A Tiller and Fun

There be tyrants at sea…

The America’s Cup yacht races, recently broadcast on UK TV, set me off on this train of thought…

Image: Falmouth working boats

Falmouth working boats, racing on a Saturday afternoon. These are my kind of boats.

As a sometime yachtsman I occasionally fall victim to bouts of disabling nostalgia. Tiller in hand on a sunny afternoon, a steady breeze, a calm sea, a well cut suit of sails… Ah me! The simple prerequisites for fun, if you happen to be a boating man; the very stuff of a yachtsman’s dreams during the long dreary months of winter when the boat is either laid up safely ashore (where the next passing hurricane will topple her out of her cradle and the insurance company will gleefully refuse liability on grounds of some piffling infringement), or moored safely afloat in the marina collecting barnacles and osmosis craters in equal proportion from being left too long afloat. The old wisdom that too long in harbour rots a ship remains as valid for today’s plastic vessels as it was for Nelson’s wooden walls of England.

Image: below decks.

Below decks: the cabin & my crew after a short beat to windward

But a tiller can also be a terrible tyrant. Most yachtsmen will at some time – probably shortly before they shelled out for a new set of horribly expensive fancy coloured yotties designer waterproofs – have endured the experience of doggedly standing watch in rising wind and falling rain, glued to a tiller or wheel that demands more attention than an inquisitive two-year-old. Still hours from our home port, darkness falling, cruel ship-hungry rocks under our lee and the threat of the boss’s wrath if we fail to show up at work on Monday morning, we stoically endure the rain and spray running down the backs of our necks. If this cheerless image clashes with the blue sky and smiling, lightly clad crew on the cover of that yachting magazine you picked up last month all I can say is that one speaks from experience, don’t y’know. Yachting then can be a miserable pastime, and yet we keep coming back for more.

Image: Duart Castle

Duart Castle, isle of Mull. Note mist over hills. The scenery in Scotland would be wonderful if only you could see it through the murk…

Plenty of folk these days get their kicks from thrashing across oceans soaked to the nadgers in some high-pressure yacht race. Typically, they might claim this puzzling display of masochism is in some way character building, whilst sheepishly admitting that their sponsor has threatened to withdraw funding if they lose the race. And good luck to them, I say; though I’ve never been a competitive person there was a time when I too thought sitting in an exposed cockpit all night keeping watch constituted great sport. It took several years for the novelty to wear off. It is shocking how cold the wee small hours can be at sea around the British Isles, and how mind-numbing the unending freakish howl of astrong wind in the rigging. That sort of thing can lead to errors of judgement fit to wreck man and ship both.

Image: Cape Clear

It is said there’s no better way to see the coast than from the deck of your own yacht. The chart says, without a hint of irony, that this is Cape Clear, SW Ireland.

But that was then. Nowadays my chief criterion when contemplating a cruise is, does the vessel have a decent wheelhouse? No? Sorry matey, not interested. The invention of the spray hood which partially covers a yacht’s open cockpit (read Humphrey Barton’s Vertue XXXV) was certainly a great moment in the history of yachting, but a spray hood is no substitute for the real thing. A decent weather-proof wheelhouse please, preferably with central heating, or I’d rather stay ashore.





Image: Sunset

Sunset in the Irish Sea

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