Dick Durham: The sea fever of long-distance sailors can leave you with a feeling that your own horizons are embarrassingly small

Some sailors leave me feeling distinctly uncomfortable; they leave me with a sneaking suspicion that I haven’t sailed far enough, that I’m too comfortable in
home waters, that I’m a low achiever nautical miles-wise. Normally it’s OK, because I treat them the same way the late Queen Mother treated illnesses: ‘I ignore them until they go away.’ But that’s impossible with Max Liberson because when he has gone away he calls me up, not in any way to crow, but,evenmoreshamefully,because he considers me a shipmate.

He telephoned me recently. ‘Where are you?’ I asked. ‘Plymouth’ Plymouth. Good grief, the last I’d heard from him, six weeks beforehand, he was in the Caribbean. And while I’d been going about my daily routine: eating, sleeping, writing, and living with my wife and son in an 80ft house, so had Max, but whilst crossing the Atlantic at the same time, alone in a 28ft boat.

It took him 25 days to sail from Guadeloupe to Flores in the Azores in Sarah, his Trapper 500. Here he found a pool with waterfalls: ‘I felt overwhelmingly ostentatious wallowing in sweet, fresh water after being so careful with it,’ he said turning the prosaic drip of our leaking shower into a tattoo of damnation.
From the Azores Max took a further 16 days to reach Plymouth. The northerly gale that knocked Sarah horizontal, while he watched Lawrence of Arabia on his Kindle, had me tossing restlessly in bed worrying about loose slates on the roof over my head.

‘That was unbelievable for June, Max,’ I said, ‘the weather’s gone mad.’

‘Yes, I was just pleased I had done the washing up after dinner, as by then I was sharing my bunk with various plates, bowls and cutlery,’ he replied, his concern with domestics a surreal shadow of my own hidebound trivialities.

The weather improved slowly, the sun came out, the wind eased and as I battled with the intruders of my garden – bindweed strangling my beans – Max, 58, also had company.

‘You know when someone’s looking at you, you begin to feel their attention?’ he said. ‘I do, I do,’ I replied. ‘Well, I had the oddest feeling in the North
Atlantic, a sort of telepathic awareness that someone or something was eyeing me up. Then I saw them: a pod of fin whales had their
sights on me. That’s the only way I can describe it. I felt extremely honoured to meet them.’

Max knew he was home even before he could see Bishop’s Rock or Land’s End because the wind wenteasterlyandhehadtostart sailing to windward. ‘But, after so many miles, Sarah and me were on such good terms we made an arrangement: I would steer the inward tack towards the land if she would handle the outward legs.‘
For all his poetry Max is a problem-solver, too. The Trapper 500, he decided, after more miles under her keel than many a designer of a similar craft, had a rudder that was not big or strong enough to control the boat to her full potential. He did away with what he described as the ‘silly spade’ version and built one which now hangs on her transom like that of a barge. Next he fitted a self-steering system, which had been fabricated by a friend.

To the head of the foresail furler he attached a block through which he reeved a halyard so that he could make headsail changes alone. And the reason he sailed Sarah to the Caribbean in the first place? Because a pal had offered him two free self-tailing winches.

‘It was all I needed to return to Carriacou, which is my favourite place,’ said Max, who fitted them before returning to the UK.
The former Devonshire trawlerman and London dispatch rider is heading for Newhaven, East Sussex next, as it’s the nearest port to his fiancé, Eva, who lives in East Grinstead. But he won’t be ashore for long.


– Dick Durham