Bigger isn’t always better. As ageing joints make some jobs harder, Julian Mounter rediscovers the fun and freedom of a smaller boat
Like a night time mid-Atlantic squall it comes – vaguely anticipated, and yet unexpected when it arrives. Surprising, unwanted and yet you know that it’s inevitable.
The first clear sign is the roughness of the mainsail; it pulls at your fingertips as you fold it.
You used to lift one that size on your own. When was it you needed help?
How long ago was it the sailmaker asked you to let go and sent for his colleague when it was clear your back was complaining?
The captain could handle the ship, but could no longer dress and undress her.
The second sign was the questioning look on my Admiral’s face (she’s always been ‘my Admiral’, I a mere captain).
She used to have such confidence that anything the sea, the boat or fortune threw at us, I could handle.
But now? It was just a glance, but it held the question: can he?
‘The windlass is strong enough to raise the anchor. But can he, by hand? I mustn’t show it, but has he lost his strength, his agility?’
At first you shrug off the doubts.
You push yourself and test your strengths until a year or five later, that back twinge becomes a back pain, the nagging doubt becomes worry, and then you know. Fear takes over.
Will this be the last summer? Are these days of sitting on warm teak, with cold stainless on my back, as a sunset fades an anchorage into twinkling black… Are these days almost gone?
Sod ageing! Damn Old Father Time. What right has he to take my boat?
I thought winches worked with buttons, rudders steered by electronics and anchors raised by power would let me sail Leone, our Grand Soleil 50, for decades more, until that metaphorical squall finally sneaked into my consciousness.
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But sailors are fighters. After 50 years and all those miles in estuaries, seas and oceans, it cannot just end so I planned an escape.
Does the mainsail have to be as big? Would I be able to handle a lighter anchor and slimmer chain?
If the hull was smaller and the decks shorter, the mast easier to climb and not a jump to that pontoon, just a step down, would there be more years, more sunsets, more passages?
For five decades, every spare penny has been spent on going to sea. A friend helped us buy the Contessa.
The Nic 31, which took us safely to Gibraltar and on, was funded by changing homes.
After that, every time we had a pay rise, were promoted or changed house, the spare money bought a new larger craft: a Contest, a Lightwave, a Baltic, then the Grand Soleil 50.
What was it that Norwegian captain said: ‘A boat’s length should match your age.’ They almost did.
But, once I became 20 years older than the foot length of Leone, it no longer remained true. She had to go.
‘Downsizing.’ The word is crude and cruel but, forced as it is upon us ageing sailors, it is actually less cruel.
And so, I have found my solution in the shape of another boat.
Musketeer is 14 years old. When we found her, her paintwork was tired, her main pulling in the wrong directions, but now her 11m of newly painted blue hull shines, while the new sprayhood, stack pack, main and jib, halyards and sheets make this Swedish beauty look born again.
I have spent way too much renewing her; she is wildly over-capitalised, but with Leone off our hands there were pennies left for other work. So this year, Musketeer, my Admiral and I will experience new adventures.
I have sailed several of our boats to the Mediterranean over the years, sailed them across the Atlantic three times and experienced bays and winds as far afield as New Zealand.
Leone was bought in the Med and sold there several months ago. Being nearly 9ft deep, there were places she couldn’t go – places that we can now go with a 36ft boat that only draws 6ft.
We wanted to cruise the Mediterranean again, but as we discussed getting Musketeer to the Med, the Admiral had that quizzical look again. So instead of long night passages, we let a yacht-carrying cargo vessel do the work.
At an average of 14 knots, it took her less than a week to deliver Musketeer to Mallorca.
Nothing could have been easier: sail alongside in Southampton, step off, take a flight and meet her on arrival.
Mast up, she was in a berth and ready to go within hours.
Of course, we have overstocked her, but Musketeer looks happy in the Spanish sunshine, and I feel equally bright in the knowledge that I can more easily hand sail, anchor and mooring lines.
I also know that when Musketeer is, in turn, one day too big, there could be a 20-footer and after that, a daysailer or a keeled dinghy.
It is not what I had dreaded: it is not the end. My admiral, too, looks more content, knowing that I have finally faced the inevitable.
I now know that as long as I can move a wheel or tiller, pull a rope or a string, see a navigation mark and feel the wind on my cheek, I will sail.
Downsizing is a new adventure. It may even be more fulfilling than all those years of upsizing.