I fear I’ve tested an old and good friendship.
It began when a friend I’ve known since university days asked me to crew for him when he sailed his yacht from Portsmouth to La Rochelle. But, I pointed out, I haven’t sailed since I was an eighteen-year-old Royal Naval cadet, and that was so long ago that Chief Petty Officers wore bushy beards and had fond memories of battleships and the rum ration. About the only advice I could still remember was when one such grizzled character said “always remember, lad, when you see the seagulls walking, it’s time to go about.”
No problem, said my chum, you’ll soon pick it up again. So at first light one morning, which at this time of the year is so early that even the seagulls asked us to keep the noise down, we left the Needles rocks astern and slipped down the English Channel, with the hilltops of Wight shrouded in cloud behind us.
No problem, I agreed, when Alderney lay abeam after just 11 hours of good sailing, and we decided to push on to Guernsey. With hindsight, we’d have been better off in Alderney, because even the best and most experienced sailors (and my host has spent half his life at sea) suffer the occasional ‘unforecast blow’.
“I think we’ll take in a reef,” he said as the boat put her shoulder down and charged the waves like a rugby player trying to break through the opposing pack. We were in, he explained, the Alderney Race. This, I gather, has nothing to do with an amiable local sporting competition, but is a body of water that surges North at anything up to six knots (seven mph to we landlubbers), then turns around and charges back South again at a similar speed. The trick is to make the flow work for you, and at all costs avoid battling ‘wind over tide’, when the sea conditions can become seriously nasty.
“Perhaps another reef.” A wind speed indicator made a brief appearance and registered thirty knots. Force six, gusting seven, which seems to inspire respect among yachties, especially when it hits you across the tide in the Alderney Race. Waves came at us straight out of a Japanese woodcut; big, growly bastards with their tops tumbling white above the boat’s cockpit. In the canyons of water between them, the boat would come more upright, sheltered from the wind, until they lifted us to their summits and slid beneath us, angry, all piss and vinegar. And on these summits the wind would hit us full on, blowing the boat on its side so that we stood on the edges of the cockpit benches with the deck at our backs. Division of labour was required. My friend handled the complicated stuff like navigating and working the sails. My job was simply to steer to a given course.
I was not a great success. “Steer for Herm,” he said, pointing at a low smudge of darker grey in the driving rain, marginally more solid than the cloud. “We’ll shelter in its lee.”
At which point we dropped into a trough between the waves that would have swallowed a London bus, soared up the valley wall, and were hit by another wave. It’s not the big bastards that irritate me, it’s the sneaky ones that jump up at the last minute to slap the side of the hull and send water spraying into your face. We dropped into the trough, spitting sea,all points of reference gone. At the top of the next wave, sure enough, there was the charcoal smudge of land, and I aimed at it.
“That’s Sark, not Herm!” My friend called in exasperation as he emerged from the chart table a few minutes later. A lesser man would have added ‘you idiot’. He didn’t. I did. “Can’t you feel the wind on your cheek?”
Wind on my cheek? Yes, I could feel the wind on my cheek. I gather it’s an aid to navigation. I could also feel more rain on my face than would be delivered by the average power shower, and I had half the English Channel inside my foul weather gear. But hey, ho! We altered course for Herm.
I can’t believe I did it again. But as we emerged from a trough, only one island was visible in the murk, and I steered for it. Alas, it was Sark again, not Herm. Long, uncomfortable tacks crawling our way sideways into the wind were wasted in a dash for the wrong rock. Unbelievably, he didn’t shout. He didn’t even reprimand. He just stared at Herm with water running down his face, and probably did a very slow count to ten.
His trial was not yet over. If you sail West at 5 knots, and there is a current to the North of 5 knots, your course over the ground will be North West. You can sail towards safety and go straight over rocks. By the time we were approaching our anchorage in the lee of Herm, both my glasses and the tiny ‘Course over Ground’ indicator were crusted with salt, and running with water. Clear instructions like “come to starboard to a course of 280” were wasted on a trainee helmsman who was effectively blind. Anchoring did not go well, even after we resorted to landlubber-friendly instructions such as “aim for the pair of rocks that look like a dog’s b****ks.”
Still, amazingly, there was no shouting. Just a sense of relief that was almost palpable when we were finally secure, although the mood in the cabin was initially subdued. Then a bottle of Scotland’s finest appeared, and we retold each other our own story. With the second glass, and the second retelling, the laughter began; great belly laughs as whisky and long friendship turned potential disaster into real humour.
I sense that the story of the man who couldn’t tell Herm from Sark will enliven his dinner table for years.