Tom Cunliffe: Sailing at just a few knots seems terribly slow to modern minds, but it stealthily does our souls a lot of good

Have you noticed the way the world seems to spin a lot faster in the first few hours after returning from a cruise? It struck me hard when I came ashore from a three-year trip in yachting’s slow lane and wandered into a Liverpool car auction. I bought a Citroën Dyane for fifty quid and
motored back to my boat in Conwy.

The old Dyane was a sort of 2CV on steroids, but there’s only so much that even the French can do with 600cc. That car could carry anything I threw into the back and it did fifty to the gallon, but when it came to performance it was a dog. Even so, I managed to wind it up to a mile a minute on its inaugural passage. The bridges seemed to rush towards me at impossible velocity, yet everyone else was batting by as though I were standing still.

After sailing fifteen thousand miles at six knots on a good day, the traverse between junctions on the M62 felt like taking off in a fighter jet. The same shakeup still happens every autumn. I come puttering home up the Beaulieu River and clamber into my modern car. Then I zoom away across the New Forest at the legal limit of 40 miles per hour, horrified that this unnatural rate of progress drove me silly three months ago because it felt so slow.

“If the tide’s flooding, the tide’s flooding and there’s nothing you or me or anyone else can do about it”

There is a message here which I forget with such consistently that this year I intend to hammer it home while I’m still at sea and store it away for later. Like most of us, I live much of my life in today’s fast lanes of social media, email and deadlines. Thank goodness the sea knows nothing of this and will have none of it. When we sail away we are constrained by greater forces and I have grown to appreciate the experience.

I once owned a little boat that lived in a mud berth up the Hamble River. One mid- summer’s night we’d floated off the ooze in moonlight and were lying to a deepwater mooring ready for a dawn start. I was hoisting her main at 0500 when Eddie the fisherman pottered by in his ancient boat for a spot of early dredging. Eddie was probably the last of the breed of fishermen-yacht hands who sailed the J-class boats in the 1930s.

Many hailed from the neighbouring River Itchen, where street names such as Defender Road, Shamrock Road and Ailsa Lane still recall their years of glory. Eddie terrified me, but looking back I think he was a kind man. Now he took off way and hung on the tide to shoot the breeze.
‘Where you bound, Nipper?’ he asked,puffing the ash off the fag-end that lived permanently on his lower lip. ‘I’m away down to Weymouth. Thought I’d get the best of the day,’ I replied.

Eddie looked at the wind which was set sweetly in the southwest and showing no sign of changing. ‘You may as well go back to bed till eleven o’clock then,’ he advised. ‘Tide’ll be flooding by the time you arrive at Calshot if you leave now. You’ll have six hours beating on the spot in that boat of yours.’

‘I dunno,’ I replied. ‘Maybe I’ll go and give it a shot anyway.’

‘Listen,’ he said. ‘If the tide’s flooding up the Solent, the tide’s flooding up the Solent and there’s nothing you or me or anyone else can do about it. Turn in now and be grateful when the ebb comes, because come it surely will.’

You didn’t argue with Eddie. He understood that sailing obliges us to accept nature’s own pace. Year after year I fail to see the good this is doing for my soul until I drive away from the boat at the end and confront the awful speed of my shore life. This year, I plan to relish every minute of travelling slowly.


Tom Cunliffe