Tom Cunliffe: Trapped in harbour by a howling gale and pouring rain, it’s easy to forget why we love this sailing lark at all


‘The rain it raineth every day.’ So sang Feste, Shakespeare’s wise old clown, probably describing the state of affairs in Illyria some time around 1600.

I suspect, though, that he saw the future and was actually thinking about the second half of Summer 2015. What a shocker! Most home-waters sailors seem to have some tale to tell of being storm-bound, asking themselves if the whole carry-on was really worth all the money and commitment. One of my chums capitulated to the downpour in a mud berth in Faversham; another had to concede that South Brittany wasn’t at its best when Metéo France’s precipitation pots were filling at over 30mm a day.

As for me, I fetched up on a desolate pontoon in Brixham being stiffed for forty quid a night. This, it should be noted, was for a berth that lay outside the wave breaker with no power, water, Wi-Fi, or security and not a smile to be had in the office, except from one lovely girl who saved the day.

‘The best Wi-Fi’s in the caff just up the quay,’ she waved a hand brightly in a northerly sort of direction. ‘Me and some of the boys from the harbour have a beer in there after work. You could join us if you like…?’

I squelched off with my briefcase and found the watering hole. I bought a pot of tea and set to my duties behind a steamy window, starting, as always, with the Inshore Forecast. No change in the offing. Next, Passage Weather with its seven-day reach. Maybe an improvement in three days, they said sheepishly. Discouraged, I reverted to my emails to be greeted by the usual demands from creditors and vitriolic rants about my being photographed without a lifejacket on a summer’s day. I was losing the will to live when, at five past five, the girl from the marina blew in from the downpour with her pals. Stamping to shake the water off their oilskins, they commandeered the table next to mine. Drinks arrived in short order and soon we fell into conversation.

“One woman jumped ship in mid-Pacific by hopping onto the bosprit of another boat”

It’s been said by, I believe, no less an authority than Picasso, that when critics get together they talk about painting. When painters meet up, they discuss the price of turpentine. So it is with sailors. These folk were the business. Nobody mentioned such dull subjects as changing a jib or how to secure a yacht alongside. This was proper, salty stuff. Everyone cursed the weather and, with that opener out of the way, we all got around to ships and their people. Boats we’d known, skippers dug from the pit of Hell for our personal discomfort, tropical seas, pliant girls in lands less formal than our own, extraordinary drinking feats and a woman who had a jumped ship in mid-Pacific by hopping onto the bowsprit of a
boat that was overtaking rather too close. The stories grew taller, although I know that the one about the bowsprit was true.

The sea is a small village, so it was no surprise to learn that some of us had once had shipmates in common. A shared history drew us together and as I wandered back to the yacht later in the still-driving rain, I had a big smile on my face.

Boats and their technicalities are only a part of what we do. The magic is spun by the human factor. The phenomenon of social media and its ‘friends’ is a pale substitute for true comradeship. Only in common hardships do we discover who is who and, indeed, who we really are ourselves.

Friendships forged in bad weather at sea, or even when hiding in the same harbour from the same gale, are likely to last a lifetime even if the ocean road carries us apart for years. When we happen upon one another by chance in some far-off port, it doesn’t matter what decades have passed and that our hair has turned grey, we know the inner spark burns on and we understand why, even when the rain rains every day, we still put out to sea.