Sailing round Britain
A day on the boat begins at around 7am, when the combination of ropes and waves knocking against the hull forces me out of my cosy sleeping bag and into the cold heads. The boat is rocking even though we’re moored – a floating pontoon doesn’t offer much stability, and on the occasions where we moor up in a marina, it’s often on a river, susceptible to the racing tides.
Marinas are the height of luxury. It’s amazing how important it is to be able to step straight from the pontoon on to dry land, rather than having to clamber into the tiny tender to reach Terra Firma. They even have running hot water! What a novelty to have a shower that you don’t have to keep turning off while you pump out the water from beneath your feet, shivering as you lather up.
I stumble back to my bunk, trying not to succumb to the rocking this early in the morning, telling myself for the hundredth time that I will get used to it. No-one ever heard of anyone being seasick for three months. Although perhaps I’ll be the first. I can’t imagine being without this queazy feeling that has taken up residence in the pit of my stomach, and nothing will shift it – not eating, not drinking, not sleeping, not shoving ginger sweets into my mouth, not being sick, not even being on dry land. It will get better. It has to.
I can hear the others getting up, gathering themselves to start the day. The kettle starts to sing and I quickly dress, spurred on by the thought of my morning cup of tea. If I can get the forward-facing seat in the centre of the galley perhaps the rocking won’t bother me so much. I sit, sipping the hot liquid, making myself a banana sandwich for breakfast – without shore power we can’t use the toaster. Yesterday we had eggy bread, frying the slices over the gas hob.
Once breakfast is cleared away we set about to ready the ship for ‘slipping’ (casting off from the pontoon): close all the hatches, put everything in its cupboard and secure all the doors, empty the heads (toilets), prepare the sail, do the engine checks, make the lunch and store it in the cockpit (not having to come down to the galley while at sea really helps with the seasickness), prepare the vegetables for dinner (similarly), add mid-layer clothes (fleece, light waterproof, extra leggings) and top layer clothes (sallopettes and heavy waterproof fleecy jacket), come up on deck, bring in the ‘spring’ lines. Now we’re only attached to the pontoon by two lines – one at the bow and one at the stern. Once everyone is in their place we take off the lines and we’re away, motoring into the estuary. The fenders come off and go into the lockers, the lines get coiled and put away, then we set about getting the main sail up. Hoisting the main halyard is hard work – I can’t do it on my own yet.
Once the sail is up we motor-sail towards the mouth of the estuary, heading towards the open sea. The surf is usually high, the Atlantic waves magnified by the wind being tunnelled upriver, or by the depth-change between the deep sea and the shallow river. We stand in the cockpit watching the waves break over the bow, the boat pitching and diving, until with a squeal we duck underneath the spray hood as a particularly large wave crashes over the hull and rolls down the length of the boat. We’re unavoidably soaked, but can’t help giggling at the rollercoaster ride.
As we make our way out into the Channel we cut the engine, unfurling the head sail then adjusting the main sail, making sure the angle and size of the canvas is capturing as much wind as possible. Once clear of the land we set our course for the next stopping point, 30 or 40 nautical miles away.
All of this has distracted me from my sea sickness but it soon returns, the constant rolling of the boat causing my stomach to roll also. I sit on the foredeck, staring out towards the horizon, the powerful swell tossing our tiny boat about, trying to get my head around the fact that we are still afloat. The boat is heeling over as the wind fills the sails, living on its ear, threatening to send me into a panic if I think too much about the angle that we’re at. Instead I let the motion of the waves lull me, lifting and dropping, lifting and dropping.
Our boat is called Round Britain Experience – an unsurprising name for a boat that will take us all around the British Isles. We’re on a three-month expedition, run by South West Marine Training out of Brixham. All three of us are novices, and we spent a week in the south Devon marina ‘learning the ropes’ before setting out. I saw the whole of this coast when I cycled round it in 2011, so lots of the places we’re berthing are full of fond memories, although there are places I haven’t been – the Scilly Isles, Shetland, Ireland. I was really looking forward to seeing Blackpool Sands and Slapton Sands from out at sea, the spectacular sand bar at Slapton having made a great impression on my bike ride. The long strip of golden sand with white breakers rolling in is a view not to be missed – though unfortunately I was below deck throwing up at the moment the boat passed by. I vaguely heard the crew admiring the view; I also missed the porpoises frolicking near the boat.
The land recedes to our right, the cliffs becoming less detailed with distance and sea mist. To our left the sea stretches endlessly, apparently nothing but wide open ocean. Waves crest on the horizon, momentarily transforming the horizontal line to a serrated edge before melting back into the water. The occasional bird flaps across my eye-line, heading to who knows where – there is nothing as far as the eye can see. Guillemots dart past, tiny and black, their wings flapping furiously, just inches from the surface of the water. Blink and they’ve disappeared. Three gannets glide into view, their long white wings tipped with black as if they are wearing gloves. Later, some are bobbing near to the boat, their yellow heads and intelligent black eyes fixed on us. We pass things floating in the water – dead fish, seaweed, a discarded rope. If we are lucky dolphins might come and play in the bow waves of the boat.
I keep a lookout, not through necessity but more through being rendered immobile because of the feeling in my stomach. I sing songs to myself to keep busy. I understand why shanties were invented, to distract sailors from their sickness and boredom. Clouds cover the sun, and for the first time in my life I see a solar halo.
Eventually the motion gets to me and I quickly dash to the leeward side of the boat and watch the contents of my stomach go over the side. I instantly feel better, though not well enough to venture down to the galley for a drink. Instead I take the helm, hoping that the focus of keeping the boat on course will be enough of a distraction to stop that happening again.
After hours of open sea and constant swell, we sight our destination, changing our course to head inland. The head sail comes in and we start the motor up again, using the navigation markers to make our way into the estuary. The casting-off routine is repeated in reverse – hanging the fenders, preparing the lines, dropping the main sail, coming alongside, lassoing the cleats, securing the boat. If we have water we’ll scrub the decks, if we have electricity we can even boil the kettle. If we’re lucky we’ll be alongside dry land, otherwise it’s a case of inflating the tender and motoring ashore.
Once we’re away from the open ocean the rocking subsides enough for me to stop feeling sick, and suddenly realise how hungry I am. Dinner doesn’t have to be simple – full roast dinners have been known to come out of these tiny gas ovens on board. We have pasta, or curry, or Bolognese. Tinned custard is fast becoming a favourite.
By 10pm I am utterly exhausted, and tuck myself up in my sleeping bag, snuggled tight in my cabin. I sincerely hope that tomorrow will be the day that I stop feeling sick.