Tom Cunliffe: Getting afloat is a wonderful escape from the burdens, and screens, of everyday life. I’d like to keep it that way...

“The true peace of God begins at any spot a thousand miles from the nearest land”

One of my favourite quotes is from Joseph Conrad. ‘The true peace of God begins at any spot a thousand miles from the nearest land.’

It reminds me of a simpler life when my crew and I would slip our dock lines in June after the usual hectic period of fitting out, clearing our hawse with
the authorities, creditors, publishers, bank managers, headmasters and anyone else with leverage on our lives.

Sailing past the Needles into the clean wind of the sea, the scent of freedom filled our heads as we squared away for adventures yet unwritten. Nobody could telephone us. There would be no mail where we were going.

We were on our own in company of our choosing aboard a ship that had trodden the path before. The wheeling stars, the sweeping lighthouses and the slow-turning trailing log were our guides. A crackling Shipping Forecast was our only weather information. For the next three months of summer we had time to think about who we were and to recharge our batteries for the coming winter.

Sounds good, eh? It was, and it was even better setting out on an ocean passage. Then, especially if you were headed for one of the obscurer parts of the globe, it was more than likely that nobody would hear of you for months. Of course, being out of touch carried its risks, but these were considered and accepted.

One friend sailed from Bursledon in the early 1970s and it was only when he failed to show up a year later that we began to wonder. After a further twelve months the gap he left in the Jolly Sailor grew less obvious. With five years and still no word we understood that Brian had been lost at sea. He wasn’t young and he went privately, doing what he loved, so his loss was no cause for grief.

How different our lives have become in so short a time. Off I go each summer, thrilled to be away once more, but already wondering where I’m going to find the WiFi on which my existence seems now to depend.

My agents tell me that if I don’t ‘tweet’ every few days I’m a dead man walking for anyone under thirty, so I tweet away with the best of them. Actually, I quite enjoy it and I love putting out the weekly video blog on Youtube, but the commitment means I must organise my life at sea around keeping it up.

Here, then, is a thought for us all: many of us spend our working lives peering into screens. We get paid for this, so – for some at least – it beats digging holes in the road. When we board our yachts and take off for a session with the forces of nature, what do we do? We peer into screens again, only this time we are paying through the nose for the privilege. It’s an interesting conundrum, but thinking about it has done me some good.

I’ve been planning to go down to the boat tomorrow night with my wife. We’ll have dinner on the mooring, a good sleep and a bacon sandwich before driving home to my office in the morning. I had decided to download a movie to share after dinner. Thirty years back, we’d have watched the last of the light die on the river instead, checked out any birds late back to the nest and looked south for Jupiter sailing the evening sky. After dark, we’d have sat in the saloon reading, listening to the bogey stove drawing gently and the near-silent rustle of the oil lamps burning their way through to the dawn.

So that’s what I’m going to do. It’s all still there, like the graffiti unearthed in an old Islington basement which read, ‘the fields lie sleeping underneath.’ To find the peace of God, it doesn’t do to forget.


Tom Cunliffe