Tales of a Scilly-virgin (that’s gig racing to the unititiated)…

The Scillies. World Pilot Gig Championships. WPGC. This is the biggest event in the gig racing calendar, now in its 28th year. It was my first. Actually, it was my second. Last year I was an on-shore spectator, in my slow recovery from the pneumothorax. For my second I had decided, on a whim, to go anyway for the ‘craic’, little expecting to race. Somewhere towards the end of February, with injuries appearing in our crews, Carolyn (I guess my rowing mentor, having built my confidence as a Cox) persuaded me that I would be fit enough in her own encouraging way… “You’ll be fine,” she said. I subbed in with Ladies C, but as the most experienced rower in the crew, I soon had Stroke’s seat. I wasn’t convinced that I was fit enough, until the end of the first race. Training had been hard, some sessions frustrating in that we never seemed to get it together, and I was worried that we had never completed a practice race. Could we last the distance?

Departing Flushing, I had the added anxiety of leaving Bessie (our 9 month-old puppy) in overnight accommodation – the first time I’d left her. I trusted Sarah (Sarah’s Doggie Daycare) implicitly, but I didn’t trust me not to have a little meltdown. As it was, I was choked when I drove away, but the drive to Land’s End Airport gave me the chance to focus on what lay ahead. I was nervous; excited. Having had a year of shut-down emotions, I knew that the flutter in my belly was a good thing. It mattered. It mattered to me that I would do the best I could and that I wouldn’t let the girls down.

Finding Pinnacle in the town dump…

I hadn’t reckoned on the amount of faff around the racing, although it shouldn’t have surprised me. There is always faff with any boating. The super high tides meant that we couldn’t launch and berth our gigs, Penarrow, Pinnacle, and Zawn on Friday evening. That added a task for Saturday morning. However, an hour passed searching for Pinnacle, the gig for Ladies C, We found her in the town dump, with Porthmellon beach supposedly her home for the weekend. That would have split us from the rest of the FMPGC gang, so that wasn’t going to happen. It meant for an early start on Saturday morning, as Lynn had us meet at 08:00 at Pinnacle to launch her and have a practice row, just to get a feel for the conditions and test out the stretchers. Try and settle the nerves. And for me, row with the G-oars for the first time.

Racing Pinnacle through the finish of The Long Race…

The Long Race is the first race, with a 13:00 start time, but with the preparation for the race, it meant an 11:30 assembly. That’s the equivalent length of time to a normal training session. BEFORE A RACE. That was quite a daunting realisation in itself. We won one thing that day, FMPGC Ladies C were first off the beach! Yay! We did the drill of race preparation out to the startline, a routine that I absolutely love. It’s about getting the mindset for racing, getting the body warmed up, and the blood pumping. Of being race-ready. I was nervous, yes, but I owned my nerves. This mattered, and here I was, a year on from major surgery, fulfilling an ambition. I have a view in my mind of the line up on the long race, but I realise that is from watching from the shore, because in the gig, on the line, I was only really aware of the girls behind me, and our cox. Focus. Tap up one, back up. Hold water. Forward to row… and then GOOOOOOO. Our racing start, building the power to get the inertia out of the gig and send her flying. Pinnacle, the oldest gig in our club purchased from Swanage, and favourite to many members. The conditions were lively, with a strong cross-tide and wind, and we were lucky in the lane-draw that we had. We started well, and settled. We were playing tag with Vault, a purple gig, off the line, and then throughout the race. They edged it when our no. 5 caught a crab, and then we pulled back. They were on the bow side of us, to port, and they were the only other gig I took notice of. Ladies C were racing well, in time, Pinnacle felt like she was moving well, the sound of the pins clunking in unison down the gig, like a heart-beat. I knew in the race that this was the best we’d rowed – not the usual drag on stroke as the crew’s timing falters. Pinnacle was light and responsive. This was fun. A feeling that I wasn’t expecting to have in our first race. St Mary’s sheltered us from the worst of the cross-tide and wind as we raced towards the finish. At Lynn’s marker, she asked us if we were up for the race-finish tactics. We were. The last 60 strokes were epic, as we hardened, upped the rate, hardened, and then powered through the finish line, Vault’s hull disappearing from sight. It was only then I looked up, to see an armada of gigs behind us. Not only had we beaten Vault, but we weren’t anywhere near last. As we paddled on, I was close to tears, words choking in my throat. Ladies B were screaming at us, “where did that come from?”. We were an incredible 90 seconds behind them. We were the best we had been, and we had saved it for this day. I was elated, and so, so proud. The girls later said that they just followed me; calm, clear me. Me rowing my best had helped them all. Someone said, Sarah perhaps, that the race isn’t as hard as anything that happened in training. I wasn’t sure that she wasn’t just being ‘kind’, but adrenaline must be the magic ingredient. It didn’t feel as hard, for sure. The data doesn’t lie, and the stats from my Garmin showed me that I had poured my heart and soul into that race. I could not have given any more. Sarah was being straight.

Deferential: Our Cox is always right!

Every Scillies is known for different themes, but I hadn’t appreciated how different the races would be within the regatta. I should know that, being a sailor, but the contrast between the first and second races were epic. The wind had swung around, a bit, and freshened, as forecast. As we were rowing out to the start, Lynn had said that she wasn’t sure that we had it in us to cope with the forecast conditions for that afternoon, but our performance in the morning had given her confidence – and that in us. The second race, however, was a real test for us. The second race runs from Nut Rock, off Tresco, to St Mary’s harbour, with a lively sea running, and a significant headwind. By significant, I mean a Force6, fully in Beaufort’s strong wind category, running at 26kts. The row out to the start was a test of endurance in itself. We could have flown down, but the preparation is all about pace, and rest. Each time we had an easy, we were rolled side-on to the running sea, rocking us sideways. Our No.3 felt queasy, our No.4’s fear of the sea raised its head, so we kept moving. Flying downwind, and then turning to beat our oars and make progress against the headwind. Lynn marking it so that she knew we could row against the conditions. We could. We were going to race. Unfortunately a couple of gigs on the start line couldn’t. In the run of the heats, the slowest go first, and the ladies in Group K were finding it too much, so two, we think, were towed off. This meant that the safety boats were being used to rescue, with no cover for the races. The start of the races were probably delayed by 30 minutes, maybe more. So we were constantly moving, 130-ish crews, trying to stay out of each other’s way. Lining up was horrendous, with unsympathetic officers on the start-line. Doubtlessly stressed, and fed-up of being on the washing machine of the start. They had six more heats to do after ours.

This race was gruelling. A slog into the wind, but our No.3 and No.4 were in trouble. Bex, in three, screamed in pain during the race. She’d put her hip out, and therefore couldn’t pull any weight. The sea conditions had worked their way into our No.4, sapping her of her confidence and therefore her technique. She later said that she was terrified of losing her oar, of it being swallowed by the sea. Once fear sets in, it is hard to rationalise it away. We didn’t really race that race, just marking technique, but we held our group, coming in 10th. We had done enough, but we were all deflated, with one in pain, and one struggling to manage her anxieties.

The weather was forecast to close in on the Saturday night, with rain and strong winds forecast. With the high spring tides, we weren’t sure whether we would need to get Pinnacle back on her trailer, but thankfully, the shared consensus was that the gigs could be left on the beach. I’m not sure I would have had the strength to heave and haul at boat moving. A hot bath and a decent meal was all that I was after. Four of us had supper that night, at the Star Castle, all of us swaying at the table. Faces a-glow from the sun and wind. I can’t tell you what we ate, as I had a slight trance-like feeling. Partly from a body still trying to adjust to a dinner table, but also dazed from the day. Bruised from the second race, and still giddy from the first. Sleep didn’t come easily, and I could hear the rain beating on the window, the wind whistling in the trees. I was a couple of hundred metres from the campsite, feeling grateful that camping wasn’t part of my Scillies experience.

I woke stiff, still slightly numb, like this was happening to someone else, not me. I’m not sure why that was, and I had to fight my way through my own fog, back into ‘owning’ my experience. I stood on the decking, overlooking St Mary’s Sound, talking myself back into my flip-flops. The storm had cleared through, and it was a bright morning. The winds had abated, but were forecast to build again in the afternoon. We had two more races to go.

To be honest, a month on, I can’t really separate these two in my mind. The winds were at odds to the tide, so the sea was choppy, familiar conditions to any seasoned Scillies racer. Familiar enough to us training in The Carrick Roads. There was nothing we couldn’t handle. Only our performance dwindled. We lacked stamina, hardly surprising after our first full race-pace race being the previous day. Bex, our No.3 had been taped up, and had drugged herself up, and was heroic. “I won’t let you down,” she said. Our No.4, after a soggy night in a tent, unrested, continued to battle with her fear, each lick of a wave eroding more and more of her confidence. Our collective hearts went out to her as she struggled. Another not to let us down. I am so proud of her for staying with her crew. Our Cox realised that we had reached our combined limits, with her job to get us to the start and then through to the finish line. For each of the two races, I pulled and pulled, trying to give the girls the same clear signals, roaring a couple of times, but Pinnacle wasn’t moving well, the clunk of the oars on the pins was more rapid gunfire than booming heart-beat. It was dispiriting for all of us when we cleared the line, last in both heats.

Ladies C, between racing, hanging out…

The wait between races felt longer than the previous day, as we wandered about, seeking shelter from the chill wind and willing the clouds to part so that we could have ‘lizard time’ and get some warmth into our stiffening muscles. We talked about the race, and what we needed to do to try and get the rhythm back into our rowing. We came up with ‘reach for the gin,’ to extend the reach of the catch, but we needed a longer word to pace the return. Sip – too short. Slug – still too short. Savour – perfect. Reach for the gin, and saaaaaavvvvoouuurrr. Unfortunately it didn’t work, the girls were definitely slugging. It was later that week that our Cox said she’d run out of things to say to motivate us. She couldn’t work out how to get our now frozen No.4 mentally back in the gig. The tactics for the last race. Different – we were just rowing home from a picnic, and there just happened to be other boats around us. We started well, so Ladies B told us, and in the warm conditions that now blessed us, we couldn’t get it together. We crossed the line shattered, physically and emotionally. I would have said that it wasn’t much of a party for us, rafted up, waiting for the Ladies finalists to come through. I felt disappointed inside, not because we had more to give, because I genuinely believe that we gave our all, and our best. We peaked too soon, and the giddy high of the first, long race was something that I wanted to feel right at the end. The camera doesn’t lie, and when I look at the photo of us rafted up, those are beaming smiles, to a person, and not the faces of a dejected crew. We had exceeded our expectations. We had smashed it in one race, and finished 96th overall. We broke 100, when I didn’t expect to do anything other than finish in the last heat. We deserved to drink deeply on the Prosecco in the gig, and enjoy the celebrations together. Each of us, I know, had done the others proud.

Prosecco-time! Celebrating at the end of the last race…

Our race had finished somewhere around 14:00, we were certainly rafted up and drinking Prosecco shortly after. After the carnage of 146 bevvied up crews heading to the beach, we had the task of getting Pinnacle and Penarrow back onto their trailers. Pinnacle had to go back to the dump. Our work wasn’t done, and it’s surprising how quickly the bubbles dissipate, and you sober up. It was 5 o’clock when we got back to the Hotel, and we hadn’t strayed anywhere to get another drink! Time enough for that.

The legendary Sunday night revelry was immense, and as crazy as folk had described. There is a ‘what happens on Scilly, stays on Scilly’, but nothing I saw was remotely worthy of that as a condition of taking part. Just high-spirited, glorying in the achievement and kind of cohesion of the event. Cohesion in crews, in our club with friendships formed during the long winter training. We drank, danced on the tables, and were a ragged accompaniment to the Cadgwith crew who lead the shanty singing into the early hours of Monday morning. I passed up on shots, jagerbombers, and dancing in The Mermaid. I was beginning to ache through to my bones, and all I wanted was to fall into the arms of sleep, knowing that I would be relatively clear-headed on waking.

The coastal path to Old Town…

Monday was as an important day as the rest of the weekend. We took ‘Tim’s tours’ to Old Town, via the spectacle of the coastal path, ending up in the Old Town Inn for lunch. Most left on the Scillonian at 17:00, running a little late because of the high seas. The ebbing sound of shanties left with them, as the town settled down to its more customary pace, most of the gig-rowers displaced back to the mainland during the day. I had one more night, and one restorative lazy morning, where I went to see for myself a sorry casualty of the weekend’s weather. It would take the next spring-tide to recover her.

A casualty of the strong winds that blew through WPGC 2017

Finally, I checked out of Scilly, a gig-sized hole in my heart, but not before securing the same room-with-a-view for 2018. Never say never…

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by JK Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

In this latest instalment of the Harry Potter series, we roll the clock forwards to Harry and Ginny as parents of three children. The youngest, Albus Severus, is about to embark at Hogwarts School of wizardry.

Albus is the main character, and the Cursed Child narrates his struggles living in the shadow of his famous father. He is not a great wizard, or a particularly enthusiastic one. His best friend is Scorpious Malfoy, son of Harry’s arch-enemy Draco Malfoy. The Cursed Child tells the bumbling antics of these two, with Albus wanting to make an impact, and trying to undo a great harm that involved his dad, with Scorpious up for the adventure. They try to right the wrong of Cedric Diggory’s death. This involves time travel via a Time Tuner to unexpected consequences, as the meddling of time brings Voldemort back from the dead.

Unlike the other Harry Potter books, the Cursed Child is a play. I should begin that I loved the entire Harry Potter series, re-reading all six volumes before JK Rowling released The Deathly Hallows. I forgave her this long book that could have been edited back, for her story-telling and rounding of different threads of plot and character. I didn’t re-read any Potter books for this one, and didn’t even read it immediately on release. If anyone wants to re-read, I would point them to reading The Goblet of Fire, as the Tri-Wizard Tournament is drawn on to develop the plot.

That it was a play didn’t spoil the enjoyment for me, in fact, it was a kind of novelty given the books I’ve read in the last few years. If anything, it made me wish I’d seen it in the west end – but perhaps it will tour, and reach Cornwall…

The plot is cleverly crafted, referencing the Tri-Wizard Tournament in which Harry competed as a young wizard, but it is the themes that touched me most. There is the angst of adolescence, but the antagonist to Albus is his father. It is a neat exploration of the theme of father-son relationships, with orphan Harry having no role model of his own, as he stumbles to reach out to his youngest son.

For any Potterphile this instalment is glorious, and one to devour in one sitting. Ice cream in the intermission optional.

Book Review: Precious and Grace, by Alexander McCall Smith

Another in the series of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, which sees Mma Remotswe and Mma Makutsi solving mysteries in the bosom of Botswana. This is the 17th in the series, and is as predictable and as comforting as a pot of roobush tea.

The characters are the same, and are as you left them. The same kinds of things happen. It is not exciting reading, but it is engaging. It the literary equivalent of putting your feet up and hearing from old friends.

Of course there are problems to solve, a white van to be driven. Rich fruit cake to be eaten at the Orphanage. There is a certain rhythm that McCall Smith takes the reader through. And yet, despite its predictability, I am charmed by the books, the happenings, and the loose plot anchored by the characters we love. What endures is the themes. This one is forgiveness. Beautifully executed by McCall Smith, which remains long after the book is closed. Charming and rewarding. What else is there, at one level? It is like being kissed by the Botswanan sun. No bad thing.

Book Review: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

From Kristin Hannah’s website (as I couldn’t fathom, again, how to describe it. Lazy me).

FRANCE, 1939
In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

This book was a gift. A mother and daughter, both who’d adored and were moved to tears by The Nightingale. We shared a love of All The Light They Cannot See, The Night Circus, both spectacular books in their own rights. The Nightingale was a shadow in comparison. In truth, I nearly abandoned it. The writing strangled me, in a cliched, sycophantic noose. In the dilemma of whether to continue, or not. I sought out some reviews – the readership split. Some glowing, some disparaging.

In April, I took a five hour train ride to London; this might be the space to get me over the hump, the desire to throw the book against the wall. Several reasons, Kristin Hannah is a successful novelist, she makes income from her work. This was slush in places. A better edit, and a better discipline in writing. That irked me. In the early pages of the book, I could have photocopied a page, and edited the hell out of it – superlative, cliche, over-writing. It smacks of early draft writing in places. And then the crux of historical novel writing, credibility. Lazy Americanisms in the European setting, when in WWII, this was not influence (that really came later). Language that rubbed, like sand between damp toes. Sooner or later, it’s going to blister.

And yet, I went back to it. The story was one that needed to be told, the female heroes of the French Resistance, quietly going about their work. Hannah has a good story, this reader had to work, patiently, for it to be revealed. Her characters, moved her plot along, yes. Some were better defined than others, but the relationships let the story down. A perfect husband, sent to war. Sisters, one feral one good. A bad father. A mother died too soon. A kind Nazi. A sadist Nazi. A rugged lover who dared not to love. These were all a bit ‘flat’. No one that I really cared about as the story developed, And yet, at the close, as the threads of the past and the present knotted together, I was moved. The story shone through.

A month since I read it, and I’m still not sure whether to recommend it or not. That’s clever in its own right.

Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea tells the story of the island republic of Nollop, situated off the coast of South Carolina. Named after its native son Nevin Nollop, the creator of the typist’s pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”  Ella Minnow Pea, an 18-year-old laundress is the book’s heroine and principal narrator. Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel, unfolding through the correspondence among Ella, her cousin Tassie Purcy, and various other characters, along with dictats from Nollop’s governing High Island Council.

Ella Minnow Pea is a political satire and observation of state control. One July evening a tile falls from the monument that commemorates Nollop’s iconic sentence. In panic, the Council’s members convene to determine the purpose. They decide that the fall of the tile clearly represents the great Nollop’s posthumous wishes, and since the tile in question bears the letter ‘Z’ it must follow that Nollop wants that letter removed from the island’s speech and writing. The Council issues a ban, threatening violators with flogging, the stocks, or permanent exile. At first Ella believes that the loss of ‘Z’ will be only a minor inconvenience, she soon realises that the ban has terrible consequences. These become increasingly evident as more tiles fall  with more letters taken out of circulation. Communication becomes all but impossible, island life has come to a standstill, and many citizens have been exiled. In the end only Ella is left to break the Council’s stranglehold, with a deadline fast looming.

Ella Minnow Pea is a clever book, and a real indulgence in the English language. Told entirely in letters, Dunn creates a literary feat, as language becomes more and more restricted. At one level, it’s a ridiculous tale, with paper-thin characters (who are awfully nice), and a single premise of a plot. There are some tensions, romance and reconciliation, but ultimately the engine of the novel is the ludicrous notion that governance is based on tiles falling from a statue. Its genius was enough for this lover of language.

This book isn’t for everyone, but I delighted in it. Towards the end of the book, only the letters LNMOP remain. A laughable delight in the phonetics of the central heroine, Ella Minnow Pea. Bloody genius.



2017: Where to begin?

I think I’ll have to begin at the end of this chapter. 2017 hasn’t lived up to its promise. The photo shows my father-in-law and mother-in-law taken at Pete and my wedding (2005). My lovely in-laws have both recently died, within 7 weeks of each other. We are immensely sad, but in many ways it is sweet because they couldn’t bear the thought of living without the other.  63 years married. That’s the end of this chapter.

Somewhere in the middle of the chapter, my dear friend’s dad died. He was my Daddy2 when we were running around the Cotswolds as teenagers looking for fossils.

Death then seems to have held the pen for this chapter. Has rather faltered with it, since it’s felt that we’ve lived with its shadow since the beginning of the year.

Shortly after my father’s death, Alice Thompson published a commentary  in The Times, “we all need to learn to talk about death”. It made me think of my therapy training, and the art of talking about dying. The Victorians were masters of it. There was so much of it during the World Wars. Then what happened? Thompson makes a glorious observation that our younger generation, with their public outpouring on social media may be able to teach us a thing or two about how to express ourselves. They are direct. I can’t bear the reference to “loss”. Keys you lose. People die – they are gone. But you can’t say “I am sorry for your gone”, so we say “loss”. Better just to put your hand on someone’s arm and say, “I am sorry”. Why is death so awkward?

My Daddy2’s funeral he had planned. It was clear for my friend. My in-laws left no guidance, so the family struggled to work out what might be right for them all. Read Alice Thompson (if you can find it, as The Times is not helpful when it comes to sharing articles). Talk about it. My instructions, to be clear, are in the folder marked “Births, Deaths, Marriages and Divorces” paperwork that includes  my will.

Somewhere near the beginning of the chapter, I applied for an MA Professional Writing at Falmouth University (hoping to find my writing mojo, which is still missing-in-action from 2016’s bumpy ride). I was offered a place. I have just accepted. Life is too short, my husband said.  His parents were 88 and 86 when they died – a good innings you might say. They would probably say not to put off to tomorrow what you really want to do today.

PS. I’ve played around a few times with this draft. It doesn’t say what I want to say, quite. But it just has to be said. Death rides alongside us. If we have the chance to live our dreams, we must take them. Stay in the glitter.

Cliche overload.

Book Review: Ties, by Domenico Starnone (translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

Ties is a story of a marriage. Like many marriages, this one has been subject to strain, to attrition, to the burden of routine. Yet it has survived intact. Or so things appear….

Ties is a clever, classy book. There is an introduction by the book’s translator, Lahiri, which is perfectly placed. I was in two minds whether to read it, before or after. Both would work, but I am glad that I read it before, as an introduction. Lahiri talks about the language and the choices in using words in translation. It introduces a couple of metaphors, containers, that I may not have held so readily.

Ties is almost a perfect book – because it is clever, and because it is an everyday occurrence; marriages falter. The structure lends to its cleverness. Ties is told in three books, by three narrators. The first book reads as a series of angry letters written by Vanda (the wife) to her straying husband (Aldo), revealing the abandonment felt by her and their children from the choices that he made. The second book is Aldo in old age, recounting a trip to the sea and the events that unfold when they return. The third book is narrated by the children, and both reflects and judges their parents and them as their children.

This is a character led story, of course, because it is about a marriage. Through the observations Vanda, Aldo, and then the children, the layers are both put on and stripped off Starnone’s people. It is so clever. There is also a plot, a mystery that emerges in Book Two, resolved in Book Three (no spoilers). It ties into the family. This also makes it clever.

Starnone’s themes are bold. Betrayal, infidelity, domestic abuse (control), loss, ageing.. and family ties. Those emotional ties that bind us. Starnone’s writing is uncluttered, with a directness in the character’s voices that appealed, and lent to a sense of intimacy in reading the book. It really was like eavesdropping in the anatomy of a marriage, witnessing how the dissection of words and actions leads to messy, unexpected consequences.

This is a short novel, at 150 pages, but it punches well above its weight. Outstanding.