It may not matter now, but once we have to rely on crew, the ability to name parts of the boat will keep us sailing


Some gloomy health charity informs us that one in three of us will face dementia. The figures were picked up, crunched, explained and debunked on that magnificent BBC Radio 4 statistics programme More or Less. But well short of dementia, it seems inevitable that as we sail triumphantly into middle age, even without serious senior- moment forgetfulness, we tend to forget words. Names. We enter the age of the thingummy, the whatsername, the you-know- who-I-mean. I do the concise crossword against the clock every day, to force myself into more rapid retrieval of words like echelon and viscera and Lithuania.

Experts assure us that it isn’t a matter of mental decline but more that the brain, ever more overcrowded yet ever efficient, simply stores away unused information somewhere in the back room and takes a while to retrieve it, like a wheezing but willing veteran chandler looking in the back room for spares for a Baby Blake. It’s not that we don’t know that bloke – ‘Whosit, the one with the Contessa 32, that time at, where was it? Newtown? No, Newport.’ – but his name’s gone. It’s not totally lost, and you will eventually remember it, and also recall at last the name of that place where apparently they do stock Baby Blake spares – ‘The one that guy told us about, at the Royal Whatsitsname club dinner, the one who sailed the old gaffer…’

It happens to us all. On Wild Song off Brazil one crew member spent all evening trying to remember the name of his children’s former headmaster, and suddenly sat bolt upright
in his bunk at 0200 shouting (let’s change the name for reasons of decency) ‘Harold Farthinglow! I knew it!’ You know what I mean. If you don’t, thank heaven for your radiant youth and the fact that your brain has still got plenty of space left for new names and people.

But what, you ask, tapping your foot impatiently, has this verbal amnesia got to do with sailing? I will tell you. It came to me the other week off Anvil point, when Paul lunged forward past me to adjust the mainsheet traveller. I was closer, but because he has spent a lot of time singlehanding, his body instinctively bypassed the speech centres of the brain and just did it, as one ducks under a branch, or blinks at a light. We all get moments like this on familiar boats, and those who have been singlehanders, or skippers who sail regularly with friends who don’t help, do it even more. I am prepared to bet that if challenged, Paul would have taken longer to retrieve the words‘mainsheettraveller’ than to do it.

Which is fine. Until – hearken to my words, you ageing ones! – you grow arthritic and need a words. And it may be a challenge, unless you are one of those splendid naval types accustomed to give clear orders: ‘Reeve the lazy end through the eyebolt on the gammon-iron and bring it back to the snatchblock on the cranse!’ or ‘Ease off the starboard runner and bring the fall down aft of the midships cleat! They’ll be fine. Otherwise, here comes a generation of magnificent old seadogs (male and female) who know everything, but suddenly lose their personal nimbleness. They’ll be dancing up and down at the helm, thwarted, yelling ‘Pull the – oh for god’s sake, the – ah – there – line – thing!’ as ropes flog and sails fall aback. And the crew, willing but temporarily baffled as to what’s required, wait for the words of command to struggle through the brain’s rickety card-index.

Be warned. Start verbalising now, even if internally, as you skip neatly and sweetly around the boat on fully functional knees. Name the parts as they fall below your still-strong hands. One day you may need to bark them in haste.


Libby Purves