Coral Ashore

Coral in yard

I motored down to Plymouth in mid February, my mind full of the jobs that I needed to attend to before Coral could go in the water—I must build a new hatch cover for the Calor gas locker, varnish the bright woodwork, take the batteries home to recharge them. I must polish the topsides, renew the antifouling, and grease the seacocks. Most important, I must to find out how to adjust the gearing on the Aries steering, which has been pulled out of true when the mooring line got wrapped around it toward the end of last season. I needed some photos that I could send to the manufacturer in Denmark to get advice as to how to adjust it.

It was a bitterly cold but bright late winter day. Light clouds were blowing in from the northwest on a wind that was bringing dry but near freezing cold from Scandinavia. Occasional early daffodils nodded around, and at the service station where I stopped for a stretch I noticed how the feathers on a crow lurking around for scraps of food were raised up by the wind.

The boatyard was packed with yachts parked on their cradles or propped up with lengths of timber. I found Coral hemmed in between an old wooden fishing boat, recently worked fresh timber showing where a repair was underway, and several other yachts. She looked forlorn, with the antifouling below the waterline faded and chipping off, her white topsides grubby and smudged with red from the bootline.  I had not been near her in four months.  I unlocked the ladder and climbed up to deck level—some ten feet above ground—and stood in the cockpit looking around. Through the jumble of cabins and masts I could see down to the familiar Cattewater—the lower reaches of the River Plym that are navigable. A few yachts were still afloat on the lines of moorings, presumably belonging to brave souls who continue to race through the winter months. Further downstream a cargo ship was unloading at the commercial quay, a crane scooping sand from the hold and dropping it into huge lorries that shuddered under the increasing load.

But now I was high up and exposed it was the wind that grasped my attention, howling through the masts and wire rigging of the hundreds of boats all clustered together. The sounds were layered: a continual low moan was overlaid with wild screeches that built and diminished as the squalls came and went. The howling wind was accompanied by the percussive rattle of halliards knocking against hollow metal masts, a regular beat interspersed with periods of almost hysterical commotion. This sound of wind through metal masts is far harsher than that of wind through trees: maybe the softer surfaces and organic shapes of trees provide a greater range of over- and under-tones. Today in the boatyard I was reminded more of an out of control percussion group, even a banshee wailing, than of the orchestral sounds of wind through treetops.

After opening the companionway I climbed down into the cabin, which was cold and unwelcoming with all the soft upholstery removed for the winter. But I was at least out of the wind, and there were few signs of damp. I managed to do the jobs I came down for, going up on deck for the shortest periods as possible. I measured up for the hatch cover, took some picture of Aries to send to Denmark, unbolted the power lines from the batteries and carefully lowered them over the side and down to the ground.  But every time I tried to do something my ungloved hands were soon rigid with the cold, clumsy, and hurting badly when I knocked them against something hard. I did the minimum needed, locked up again and retreated to the car.  The big jobs of cleaning up and antifouling must wait for warmer weather.

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Why am I going on this voyage?

Chart

My plan is to sail in May from Plymouth to Galway, leaving Coral on a mooring; to return in July to explore the coast of Connemara and the Aran Islands; and to return again in the later summer to sail to Oban in Scotland, where I will leave Coral ashore for the winter. I have people joining me for different parts of the trip, who I will introduce as this blog of the voyage unfolds. The voyage is well paced, and I won’t be sailing on my own, but nevertheless sitting here at my computer if feels like a big undertaking.

There are times when I wonder what on earth I am up to.  I look back at the tiredness, the loneliness, the discomfort of my last long trip, and wonder why I don’t stay in the comfort of home.  I think of all the details of planning—leaving my mooring in Plymouth, making sure all is properly set up for a long trip, finding places to leave the Coral safely. And all the hassles of getting to and fro to Ireland by public transport without flying, finding out if I can do it in a day, alternatively finding places to stay along the way that are not too expensive. Finally, finding a place for Coral to stay in Oban, and all the problems of over-wintering and preparing for the next season at a distance.

Then I remember why I am doing this. Of course, it is because I want an adventure, maybe a last big sailing trip before I hang up my waterproofs. I also want to see the rugged coastline of Ireland and Scotland close up again. And being a sailor-writer has become part of my identity, part of how I introduce and talk about myself.

But there is a deeper meaning in this sailing voyage. A while ago I described it as a deep-ecology homage to these islands. Deep ecology starts from the premise that the well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have intrinsic value, value in themselves independent of their usefulness for human purposes. From this perspective the purpose of the voyage is not to gawp at the landscape for my own amusement only, but to approach with reverence, to make contact with the world based in a deeper sense of being part of the whole.

Another way of seeing the voyage is from a Buddhist perspective, as a retreat in which whatever merit I accumulate is an offering for the benefit of all beings. I felt a little frisson of excitement as I wrote those words. I can experience them as magical, sending a thrill up my spine. There is a sense of worthwhileness in an adventure that has wider benefit. Then I look at them again and wonder at the potential ego- or spiritual-inflation they might represent. A certain delicacy is required: I want to acknowledge the wider purpose of my voyage without claiming more than is justifiable. By going on this voyage, by writing about my experiences in a way that is attractive and accessible, I am exploring and articulating a way of being in the world different from everyday life in consumerist society. I hope to show how we can live in the world with appreciation of beauty and fragility and an awareness that we are part of a wider whole. But more than that, it is not just about the outcome. The experience and practice and honouring have value in themselves in bringing a different way of being into the world.

But this is so very different from my comfortable retired existence here in my home in Bath. For while I write almost everyday, and I write something that is about the ecology around me and how this links to larger patterns, I do this from a place of comfort, from a place well nestled into the consumerist lifestyle of the Western world—cars, catalogues, the daily paper, shopping, cooking wonderful food.

So there is a sense of going into the desert, going away from these comforts, going away from the everyday, going away from Elizabeth and the intimacy and itches of 40 years together. Going away not just for my own sake, but for the sake of all beings, for the sake of what I can give back. It feels really important to hold onto this wider sense of purpose.

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"The safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." —Alfred North Whitehead

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