started to question my enjoyment!
Another day Martin and I thought we’d make the most of any time when the breeze died by trying my new fishing rod and three hundred piece fishing kit. Out on the water, the sails lolling impotenty, I gave Martin charge of the helm, should any light air arise to stir us, while I sorted hooks and fiddled, trying to remember how to tie them to the line. All of a sudden, there were ripples on the water, the sails filled, the boat heeled wildly and we were creating a creaming bow wave, covering the distance across the loch in a couple of minutes that it had taken us a whole afternoon the previous day, while I scrabbled to prevent fish hooks from littering the floor around our bare feet and at the same time tried to give instruction to Martin who’d never helmed a dinghy!
Come the weekend, the clouds evaporated and there followed six days of glorious hot weather when we were out everyday in T-shirts and shorts, even on the water and up at 3,000ft late into the evening – very unScottish! We found accommodation slightly farther south, with magnificent views from our living room window up into the majestic corries of Applecross and out to Skye, in a secluded bungalow just outside the small village of Achintraid on the shore of Loch Kishorn. Alix, Adam, Rick and I spent a couple of days of idyllic sailing when we were out for the whole day with picnic and cans of beer, mooring on uninhabited islands and remote beaches for long lunches, lounging in the sun, exploring the rock-pools for crabs and sea-anemones and swimming nude (there simply was no need for swimming costumes because no one was there!), although not for many minutes because the water was chilly. I love to abandon the trappings of civilization as much as possible on holiday – radio and television, swimming trunks, combing my hair, etc. I go happily for days washing and bathing only in salt-water with my hair gone wild, I like the feeling of it.
The Highlands can be extremely bleak and dreary ("driech" in the Scotch dialect) but only in some places and in certain weather. The atmosphere is often fresh and invigorating or imbued with a remarkable softness. Part of the beauty is this softness and the wonderful cloud-scapes. During our hot weather spell, although I wouldn’t have wanted to change it, some of the distinctive charm was lost: it reminded me more of the Alps or the Sierra Nevada than Scotland.
I think we’ve all felt slightly down since returning, we had such a gorgeous few days. Sailing off the sea front here in Liverpool Bay has (at least temporarily) lost its appeal.
Sunday 19th March 2000
First launch of the year. It was wonderful to be on the water again! It is something very special to me. On the water, I am happy: life is as it should be and I don’t want for anything. I was out at 8:30 a.m. for nearly three hours, and there was no one else.
28th March 2000
We switched to British Summer Time this weekend and today the temperature has dropped to 3°C – it feels like January again! I did get out in the boat though, both on Saturday and Sunday. Good thing is, the kids have not adapted to the time change yet, so we get to sleep slightly later, but I wonder how long it’ll take for them to catch on.
Sunday 2nd April 2000
Hoylake Sailing Club first dinghy race of the season.
It rained the whole weekend: a pretty much continuous light sea-drizzle which hardly let up even once. Alix took advantage of child-minding by parents and agreed to join me in the boat on Sunday (rare that we are ever in the boat together). At 9 a.m. there was a sea mist and hardly a breath of wind, and we really wondered whether we were silly, sitting bailing the rain out from where it collected from dribbling down the sails as fast as it came in, and feeling the wetness slowly creeping in down our necks. At the starter’s gun, the few other boats all managed magically to coax some movement out of the still air, while it took a good two minutes before we managed first to point in the right direction then get underway, bringing up the rear. It was all quite amusing really, and in the end we were glad we’d made the effort to go out. Afterwards, all of us including the boys went into the clubhouse for a drink, then returned home for proper Sunday lunch of roast lamb, a good bottle of Rioja and an afternoon cozily by the living room fire. A near perfect Sunday.
Hoylake Sailing Club Regatta, Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th June 2000
There were around 70 boats racing offshore, so quite a spectacle. I didn’t race. I’m not convinced that racing is where my interest lies, I simply like to be out on the water and go where the whim takes me rather than jostle with other craft around buoys. The lifeguard introduced me to Billy who offered to take me out in Magnetic, his Cygnet cruising yacht. We walked out over the sand to his mooring in the outer channel. The tide comes up here with a rush; it is impressive like a fast flowing river, one minute you’re lying aground and the next you’re bobbing around floating free. It was interesting for a change and novel to be able to brew tea en route in the cabin, but it struck me how sluggish and how restricted in manoeuvring over the sand banks is a boat like Magnetic compared to my dinghy, so on Sunday I was happy to be back under my own sail.
Alix took the boys to the Millennium Dome in Greenwich at the weekend. It has been billed as a festival of Britain to match the great ones of the past but has had bad press and accusations of waste of public money. Alix thought it was accurate in presenting an impression of the state of Britain today in that it was confused and didn’t seem to know what it was trying to be, and it had an abundance of what this country is famous for abroad: its queues.
12th June 2000
I’m considering an over-night sailing and camping expedition to Hilbre. The tides were right this weekend but the winds were too fierce for me, force 4 – 5 the whole time, and I didn’t get out in the boat at all (I feel deprived). Beautiful sunny weather for the garden though; however, I had to use some of it on afternoon naps as, first Adam, then Richard, were sick during the night and left us very short of sleep.
16th June 2000
I went out on Tuesday evening just after I got home and it was gorgeous in the late light, sailing into the sunset. There was a significant breeze and I was even surfing in on some waves. This weekend the weather looks set lovely and, wind permitting, tomorrow we will all go out and perhaps anchor somewhere for a picnic.
19th June 2000
We are enjoying a heat wave; that is, I am enjoying it, but many are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the inner cities reached 90°F this weekend. We have a south wind, but plenty of breeze on the coast to be bearable. We all sailed on Sunday, cruising out to the far edge of the sandbank (about a mile offshore) where we beached, ate picnic lunch and had a swim; it is good to have a break to provide variety for Adam and Richard, otherwise they get restless just having to sit. After we returned, we all went to the beach again (with swimming costumes this time) to cool off while the tide was still up to swim in. Adam and Richard loved it. Later Alix and I were eating dinner on the lawn until 10 p.m. I love weekends like this and count it a great privilege to have the wonderful sea on the doorstep. Being back at work is definitely dull by comparison, but it is what I am paid for.
Monday 26th June 2000
We are in the 70s today, warmer than at the weekend with its brisk northwesterly breeze – too windy for sailing, unfortunately, which we’d been looking forward to as Alix’ sister and family were here to visit. We were a bit downcast from sadness that our visitors had to leave. The kids were so excited the whole time to have each other as playmates and they were all devastated when they had to part. They all shared the same bedroom and around seven each morning we heard the "gentle" patter of feet as they trooped down stairs, trying to be quiet but not quite succeeding, to organize their own breakfast before any of the adults appeared. On Sunday morning they even let themselves out of the house to play in the garden and in the lane before we got up – two of them still half in their night-clothes! And Adam was revelling in showing them around his home territory.
Sunday 30th July 2000
It’s been a good weekend for sailing. Thursday evening was looking gorgeous and Adam decided to come with me (partly I suspect as a means of delaying his bed-time); unfortunately shortly after we launched some grey clouds coalesced above and released persistent rain for an hour. Friday really was gorgeous though: what little rain there was had cleared during the course of the day leaving a few fantastic cloud shapes and sparkling sunshine. I was the only boat out and I sailed until just after sunset in only my shorts and T-shirt. The breeze was very light and at one point I let myself hang backwards over the side with my hair almost dabbling in the water becoming almost dizzy from the huge upside down vista of red orb sun and pink tinted clouds gliding passed at water’s-eye view. It was very pleasurable.
This morning Richard and I went out together. First time I’ve taken Richard alone. He was very good (in doing what he was told when told) and seemed really to enjoy and remain interested for the whole of nearly two hours that we were out (in perfect summer weather). He caused some amusement upon landing when he insisted in helping me by pushing the boat from behind with all his might up the slipway!
Saturday 5th August 2000
We are leaving for the Isle of Bute next Saturday and I feel there is a lot to rush to do before we go. Preparations for holidays these days are no longer a simple matter of organizing a rucksack on my back, boots on my feet and money in my pocket. There’s the boat trailer to load – do the lights work? – need a new registration number plate to match the new car, grease the wheel bearings, where are all the straps and cords I used last year? Adam, Rick, where have you hidden xyz since I last saw you playing with it? Where are all the tent pegs? Does the camping stove work? etc. Alix tends to organise food and kids‘ clothes, which is a relief. All I’ve done is had a case of wine sent to the friends we’re staying with for the first week (definitely essential provisions). I try to tell myself that this is a holiday and we’re supposed to enjoy it, but I know I’ve worn myself down because I’ve succumbed to respiratory infection and my back is playing up (doesn’t help to have to lift the boat trailer). None of this stopped us all going out sailing today though. We pottered along the shore to Leasowe beach and landed for the kids to build sand castles for half an hour (they like the break), then headed home before the tide went out. We saw lots of birds and a couple of very brightly coloured jelly fish.
Wednesday 9th August 2000
The boat and equipment is now loaded for the road and ready to go as soon as we can get out on Saturday morning. I avoid the check-list syndrome as much as possible and usually get by with a single pencilled sheet of paper scribbled a week in advance; I do what I consider necessary to avoid wasting time when we are actually away. High tide is about an hour before sunset and there is light air movement: if I feel I’ve worked well by the end of the day I’d be tempted to go out, although I’m not sure I want to face all the unloading and reloading again!
Isle of Bute and Argyll, August 2000
Our holiday was really wonderful. August Scottish weather again proved remarkably fine. There were only two days in nearly a fortnight when rain deterred us from doing what we had planned, and we had several magnificent days. Of our eleven days spent actually in Scotland, we sailed on six of them.
We enjoyed our time on the Isle of Bute spent with a long-standing friend David in his parental house. His parents are now dead but his sister lives there still. David lives in Switzerland, but returns every couple of years to supervise (and pay for) necessary structural upkeep as it is a large, rambling Victorian property. He generally invites a house-full of friends for the duration, which makes for a lively week – ideal for the kids, because there are other kids to play with, and for the adults too, who have the stimulus of each other’s company.
The island is relatively close to Glasgow but, on its western shore particularly, it is quiet and has much of the character of more remote Hebridean islands. We had some fine sailing off the beaches in magnificent scenery and crystal-clear water. I also took some of the other guests out – I enjoy sharing their pleasure in it.
For the second week we moved farther westward and found a delightful camp spot on the shore of Loch Sween. It was a perfect, level, grassy platform a few yards above the shore, facing the sunsets. We had words with the local farmer who let us stay there and gave us access to a water tap, and who also offered to launch our boat from their adjacent field, enabling us to keep it moored right below the tent. We actually used two tents on this trip, letting Adam and Richard share the small backpacking tent together, which they enjoyed, thus leaving us some peace and privacy in the larger dome tent. It was very close to idyllic: we were completely secluded, I was able to read The Hobbit to Adam snuggled up to the campfire for his bedtime story, and we were very little harassed by midges, which is unusual for the Scottish west coast in August.
Upon arrival, it had been a hectic day travelling in the car, the kids had been fractious and were finally in bed, it was a beautifully placid evening with perhaps half an hour left of sun before sinking behind the hills, and I took the boat out. Ghosting along the middle of the loch with barely a whisper, making myself comfortable with my head resting on the thwart staring backwards up at the sky, I was so absorbed that I turned with a start when I suddenly realized I’d nearly bumped into an island full of seals! About a dozen of them on a craggy rock, about twenty yards long and four wide, breaking the surface of the water by about three feet. The rock was actually marked on the 1:50,000 map as a small blip but I hadn’d noticed it. It lay only about 500yd offshore from where we were camped, so we all returned there together in the morning for a closer look. There were several pups among them looking very cute.
Our nearest shop was 4 miles away by boat up the loch at Tayvallich on the opposite shore, but a 20 mile trip around by car, so we experienced the novelty of a family grocery shopping expedition by sail, making a fine day trip, with a good sea-food pub dinner thrown in.
Kilmartin Glen, not far away, is a centre for some of the earliest known settlements in Scotland, so on non-sailing days there were five thousand year old stone circles, burial sites, iron age fortresses, and also near by, tiny ruined churches dating back to the early Roman missionaries of the 6thC AD, some with original 12thC stone carvings still intact, as well as Castle Sween to explore. But I must say that I loved the sailing most: exploring the little islands, anchorages and unfamiliar harbour entrances. It is completely absorbing, demanding a wonderful combination of attention to physical coordination and judgment. That is what I find immensely satisfying about mountaineering too: this combination of physical challenges together with the continual need for reassessment of the situation in the light of one’s knowledge of one’s own abilities and of the objective dangers.
Tuesday 29th August 2000
I picked up a book from the library recently about how to build a wood and canvas kayak. I am wondering whether I could sustain the motivation and determination for such a project. This came after casually browsing for some information on glass fibre boat repairs: the boat could benefit from a little attention this year. I would like to paint her name on the hull. The word Esmerelda is just discernible written large on the side but so faded as to be almost invisible except in certain light. I’m still in two minds as to whether to call her this or Come What May, which refers to a remark made in conjuction with a decision to sail one day. To me, Esmerelda is the name of an elderly lady, and as time goes by I realize that she deserves the according level of respect.
Brother Martin and family came over the bank holiday and we sailed. Then today Adam and I happened to get the perfect combination of clear sunshine, fine breeze and high spring tide that allowed us to cross the sandbank and circumnavigate Hilbre, a feat that has been my aim since the beginning of the season, but from which I had been deterred either by too much or too little wind or insufficient tide. We spotted a dozen seals on the way, a pair of which followed us at close quarters for up to half a mile (Adam was thrilled).
Wednesday 13th September 2000
This day I was at home working, ostensibly, but there was mild, balmy sunshine and sufficient breeze to tempt me out onto the tide at midday. It was gorgeous and I made good way into the gentle south westerly air, ploshing pleasantly through the wavelets. Out of the distance, suggesting itself as a destination, appeared the HE2 East cardinal buoy that marks the east side of the West Hoyle Bank, beckoning me like a siren to go farther offshore than I have ever been, two and half miles out from the mouth of the Dee estuary. I decided I ought to be able to round it and return with the breeze behind me in time to cross the bank before the tide receded.
It was eerie being alone and so far out, with the buoy and its apparently resident population of perched seagulls on its large scaffold superstructure behung with lights, bells and other navigational symbols; the boat seemed small and fragile compared to its robust iron bulk.
On the way back the breeze became lighter. A seal investigated me closely, surfacing and blowing noisily just off the stern and rolling tummy-up as if to get a better look. Shortly afterwards the wind died.
I tried with the oars to get as far as possible, and then towed and hauled on the painter as the ebbing tide left me with barely enough depth to cover my ankles, but eventually had to deploy the anchors, abandon my vessel and walk home, some fifteen minutes back to Hoylake promenade.
Next high tide was not until midnight so I would have to walk out and wait for the flood two hours before, then row back in the dark. My main concern was to locate the boat on the vast expanse of sand in darkness; I had taken a compass bearing and, fortunately, noticed that the iron railings on the promenade caused the needle to deviate by about 30°!
Come What May / Esmerelda finally appeared as a ghostly white shadow in the torch beam. Waiting on board for the tide was a quietly serene experience, reclining quite comfortably in my 8mm wet suit in a slight drizzle. It was rather beautiful: wet but warm in the dark, with the night full of the sounds of oyster catchers and imagining the gurgling trickle of advancing water becoming louder by the minute, and a hint of moonlight behind the clouds.
20th September 2000
The season is distinctly about to slide into autumn. The apples have reached full ripeness and are starting to drop, and there are widespread hints of leaves starting to turn colour. The sunshine is warm during the day, but last night the temperature dropped nearly to 50°F for the first time probably in months. With the shorter days, the number of high tides potentially suitable for sailing becomes restricted; that combined with the higher probability of poor weather means sailing will be sporadic (I’ve been out only twice this month). But I love this season.
22nd November 2000
I’m enthralled with a book at the moment. It is a description of three seasons spent sailing up the eastern seaboard of North America, from Florida to the St. Lawrence, in a 16ft Wayfarer dinghy by Frank Dye. It is about exploration by sail stripped to its bare essentials, the idea of which appeals to me enormously, and is exactly the sort of sailing I’d love to do on this coast, although without some of the author’s more hairy adventures. Among other things, he has opened my eyes to what an enormous and varied coast North America has – like distances on the land, the size of the coastline is difficult to conceive compared to this country.