A healthy fear of the sea comes with experience, but new crew remind us why we fell in love with sailing, says Libby Purves

This year, a blast of hot summer weather brought a slew of tragic drownings and near-death rescues in our seas. Some victims were prudent but plain unlucky; several, though, were simply unaware of the power and behaviour of water. Snatched from perches on too-close rocks and proms, stranded on sandbanks or plucked by rip-tides, some came to grief avoidably. In some ways that’s even sadder, more pitiful than freakish bad luck. Advice from the RNLI and Coastguard has a mournful ‘if only…’ about it, and the underlying message is ‘if only they’d been more afraid of the sea’. If you aren’t on it or near it very often, it’s easy to think of it as just, well, just scenery. A living postcard.

The same principle applies to sailing. Yachts are just too pretty for their own good: too chocolate-box, too like the graceful sails on tea-shop paintings. But to be safe aboard or around boats we have to be a bit scared, and often that doesn’t come naturally. One of the most startling things about taking novices to sea is how cheerfully unworried they are. Photographers are the worst, ever eager to balance on a plunging bow or hanging over the side under the guardwires, asking to be put out in dinghies to take dramatic shots in a Force 6.

Artists and romantics, I am told, can be a liability: one chap, told to call the skipper up to reef if the wind rose, became so mesmerised by the glory of the rising seas that he forgot, and his skipper was awakened only by being thrown out of his bunk as the boat lurched. As for kids coming aboard for the first time, there is no telling them that a foredeck is a bad place to attempt hands-free wide-wing balancing-acts in the style of Kate Winslet in Titanic.

It is a rather touching tribute to the way that first-time crew utterly trust their skipper, and certainly better than guests who meet every few degrees of heel by curling up in a ball shrieking ‘Its going to capsize! We’re all going to die!’ Though one of that sort did teach me the valuable lesson when I was about 11; that children who don’t want to go sailing shouldn’t be made to. We were in her mother’s dinghy and I had been brought along to help calm down the reluctant daughter. As she lay on the bottom boards shrieking doom, the Mum said gaily, ‘Nonsense, darling, we’re just clipping along nicely!’ To which the child replied, reasonably enough for a hysteric, ‘But I don’t LIKE clipping along nicely!’

But it is the opposite, the insouciant first-time confidence, which is more dangerous, whether wading to a sandbank or aboard a yacht. I remember this fearlessness myself, on my first proper cruise: a wild night passage towards the outer Hebrides, my task being to hop out of the bunk once an hour, pump the bilge and lash down the objects which ricocheted around the saloon. I was thrilled, romantically delighted by the adventure of it, but it never occurred to me that there was any actual risk. Any more than there was on that same cruise when, under sail and in the pitch dark, we zigzagged through the Sound of Harris. The skipper was expert, the other crew strong, we were probably a safe as any century-old boat with a failed engine could possibly be. But if I was doing it now, I would know far too much to be so comfortable and confident. Today I always know how close we come to disaster, and indeed, as a coward, probably think it is a great deal closer. Knowledge does feed some kinds of confidence, the useful kind, but it also sabotages the carefree romantically adventurous spirit which only comes with holiday-mood ignorance.

So enjoy your first-time crews, rejoice in their shining eyes and their delight at the marvel that is a yacht. Don’t be doomy with them, but as they lurch joyfully around the deck shunning harnesses and handholds, remember that the honeymoon moment has its risks.

Libby Purves July 2016 Podcast

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