Libby Purves: For the sporadic sailor, as very many of us are, setting out to sea again fills us with nerves, though few admit it


Reading these columns, a few of you may have the impression of some leathery old salt, rarely ashore, twinkling across the foredeck
with brine in her hair, her mind constantly on yachting life and habits. But think that through, about almost any of us, and it is as much of a dream as any nautical fantasy.

I have always worked, and had children and other duties; holidays are limited. Sometimes in recent years Wild Song has been far away, on some stage of Paul’s great voyage to Cape Horn. Our home mooring is a long way from our actual home. Sometimes my annual lust for the sea has had to be slaked by a Tall Ships race instead of a cruising yacht, and topped up with dinghy moments.

I write, I remember, I reflect; but for long, long months of the year, like many of us who love this magazine, I am not on a boat at all. So there’s the business of re-familiarisation, for those of us who live this way, either as co-owners or as crew. It is an odd business, getting used to a boat again, and never more so than this last summer when, due to a house-move and associated chaos and a Tall Ships race, nearly a whole year passed without my setting foot on board my own co-owned Wild Song. And it felt very odd.

First day out, 36 hours across the shipping lanes to the rocky Brittany coast, two-on two-off, flopping out in full harness and oilies. Disorienting, slightly alarming; old instincts about dodging shipping and hasty reefing awoke sluggishly one by one. Two new instruments in the nav station had unfamiliar buttons and screens. New fender stowage had been devised with a new capacity to get things caught on it.

We cruised on, in horrid dark drizzly Breton weather and fog, and gradually it all fell into place: the sounds and warnings and knockings and lurchings came to be routine, my personal manoeuvring in and out of the quarterberth tunnel got nimbler, stowed items fell more readily under my hand, the lunge for a mooring buoy got neater, the memory of how to adjust the windvane by touch returned. But too soon the main cruise was over, with just a few weekends to come before another winter set in.

This is not untypical of many yachties. But the elephant in the room is not unhandiness or unfamiliar instruments and kit. It is nerves.

No point denying it: each year, for the first few times or in threatening weather, I am petrified every time we leave harbour. Can’t sleep, stomach churns, uneasy at every level, keep thinking what’s the point?

Come on: who else is going to admit to that? But I think it would be helpful if we more intermittent sailors did admit it – we may be spouses, old friends, or former crew re-recruited when a skipper’s kids leave home.

We ought to admit that in this cushioned, cappuccino age it’s alarming to be far out on the uncertain sea in little boats, with a rockbound coast to leeward and a big Atlantic swell from the threatening west. It’s not wrong to be nervous and it’s not rare either.

Years ago my son, only 17, was setting out on the Tall Ships Race 2000 from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Amsterdam: four weeks on a strange ship. He nearly backed out, but a friend and former naval officer, a Falklands War captain, sat on his bunk with him and delivered a great, rarely spoken truth. ‘In the whole history of seafaring, the night before a passage, nobody has ever really felt like going. Not really… But once you drop the warps tomorrow, everything will be fine’.  And so it was.