No more boats/no more hero’s.
Privilege and resentment.
Blog time : it’s late November 2020 and a cold, crisp autumn morning down here in the south west of the UK. We’ve gone from weeks of grey overcast and rain to a dry and brisk few days with a clear sky and a cold nor-easterly wind blowing down the valley ; as i look out of the bedroom window there is still a bank of mist sitting over the river in the deep Tamar valley.
Well, it feels like the end of an era in many ways, firstly that i’m not a boat owner any more as WABI”’ has gone and iv’e even cleared out all of her spare gear from the shed : down at the river it feels like the end of another era too as the big lugger Spirit of Mystery has gone too…..owner Chris who used to run the yard having moved north.
This time last year i was finishing my wet and windy cruise down in the west country after an amazingly good summer living aboard the little Liberty in Brittany…..funnily enough today i was also thinking back half a lifetime ago when i was somewhere down in the south Atlantic running a watch aboard an ex Whitbread maxi doing a fast, by those standards, circumnavigation. Today there’s another circumnavigation race going on but oh how different……all the boats are up on foils effectively flying rather than sailing and one of those corporate monstrosities doesn’t even have a cockpit as the driver cowers from the weather watching his sail trim on a computer monitor screen.
Spirit of Mystery, autumn 2019.
In today’s blog post i want to talk about a couple of very odd conversations i had during the height of the pandemic lockdown here and which relate to boats and sailing although the lead-in happened many years ago….40 maybe ? and it’s one of those strange moments that stuck in my mind ever since.
And so to begin….lets say 40 years ago then and i was a young rigger working at Dickie’s boatyard in Bangor (north Wales) and i’d just become the owner of a very rough East German Folkboat at the same time as i was learning to sail : i often joke that the boat lasted a couple of years before i absolutely had to sell it but the learning lasted the next 40 years !
That first strange conversation, centered around a question that the local boat surveyor name of Wilf Leavett asked me. I assume that Wilf is long gone now as this was 40 years ago at least and he must have been in his late 60’s even then , the yard by the way no longer exists and is now just another housing estate on the outskirts of Bangor……i hope that it still smells of the thick , deep and anoxic mud that it did back then on a hot day at low tide.
That morning i remember that Wilf stopped me as i was doing a job and gave me the bad news about the Folkboat, principally how much work it was going to need ; i also remember him asking me what i was going to use the boat for as Folkboats tended to be sailed hard in racing and overly keen and broke young sailors like me tended to do overly ambitious things with them…..’don’t try and take it across the Atlantic’ was one thing he said.
His strange question though wasn’t so much about the boat but about me, i don’t remember the exact lead-in to the question or the exact words but it was something like ‘will you be a yachtsman or a sailor’ ; at the time i really didn’t understand what he was getting at and only now after 40 years of sailing do i think i understand his intent. Back then the waters were a bit muddied by the fact that i’d just joined the local yacht club as i thought that would get me some much needed crewing experience in the local race fleet. How well that went is exemplified by a small incident a couple of years later : i was then regularly crewing for a Menai Straits based owner but where we were mainly racing in the Solent and the English channel. For some reason i’d gone along with a crew invitation to one of the yacht clubs for a post race social event : i really don’t know why i went because by then i quite viscerally disliked the whole yacht club scene and even that owner said to me even as we were walking in ‘you really don’t like these places do you’ ?.
Allow me to pause here and recount an actual incident from my professional sailing days.
The 3 most important yacht races in the 1990’s were : the America’s cup, the Whitbread round the world race and the singlehanded round the world race, for modern sailors read either ‘Volvo’ ocean race or whatever it is called today and the Vendee Globe challenge for the ultimate in high-tec solo masochism. Obviously the AC is still the AC although it’s nothing like the AC that i knew and cordially detested . In 1989/90 i took part in the last Whitbread race that would feature the end of the IOR Maxi yacht era and by the way the hype of a first all female Whitbread crew under Tracy Edwards ; my own boat in that race was a kind-of bottom of the barrel affair with a tired hull, dodgy rig, very old sails and a very inexperienced crew…..until of course we got home some 8 months and 28.000 sea miles later and as rough and ready a maxi crew as you would want to meet.
So then we got home after 28.000 miles and some 8 months at sea…..the way it worked out is that we just happened to cross the finish line just after sunset and pulled into Ocean village after dark, what none of us expected was the huge crowds there, the cheers and crikey…even the national anthem being played just for a bargain basement effort to race around the world : only not last i think because of one boat that didn’t finish* and another one that was days behind after breaking it’s mast. After the somewhat emotional finish and the release of being back on solid ground there was a distinct let-down and a feeling of ‘what now’ : while we were away not only had the mad milk snatcher brought in the poll tax but the Berlin wall had come down….epochal times. After wandering around in the crowds for a while a few of us decided to do what most sailors do after a yacht race and that is to go and have a drink in the yacht club ; in this case the RSYC bar at Ocean village ….except of course that we didn’t : because the steward didn’t only not serve us but asked us to leave……..go figure, and by the way we were obviously Whitbread race crew still in our crew shirts.
Now, iv’e left the obvious section here deliberately blank….that is, what i thought at the time about having just sailed in the world’s premier yacht race and being denied the simple courtesy and welcome of the ‘host’ yacht club at the finish. As it is i don’t remember having any particular thoughts either way and that all we did was walk across the road to a real pub and talk to normal people about the stuff that was going on , like for example the poll tax and the Berlin wall.
Not my boat and not my photograph either but a Whitbread era maxi all the same.
-The world of ‘yachting‘ and yacht clubs felt like an alien one right from the start and it didn’t take me much time to realise that either one had little to do with sailing and being a sailor : rather they were places that even then often didn’t allow ‘ladies’ at the bar….and dogs for that matter….nor it seems professional sailors as in my case. To this day i don’t really know or care what the disappearing world of yacht clubs really was, to my mind it was something about class, in-groups and out-groups : not all of course , there are still egalitarian and unpretentious clubs of people with a common interest and more likely to found driving the tractor at haul out time….muddy wellies and overalls rather than club blazers and mugs of tea rather G&T with the commode.
This year should have been the 30th anniversary of the race finish and the plan was to have a crew reunion in the Solent and i think a general Whitbread veterans get together around the time of Cowes week ; none of that happened of course due to the pandemic…..30 years…..half a life ago !
It was during the early days of the Covid pandemic that i had a couple of odd conversations with a neighbour about sailing/yachting in general and specifically about the social side of yachting and yacht clubs ; a world that iv’e never been a part of.
Here’s what happened :
During the height of the pandemic and the early lockdown i spent a lot of time out in the garden or sat on the garden bench just mainly watching the life of the village go by…or not, mostly not. It was generally warm and sunny as well so i went for my daily ‘allowed’ exercise and then as many other walks as i felt like on the day but i didn’t go either sailing or ‘yachting’ because my ‘yacht’ was effectively impounded behind a fence at the boatyard. So i got quite a lot of exercise, did some useful work in the garden and i spent a fair bit of time just sitting outside and enjoying the strange enforced peace and quiet of an early summer.
So, i was out in the garden one morning, coffee and book on the bench when my slightly odd neighbour approached me : that’s unusual in itself as we speak maybe once a month if that. He asked me if i had any books about sailing, an expression came to mind that included popes and Catholics or at least bears and woods but i simply said yes and ‘what kind of thing did he want’…..i do have a rather large library here across many different aspects of boats, sailing and the sea. Anyway, later that day i put together a selection of books about sailing and the sea as opposed to technical stuff about boats….i know that Micheal Palin’s Erebus was one as were several by Maurice Griffiths, some anthologies and the spy story The riddle of the Sands.
Typically we didn’t speak for another couple of months and by then things seemed to be winding down..the village was slightly livelier (anything above comatose is lively here) and a bit noisier again with traffic down in the valley. The brief enthusiasm for daily exercise faded out again and i stopped having to act like an outdoor parks warden directing lost walkers back to civilization although for all i know there may still be wild eyed locals still stumbling through the woods being pursued by the mutant zombie squirrels.
My neighbour passed the books back and we had a short conversation about what he had enjoyed and what had rather passed him by. Now, my neighbour knows that i have a small boat on the river and near to a village which does it’s own version of Cornwall alternative …..as in a high rate of alcoholism and low level drug use but coupled with high unemployment and a certain attitude to life best described in terms of the petty feuds and who isn’t talking to who this week.
During our conversation i mentioned a couple of things, that for instance i’d spent a lot of the previous year living aboard and cruising around Brittany, but also that i was trying to sell the boat , leave that kind of sailing behind and maybe just keep a small boat here at home. Somehow we got onto the wider world of boats and sailing, the world of ‘yachts’ , yacht clubs and the corporate/business influence in the higher end of ‘yacht’ racing….the world of big budget sailing, smart ‘company man’ style skippers and boats as advertising billboards. I know that i made some brief comparison to the more Corinthian world of offshore racing that i’d once been a part of but my neighbour quickly cut across all of that with a sweeping statement that it was all about privilege…..i think i was so surprised that i may have missed the ‘white privilege/white male privilege’ implicit in what he said : thus the whole world of yachting/sailing encompassed in just one word and an ugly one too….except of course that even saying that would, through the same lens, equal ‘white fragility’ and privilege of course.
Where to even begin to think about that and respond to that in this…..perhaps my last post about the world of yachting/sailing ?, and what a strange way of looking at the world but equally not so strange today or so it seems. To be honest i can’t finish what i have started here today and it would need an entire post just to explore those ideas, equally i would say ‘does any of that matter’ (to actual sailors that is) and the answer must be a resounding no. If you enjoy going out on the sea in a small boat and perhaps find some degree of meaning from doing that then that is surely enough….
Post script……of sorts.
My boat has gone and i lost out badly in the end, almost a total financial loss ; that means that any future project will have to wait until i can recoup some funds and maybe start my next project in a completely different way than i had planned, possibly with a very cheap and cheerful project hull or old racing dinghy. Whatever, i’m getting on with other things right now and one of my winter projects is to take up where i left off with my book project ‘Pocket yachts and Microcruisers’. In the blog now i’ll continue posting about my now potential ‘bushcraft’ boat plans (Sail and Awe) while i mainly write posts about nutrition and men’s health.
To all my visitors and readers wishing you a happy Christmas if i don’t catch up before then.