Launching day

Sam Llewellyn recalls launching day

It's time to get afloat again for Sam Llewellyn.

It is cold down here in the yard among the fat boat shapes under their tarpaulins. In the corners lurk the hopeless cases, shrouded in brambles and fungus and broken dreams. This lot out here, though, bear the marks of care and attention. Someone two boats down has rigged a tent over his boom and is howling away with a drill. On this boat the drilling stage is over, and a slight smugness prevails. The clouds are peeling away from the sun, and there are actual splashes of warmth coming out of the sky. Enough warmth, indeed, to get some varnish on. If there is time. For there is a deadline.

Slop, slop, goes the varnish brush, work it in and lay it off, the golden goop sliding around like syrup, and coming to rest, God willing, without making curtains or drips or any of that stuff. Lists spool by in the mind, driven by a slight anxiety. There are sails on the boom and forestay, and halyards on the sails, and fuel in the tanks, and anti-diesel-bug in the fuel, and antifouling on the hull, and this is the fifth coat of varnish out of ten, but it will never be finished in time, for the time is getting near....

And suddenly the time has come. The monstrous hoist, battleship-grey and rust-brown, welded together from who knows what parts of who knows what disused suspension bridge, is trundling up the yard towards us in a�cloud of diesel exhaust. The heartbeat accelerates. The varnishing is not finished. But this is our slot, and if we miss it we are doomed.

The frame of the hoist surrounds the boat. The slings go under. Rory and Dave, hi-vis jackets lo-vis with yard filth, crank them up. It is time to scuttle around the bottom of the boat, refusing to panic, because Rory and Dave have done it all before.�

The tension comes on the slings. The hull rises. Props fall away. Shout over the racket of the engine, waving the antifouling brush. Everything pauses. Slap paint on the bits where the props were and the bottom of the keel. Then up the ladder and on to the deck. And the whole apparatus trundles down to the slipway.

The water rises. The slings slacken. We are afloat. The engine has been bled. There is a column of fuel all the way from the tank to the injector, and the heart in the mouth. Preheat. Turn key. Water coughs out with the exhaust, and the engine hums, alleluia. On to the deck to unhook the slings. A gentle blip of ahead, fending off the hoist beams. The feel of the deck is right again: not solid on land or swinging in slings, but doing what it is meant to do, which is float, bringing weightlessness to owner and crew. There is no more anxiety. The heartbeat slows.

The slings have gone. The boat glides out of the hoist and on to the blue-grey sea. The water rustles down the sides, the hoist shrinks to toy size, and the elephant shapes of the boats under their tarps in the yard merge into the trees. We have passed through the hoist and come out the other side, and we are free again. It is calm now, on the sea and in the mind. And there is no hurry at all.

So we can put the kettle on. As for the varnishing, we can finish it at sea. If we get round to it.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly