A winter afternoon


It is three in the afternoon. Outside the window, grey scarves of rain are drifting across the harbour on a north-easterly breeze. Soon it will be dark. The mind drifts back to summer....

I am in the open yawl, heading for the next anchorage. The sun is beating down out of a sky dotted with small white clouds, illuminating a sea of purest blue. The boat is neat as a duck, tent lashed down the starboard side, scrambling up to windward, aiming at the blue rise of land on the horizon. There is no sea to speak of.

Take the hand off the tiller. The luff of the mainsail bulges back as the boat starts to climb the wind. Let out a little mainsheet and mizzen, pull in a little jib. On she sails, nicely trimmed now, in balance; a forefinger on the tiller is all you need.

There is a loop of bungee anchored to the floorboards under the tiller. Pull it up, loop it over the tiller's end, remove the forefinger. Away she goes, straight down her groove, the wake gurgling pleasantly at her transom. But the gurgle is not a good thing, because it is produced by turbulence. What we need is non-turbulent laminar flow, water moving under the hull in a smooth stream, not a series of hampering eddies. The transom needs to come out of the water, which means moving weight forward. How to achieve this singlehanded?

Bend a light line to the tiller. Put it through a block on the windward rail. Move forward to the mast. Still gurgling. Move forward of the mast, on to the foredeck. No more gurgle. But the boat wants to come up into the wind. Pull the light line, which pulls the tiller up to windward, which corrects. On we sail, faster now, hissing through the sea, tweaking the line from time to time.

Surely we can do without all this tweaking? Let go the light line. Stand up, back against the mast. Put weight on the downhill foot, and the boat's nose seeks the wind. Put the weight on the uphill foot, and the boat bears away. We are gliding soundlessly across the sea at six easy knots, maintaining airflow through the sails by the simple application of foot pressure. This is the kind of thing shearwaters do with their wings, and porpoises do with their bodies, and no animal exercising this much control with this little movement could be anything but euphoric. And there alongside, blow me down, is a porpoise, rolling.

But here comes the black shadow of a gust on the water, and the porpoise rolls off about her business, and it is time to put plenty of pressure on the right foot to luff into the puff, and perhaps it is not too clever to be up here, so far from sheets and tiller. I read somewhere of a transatlantic singlehander who reached a state of overconfidence so profound that he jumped overboard hanging on to a line and allowed himself to be towed along, all alone, wreathed in phosphorescence, a thousand miles from the nearest land. Fun, of course. But inadvisable is hardly the word for it.

Scramble aft. The transom goes back into the water, and the turbulence is with us again, but we are ready for anything. The sun beats down and the breeze blows soft but strong over the blue and lovely sea....

That was then, and this is now. The light has almost gone, and the clouds have a yellowish tinge. The rain is still coming across the harbour. Unless I am much mistaken, it will soon turn into snow.