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Equinoctial cruising

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Sam Llewellyn postpones the winter haul out for one last cruise.

We were looking out of the window on a September Thursday, thinking about hauling boats out of the water for the winter. The sky was high and blue, streaked with mare’s tail clouds whose straightness implied no malice. True, the evenings were cooling down, and the sun was setting at around the cocktail hour. But this was exceptionally clement stuff, and it seemed pointless to waste it. So we postponed the weekend haul out, and decided to go for a mini-cruise instead.

There would be four boats. On Saturday we would sail across Poole Harbour, negotiate various charming creeks and channels, and have a look for any ospreys or spoonbills that happened to be passing, it being the season of migrations. The forecast was for fresh breezes, and the equinox was just past. We would therefore anchor in the lee of a low red cliff we know, and play some guitars, and speak of this and that. On the following day, Sunday, we would sail briskly back to base and remove the boats from the water.

Mackerel tails

As I put my head out of the hatch into a red Saturday dawn, I noticed that the high cloud had the organised mackerel look of an approaching front. I renewed the whipping on a couple of lines and thought about beginning the pre-winter cleanup. The other boats arrived. We set off: out past Studland to check the welfare of the chalk pillar known as Old Harry, then back into the harbour in the evening to look for birds.

There was a white blob on the marshes by Arne that was a possible spoonbill, and a large, floppy bird we identified hopefully as an osprey. But it was hard to concentrate, because odd things were happening in the sky. The sun was a silvery blur behind dirty veils of cloud. The wind dropped. As the light faded, a thick drizzle began to fall. The world shrank to a grey bowl a hundred metres across. A ferry’s bow loomed out of the murk. Lighted windows slid by, and cold water trickled down my neck as we wallowed in its bow-wave. The fading breeze carried us across the shallows to our cliff. We lined up four abreast, anchored, dropped back, rafted up and did a spot of cooking.

The wail of a rising breeze

After dinner, above the thrum of the instruments and the sound of voices more or less in harmony, there was a third force: the wail of a rising breeze. When we went on deck the night was roaring, the sky racing overhead, bits of tree blowing off the land and stinging our faces. We unrafted. I started the engine, hauled up some anchor, headed for the flat water in the lee of the cliff, re-anchored, and went below.

As I lay in my sleeping bag, the wind howled in the shrouds. The ebb put the boat on the ground. But the bottom was mud, and the safest anchorage in a gale is on dry land. Rain drummed on the deck. Sleep descended, deep and steady.

I woke to find sun streaming into the cabin. Beyond our patch of calm the harbour was whitecapped and fretful. Radio 4 spoke of flying roofs and aerial chimneypots. We reached across to the yard under headsails and tied up by the slip. The hoist driver picked his way through the debris of blown-over boats and shook his head. ‘Shoulda taken them out yesterday,’ he said.

We looked at each other. We did not say anything. But we knew the man was wrong.


Sam Llewellyn is a novelist, columnist, and Editor of The Marine Quarterly,

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