“That stays’l halyard could do with a turn of the winch,” Jeff Jameson’s son Gerry commented.
Anitra, his son’s forty-foot steel-hulled ketch, was curtsying along over a rising swell in a force five reach. (She’s named for that pretty passage in Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite)
“Okay. I’ll take care of it.” The older man began to climb out of the cockpit.
“Jacket!” Gerry commanded.
He sighed, knowing his son was right, and donned the lightweight, self-inflating life jacket. He wasn’t much frightened about going OB, (overboard) but it was a sensible precaution, especially in view of his age and stiffness. Getting old sucks, to lapse into the vernacular, but of course the rider is ‘but it beats the alternative’.
Out of the cockpit, he made his way forward on the weather side, fitted the handle, and added a bit more tension to the line. The sail flattened slightly and, yes, there was a perceptible change in the way the boat was moving. While he was there, he tried the main halyard too, and managed half a turn on the winch. Moving aft, he checked the mizzen as well, which turned out to be fine.
“Thanks, Dad,” Gerry grinned as he dropped back into the relative security of the cockpit. “Shelley’s just making coffee.”
“That’s good.” Gerry had, perplexing his parents, steadfastly refused to settle down to one woman. There’d been a succession of girlfriends, but none had stayed the distance, mainly because Gerry wouldn’t let them under his skin. Michelle was merely the latest; a pretty, wiry, tough young woman who just loved sailing. She had lasted well over the usual couple of months; who knows, perhaps she’d be the one?
Shelley’s mid-brown, curly mop of hair emerged from the hatch followed by its owner grasping two travel mugs. She didn’t come right out, though; just handed the older man a mug first as he was nearest. “That one’s Gerry’s, with milk,” she said, and he handed it to his son then took the other and sipped. Hot, black, coffee, single source from Peru, almost burnt his tongue. Perfect.
“Thanks! Perfect.” He smiled at the girl just before she ducked back into the cabin. Shortly after that she re-emerged with her own mug. Standing with them in the cockpit, out of Gerry’s sight-line, she sipped and looked around, braced against the motion. Gerry, for some reason, preferred a tiller to the ubiquitous wheel, despite Anitra having been built originally with a wheel. The tiller was originally an emergency feature, giving a direct connection to the rudder-post. If the cables parted or jammed, the tiller arm could be shipped and used in place of the wheel. But Gerry removed the wheel and its associated parts and the tiller is now a permanent feature. This means that the helmsman (or woman) has to be positioned at the back of the cockpit and others have to be careful not to impede the view.
A boat is a wonderful thing. Jeff came late to sailing; he, with his wife, started learning when the kids were small and so they grew up with it. Gerry, though, was the only one who made the sea his life. He eschewed university and moved to the east coast at eighteen, parleying four years or so of work experience placement and holidays spent in the heritage sailing world into qualifications as a Yachtmaster, Bargemaster and sailing instructor, living in a succession of elderly sailing boats. He acquired Anitra (originally ‘Sea Foam’) and spent a couple of years working on her before being satisfied that she was entirely sound, and fitted his life exactly. Berths for six at a pinch, or four in a fair degree of comfort without using the ‘saloon’ area. But to go back, a boat is a wonderful thing. Takes one away from the rat-race into a world where life is ruled only by wind, weather and tides. Where every day is different; seeing seabirds, seals, dolphins, even whales. Seeing the sun, or moon, sparkling on water, or threatening black clouds presaging a storm. Stealing speed and direction from nature’s forces.
They were passing the Farnes, which meant being entertained by puffins, guillemots, razorbills and gannets as well as the seals. The ubiquitous gulls, herring, black-backed and black-headed, as well as fulmars and kittiwakes. The older man’s turn for supper; stew, potatoes, carrots (out of tins) and cake. Coffee for him again – he had the first watch – tea for Michelle and Gerry before bed.
“I think we’re okay with the weather,” Gerry said before following Michelle to the master cabin. “If you’re bothered, you can call me and we’ll reef. But I’d rather let Anitra have her head.” Gerry’s father was okay with that, sitting at the tiller as the evening became dusk and then night, the heavens a light-show of stars you never get to see except at sea or the most remote places on land.
He knew that this voyage was for him. Oh, Gerry was enjoying himself, to be sure, but he didn’t need his father as crew. No, this was to take him away from an empty house and memories of his wife. Colette was an Anglo-French mixture with dark-brown (when they first met, at college. At the end it was almost white) curly hair. They were together for over forty years, right until she got cancer and died, despite the efforts of very good doctors. Actually, Michelle rather reminded the older man of Colette in many ways, though her hair was several shades lighter.
Well into the first watch of the night, the sun dipped below the distant land. In the crepuscular gloom, he blinked. For a moment, he thought there was someone sitting opposite him in the cockpit. A lithe-looking, dark, curly-haired woman, much too lightly dressed to be sitting in the cockpit of a yacht under way, even in early summer.
“Colette?” He spoke aloud, unrealistic hope in his voice, but there was no-one there.
He shifted on the seat and checked the course, feeling guilty as he was a few degrees to leeward of where he should be.
Above, stars were appearing as darkness fell, such stars as city-dwellers never know.
His son appeared, a little after midnight, to take his turn on watch, and Jeff was asleep moments after his head hit the pillow.
1968, and Jeff Jameson staggered up the hill with his two heavy bags, entering the college campus for the first time. He was met by a final year student who offered to carry a bag.
“My God! What have you got in this? Bricks?”
He shrugged. “That one, clothes and books. This one, books and books and more clothes. Slide rule. Recorders.”
The older student laughed. “We’d better get you to Hall so you can dump this lot.”
Orientation. Introductory lectures. Exploring, finding the library, a smallish room, upstairs in the old building. Fresher’s day at the Union; joining the Operatic Society. “Judo Club? There isn’t one just now. I know there’s equipment, though. D’you want to run it?”
The first meeting of the Judo Club; half a dozen complete newbies, but one of them is a slim, pretty girl with dark, curly hair and an olive complexion. Jeff fell like bricks down a well, but managed to keep part of his mind working well enough to teach his students to fall safely.
Jeff woke to the smell of fresh coffee. Wriggling out of his sleeping bag, he dressed quickly and used the sea toilet, then followed his nose to the saloon. Michelle was busy in the galley and smiled as he entered. “Morning, Jeff. ‘George’ is steering just now for a bit. I thought you’d be up soon.”
“George?” He knew that pilots in the RAF during the War called the autopilot ‘George’, but was a little surprised to hear the word from a young woman.
“Just finished reading ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’,” she said. “It’s as good a name as any, don’t you think?”
“Sure. How are we doing?”
“GPS says thirty-two miles overnight. We’re up to five knots just now. Edinburgh’s about a hundred miles that way,” she waved vaguely to port. “Forecast is steady five to six west-south-west.” She fiddled with the sizzling pan. “Bread or toast with your bacon?”
“Bread is great, thanks.”
A perfect day’s sailing in ideal conditions had them off Stonehaven, but the forecast predicted deteriorating conditions, and Gerry and his father reduced sail for the night. It was Jeff’s turn for the middle watch of the night, midnight to four, and he settled in for a few hours’ sleep.
1968. Jeff took three weeks to pluck up his courage to ask Colette Durand for a date, but his anxiety was unnecessary; she accepted with a shy smile. An Indian meal in the restaurant opposite the college, a bottle of wine shared between them. Inhibitions loosened by the wine, neither could have said who initiated the good night kiss, but it was followed by several more, rather longer and more intense than ‘just’ a good night kiss.
That date was only the first. It was followed by walks in the park, studying together, classical concerts, and, at Christmas break, visits to his parents and her mother.
His watch woke him – not easily – at midnight, and he struggled out of his sleeping bag and into jeans and a hoody. He slipped on deck-shoes and waterproofs before relieving his son at the helm. ‘George’ was still steering, most of the time, anyway, the little squeaks of the mechanism making small corrections to the course just a part of the background, familiar sounds.
“Getting along,” his son told him. “Wind’s picking up and veering. Glad we reefed when we did.”
“Good enough,” he said.
“Coffee in that flask,” his son pointed out. “Don’t be afraid to call if conditions worsen.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
Too many clouds to look at stars, a thin crescent of moon occasionally visible through breaks in the overcast, but little to distract. He disconnected ‘George’ to give something to concentrate on. Flickers of light out of the corner of his eyes. “Colette?” Concentrating on the compass. The wind veering, requiring work with the sheets to get the sails setting properly. By the end of the watch, Anitra was close-hauled.
Michelle appeared with a fresh flask of coffee, smiling. “Your watch below, Jeff.”
“Thanks, Shelley. The wind’s veering steadily. You’ll probably have to bear away if that continues.”
Colette and Jeff had progressed, if slowly, to sharing a small flat near the college for their second and final years. With teaching certificates they would both be working, but not in the same city as the college. A B. Ed. degree was considered by both and rejected. The wedding, formal, in church. The bride, though far from being a virgin at that point, wore white. Her father (estranged from her mother) came over from France to walk her down the aisle.
The honeymoon was camping in the Outer Hebrides for two weeks, participating in an archaeological dig. Happiness, despite the ubiquitous midges, sand flies and the wind which picked up fine sand to scour their faces.
The return to England, to a town in Derbyshire and a new flat, both employed in a local secondary school.
The wind was high enough that Gerry decided to reduce sail even further. That meant changing the fore-stay-sail for a much smaller storm jib, lowering the mainsail and covering it, and continuing under reefed mizzen and staysail only. With the wind gusting up to gale force, force eight, and almost due north, Anitra was still moving well and making four knots despite the rising sea. Jeff, despite age and stiffness, worked right alongside Gerry, helping to subdue the billowing canvas of the mainsail and to fold the Genoa staysail before feeding the luff-rope of the storm jib into the slot in the headfoil. He was very ready for hot cocoa before bed, though. He set his alarm for four in the morning and slept.
“My water’s broken.”
“Okay. Let’s get you to the car. I’ll bring your bag.”
“I’m sorry, Mister Jameson,” the midwife didn’t sound sorry, “I must ask you to leave the delivery room now.”
Six hours. A ‘short’ labour, but it felt like an eternity.
“You can come in now, Mister Jameson. It’s a girl. Six pounds exactly.”
Colette, weary, sweaty, her normally springy hair plastered to her head. “Hi, beautiful.”
A tired chuckle. “Must be love, thinking I’m beautiful just now.”
“Oh, absolutely. Where’s my daughter? You still like Amalie?”
Colette nodding. “In the crib. She had a little suck, both sides. Not much there for her yet.”
The nurse, demonstrating how to hold the tiny, red-faced baby. The overwhelming emotion of holding his daughter for the first time.
When he got to the cockpit at four o’clock, it was blowing a full gale. Gerry had let Michelle take the first watch, and was helming, the auto-helm dismantled and stowed.
“If you need help, Dad, use the buzzer. Anitra’s sailing quite well, but we’re heading north-east. I’d like to tack about eight or nine in the morning, depending on progress. If the wind strengthens any more, we should heave-to, I think.”
Jeff settled to the helm, using a line to take some of the strain of the weather helm. Every so often, Anitra would catch a wave at just the wrong moment and a sheet of North Sea would drench everything. If it hadn’t been for the spray hood and dodgers it would have been very difficult. If one wears glasses, constant spray makes it impossible to read a compass with any degree of facility. But there was satisfaction in feeling the best angle to take the waves, and a degree or so off course wasn’t a big deal in those conditions.
He hadn’t been there long when the grey dawn arrived. And it was a grey dawn, starting with only a hint of light in the east and no direct sight of the sun. The towering, seventeen foot (five metre) waves, spume flying off the top, might have been intimidating, but Anitra was riding them perfectly. It was actually exhilarating to steal the power to travel from such elements.