Laying-up day


Sam Llewellyn's sailing to the boatyard. It's laying-up day. Or is it?

It is laying-up day. Huge square-rigged clouds are sailing across a deep blue sky, and the hills above the moorings are rusty with dying bracken. Out to the mooring, the buoy shaggy with a season's weed. Tender on a stern cleat. Main up, unroll some jib. On to the foredeck, hold the jib aback. Off with the mooring pennant and stroll aft, the big red buoy sliding away up the wind.

Unlash the tiller and sheet in the jib. A puff smacks in. The boat heels. Let out more jib and mainsheet. The heel lessens as the breeze's energy is converted into forward motion. The wake's bubble becomes a small roar. We are sailing.

There are no other boats; it is getting too late in the year. Not too late for the mackerel, though. There is a shoal under the point, the white arrows of gannets hammering down on it through a floor of mergansers and cormorants.

The shoal drops astern. The channel opens out. A shearwater whips past, wingtip an inch off the water. The tender is tearing along on the first wave of the wash. There is a nip in the wind. In a month, the nip will be a real bite, and the sun, low and bright today, will be heaving itself grudgingly over the horizon at ten and lumbering off to bed at half past two.

But this is not the moment to be thinking about the future. This is the moment to be getting out the sandwiches and a bottle of apple juice from the tree in the back garden, while the sun warms the deeply satisfactory cream of the deck paint, washed clean as a whistle by a wet year on a swinging mooring.

We are half a dozen miles from home now. It is time to harden up, put the boat on the wind and tack down the channel towards the boatyard. Far ahead the travel hoist is moving on its slip, small as a toy, a steel frame with a diesel engine, contrived by the lads in the yard. A boat hangs in its slings, moving at glacier speed towards its winter resting-place, where it will be lowered on to the ground and propped with pine logs and left waiting for its refit. Our turn next. On a day as brilliant as this the thought casts a shadow.

Tack. The shape of the sail is perfect, the heel exquisite, the telltales on the main's leech flowing flat and easy. Poetry in motion, is what this is. Another tack, then another. And here coming up on the starboard bow is the mooring on which the boat will hang overnight.

Let out a lot of mainsheet. The sail rumples in the breeze. Sheet in. We are approaching the buoy on a close reach, very slow, total control. Forward with the boathook to hoick it aboard, then haul in the pennant, drop it on the cleat, secure with figure-of-eights in the approved manner. Tomorrow someone will come out and tow the boat in and up she will go on the hoist and into the yard, and sailing is over for the year.

The sun rolls from behind a cloud, flooding the world with gold. The buoy is just there, hovering under the bow, ready to pick up. The boathook hesitates. It is going to be a long old winter.

Drop the boathook and back the jib. The buoy slides away out of reach. Head aft and sheet in, and put the boat's nose on the knife-sharp horizon. You would need a heart of stone to be laying up on a day like this. It is time for a sail.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly