Many of the old tools are gone, not quite necessary, but most sailors still keep them around. Libby Purves considers how long to keep hanging on to the old ways
The Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood gave me a shock when I went there to interview curators and admire the ancient toys and equipment of bygone infancy. There, in a case devoted to teenagers of the 1960s, were two items I recognised. One was a tin of Beatles-themed talcum powder, with The Fab Four stamped on it with their pudding-bowl fringes and collarless jackets. The other was a roll-on girdle with suspenders, teen size and style.
I reeled back in horror, asking what on earth was the point? And the horror increased when the curator explained how expensive it is to preserve these marvellous things from
the past and keep the cases in the correct temperature and humidity. My teens were a museum piece. Already!
I think about that sometimes on the boat, which, though we are not intensely techy, has, over the years, naturally picked up all sorts of 21st century bells’n’whistles: plotters, AIS, radar screen, masthead instruments and echo-sounders communicating together from sky to deep in a neat little display, even before you get to the amount you can work out on a smartphone.
The main compass still has a pleasingly retro feel to it, as does the wheel. We do like a paper chart as backup and planner, and I tend to write down positions at change of watch. Just because. Who knows when Elon Musk might capriciously turn off the satellites, eh?
But even opening Reeds to check a tide now feels laughably clunky, and it is quite a while since I hauled out the hand-bearing-compass, let alone drew a wonky fix with one of our many pencils. But yes, we still have a hand leadline, and I’m a good thrower: the quickest way to soak your sleeve ever invented.
I think wistfully of all the tools and objects which, when I began sailing over half a century ago, were part of the charm and the thrill and the sense of connection to much older sailing worlds. There was pleasure in that connection, and in thinking about older seafaring times, not least because when seriously frightened one could summon up Vikings and Captain Cook and Nelson and Slocum and Knox-Johnston, and ask them for courage.
I am glad to have sailed the Atlantic before GPS, albeit as mere crew, after weeks grappling with the Admiralty tables and the bloody Marcq St. Hilaire method, and on one glorious day was more than delighted to have found from a nearby ship that my sextant position was only four miles out.
But many of those old tools are gone, not quite necessary, becoming decorative. When did you last deploy a parallel ruler? Bet it’s still there, though, alongside the dividers, sculling around in the chart table. Can’t let the old friends go, can you? How many readers still have a sextant aboard? And a Walker trailing log too, the heavy metal fish well oiled and its nice white cord all curled obediently in a lovely wooden box?
Who still gets the pencil out at shipping-forecast time to draw in the isobars on a dog-eared yellow book of weather forecast charts? Why would you bother, with the coastguard reading it out every half-hour and the iPhone filling in between? Up on deck, who can still do a sailmaker’s whipping without surreptitiously checking YouTube?
I am aware that this being an honest cruising magazine, the answer from a few readers will be a harrumphing, ‘We still have all of that – we still do it all properly!’ And indeed if you sidle towards the more traditional boating world, there are plenty of comforting old connections.
On the tall ships I have made miles of baggy-wrinkle, a much-underrated saviour of sailcloth and cordage, and at one point on the barque Europa was initiated into the mysteries of worming, serving and parcelling. They respect rope and sailcloth, these traditionalists. Even if it’s no longer a matter of jute and cotton.
Some old-gaffer and barge people, I am told, are quite severe: one new participant at a rally found herself told off for using a plastic washing-up bowl instead of a folding canvas one, and looking round discovered that some of the other be-smocked crews were in actual oilskins, not poncey breathables.
Garishly orange lifejackets were considered a necessary evil, and I sort of get that. Not least because as a timid sailor, the idea of belt-and-braces and a proven, ancient back-up to everything is strangely attractive. Pass the leadline, would you? And the tallow!
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