Beep, went the alarm. Open the eyes to pure black dark. The air on the nose, the only part outside the sleeping bag, is just about freezing. Out of the sleeping bag, shuddering. Pull more clothes over the original clothes. The clock says five, and the calendar says it is the shortest day. Tide running, just. Boots on. On deck.
Away on the land a necklace of streetlights is wobbling in the ripple of the anchorage. A faint breeze from the west: fine. Stumble forward to the mast. Grope for the halyards. Slack water is over. Wind and tide are moving in the same direction, so we are head to both. Haul away, throat and peak. A faint leg-of-mutton rustles against the black sky. Make fast, fumblefingered. On to the foredeck. Pull on orange freezer gloves, fleece-lined, indispensable for cold-weather anchor handling. Haul.
Once the boat starts moving the chain comes in easily. Anchor off the bow roller and on deck. We are drifting down the tide now, mainsail unsheeted, rumpling in the breeze. Aft to the cockpit, unroll the headsail, back it until the white quick-flash, long flash of the Woolhouse south cardinal is winking on the port bow. Sheet in.
The jib draws. The boom swings over to port, clunk. Away, broad-reaching into a pit of blackness. The land-lights fall astern. To port Carmarthen Bay will be opening up, but there is only the chart's word for it, for all there is down there is a bottomless well of ink. The warmth of anchor handling is wearing off. Hook the bungy on the tiller, down the hatch and light the stove. The coffee bubbles up. Pour into mug, add condensed milk. Consume, scalding hot. Resume station at the tiller.
It is like sailing through outer space, the only light the green glow of the compass, a bit of extra south in the course to stop the tide pushing us into the banks and rips of the Bay. Then after a long, unmeasurable interval the world begins to change. The rig appears, reefing points tapping gently at the mainsail's belly. Far, far away under the jib, something grows that might be a camel's hump but is actually Worms Head. Light is creeping into the world. The dawn will shortly be with us.
Time for a celebration. Coffee again, a blast of warmth from the stove, a slab of bread, a hint of chocolate. The tide is buzzing along at a knot and a half, southeast now. And all of a sudden a white sun bounces out of the horizon and into a corrugated roof of clouds, and the breeze is up with it, and the log is saying six and a half knots over the ground.
Suddenly Worms Head is abeam, sliding by at high speed. We are staying close in, because there are the Helwick banks offshore, and the funnel between the cliffs and the banks speeds up the tide in a marvellous manner. It is by no means warm, but the excitement of it will do instead. In the full daylight the East Helwick cardinal swooshes past to starboard, almost close enough to touch, the tide tugging and burbling at its fat float, and Oxwich Bay is opening out to port. Three RAF Hawk jets tear overhead in close formation just under the cloud base. When they see the small boat with tan sails alone on the grey midwinter Bristol Channel, they waggle their wings in salute. The warmth increases.
And here are the Mumbles, and the sprawl of Swansea in sight. Time for a second breakfast.
Sam Llewellyn, Editor The Marine Quarterly