I screwed up. I know it, I admit it. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t shift the blame, though some at least belongs to my manager, who was one of those ‘I expect 110% from my staff’ people. Clearly, he’d either never studied maths, or had flunked the course. So, after an escalating series of mistakes or errors of judgment – none serious, but potentially so – I was suspended. My doctor diagnosed ‘depression’. Maybe he was right, but perhaps ‘burnt out’ would have been closer. I quit. Lost to nursing and, in fact, lost to society. No, didn’t go the drugs route – I never thought having some damn chemical telling me how to feel was a good idea – I just folded into myself. I wasn’t hurting for cash, owned ... mostly owned ... my little studio flat, but wanted to get away from people. Well, even in a city that’s not impossible. Sheffield is a green city, with lots of parks and open spaces, and walking distance or a bus ride from Derbyshire. After a few weeks of that, I decided it wasn’t enough.
I’d been tempted to run away to sea. Seriously. I know there isn’t the same need for seamen there was in the nineteenth century, but then I didn’t really need much in the way of income. I bought a boat. I knew the basics of sail handling and so on from dinghy sailing and with some little common sense, the east coast is a good place for inexperienced sailors; at least, please note, with some common sense. I travelled south-east on my motorbike. Brian (named for the snail in Magic Roundabout) is new – well, a couple of years old at the time – but the design goes back to about nineteen-fifty, just upgraded to conform to emission and safety standards. I stayed in a B and B near Ipswich and wandered around boatyards. No, a ‘fixer-upper’ would not do. It needed to be a sound boat, large enough for me to live in for an extended period, somewhere to keep a few books and clothes, to sleep warm and dry, but also to explore. I wanted to find the quiet places, where only natural sounds prevail. Wind, rain, the sea. Sea birds, waders ... and the wild geese on the salt-marsh. I was almost ready to give up when I noticed an advert in the local free paper.
‘Tranquillity’. Thirty feet, four berths, Bermudan cutter-rigged cabin boat. Radio, GPS, Yanmar diesel, solar panels, wind turbine generator. Age and infirmity force reluctant sale. Offers?
She was out of the water, in fact she was in the front drive of a thirties semi in Ipswich. She was almost thirty years old and home-built of marine ply on oak formers, but, as far as I could see, completely sound. Well laid out, too. Two of the berths were ‘quarter berths’, coffin-sized spaces extending under the cockpit benches, but there was a decent double berth forward, a comfortable cabin with galley, bench-seat and table, the table had to double as a chart table. There was a wet-locker and a sea-toilet, with a porta-potti hidden away for use in marinas. It all looked good.
“Rick Bennett,” I said. “I’ve come about Tranquillity.”
The owner, bright-eyed, but knocking on the door of ninety years and moving slowly with the aid of a stick, was good company. We talked for hours after I’d looked his boat over before we got to the point.
“So,” he said, eventually, “You interested?”
“Yes. Absolutely. She’s exactly what I’m looking for. But I suspect she’s worth a bit more than I’ve budgeted for.”
“Probably not. What was your budget, if I may ask?”
“Five thousand, including getting her onto the water and under way.”
“Fair enough. Suppose you give me three of those, and you’ll have some leeway on transport and craning in.”
“Yes. I like you, and I think you’ll sail her and enjoy her. I don’t want her to rot away sitting in a marina or a mud berth for an occasional weekend.”
I wrote the cheque on the spot. Then left to find a suitable launching arrangement. All I needed was a boat-yard with a crane, or a slipway.
Well, it took over six weeks, and several round trips, but I found a boat yard which would prepare and launch Tranquillity, would store Brian safe and dry. The flat I considered selling, but decided to rent it, through a letting agent. It meant some income, and keeping my investment, and having somewhere to retreat back to if the boat didn’t work out. I parked Brian, hired a car and collected what I wanted to keep from the flat. Anything worth something that I wasn’t leaving to the tender mercies of tenants went to charity shops. Drove back to Maldon, unloaded the car – the boat was low and dry, the tide being out. Slept for the first time aboard, stirring when I felt her lift on the tide and again when she settled. Returned the car to the agency, walked back to the boat.
I had no intention of paying for a permanent mooring or berth. There are places one can tie up for a few hours, sometimes up to twenty-four, in order to provision the ship. Membership of a club affiliated to the RYA often means access to showers in other sailing clubs. But I intended to live independently as far as possible.
As the tide rose, I started the motor and began to get the mainsail up; both stay-sail and jib were on roller-furling, a nice touch which simplified single-handed sailing.
The tide rose and the current slackened, and I cast off for the first time. I wasn’t taking any chances in the confined space of the upper Blackwater and harbour, and motored down river, though I could probably have sailed with the south-westerly moderate breeze. Time enough for that when I got a ‘handle’ so to speak on Tranquillity’s handling. When we rounded the point into Collier’s Reach, past Heybridge, I unfurled the head sails and sheeted in so we were sailing, but left the diesel ticking over, just in case of need. I finally shut it down as we passed ‘The Doctor’, a buoy by Osea Island.
The tide runs for just over six hours, but, of course, is later high up an estuary than at the mouth of the river. It’s about twelve miles from Maldon to Mersea Island at the mouth of the Blackwater, and sailing easily it took about three hours. I kept heading out and by the time the tide turned I was well clear of the Bradwell peninsula and spent an hour or so exploring Tranquillity’s handling characteristics. She seemed to be quite ‘handy’, with a short double keel – not quite a fin, as she was intended for sailing in the confined spaces and narrow, muddy estuaries of the East Anglian coast.
Once I was fairly happy, I headed in to the Colne, on the other side of Mersea Island. Taking advantage of the flood-tide, I was able to take Tranquillity past the Island and Brightlingsea on the other side of the river, and tuck in to Pyefleet Creek, which separates Mersea from the mainland. It’s a good anchorage, sheltered in south-westerlies, so I dropped the anchor with plenty of chain about seven o’clock, stowed the sails, and set about making my supper, which I ate sitting in the cockpit and listening to the waders and gulls on the saltings.
I’d intended to fire up my little laptop to read, but I found that I was content just sitting with a cup of tea until the day caught up with me. The daylight was just fading as I retired below, the white riding light gleaming at the mast.
I slept rather well, but woke realising my bunk was sloping and I was scrunched against the hull. I’d anchored perhaps a little close to the shore and Tranquillity’s twin keels had settled on the mud as the tide ebbed. It wasn’t a big problem, more of an irritation, and I got up to make myself a fried breakfast on the little gimballed stove. Thus fortified, I sat sipping coffee as the tide made, and Tranquillity began to lift. It took some time, as she tended to drift further in, but by the time I’d finished and taken care of personal requirements, she was tide-rode facing down the creek. With the wind still in the south-west, I saw no problem sailing over the flood, though getting the mainsail up facing downwind was a little intimidating. In the end, I just unfurled the two head-sails, which provided more than enough drive to stem the flow of the current. In fact, I furled the big Genoa again before weighing anchor. That way, I got the anchor up and was just stemming the current. Releasing the Genoa again gave me some drive over the tide, and once in the Colne, I was able to turn into the wind to hoist the mainsail.
During the flood, the current runs roughly south-west down the coast, so I didn’t do much good running before the wind until the tide turned at about one in the afternoon. It may seem stupid, but I hadn’t really given a thought to the need for food or to relieve myself whilst under way, so I got the chance to learn about heaving-to in ‘the Wallet’, the inshore passage between the entrance to the Colne and Blackwater, and that to the Orwell and Stour. For the uninitiated, that involves turning into the wind on starboard tack (with the wind coming from the right, starboard, side, over the bows), setting the stay-sail aback (sheeted in on the ‘wrong’ side), sheeting in the mainsail, and setting the helm (a tiller, in Tranquillity) to weather. Basically, it means the boat is sailing very slowly into the wind and fairly stable. It took a while to get the setting just so, then I was more than ready to ‘pee in windless comfort’, rather than to use a bailer from my dinghy in the open cockpit. I was also able to make a sandwich and grab a bottle of water. Live and learn.
I reached the Woodbridge Haven buoy just after eight in the evening. It’s advisable not to attempt the Deben entrance before half-flood, which would be another couple of hours, so I backtracked and anchored on the ‘Shelf’ opposite Felixstowe Container Terminal. That would not have been my first choice. Too much activity. But the next day I was able to up-anchor and head up the Stour for a more secluded anchorage off Sutton Ness.
It took over a week for the novelty to begin to wear off, and at that point I called in at Harwich, tying up at the Ha’penny Pier to do some necessary shopping, then sailing round to anchor in the Walton Backwaters. It became my habit to anchor for a day, or perhaps two, somewhere like the Backwaters, Pyefleet Creek, or one of the anchorages like ‘The Rocks’ on the Deben, before moving on. Then, after about a week, I’d call at Harwich, or Maldon, or Woodbridge, to stock up on provisions before heading out again.
I can’t say that actually sailing Tranquillity was a particularly peaceful activity – the value was more in concentrating my mind off ‘the small stuff’ – but she took me to places where I could begin to appreciate the infinite variety of day to day nature and the slow changing of the seasons. I gradually reduced the time I spent reading, in favour of sitting in the cockpit, usually with a mug of coffee or tea, just watching and listening. There was always something; waders on the mud, terns fishing, hovering briefly then suddenly plunging into the murky water to emerge, usually with some small fish. At the end of September, I watched an Osprey wheeling overhead, as it paused in its annual migration from Scotland or Cumbria, to Africa for the winter.
The Arctic and Little Terns left about that time, then towards the end of October so did the Common Terns. The Brent Geese started to arrive about the same time, their honking, with a little imagination, saying their name; ‘Branta Branta, Branta Branta.’ I knew that I would be hearing that sound throughout the autumn and winter seasons.
That was also the time I began to really need some heat in the little cabin. While I could use diesel oil in the heater, I preferred to get some bags of smokeless fuel, which I had delivered and stored with Brian. I also began to pay for a mooring sometimes, and using the opportunity to ride Brian to explore first Essex, then Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, and Norfolk. On board, I could light the small solid-fuel stove; often burning off-cuts of wood from the boatyards. That stove could keep the cabin cosy in the coldest weather, and I could boil the kettle and cook on it as well, which saved on the propane.
I got through that first winter well enough. Okay, I spent quite a bit of the time holed up in the cosy cabin of my boat reading, and I began to write about what I saw around me. The solar panel and wind powered generator were ample for my needs, to charge the laptop and keep the lights burning, plus a little for the radio. If I was on a mooring so I could get into town – usually Maldon – then I would often spend most of a day in the library, warm, dry and entertained.
It was clear by the time the geese left in early April that I was going to have to think about earning some money. I wasn’t really short, yet, but it was obvious that my situation wasn’t sustainable indefinitely. Tranquillity was in good shape, but boats have been described as ‘holes in the water into which you throw money’. I can’t remember who paraphrased Kenneth Grahame with ‘There is nothing, absolutely nothing, quite so expensive as simply messing about in boats’, but it’s true. Of course I wasn’t just simply messing about in boats. Tranquillity was my home. Still, for the present I wasn’t hurting. I’d have the summer, then think about what I could do – labouring in the boatyards, perhaps.
June McCoy came into my life in, well, late June. I was in Maldon, Saturday morning, tied up at the visitor’s pontoon and putting provisions away after a third hike to Tesco’s, my big rucksack about as much as I could lift.
“Hello? Tranquillity?” It was a nice voice – a sweet soprano – and I left the bag where it was to go see.
Tranquillity was level with the pontoon, and I was looking up into bright blue eyes. The eyes were set in an oval face, framed in short, curly, mid-brown hair. While far from scruffy, her jeans and off-shore jacket, which was open, revealing a white t-shirt beneath, had obviously seen some wear. She had on deck-shoes.
“Can I help you?” Well, what else could I say?
“Could I have a word with you?”
I shrugged. “Sure. Would you like coffee? Tea? I’m afraid I don’t keep cold drinks on board, except some beer, and bottled water.”
“Thanks! Coffee would be good, if that’s okay.”
“Come aboard, then, while I put the kettle on.”
She stepped over adroitly enough, and dumped a sixty-litre rucksack at the rear of the cockpit. Once the kettle was on, I poked my head out of the hatch. “Sorry – I forgot to say I don’t keep fresh milk, only UHT. Is that okay?”
“UHT is fine, but I’ll drink it black unless you have some open.”
“Good enough. I don’t use milk much. Cooking, porridge, cocoa sometimes.”
She nodded, and I returned below to play with paper coffee-filters and coffee grounds, returning to the cockpit bearing two mugs of black coffee. “I didn’t ask,” I said, “but do you want sugar?”
She smiled. “No, thanks. This is fine.” She sipped, and blew on the surface of the coffee to help it cool.
For myself, I like my coffee hot, and have been accused of possessing an asbestos mouth. Actually, I just sip my way slowly down; the hotter it is, the longer the pleasure lasts. “So,” I prompted after a while, “while I’m enjoying your company, you did say you wanted to talk to me.”
She grinned, and nodded. “I’m a student at UEA,” (the University of East Anglia, which has campuses all over the area), “and I live in Maldon. I’ve seen your boat, and you, now and again. I was wondering if you might be interested in shipping a crew? I’m a Competent Crew,”
“I sail solo,” I said, matter-of-factly, watching her carefully.
Her face fell a little. “I just thought you might be interested in maybe sailing a little further afield, had you someone to share the watches.”
“I might,” I admitted. “You should know I’m just a dinghy sailor who chose to teach myself keel-boats. You trust me?”
Her smile strengthened again, and the day seemed brighter. “You may not be aware of it, but you’ve been watched. You are careful, sail competently, obeying the rules. Perhaps more importantly to some, you pay your bills promptly without arguments.”
“You’re an attractive young woman,” I commented, “so ... why do you want to set off with an unemployed thirty-plus boat-bum?”
“Adventure?” She quirked an eyebrow at me. “I’m not afraid of you. I’ve done some summer sailing, but I thought perhaps ... a little further afield?”
I didn’t know how to deal with all this. I shrugged. “Come and take a look round. I’ve just finished stocking up, but if there’s going to be two of us we’ll need more food.” I led the way below, pointed out the quarter-bunks, the lockers, navigation equipment, sea-toilet and wet-locker, fo’c’sle berth. “The storage is full, but we can fill one of the quarter-bunks as well.”
“Why not use both quarter-bunks?” she asked, “there’s plenty of room forward for two.” I looked at her. “You’re not gay, I suppose?”
“No ... I just...”
“Don’t worry. I’m not looking for anything permanent.” She paused, then went on brightly, “Suppose we do that shopping?”
She left her rucksack in the cabin and led me to a little Ka, into which I folded my six foot one with less difficulty than I expected. In Tesco’s we filled two trolleys with food and bottled water and at the checkout she insisted on paying. “I can’t afford to pay my passage, but there’s no reason for you to feed me.”
Once we’d loaded everything on board Tranquillity, June took her car home to park it safely. By the time she was back, it was past one o’clock. There were four or five hours of the flood to run before we could move off, so we quickly heated up some stew from a tin, with new potatoes and carrots, ate it whilst poring over charts, washed up and made some sandwiches for later. We decided to get downstream and anchor, rather than go straight into a night passage.
I had, of course, checked all the rigging and fittings as well as I could for security, but I gave June a tour; a second check is never a bad idea. Water and diesel were both pegged and the bilge dry. With a light north-westerly wind, we cast off over the last of the flood just after five in the afternoon. With all plain sail – mainsail, the big Genoa and jib, we were able to make two or three knots, perhaps two knots over the ground. It was a good slant of wind, but it necessitated a gybe as we turned just past the end of the quay, then another just past Earl Brythnoth, and again at Herring point.
We met S.B. Hydrogen under power in Collier’s Reach, passing Heybridge, and at Hilly Pool Point we were on a dead run – the wind from directly astern – down to Osea. The uninitiated might think that would be easy, but it’s actually the least stable point of sailing, with the risk of an unintentional gybe if the wind shifts a little. I watched the burgee – the little flag at the masthead indicating the wind direction – anxiously.
Once we’d made the turn at the buoy called ‘The Doctor’, by Osea Island, we were on a broad reach, the best point of sailing. June trimmed the sails competently and Tranquillity swished happily along with ‘a bone in her teeth’, white water at the bows, at about five knots. At that point we could relax a little and eat our sandwiches.
We dropped the hook off West Mersea just after eight, did a rough stow, hoisted the black ball, and went below to make cocoa. Sitting with the mugs, chart (Imray C28) open on the table, we talked. “Okay,” I said after a while, “you want adventure. Heading south into the Thames, or round through the Dover Straits, is too much adventure for me, so it’s north. Plenty of harbours round the East Anglia coast, and the whole North Sea to get lost in. If we’re going, we want to catch the first of the ebb. High water here is ... um ... oh-five-twenty-four tomorrow, give or take. Under way by five. Up at four, I think.”
If I’d thought that would shock her, I was wrong. She just nodded, seriously. “What time’s sunrise?”
“Um ... oh-four-forty or thereabouts.”
“Great. I love to watch the sunrise”
We finished the cocoa and washed the mugs. “Well, I’m going to sleep,” I told her.
“It’s still light,” she protested.
“I know. But the fo’c’sle is dark, and I’ve got used to early nights when I’m getting up early. Besides,” I glanced at my watch, “it will be dark soon anyway. But you can sit up, if you like. For that matter, I can get us under way in the morning if you’d rather sleep in.”
“Oh, none of that. I want to see the dawn. I can get by on a short night anyway.”
I shrugged, cleaned my teeth at the sink, and made use of the sea-toilet, then stripped down to t-shirt and boxers and crawled into my sleeping bag. I didn’t drop off immediately, so was very aware when she crawled in to her bag beside me. I drifted off, wondering what was going to happen, wondering about the invasion of my ... what? Hermitage? Sanctuary?
I surfaced to the bleeping of my watch, which had infiltrated into an odd dream, the details of which faded almost instantly. I forced myself to stir and get up. In the pre-dawn gloom – the sky to the east was lightening to aquamarine – I stood on the aft-deck, held on the back-stay with one hand, and emptied my bladder into the river before turning on the gas at the bottle in the lazarette.
Back in the cabin, as I filled the kettle, I could hear June in the toilet, and washed my hands at the sink, then put a half-dozen sausages under the grill to cook. When June appeared, well ... I wanted to say ‘you look good’. Fresh out of bed, hair tousled and eyes hooded with sleep, she looked good. But a lifetime – over thirty years – of uncertainty stopped me. Instead, it was merely “Good morning, June.”
She yawned, belatedly covering her mouth with a hand. “Morning ... Skipper.” She lowered herself carefully behind the cabin table. “Sausages? This early?”
“Yep. You don’t have to eat them now, you can have them cold later, but you will need something.”
She yawned again. “Coffee?”
By the time the sausages were cooked, she’d decided that maybe she could manage a sausage sandwich, so we took mugs of coffee and our sandwiches into the cockpit. The sky was lightening to the east as we ate, drank coffee, and listened to the marine weather forecast. We could expect the wind to back to the south-west and ease.
A little pink in the aquamarine of the sky, then a strip of liquid gold as the sun began to show. “Oh, wow,” breathed June, which was pretty much how I felt, though I didn’t express it out loud.
Neither the sandwiches or the coffee lasted long before we were getting ready to get under way. June tightened up on the topping lift as I removed the boom crutch, then she was removing the tyers (yes, I know most people call them ties, these days, but if it was good enough for Arthur Ransome and the Swallows and Amazons, it’s good enough for me). Tranquillity swung to face into the wind as the current slackened, and I snapped on the halyard and began feeding the sliders into the groove in the mast as June pulled on the halyard. Soon enough I was reaching above her to get the sail up that last inch or so before belaying. She coiled the halyard neatly and hooked it onto the cleat as I slackened off the topping lift, then it was time to get the anchor up. It’s as well, on the East Coast, to wash the mud off the anchor chain as it comes in, otherwise it gets very messy. June wound the anchor windlass while I used an old broom to wash off as much as possible of the mud and weed that coated the chain. Soon enough the hook broke ground and Tranquillity began to drift backwards.
“Want to go take the tiller as I finish off up here?” I asked.
“Sure. Don’t you want me to do that?”
“Nah. It’s okay. Get us heading down river.”
Tranquillity paid off, that is, she turned away from the wind and began to sail. Unfortunately, she did so on starboard tack, meaning we were heading upstream, not down. I got on with dealing with the anchor and had almost finished when June’s clear voice carried forward; “Ready to gybe?”
“Gybe-oh!” I watched, holding the mast to steady myself as she sheeted in and turned the tiller to starboardt. Tranquillity continued to swing, then as she came before the wind, the boom banged across. Before I got to the cockpit, the main-sheet was cleated and first the stay-sail, then the jib, unfurled and were sheeted to suit the quartering wind.
“Well done,” I complimented when I finally reached the cockpit.
She beamed, brilliantly, at me briefly, before returning her attention to our heading and making a small adjustment. “Want to check my sail setting?”
“Looks good to me,” I said. “There’s the Bench Head buoy. We’ll keep heading out and turn at the Knoll cardinal.”
“Aye, aye, Skipper,” she answered, eyes on the masthead burgee.
The wind had backed, I thought, but not enough to make a big difference. It’s about seven miles from our anchorage to the Knoll cardinal, and it took just under two hours. It was still a thrill for me, unjaded after my first year as a boat bum. Judging by the expression on June’s face – just short of rapture – she was pretty happy too.
The sea between the continent and East Anglia is relatively shallow. Back in the Stone Age I’m told it was dry and people lived there. There are many shallow places still, some of them exposed at low water, and notorious as graveyards for ships. They tend to shift, too. The navigable channels all have their own names; the Swin, the Barrow Deep, the Warp, and tend to run south-west to north-east. We turned into ‘The Wallet’, the channel inshore of the Gunfleet Sand. The shallow water of the Gunfleet has been exploited as a wind-farm, the towers and blades of the turbines visible for miles.
June reluctantly relinquished the helm at the Knoll, and I took over. She disappeared below and reappeared not too much later with mugs of coffee. Standing at the wheel, feeling Tranquillity lifting to the swell and swishing happily along, the scent of coffee mixed with the salt smell and the fresh breeze, I began to sing. I wasn’t really aware of it, at first, or that I was happy;
Did you not hear My Lady
Go down the garden singing
Blackbird and thrush were silent
To hear the alleys ringing.
Oh saw you not My Lady
Out in the garden there
Shaming the rose and lily
For she is twice as fair.
Though I am nothing to her
Though she must rarely look at me
And though I could never woo her
I love her till I die.
Surely you heard My Lady
Go down the garden singing
Silencing all the songbirds
And setting the alleys ringing.
But surely you see My Lady
Out in the garden there
Rivalling the glittering sunshine
With a glory of golden hair
I have no idea why I sang that at all.
“Not what I would have expected,” June commented. “Handel, isn’t it?”
“Not that I should have expected anything in particular, except maybe a shanty or two.”
I shrugged, and we sailed on, mostly in silence, just swapping roles every couple of hours. The wind was definitely backing until it was in the west; it’s always good to know that the weather is doing what’s been predicted. Anyway, four hours, more or less, from the Knoll, we passed the North-east Gunfleet cardinal, and the tide turned against us. I decided to cross the deep channel at the South Threshold to pass outside the Shipwash sands. Crossing the dredged channel in a sailing vessel is a nervous time. Five knots is a decent speed for a yacht like Tranquillity, whereas the big ships might be cruising along at twenty or more. It’s advisable to keep a good lookout and monitor the VHF. Still, the anxious time was only ten minutes or less. It just seemed more.
Outside the Shipwash, Tranquillity was pitching and rolling, not badly, but enough that food was not a high priority in my mind, even past mid-day. When June took over the wheel, I suggested sandwiches. She took a deep breath.
“I’m not sure I ought to put anything in my stomach just now.”
I chuckled. “I know. I feel the same way. But I think something light would be a good idea.”
Bread, with a ginger preserve, went down quite well and did in fact settle things to an extent. Clear of the Shipwash, we turned more northerly, passing the Orford Ness light at twenty past two, and seeing the white dome of the Sizewell nuclear power station at four o’clock. Six o’clock saw us off Southwold and by nine we were past Lowestoft and heading north, the wind having backed to the south-west. We’d continued to nibble sandwiches throughout the afternoon.
“Tired?” I asked.
June looked at me. “Tired, yes, but not sleepy.”
“Well, we’re really committed to a night passage now, though we could head into Yarmouth if necessary...”
“Oh, no. This is good. Will you rest?”
“I’d better. There’s nothing much to worry about until Hammond Knoll,” I pointed at the chart on the cockpit bench. If you start to fade, fetch me out, okay?”
Somewhat to my surprise I did in fact sleep.
I was shaken awake some time after one in the morning. “Skipper...”
She giggled. “Okay. The Hammond Knoll cardinal light’s in sight, and I’m getting so it’s hard to keep my eyes open.”
“Coming.” I crawled out of the bunk feeling rather more alert than I might have expected. “Okay. Thanks, June. That’s a good long trick – you must be tired.”
“Not too bad. But I could sleep. Do you want me to stay up until we’re clear of the Knoll?”
“Not unless you want to. Is the wind still backing?”
“Steady in the south-west, now.”
“Easy sailing, then. Sleep well.”
Ah hour saw us passing the East Hammond Knoll cardinal, and by dawn – a red dawn – we were past the fifty-third parallel, in other words, we were north of the ‘bulge’ of coast which is the north coast of Norfolk. We were heading away from land – any land. On our northerly heading we’d skim past Norway and reach the Arctic Circle after about eight hundred miles. Not that I had any intention of doing that. I trimmed Tranquillity up so that I could get a weather forecast and boil a kettle for coffee. I forewent the filter papers in favour of a cafetière. That was, at least, better than instant.
June emerged, blinking, at half-past eight. I was happy to see her as we were about to cross the tracks of the ferries for Zeebrugge and Rotterdam, from Hull. Four eyes better than two. “Morning, Mister Mate,” I smiled.
“Morning, Skipper. You okay for a little longer? Only five minutes or so.”
“Okay. Fancy porridge?”
The promise of the red dawn was realised mid morning. June was at the helm and I was fetching coffee from the galley; as I emerged from the hatch, I saw the black cloud coming up from astern. “Oh-oh,” I ejaculated.
“Look what’s coming up behind.”
She glanced behind. “Shit!”
I furled the Genoa. “I’m going to take down a reef, or two, or three. Luff for me when I get to the mast and tighten in on the topping lift.”
“Aye aye, Skipper.”
Tranquillity’s main-sail has slab reefing. That means she has lines of reefing points, three of them in fact, more or less parallel to the boom, with corresponding ‘cringles’ in the leach, the rear of the sail and the luff, or front of the sail. I had to lower the sail until the luff cringle reached the boom, and tied that down, then fastened and tightened the outhaul to the leach cringle before tying down the intermediate reef points. I was hurrying and the result wasn’t as neat as I’d prefer, but the sail area was reduced to less than half. I returned to the cockpit. “Better get into oilies,” I told June, reaching for the wheel. (Actually, oilskins are passé. We, like most sailors, had sophisticated modern gear.) She hesitated, but relinquished the helm and went below.
I kept Tranquillity close-hauled, facing into the approaching weather, which reached us before June returned to the deck. I was drenched in moments as the rain hit and Tranquillity heeled to the gusts. It wasn’t a storm, with sustained winds of over fifty miles an hour. In fact, the gusts I estimated at maybe near gale, force seven, thirty miles an hour; well within the comfort zone for my boat, if not myself. It wasn’t cold, either, so I saw no point in going below to get into dry things and put on oilies. The squall only lasted an hour or so, and the rain less, but the sea got quite rough and a lot of North Sea came aboard. June did take the helm, but I stayed on deck, in the cockpit, anyway, until the squall passed and the wind returned to a steady force four to five and we got back on course. Going below, it was a bit tricky to strip off and get dry with the boat moving as she was.
Despite the somewhat rough sea, I managed to heat tinned stew on the little gimballed stove, along with green beans and potatoes, also from tins. Once we’d eaten, June could see I was fading and sent me off to bed mid afternoon. I slept almost eight hours and June woke me with a mug of coffee at eleven o’clock. She told me she’d seen the ferry on its way to Rotterdam, but it had been well clear, and by the time she woke me we were off Bridlington. Well rested, I let her sleep through. I saw just one ship, well away from us – probably a ferry from Newcastle to Holland.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather and we had great sailing. June insisted I get some rest, but also that she take a turn with a night watch, so after breakfast I got four hours before preparing lunch.
“Fancy stopping at Lindisfarne? Or we could go into Berwick, if you like.”
“Um...” she hesitated. “I’ve got family in Dunbar. Do you think...”
“Let me take a look.” Dunbar is a small harbour on the east coast, just below the mouth of the Firth of Forth. It’s quite a tricky entrance, and the harbour dries at low water – at least, there’s not enough water to float Tranquillity when the tide’s out. “We could give it a try, I suppose. ‘Unwise to approach in strong onshore winds’ the Pilot says, and there’s water about three hours each side of high water. High water is ... nine-thirty. Give or take. Wind’s still south-westerly. Should be okay...”
Perhaps I sounded uncertain. “We don’t have to...”
“No. Should be okay. Aim to enter after seven while the light’s good and there’s enough water.”
Thus, Wednesday evening we fired up the Yanmar rather than try to sail through the narrow entrance. We’d chucked the last of the bread – mouldy – overboard for the gulls and fish, and ate crisp-bread with corned-beef and pickle before entering harbour at eight in the evening.
Moored up at the harbour wall, we worked together to do a harbour stow, and Tranquillity was soon neat and tidy. June fetched her mobile phone – unused and switched off since leaving the Blackwater – to call her aunt. I went below to boil the kettle. I was considering opening a tin or two of stew before going to bed when she followed me into the cabin.
“Um...” she hesitated, “Aunt May,” she paused again, “they want me to go and stay with them...”
“Okay?” I supposed there was a rising inflection there.
“Don’t you mind?”
“Why would I mind?”
“Well, it’s just ... I don’t like to leave you here on your own...”
“I was living on board here on my own for a year before you turned up, and I’ll be on my own when you go back to University.” Okay. I know, I’m slow on the uptake.
“If you’re sure...”
I thought it over. “I can occupy myself for a couple of days, no problem there. How about, say we leave on the morning tide on Sunday? I think that’s about twelve or so. Can you be back on board by nine? If you’re a bit late, that’s not a big deal.”
She hesitated, but then used her phone again. “Tonight – yes – you don’t have to – well, okay, thanks. See you shortly.” The she went forward. I could see her stuffing clothes in her rucksack, though not her sleeping bag nor, as she came aft again, her waterproofs from the wet-locker. As she came back to the cabin she paused again. “I’m really sorry to, you know, abandon you like this...”
I shook my head. “Don’t worry. Just have a good time with your relatives.” I smiled at her as our eyes met and locked together for what seemed an age. I’m not sure who moved first, but we closed the space between us and our lips met softly.
“Thank you, Skipper,” she whispered as our lips parted.
I watched her walking away and, just before she turned out of sight, she met another woman, but I couldn’t see anything more definite than that. They disappeared together and I turned away with a sigh, went below, and opened a tin of stew for supper.
Dunbar is an interesting town with a number of historical claims to fame; it was the site of Cromwell’s landing to crush the Covenanters in 1650, and was the birthplace of John Muir (of whom, I confess, I’d never heard) the founder of the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society. I don’t intend to give a travelogue. I’ll just say I had no problem occupying myself productively and enjoyably for two days. My first port of call, so to speak, during the morning after June went to visit her aunt, was to a small café for a substantial Scottish breakfast. Suitably fortified, I sallied forth.