A rift exists between those who long to sail north and those who look south, but there’s still hope, says Libby Purves


North or South, that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the yachtsman to seek the sleet and icebergs of outrageous Northlands? Or to bare arms upon a sea of sunshine, and by exposing, tan them? When cruise planning starts for each season, we are all indecisive Hamlets. Or, if not, Montagues and Capulets, forever locked in tribal argument about which way to point.

For us whose climatic destiny is mainly in the temperate oceanic islands of Great Britain and Eire, in periods when there is time for more than a mere Channel or North Sea crossing in your life there is always that question: Which way to sail?

You can go north – Norway, Orkney, Shetland, Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland, over to Newfoundland where the great whales play. Or you can head south across Biscay
for Mediterranean shores. Or bounce off the warmer Atlantic islands down the trade-wind route to subtropical paradise. If you are really extreme, like my roaming husband, you might sail all the way south, cursing your way down the Brazilian coast as he does in his book One Wild Song, in order to get freezing cold again in Patagonia and pretend it’s the beloved North.

But mainly – you may have guessed this – our decisions are joint, and our views divide. His heart is northern, indeed positively Nordic. He pickles his own herrings, for heaven’s sake; makes elegantly symmetrical woodpiles, watches Scandi-Noir gloomy murder mysteries, and feels utterly at home in a deadweight oiled sweater with symbolic reindeer on it.

‘His heart is northern. My heart yearns for the warm south’

My heart, on the other hand, yearns for ‘a beaker full of the warm south, full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene’. I want to swim off the boat to a white sand beach, under cascading bougainvillea; I want olive groves and shady cafés, watermelons and grapes warm from the sun. I do not want pickled herring. My ideal sailing outfit is a swimsuit and something floaty to keep the sunburn off. I consider adverse weather in hot climates to be somehow less alarming, the wind less heavy because less cold, the rain refreshing rather than coming at you like a million tiny spears. Ice in the rigging fails to excite me with its romance, but flying fish do.

Well, I may overstate a bit; we can each to some extent appreciate one another’s tastes, and I did grow up enthusiastically studying Norse sagas and getting excited about Wagner. A Hurtigruten voyage up the Norwegian coast saw me very happily hanging out for hours on the bridge while the Captain explained which rock formations around us were actually trolls frozen by witches a thousand years ago. I do see the point of northern romance. And in return, my husband acknowledges that there is something highly agreeable about drifting around somewhere east of Marmaris.

The difference is that as battered old veteran sailors we are each aware of how it is when
you are on your own boat. He knows that the South can be sticky and dispiriting as you plod along concrete quays and shop in corrugated- iron markets, that cockroaches come aboard in every cardboard box, flies breed in the galley; he knows that Mediterranean winds are curiously annoying, all that Meltemi-Sirocco stuff, and that the south of France is full of unbearable poseurs. He knows that in the tropics it’ll be pitch dark from 1800 to 0600 and you will use up a lot of paraffin just to read a book. Unless you sit in some mosquito-ridden shoreside bar watching gap year kids pretend to be Ernest Hemingway.

I admit all this. And yes, he admits in return that it is not amusing to be freezing cold amid bare rocks with the Met Office cosily predicting Force 11 and ‘phenomenal’ seas across Viking, Fair Isle, Faeroes and SE Iceland.

But still, his heart yearns north, mine south. Possibly the answer is to pack in all this work nonsense and sail all year – south for winter, north for summer. We’ll think about it.

Libby Purves