What older objects are now outdated in the sailing world and what do we hold on to despite their use waining? Libby Purves isn't ready to lose much, but maybe the ship's bell is no longer needed

Giles Coren, the mischievous Times columnist, wrote recently about objects which gradually vanish from familiar use, either because they are outdated in the modern world, or because they were always a bit useless. It all began when a science journalist queried the role of the plastic washing-up-bowl, causing an outbreak of defensive bowlophiles on X (Twitter).

In the outdated category Giles put gentlemen’s hats, carphones, watch-pockets in jeans, china pie-birds, and those anti-lightning strips on the back bumper of cars.

In the ‘they always were useless’ heap he cited U-shaped fluffy mats round the base of lavatories, curly-wurly straws, cake forks and jam spoons. Plenty to disagree with here, I suppose: every time I watch an old episode of Endeavour I wish that all men wore hats like Inspector Thursday – such a reliable look.

But it set me thinking about bits of kit still taking up space and weight on boats: things which it feels hard to discard.

Some never should be entirely given up: paper charts are not only a fallback but by far the best way of planning and arguing about the next destination, and the dignity of paper charts obviously involves a parallel ruler, compasses, pencil and rubber. Even if they are hardly ever used.

To own a sextant is a matter of even more dignity, especially a brass one in a proper wooden box, but only if you have got all the sight reduction tables in the bookshelf.

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But I suspect that other yacht navigation objects still scull around in the caverns beside the chart table on plenty of boats. Hands up who’s still got a Seafix RDF finder? Signals mostly turned off for yachts, but the little box with its uncomfortable prodding earphones holds many a sentimental memory for those of us who, pre-satellite, groped across the Channel in the hope of the Vierge, or over from Ireland yearning for the Smalls beep.

The hand bearing-compass, from which we used to create many a worrying large ‘cocked hat’ fix, is certainly there in a clip next to the companionway on Wild Song, but still has a useful function in quickly finding the bearing of distant lights. But I admit to the continuing presence of some arguable but beloved objects.

The swinging paraffin lamps are not used as much as we pretend they are (except the big Stelton in the middle). The weird tin pyramid device you could put on top of the two-burner stove to make toast might have to be dispensed with, since most modern boats now have an actual grill.

Damien Guillou had to learn how to use a sextant for the 2022 Golden Globe Race. Credit: Getty

Damien Guillou using a sextant for the 2022 Golden Globe Race. Credit: Getty

And should I really be arguing for the leadline? I am still inordinately proud of knowing how to swing it, calling the depth by knots and tolerating the inevitable soaked sleeve. And even more pleased that we actually own the block of tallow to put in it.

We found it years ago in a Hamble chandlery, and enjoyed overhearing the assistant marvelling to the manager ‘Someone’s bought it!’ I don’t actually remember examining the quality of sand or gravel stuck in it, but it felt like a link with nautical history.

What else? The heaving-line, with a nicely built Monkey’s Fist knot on the end? Come on, that’s not useless – we might need it in a rescue or something. Watching the Norwegian ship’s crew send theirs snaking out with spin-bowler accuracy on our trip the other year was inspiring. That’s staying. So is the tin foghorn.

But I cannot, in all conscience, make a very strong case for a yacht having a bell.

One of my early skippers used to make a big thing of saying that the only rope you were allowed to call a rope was the one on the ship’s bell, since everything else was properly named: halyard, sheet, warp, vang, brail, stay, whatever. But I fear that our bell, after three boats and nearly 50 years, seems no longer to be fixed to a bulkhead with its rope dangling. Probably in a locker, though.

It is a bit sad to think of these once proud things falling into desuetude. It even applies to clothes. Canvas smocks are still usefully windproof and tolerant of random filth, but what with heat-tech and fleece and breathable science, gone are most of the immensely heavy sweaters and other knits which used to burst out of the flimsier locker doors like space monsters.

Ah, redundancy. It’s a melancholy thing…

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