We Are Sailing

We filtered off the A386 and Plymouth wrapped its stony arms around us. We all felt the change. We had only been out of London for six weeks, but living in open space and sunlight and in some way we now felt accustomed (entitled!) to wider horizons. Our car was loaded down with possessions, we were chattering and windswept after a long moor walk and now we arrived to roadworks, roundabouts and the relentless swell of urban movement. Plymouth is draped across many hills with rows of slate grey roof-lines that stretch as fingers down to a storm grey sea. The domes of the naval boatyards sit like oil drums in the harbour, half-submerged among a silt boneyard of masts, cables and cranes. The seagulls seem angry. The signs tell us that this is Britain’s Ocean City. It is a serious seafaring place.

We were there to see Menna’s parents and throw ourselves onto their hospitality. It was our first social visit after three months of lockdown. We were also booked in to do a yacht course. The Hodins are a sailing family and Menna herself was brought up racing yachts, though now she has softened and been made less confident by some decades inland. I am pretty inept on a boat but always keen to widen my relationship with the sea. We need options too: there might be points in our travels where the road will end and we will need to take to the sea. My aim was to become an able crew member under Menna’s captaincy.

In sailing you have to get comfortable with ambiguous movement. You set off for a fixed destination but your progress is always indirect. You must tack and jibe to reconcile your destination with the wind direction, but even within these supposedly linear movements your boat is constantly sliding, drifting and curving obliquely; making hidden runs that are hard to spot against the changing face of the ocean. The sea is wrapped all around you, and it twists your vessel and plays with it. Tides and currents pull on the keel as the wind fills the sail and pushes at the hull. The line of your progress, if plotted over the sea bed, would be meandering and full of lateral drifts, even as the bow points always forwards. The boat responds to your commands in it’s own time, often unwillingly. There are no brakes.

Perhaps sea voyages aren’t so much about functional travel as about reversing perspectives. You leave solid land of fixed horizons to find a fluid and unstable world. Vistas shift and tilt. A new set of options open up though: you have different lines of approach; you can reach coves and bays that are inaccessible from the land; you can drop anchor in the waves. Out on the deck you get to see what your country looks like from the sea. Plymouth relaxes. It sweeps back statesmanlike from the shoreline, the slate roof lines now gleam like sliver hair swept back with pomade. The boatyards open up to show their secret workings. The Hoe promenade drives grandly up to the lighthouse. The seagulls are still angry.

There is a Frank O’Hara poem, To the Harbormaster, that I think of sometimes when I am at sea. It speaks of battling tides and insurmountable distances to reach an ideal. There is a tone of hopeless optimism that occasionally falters, and it strikes a deep chord with me. Brave resistance turns to submission, blind hope gives way to the sinking feeling of realisation. The poet uses a sea voyage as a analogy to explore how heroic ideals are derailed by life, but I prefer to stay in the metaphor, that is to stay with the sea. My relationship with the ocean is a hopeful attempt to find solidarity with something infinitely vast and strong, where too often my small advances are suddenly reversed and I am left with the realisation that I am small, scared and insignificant. I make excuses: I was caught in some moorings; my indecisions and vanities subvert me; the waves hold me back. But still I naively trust in the sanity of my vessel, despite it all. I will make my port.

I crashed the boat on the third day. It was in the terrible channels of the Queen Anne Battery Marina. Slowly heeling round from my mooring to find the line to open sea, I too was driven by the wind, but rather than finding the seductive brown lips of the reeds, it was the hard claw of a superyacht’s anchor that tattered the cordage of our boat (stanchions and guard rail twisted, winch scored deeply). The hull luckily remained intact.

We had already had two magnificent days of sailing. We had learnt mooring, helming, navigating, anchoring. We had charted and completed a complex river journey, tied onto a pontoon in very challenging conditions, skimmed over the waves under full sail in a force seven. We had simulated disasters at sea and rescued men overboard. And then came this horrible slow-motion collision in the morning rain. We disentangled ourselves and limped out of the harbour, our instructor grim-faced, calculating the damage that had been done to his boat. In the silence of my disgrace I thought again about my subservient relationship with the sea. Faltering strokes forwards, hard-won triumphs that last for moments, with the knowledge that at any point I may be pushed back, beaten, submerged at the ocean’s whim. Is it the difficulty that makes it all worthwhile? Is it the heroics of chasing an impossible dream? I am always tying up and then deciding to depart, In storms and at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tides around my fathomless arms.

To The Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

Frank O’Hara

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