After leaving Ipswich, Benn and I had vowed that the month of May would be devoted to sailing. This seemed a happy prospect that first weekend in May, sitting in our cockpit on the lovely River Stour, with the sunlight bright upon our faces and a soft breeze rippling the water. The following week, however, turned out to be a bit windy and grey, and sailing didn’t seem so attractive suddenly. We were still getting used to the very idea of living at anchor, balancing the routine demands of our daily lives with the timing of the tides and the caprices of the winds and weather. Sailing was all a bit too much for us right then. Then it rained — as it will in England — and we put off sailing again. Then a friend from Berlin came to visit and we took an easy afternoon trip to Orford, a small town on the coast with a Norman castle, picturesque ruined church, and its very own mythical merman: the Orford man.
It was one of those English days which somehow manage to be both grey and sunny, and the springtime flowers were in full bloom. We remembered that first summer we were in the UK, living on a narrowboat, before we had even the glimmer of interest in sailboats. We had travelled all around the Suffolk coast in our VW van, visiting all of the places Sebald mentions in The Rings of Saturn, and searching for potential Neolithic villages we spotted on Google Earth. We were very free then, it seemed. We lived on a boat, but she was safely tucked away on the inland waterways, moored at an idyllic, remote marina with little to fear but the racists and cult members that were her neighbors — unlike our current boat, which was dangling from a chain in a tidal bay, bobbing away at the mercy of wind and current. We could leave our little narrowboat behind for weeks on end, confident that she would be there when we returned. Not so for Pas de Deux, who can be left alone for a few hours’ shopping trip, but otherwise needs constant care and monitoring as long as we are staying outside of a marina or mooring field. It felt like we had saddled ourselves with a great responsibility; living at anchor means being tied to your boat and committing to it wholeheartedly. We weren’t even sailing yet — how could we know whether or not we even wanted to commit to anything whole or half-heartedly?
The obvious solution would be simply to sail the boat and find out whether or not we liked it. For the next few days, however, we were too busy ruminating over all of the poor life decisions that had driven us into this ludicrous situation to drum up the courage to pull up the anchor. Eventually, enthusiasm — or, rather a sense of hardened purpose — returned and we decided to learn to sail. We’d give ourselves a crash course: practice by day, theory by night. In a week, we’d know all of Nigel Calder’s sailing books back to front. But, you see, then it was rainy. We had errands to run and ended up being away from the boat for hours at a time. And then there was a lot of wind — which is good for sailing, unless you are terrified of sailing, in which case it just seems like an invitation to crash your boat upon a lee shore.
Which is why it wasn’t until there were 3 days left in the month of May before we finally fulfilled the promise we had made to ourselves and sailed our damn boat.
It was a typical May day in England, neither warm nor cold, with just a touch of mist in the air. The winds were light and balmy — a mere 5 knots, too light for most sailors, but just brisk enough for us. We weighed anchor almost as soon as Pas de Deux was afloat and — we were off! First, we practiced using just the yankee, sailing, tacking, tacking again, but our poor little headsail was not enough to power us through the tacks and we had to turn on the engine to bring the bow across the wind. So, even though Benn had wanted to play it safe on our first trip out, we put up the mainsail to get a little extra power and — WOW! — we were gliding along, doing 4 knots in only 6 knots of wind. There we were, sailing, just like everyone else! And, sailing fast! And, most surprising of all, sailing well! The monohulls were heeled over and our little Pas de Deux stayed flat and level, sliding happily along the water. Not a single poorly stowed book or glass jar toppled to the floor, and even Fuji had hardly any idea of what was happening. After a few more tacks (without the engines) and some snooping with the binoculars at some of the massive, high-walled mansions that are invisible from the road (we even saw a helicopter leaving one of them!), we settled just before low tide near Stutton Ness and had a drink and veggie burger. A rousing success!
Since then, plenty of sailing days have followed — not all of them as successful as the first, but each of them educational, nevertheless. We’ve played around with the mizzen and learned the advantages and disadvantages of its steering power. We blundered through some awfully clumsy tacks and ended up doing donuts while we wrestled with the sails, only to find that our neighbor at our chosen anchorage, the owner of a lovely 70 ft catamaran who has made two transatlantic crossings, was looking on. We were both terrified and duly offended by a little monohull who, after following us easily at a distance, suddenly set on a starboard tack and shot towards us, giving us no time to manoeuver out of the way, before sharply tacking again at only a boat’s length off our bow. Show-offs!
We have also sailed through the busiest port in the UK, managed a fairly terrifying lock, anchored a billion times without dragging, memorized the rules of the road (more or less), and have almost learned what every line and block on our boat is meant to do. Sure, Pas de Deux is still in need of a good clean and a new paint job. Our chart table is in a sorry state of affairs, and our lovely wood exterior needs to be varnished, as does our ever-patient, much abused dinghy. The saloon tends towards a state of chaos on even the best days. But, we’re sailing! We’re sailing, and, as far as we can tell, everything we have to do to keep sailing is worth it.