Writing the other day about the efforts some sailing magazines make in frightening their readers with tales of woe and near disaster in small boats, set me wondering why sailing and boating is such a love or hate activity. What was it that made me a boating person when there was no history of seafairing in my family? Why do I love the sea when so many others fear and loath the experience.
Maybe, it had something to do with the first formative experience. It happened like this.
I was brought up in a small Yorkshire mining town and I didn’t get a chance to try boating until I was at college in Portsmouth UK. The college overlooked the entrance to Langstone Harbour a bottleneck of water with a reputation for overfalls and fierce currents. In the bar tales were told of students canoeing across the entrance on an ebb and being carried clear across to the Isle of Wight. No one knew who it had happened to - but everyone had a friend who …..
In the early seventies, Langstone was a ‘working man’s’ harbour, lots of small boats - many were home-made and some had been converted from ships lifeboats. To my eyes, more used to spoil heaps from the coal mines, it seemed like heaven. The boats, and their owners who turned up in the local pub with deep tans and bags-full of fresh fish, fascinated me. I was an impoverished student so the idea of taking a boat out and coming back with week’s supply of food had enormous attractions but, without boat or funds, the idea didn’t develop until a fellow student - Charlie struck a deal with a boat owner who lived a long way from the harbour. The upshot was that Charlie would look after the boat, keep her maintained and have her ready for the owner each time he arrived to do a spot of fishing. In return, Charlie would have free use of the boat at all other times.
As the new Skipper of the ‘Blue Moon’ Charlie recruited Paul and me as crew - not for our knowledge of the sea but because we liked the same music and played pool together. We signed on before seeing the boat or questioning Charlie’s credentials to lead the expedition.
Eleven o’clock the next morning saw us looking for the ‘Blue Moon’, ‘varnished all over, clinker built, solid and seakindly’, according to the owner. Three quarters of an hour later Charlie had to admit that he didn’t know what ‘clinker’ meant and that he wouldn’t know a solid or seakindly hull from a piece of cheese. We found her eventually. She was small, maybe twelve feet max, and the varnish was almost black. She looked like an old beer barrel.
We found the outboard underneath and dragged her to the water with various bits of tackle we had managed to borrow. The old Seagull started on the first pull and soon we were at the harbour entrance. The ebb was fierce enough for Paul to suggest that we didn’t need the outboard; the current was doing a fine job taking us out to sea. Fatal words! The engine coughed and died. From here on we were running on tidal power, sometimes backwards, sometimes sideways but always out to sea - towards the Isle of Wight. Were we about to prove the bar-room legend?
We were also taking in water, not an obvious leak just a slow seepage into the bilges - a pint every fifteen minutes or so, nothing to worry about so long as you scooped it out from time to time.
At sea the water was choppy enough to make Paul turn green and vomit over the side. He wasn’t happy but Charlie and I decided that if we were to be washed up on the Isle of Wight we may as well take some fish with us. As the only one with a fishing rod, Charlie cast as far as he could, the line raced out until there was no more on the spool, then it left the spool altogether leaving Charlie holding the naked rod, his line and tackle lost on the seabed.
I didn’t have a rod but a friend had given me a hand-line with a hook, weight, and some coloured beads on it. I hooked on a few worms, dropped it over the side and tied it to the sternpost when it touched bottom. Charlie meanwhile was hand-lining from the bow using Paul’s tackle.
As the Isle of Wight loomed larger Charlie caught a mackerel, the first of three that afternoon. I was impressed. Nothing was happening on my line so I turned to the outboard. My old BSA motorbike frequently broke down so I knew a few things about getting engines started. There didn’t seem to be anything obviously wrong so I checked the fuel line and found an on/off tap similar to one on the BSA. It was switched off. The seagull had started with a thimble-full of fuel in the carburettor. It had stopped, starved of fuel a few minutes later. I opened the tap, quietly confident that we’d get home when we were ready.
Charlie’s next fish was small and spiny with the face of the devil himself - we were pleased to get him off the line and out of the boat but a few minutes later he pulled an eel aboard, not huge but a fighter nonetheless. We dropped him into the bottom of the boat along with the mackerel. Shortly afterwards I felt the line jerk - my first fish! The adrenaline burn was out of all proportion to the flattie which I hauled aboard.
As the day wore on Paul became more morose and depressed. We hadn’t caught anything else and so we had to accede to his wish to return home. As predicted, the outboard started first time and soon we were skipping across the sea towards Langstone, two of us at least, regretting the day’s ending and quietly cursing Paul for his less than enthusiastic contribution. Fate took a hand in gaining our revenge however. The boat’s motion under power revived the eel which slithered through the mounting bilgewater and sank its teeth into Paul’s bare foot. His howls could be heard in Southampton.
That evening we turned up in the local pub, tired and tanned with a reasonable bag-full of fish. We’d had a long day and learned a great deal. Why had Charlie arranged for an eleven o’clock departure coinciding with the strongest ebb?
‘I didn’t’, he said. ‘I knew nothing about the tides but I knew you wouldn’t be out of bed any earlier!’
That first trip was one of several that Charlie and I made during a long summer and endless autumn. Each trip taught us something new and gradually our catches and credibility increased. Later that evening I fried the Plaice in butter and it was fresh - like no fish I had eaten before. But now, fourty something years and five boats later, I wonder who was really hooked that day - the fish or me?