In insurance terms, sailing is known as a dangerous sport, but most of the time, unless you’re slightly bonkers, it’s really a set of calculated risks. That said, there are times when things go wrong, and you make the best of it. Some of those occasions you question whether, with hindsight, you’d untie the lines and set off at all. Our first night passage on Whinchat, our sailing boat, was one of those occasions.
In March 2011, we needed to move Whinchat from the Hamble to Falmouth for some repairs. We decided to leave the Hamble mid-afternoon to make the most of the favourable tides. The winds were even helpful, and it wasn’t going to be a head-long beat all the way to Falmouth. I say ‘we’d decided,’ it was only the second ever night passage I’d done (the first was horrendous, and a whole other story), despite my RYA Day Skipper ticket. I was nervous, but in love with the boat, and eager to develop as a sailor. Pete – oh-captain, my captain – instilled confidence in me. He is always telling me that I am better, and stronger than I think I am. So, with a strong and able skipper, what could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong didn’t emerge for a few hours. Those first few hours were great. Whinchat was flying along in full sail, eating up the nautical miles. Pete’s navigation was perfect, seeing us out of the Needles channel (a notorious stretch of sea, and one where you want the tides working with you, and not against you) right on schedule. As the sun ebbed on the day, my strong and able skipper was poleaxed with seasickness. He is never, ever sea-sick. But what could we do? We couldn’t go back through the Needles channel, we couldn’t moor (the next stop would be Weymouth, and anyway, my sailing skills end at parking), so we carried on.
‘I’ll be fine,’ I said, in a tone I didn’t believe in, and sent my husband down below to lie prostrate and weep into a bucket. I was now the de-facto skipper. Me. In our very new sailing boat, flying westwards in the dark. I soon realised that I didn’t really know what all the twinkly little lights were on the boats around, albeit I could tell if they were coming towards us (the biggest risk) by the configuration of green, red, and white lights. Sailing is full of clever little rules, bizarrely called ‘rules of the road,’ (go figure) that you must learn to earn your stripes. That night, alone on deck, it made sense to me that those navigation lights are not only necessary, but genius.
Whinchat and I were getting along famously, and I was resolutely not allowing myself to be sea-sick, even though I wasn’t feeling that great. A Pringle at random intervals was enough to make sure that my mouth remained the dry side of cardboard. Forget the idea of drinking anything. That would have meant peeing! Peeing equals going down below, and heightened risk of waves of nausea rising from the pit of the stomach. I sang ABBA songs to keep me distracted.
Then the breeze got up. ‘Strong winds around headlands’ wasn’t a lie. Whinchat was fighting the elements, with the wind tugging at her sails, pushing her at an angle of heel that I couldn’t see in the dark, but didn’t like the feel of. I knew that we needed to reef (i.e. reduce the amount of sail to stabilise the boat), and I had to rouse the skipper. He appeared, bleary-eyed, and threw up. The reef in the main was easy enough to do, but the problem was the Yankee, our front sail, which just wouldn’t furl. Pete, slightly delirious, wanted to go to the foredeck to sort it, but he was heaving his guts out every minute or so, and there was no way I was letting him leave the cockpit. Whinchat was heading south, away from all land, and we were making a cracking pace, in the wrong direction, with too much sail. Inside I was crying.
‘Can’t we call the RNLI?’ I said.
‘No, we’re not in mortal danger,’ he said. We bloody are, I thought to myself.
And then somehow, I had the idea to use Whinchat to furl the sail. If the sail couldn’t be wound in, then we would use the boat to drive us around the sail. With Pete hanging off the rails, I pulled hard on the wheel, and drove Whinchat in circles, as we pirouetted further off-course. I remember hanging on the wheel, the roar of the wind in my ears, whilst watching the moon spin around the masthead. Finally, with the sail bound, I locked the sheets on the winch and sent Pete back down below.
How I wasn’t violently ill, I will never understand. The night continued, without drama, with Whinchat motoring west, and me still singing ABBA songs and eating the occasional Pringle. At about 04:00, a head appeared in the companion way
‘My watch, skipper?’ he said. He didn’t need to ask twice.
In some ways, if I’d have known the reality of that night at sea, I would never have untied a single mooring line. However, it has served several advantages. I was the hero of the night; our rigger thinks I’m a sailing genius for furling the jammed sail; and, it made me work out how to play music through the cockpit speakers.