Libby Purves: Mooring up in a new harbour, cheek by jowl with a diverse mix of utter strangers, is one of sailing’s great charms

I wrote a novel years ago, Casting Off, in which a furious wife, at the end of a scratchy weekend a deux, watches her husband carrying his bag up the pontoon to the car and on an impulse just chucks off the mooring-warps and heads out to sea on her own. Many encounters follow – and a reconciliation, because I am an old softy – but the core of the idea was how fascinating it is, and in the modern world how odd, that in crowded harbours where boats must raft up you can find yourself just a thin fibreglass layer away from the most diverse and unexpected fellows. Especially when you’ve all been forced to find decent shelter in trying conditions.

“The fascination is being holed up with people you might never have met through friends or work”

Thus a sedate cautious little family cruiser may be tied up to a world-circling Army expedition back from Antarctica; a patched- up old tore-out bumps in the swell alongside a billionaire hedge-fund trophy with a white ensign. A rowdy stag party teeters back to its bunks at 2am across the deck of an evangelical prayer-cruise, and is woken at dawn by cries of ‘Alleluia!’ It happens. Therefore, in fiction, anything goes. I seem to remember that in that book my heroine rescues an indignant hooker from the clutches of a global press magnate. If both parties had stayed at home – behind neat suburban hedges or alarmed steel gates, respectively – that couldn’t have happened.

And lately I have been thinking, very fondly, of all the shippy friendships and passing acquaintances which have enriched our lives at sea over the years. Club meets are perfectly good fun – I have never forgotten sailing from Poole to Cherbourg where one skipper’s hat blew off halfway and was, astonishingly, picked up and recognised by another boat an hour later, on
the same track. But in a club meet there are few social surprises. The greater fascination is being holed up with people you might never have met through friends or neighbours or work.

There was the young couple in an engineless wooden boat stocked up with sacks of rice and lentils for reasons of economy and vegetarianism: I think they grew salads on the forehatch on sunny days. There was the octogenarian singlehander on his way to pick up ‘a young chap of seventy’ on Scilly, and there was the couple who had to put into proper town harbours every second day because that was as long as the wife could go without a hairdresser, and others who had clearly never seen a hairdresser or considered beard maintenance for decades.

There have been hippies, and loners, and lads, and elderly ladies on a spree, and the odd celebrity. There was the chap navigating round Britain on an AA road map and the one who wouldn’t leave harbour even for half a day They need not be in yachts, of course.

Meeting a friendly tall ship crew can be a great enhancement. We have the happiest memories too of the guy at Skellig Michael who was kayaking round Ireland; and once you get away from yachty waters, local fishermen are often generous, helpful and curious about your odd pursuit. In Scotland they threw a parcel of salmon onto the deck, followed by a plastic sack of ice to keep it cool; in France a fishing-boat led us, before GPS and in thick fog, to a safe rock anchorage under the Ile Vierge lighthouse. In Peel, when a sudden swell came up the drying harbour and we were bouncing dangerously on our beaching legs, as soon as the tide rose a trawler invited us to dry safely alongside him.

Often, especially before email and Internet, we lost these companions as the weather eased and we each sailed away. One or two became lifelong friends; others sometimes turned up again to mutual cries of delight. But they have all been worth it, and we hope for many more.

Libby Purves