The one that got away

Tale of a fishing and sailing trip

But all is not lost for Sam Llewellyn's fishing trip.

The day is grey and still. The hills around the lake are watching their reflections in the water. The grass of the meadow squelches as we walk down to the jetty. The boat is the trailable open yawl, lightly rimed with frost. She rocks welcomingly as we step in, spreading little ripples across the smooth surface.

There are two of us in the boat, me to sail, Henry, who is fourteen, to fish. There is no wind. On a day like this motoring would be an unpleasantly noisy business. Pick up the oars and slot them in the rowlocks. The clonk travels across the lake and bounces back from the cliff on the far side. The oar blades bite, stirring the flat green smell of the water. Another stroke, then another. We are moving now, twenty-one feet of us, sliding away from the shore.

It is by no means warm out here, but the rowing takes care of that. Henry has the tiller, a fierce look of concentration on his features. Like all rowers I am deeply suspicious that he is steering in zigzags, causing extra work. But when I look over my shoulder the island we are heading for, a shaggy head of rock with a fur of gorse, is bang on the bow.

After perhaps an hour I can feel the loom of the island on the back of my neck. The bottom is suddenly pale under my starboard oar, then dropping away again into the deep as we slide into the bay. Henry murmurs low, tense orders, directing us into the hot spot, he reckons.

I scramble into the nose and drop the anchor, hand over hand so the chain does not clatter in the roller and upset Henry and his fish.  The boat falls back. The anchor digs in. I crouch on the bottom boards to light the stove. Henry threads a worm on to his hook and casts.

We eat sausages and tomatoes in sandwiches and make tea with the dedicated on board kettle and the ship's condensed milk, feeling the spirit of Arthur Ransome hovering over the bay. The afternoon settles on us, midwinter-quiet, the float a bright orange spot by the dead brown reeds of the margin. It bobs once, sending out a ring of ripple, then glides down and away. Henry strikes. A brief battle, and the fish kicks free. I have rather lost interest, because out on the grey-green mirror of the water is something that might be a shadow. Wind.

No more bites for Henry. The light is fading, and the breeze is faint but perceptible. I pull up the sails. Up comes the anchor, slimy with bad-eggs-smelling mud. Back the jib so the boat swings. The main fills with a delicate whap, and the nose settles on the distant lights of the home shore. We slide out into the lake, the movement making a small chuckle under the transom. Henry is locked away in sullen fisherman's dreams, so I stand there with the tiller against the side of my knee, feeling its pressure as a puff comes through and the boat heels and the wake emits a small roar of approval.

A long half-hour to windward, and here is the jetty among the dark reeds. Roll up the jib, let go the mainsheet. The mainsail drums and clatters as the boat glides into the woodsmoke from the cottages behind the shore. The gunwale kisses the jetty. Henry stops thinking about fish for long enough to step off with the bow line. 'Waste of time,' he says.

'Not entirely,' I say. The days are getting longer. Soon there will be more of this.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly