The excitement is always the same; that sense of anticipation, of adventure, of setting out on the next leg of a voyage.
It starts perhaps in darkness, with the boat snubbing at its anchor chain, making irregular swoops under the conflicting pressures of wind and tide. The cabin seems fixed, solid, a warm, sea-scented fug of damp wool and coffee; it is the world outside that moves around us. A pool of light over the chart table shines on polished teak and racks of almanacs, a timeless image that Scott or Shackleton would recognise. The sea sloshes against the hull, plopping and dripping as if we were trapped in some celestial cistern. Movements are hushed, purposeful.
On deck, it is the noise that you notice first; thousands upon thousands of seagulls, roosting on some island nearby and calling into the ghost-light before dawn. It is an eerie sound, and suddenly I understand the old sea-stories about seagulls holding the spirits of dead sailors. And beneath this cacophony, there is the electric hum of wind through tight rigging.
Then there are the lights. There are navigation buoys all around us, winking red, green or white, and a lighthouse that sweeps its searchlight beam over all, marking our course to the open sea. We work in the dancing beams of torches hung from our necks, no hands to spare. ‘One hand for yourself, one hand for the ship.’ Otherwise, the horizon-less world is seen in tones of grey; the sky, lightening in the East, the sea, oily dark, reflecting the lights, and the land, low, humped, charcoal-black. Far away, a necklace of streetlights is an intrusion.
You know the instant when the boat comes alive. One moment, she is tugging at her anchor chain, impatient, captive, and the next she is free. Already her bow swings out of the wind, running for the sea before her anchor is fully shipped like an escaped horse trailing its tether. Now the pattern of lights moves around us, signposting the channel. By the time the sails are set it is dawn; the gleam of the lighthouse fades into a lonely grey behind us, and the horizon lightens into silver ahead, as the boat puts her shoulder down and runs. More coffee, clasped two-handed, warming, and as we lift our noses from our mugs the wind carries the fading smell of the land.
That atmosphere was always there for the brief time I spent at sea in an old friend’s boat, the same sense of adventure whether we were pointing her bow towards Lezardrieux, or L’Aber Vrac’h, or the rocky rip-tides of Raz de Sein (fortunately taken at slack water). Then, at journey’s end in La Rochelle, I saw a poem by Baudelaire, set in ugly, vomit-green plastic on a beautiful old tower. It captured that mood rather well. It may lose something in translation, especially if it’s me that’s doing the translating, but as far as I can make out, it says
But the true travellers are those who leave only for leaving; light-hearted, like balloons, never straying from their fate and, without knowing why, say always “Let’s go!”