Dick Durham: Why are ships female? Because they are like mothers, sheltering us and carrying us through the storms of life

My mother died recently and I now know why ships are called shes. I suddenly feel as though I’ve been left to swim for it, even though I’ve been old enough to fend for myself for some 40-odd years. A ship is a she because they are like mothers. They shelter you, they feed you, they carry you through the rough and tumble of life until you can sail solo.

One of my earliest memories is of Ma using her own coat to protect my pre-school nape from a summer thunderstorm as father rowed us ashore from his barge-yacht, Curlew. A little later, while Pa’s 20ft Snapdragon was stranded on a shoal in the Thames Estuary, mother carried me across a oozy stretch peppered with sharp oyster shells, her own feet negotiating the cruel shards.

When our pet pooch Rosy, a fat old beagle, became an HOB (Hound Over Board) and was paddling pathetically round and round in a whirlpool caused by the buttress of the bridge we were shooting, it was Ma she licked first in gratitude for her deliverance.

When I started sailing my own dayboats, she once turned up at my home and was horrified to notice that the forefinger on my right hand had ballooned into a digit like that of a tree-frog. I had chewed off a cuticle and while sanding down my International 18, Phantom, had infected the wound. Ma, a former Red Cross nurse, ordered me to visit hospital immediately which I considered an over-reaction until I arrived, fresh off the commuter train, in the casualty department of St Bartholemews in the City.

‘Who do you think you are, Dr Kildare?’ the nurse asked as I explained that I had been lancing the wound myself. It was taken very seriously, as Mother predicted, and I was immediately taken to an operating theatre, given a local painkiller and laid out on an operating table. Now rather alarmed as to which digit was coming off, I was relieved when a separate, smaller operating plate, was swung out to receive my hand which was then operated on.

‘She would suffer the estuary seas because her husband loved it’

Aboard my first cruising boat, the 26ft Bermudian cutter, Almita, Ma made sure there was a first aid kit, she checked the lines of the second, Powder Monkey, a 30ft Alan Buchanan Yeoman Junior, and pronounced them suitable for seaworthy passage, of the third, Minstrel Boy, a Contessa 32, she was concerned about the draught as it meant I had to keep her three quarters of a mile off the shoreline to find water enough for a swinging mooring. ‘You be careful in that dinghy,’ she would say.

Somebody once said that we all become photographs and as I sorted through ours I could see that Ma didn’t really like sailing. There she was wrapped up in her sheepskin waistcoat, large baggy trousers tucked into woollen socks and a headscarf
tied over her hair. The sunglasses were more a symbol of optimism than a necessity and it was Pa who was smiling, not her. But she would suffer the chill winds and the estuary seas because her husband loved it. My sister and I, trussed up in lifejackets, thought we were enjoying it. Much later on I realised I was.

Yet for all her antipathy to yachting she was alert to potential hazards afloat. Before they were married, one rough day in the estuary, it was Mother who first spotted a buoy in the way of Father’s deeply-reefed dayboat and shoved the helm over just in time.

She also held sailors in high regard. Once, when walking along the esplanade at Burnham-on-Crouch with her retired father-in-law, Captain Richard Stephens Durham OBE, who had been a Cape Horner as a boy, a bustling yachtsman pushed past, jolting his arm.

Ma turned to the old shellback and said, ‘You should have a notice hanging round your neck saying ‘This is a real sailor.’

These days I sail a 26ft gaff cutter, but I will never forget my first ship. Nancy Isabel Durham, rest in peace.