Pushing down the coast

Although we have been delayed by the windy weather, once on board Steve and I have managed to push down the coast into the westerlies. On Sunday we found we could make Fowey on one tack down the coast past Looe and Polperro, and on Tuesday managed the next leg round Dodman Point to Falmouth where we are now spending a day waiting for the next depression to pass over.

The winds have been fresh, squally at times, so much of the sailing has been hard work, Coral heeled against the wind with the lee rail under water and seas breaking over the bows and rushing along the side decks. We sailed Coral just off the wind to keep up her speed through the waves, so she charged along at around five knots. From time to time a wave hit the bows and water cascaded over the decks, or threw up a sheet of water that crashed onto the the spray hood. I kept snuggled behind the canvas and for the most part stayed dry, but Steve decided he felt better when helming by hand so was more exposed. His waterproofs were drenched several times, and when we arrived in Falmouth I noticed his cheeks and eyebrows were covered in dried salt. The last ten miles or so were really hard work, as the wind built up to Force 5 or 6 and headed us, so with white horses rolling across the bay we had to make several tacks to reach into the quiet of the Carrick Roads. We were happy then to leave the steering to the Aires wind-vane, which followed an exact course on the wind and of course didn’t mind getting wet!

When we were safely tied up in Falmouth Visitors Haven, Steve persuaded me to go walk along the pontoons and look at the gaff rigged boats that are going in convoy round the British Isles. It turned out that a friend of his knows the couple on one of the boats, and we were invited in for drinks and much talk about boats and weather and sailing–the kind of talk that yachting people so often engage in and which reinforces the camaraderie of our peculiar pastime.

So for a couple of days I have been completely absorbed in the business of sailing and in association with sailors. What has happened, I wonder, to the idea that this voyage is an ecological pilgrimage as well as an adventure?

First of all, I am struck by the sheer physicality of what we are doing. Coral moves with the waves and we have to move with her. We have to steer and reef and check our course; we have to make decisions about which tack to take, how far offshore to go; we have to feel the boat and sense how well she is running through the conditions. Of course I think about what I am doing but its not an abstract thinking about, more immediate choices informed by knowledge and experience. Safely tucked up in harbour I can be alarmed at the idea of being at sea in thirty knots of wind, but it is quite different in the immediacy of the moment. When the wind actually gusts up and the ship heels in response I check to make sure all is well, but am happy to let Coral respond as she is designed to.

Of course at times it all feels too much: as we beat against the wind for the last hour or so; as each tack seeming to take Coral only fractionally toward our destination; as the wind on either tack seems to choose to head us away from where and we want to go; as we realize we have missed lunch and are not inclined even to boil a kettle for a cup of soup; as the afternoon wears on and on… Then quite suddenly we tack round and it is clear that This time we will run clear into the entrance between Pendennis Head and Black Rock, and feeling of relief and even of joy wells up. Soon we are in calm waters and can drop the sails and motor up to the pontoon. A woman from one of the other yachts kindly takes our lines, and we fuss about the bow lines, stern lines and springs to make Coral safe. This rhythm of going out and return, struggle and delight, challenge and accomplishment feels very primal, very much part of being a human being on this planet.

So in some ways there is nothing very special about a voyage as pilgrimage. It is what sailors do and have done through the ages. The lines between pilgrim traveller and tourist is always very thin. I don’t have to be self consciously meditating on the elements, I just have to be doing what I am doing with as much mindfulness as I can muster. That is sufficient.


  1. HI Peter,
    What a wonderful piece! I love the sense of the primal energy of ‘just sailing’ – moving where Coral moves. Robin and I took a very gentle sail in the estuary over the weekend but something of the same ‘letting go’ is always required – as we, too had to take many more tacks than we ‘thought’ we would to achieve our ‘destination’. Funny these words…

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