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What a difference an hour makes

Sam Llewellyn takes a rejuvenating break from a winter refit.

We are refitting the big boat, and a refit is not a beautiful thing, at least at this stage. Down below the cushions are jammed into the forepeak, and the air is clammy, and the world is a chaos of sawdust and varnish and ancient black wiring lying all over the place like weary snakes. The kettle has been on. The air is full of steam, there is tea in the mug, and the clatter of big rain on the coachroof has ceased.

Climb into the cockpit for a look round. The air is grey and wet, and some kind of nameless precipitation, between drizzle and fog, is hazing the view. Though perhaps this is a mercy, because the view consists of the graveyard corner of the boatyard, where the hard cases lie waiting for new and optimistic owners. Though 'hard cases' is a misnomer, because plenty of them are actually soft with moss and fungus and the death of aspiration and lack of time on the water.

Come to that we should all be on the water. A ray of hope shines through the gloom. We walk down the yard, through the puddles, past the propped boats and the resting masts, to the slipway. The little open yawl is on the running mooring, rigged and lovely, neat as a duck. Pull it in. Jump in. Feel the soft rock of deck on water underfoot instead of the hard gravel of the yard. Up with the mizzen to bring us head to wind. Unroll some jib. Back it to move the nose off the wind, drop the pennant, sheet in. There is a very small breeze. We are moving now, sliding away from the shore into the grey nothing of the offing. Haul on the main halyard. The great tan triangle of mainsail rises, gets cleated and sheeted, rumples and fills.

Now the boat is heeling gently to starboard, the wake chuckling brightly, and the squalor of the refit seems miles away. The passage plan is to sail out to sea for half an hour or so, heading due north; then tack, and sail back for about half an hour, heading due south. In the absence of much tide this should bring us back to our starting point spiritually refreshed.

Twenty minutes pass. There is grey winter nothing ahead and grey winter nothing astern. We might be drifting inside a pearl, weightless. Then just past the forestay the air turns bright, and the drizzle clears, and a piercing ray of sun paints the sea sapphire blue and the land brilliant green and rust-red, and gleams on the greeny-black back of a porpoise rolling. Fifteen seconds it lasts. Then the overcast wafts in again.

Push the tiller away and round we go. The lubber line on the compass settles on 180º. The wind has freshened. The haze thickens and becomes solid until suddenly there are the grey blocks of the slipway and the mooring buoy. Down with the sails, lash them tight to the spars, because the wind will come through in the night.

Splash through the puddles of the yard to the refit. Up the ladder, down into the cabin, pick up the sandpaper and resume the attack on the bad spots with something approaching enthusiasm. Hope has triumphed over despondency. In a few short months we will have her tidy and ready for sea, and we will be sailing, not suffering. 

Perhaps that is the point of a cruise, even if it only lasts an hour. When you come back the place is the same; it is the sailor who has changed.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly

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