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The Quiet Life

Sam Llewellyn drifts engineless around the Aegean.

Port of Hydra

A man, a woman and two suitcases stood on the quay in front of a white village in Greece.

The morning sun was hammering down on the forty-foot yacht alongside the quay and the woman was telling anyone within a hundred yards that she was never going sailing again, ever.

Her husband looked miserable. It was not his fault that the engine’s head gasket had gone, and we had been called out from England to spend a couple of weeks on a boat with no engine.

We hoisted the sails, and backed the jib, and let go the bow line. The mainsail drew with a soft whap, and the clamour on the quay fell astern. The man’s face was a sad white blur as I put the helm over, the boom clanked across, and the bow settled on the clean blue horizon.

It is quiet without an engine.

The quay voices faded, and we pushed north in a dying breeze. As we passed Spetses a big red sun sank below the world’s rim and in the last of the twilight we snaked through a crowd of boats at Porto Heli and came head to wind.

The anchor plunged into the wine-dark sea. We settled back and dug in. We lit candles in the cabin – no engine, no electrics – and listened to the silence.

During the days that followed, we learned a lot. Engineless manoeuvring takes forethought.

Yachts mooring in Aegean harbours traditionally drop an anchor over the nose and reverse hard towards the quay. We had no reverse gear, so we sent the dinghy ashore with long lines, and warped ourselves in. The dinghy was vital when entering harbour. In confrontations with vast inter-island ferries where there was no wind, it was necessary to tow yourself to safety.

Relaxation sets in

As we settled in to this slow new life, we became oddly relaxed. The spirit of get-there-or-bust was entirely absent. If the wind dropped, the boat stopped.

But Aegean winds rise in the late morning and drop in the evening. So we got used to studying what was possible, and timing our daily passages to coincide with the breeze.

Once the hand rid itself of the habit of straying towards the engine start when the sails fell limp, life became most relaxing. We went where the wind let us go, not where we wanted to go. Odysseus and other ancient Greek navigators would have recognized the situation without a flicker.

Sometimes we got it wrong. Ferries hooted at us and anchors dragged.

…and we opened the wine

One night we were round the back of Hydra. Sunset saw us creeping towards an uninhabited shore, desperately steep-to. The chart said there was an anchorage there.

But no anchorage presented itself. If we had had an engine, we would have motored away to the town and slept in the calamares fumes of the quayside tavernas. Without an engine, there would be a long, nearly windless beat. Gloom descended.

Then part of the shore seemed to slide along the cliff and we realised that we were looking at a little rocky island.

With the last breath of breeze we crept in behind it and dropped an anchor. Someone swam to the island. And there carved into a fin of rock was a hole exactly the right size for a bight of line, its sides worn away by two thousand years of mooring.

We tied up, lit the barbecue and opened the wine. The stars came out. The little waves rustled on the rocks and our voices murmured, making a little island of sound in the deep, ancient, engineless silence.

Sam Llewellyn

Image: Port of Hydra

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