An Extra Hand
What is it that motivates bar room philosophers and know-alls to be sceptical about someone who has broken out and sailed away? Is it a desire for stories, a new yarn told in the bar as entertainment for the stay at home cynics and dreamers? During a recent visit back to England I told this tale to some friends who were hungry for a sailing story.
Bob was an interesting man. I met him in a marina in North Africa, where we were spending the winter, our yacht berthed on the pontoon, resting up, doing repairs before setting off for another summer of passage making. In all marinas or ports where the yachting community park their boats for the winter there is always an interesting mix of people and this was no exception. The live aboard community is small, there is a grapevine among the less well heeled long term cruiser and we tell each other of cheap winter berths were one can live comfortably, safely and experience something of the local culture. So there we were, sharing the pontoons with a variety of sailing folk: some heading east, some west, some finishing a circumnavigation, some beginning one and some just cruising the Mediterranean.
Bob brought his sloop into the marina in October, she was a fairly tidy and sea worthy craft. He made her safe and secure and was planning to return to England for a couple of months. A shy man, he had little to say other than that he had passed the previous winter here and had spent the summer sailing the Italian islands. Eager for some English conversation we asked him aboard and over a beer the night before he left he talked a little of his background and I became intrigued by this strange single hander from the Thames Estuary.
Bob said that he had been a sailor for many years, he had kept a wooden sailing boat in one of the creeks off the Thames and sailed the shoal waters for most of his early life. He knew the smacks, bawleys and barges, and had sailed aboard most boats suited to the tidal waters. His own boat had been a barge yacht, a cruising boat, built on the lines of craft which had sailed the river for centuries carrying cargos of hay, barley, bricks and timber. With their bowsprits and distinctive gaff rigs they were as much part of the landscape of the river as the marshes, mudflats, winding creeks and big skies .He muttered something about this being before his accident, said his farewells and left for England the next morning.
He returned in January, glad to escape the English winter and the pressures of friends and memory that tried to hold him at home. Poor Bob, he had ghosts in England and had done his best to exorcise them, he was going back to his small boat home and anticipating a few months of tranquillity. Bob returned, to his boat and the nightmare that all sailors dread.
The rat has been feared for a long time in western culture: blamed for the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death, it was Winston Smith’s nightmare in Room 101 in George Orwell’s novel, 1984. Rats are extremely unwelcome aboard a small boat. Bob opened his cabin and instead of the homely scene that he was expecting, he saw a scene of utter destruction. He didn’t realise that he had picked up an unwelcome guest from one of the Italian ports he had stopped in on his passage back to Tunisia. Having emptied the boat of all perishables foodstuffs and closed all the hatches the boat was not only secured so no one could enter, nothing could get out either. So once all was quiet aboard the rat came out from his hiding place to explore his surroundings and hunt for food. Finding no food or way out he began to eat his way through the boat.
He began with the upholstery, chewing through the covers to eat foam, kapok and velour. Plastic containers, cardboard boxes, bedding, clothing and anything vaguely edible was attacked and chewed with his sharp incisors. Bob’s worst fears were confirmed when he checked the boat’s electrics. For some reason rats love to eat electricity wires. All those cables carefully pulled through the hull sides and headlining were in tatters and a tug on a wire left a hand full of short, chewed and useless scraps of flex. Wiring a boat is hard and time consuming and Bob had spent weeks putting in his 12-volt system. He was proud of the interior lighting and had installed a cooling fan and small fridge. Now nothing worked. More importantly none of the navigation equipment was functioning. No navigation lights, no GPS and no VHF radio. This all had to be rewired before he could even think about sailing He sat down in the debris and cried.
No one saw Bob for a week, he was not one for socialising and although yachtsmen love to yarn and Bob had some good tales to tell, we respect each other’s space and thought nothing of it. He was back aboard and looked as if he was occupied with some project or the other. Then I bumped into him on the pontoon and he described the scene that had greeted him on his return. The rat had fled, Bob had shed his tears, felt immobilised with despair and had realised that there was nothing to be done except repair the damage. “Insurance?” I asked, but like most of us, Bob’s insurance was third party only. Like most live aboard yachtsmen he knew his boat thoroughly and refused offers of help. “She was due for a refit and I’m used to working single handed”, was his stoical reply. The best way that we could help was to have him aboard for supper a couple of times a week and this became a regular fixture during the winter months.
North Africa has some of the best fish and seafood in the Mediterranean, fishing methods more basic than in the European countries, so the supply is plentiful and prices are low. Consequently most of our meals were fish suppers. Over prawn curries and grilled tuna steaks we yarned and after a couple of glasses of wine Bob began to relax and to talk about his past life. One could tell that he had a dark and sad history; he bore the scars of tragedy in his lined face and worn body. He had been happily married to a teacher who was as passionate about boats as he was. Bob had been a plumber, earned good money and as he worked for himself, he was able to share his wife’s long holidays. So they sailed and travelled and travelled and sailed. Usually sailing, trips to Holland, France and the south coast of England in his beloved barge yacht. In the winter they travelled and had visited India and Thailand and they dreamed of sailing in tropical waters.
Their plans were not very different to ours: save some money, buy a larger sea going yacht and head out to sea, Falmouth to La Corunna then down the Spanish and Portuguese coast to Gibraltar and either into the Med or down to the Canary Islands and across “the pond” to the Caribbean. The world is our oyster. This was not to work out for Bob, life was to deal him a cruel blow and scupper his plans and deprive him of his greatest love and partner.
Bob had a perfectly reliable estate car that he used for work and as a workhorse for carrying goods to and from boat jumbles, where he bought and sold equipment, some for the barge yacht and some to put away for the new offshore boat that he was scouting around for… But he had a weakness for old British motorbikes and bought a Triumph Bonneville. This was fun and he loved it. His wife (whose name he never disclosed) also liked the open road and donned leathers to ride pillion with him. Then it happened. The accident. One grey winter Essex day when visibility was down to 50 yards, the sort of day when no one would go to sea, they went up to Suffolk to look at a boat he had heard was for sale and was a potentially suitable off shore cruiser. Using back roads where he could open out the bike and accelerate along the straights they headed north. Visibility improved and the road was empty, free and fast they powered up the tarmac. It was a Sunday, who would have expected a farmer to be manoeuvring his tractor out of a field and into the road? Bob swerved, he braked, but they crashed in a tangle of bodies, metal, fuel, mud and blood.
When Bob regained consciousness he was in hospital, badly injured but alive. His wife was not. She had been thrown from the bike and despite being protected with leathers and a crash helmet was killed by the impact. Bob was in hospital for six months, his injuries were extensive, his wounds were horrific but his medical care was good and he slowly regained his physical well-being. Physiotherapy over several years enabled him to function again but the mental damage was less easy to heal.
Unable to maintain his boat he sold her, she went to a good owner. With an old and well-known boat like this each new owner is regarded as a guardian. The boat, feminine and demanding, is more than the sum of her parts, she is alive, has a personality of her own and only someone sensitive to this is considered a suitable keeper. Bob sold her with regret but to the right person. She became a much-loved member of a large family. Now he had some money: a disability pension and hard cash from the sale of the barge yacht, but a yawning hole in his life where his wife had been. No wife, no boat, he was at sea in the Essex marshes. He knew that he could drift through life in the boatyard culture of craftsmen, fishermen and drifters who live in a time warp on the edges of the river but it offered an empty existence and he still had his dream.
They had no children so Bob was very much alone. His earlier plans for a large boat had to be modified, he was now a disabled single hander and if he couldn’t sail with his wife he could sail for her. As he recovered he formulated his plan, he would buy a small yacht, one that he could handle alone, yet big enough for some companionable crew on his longer passages. Not a pretty traditional wooden craft that demanded time, money and hard work to maintain, but a glass fibre low maintenance modern boat. So he bought a seaworthy hull and set to re rigging and refitting. She was functional, shipshape, easily handled alone and he set off across the channel to hop down the French, Spanish and Portuguese coasts. Sometimes sailing alone and sometimes with friends, he spent his first winter in Gibraltar and sailed into the Mediterranean Sea.
By the end of March Bob had completed rewiring and repairing the damage to his yacht, he had found the work therapeutic and he became more cheerful and began to discuss his future plans. He decided to throw a party and we were all invited onboard to celebrate. There were fifteen people crammed into his cockpit and cabin. A man’s boat, she was functional and basic, but he had worked wonders and was happy. As we joined him in toasting his work and wishing each other fair winds in the coming summer Bob raised his glass, with his left hand, his only one. He was truly single-handed, his right arm had been amputated at the shoulder after his accident, he had overcome horrifying physical and mental loss and here he was in the Mediterranean in his own boat, enjoying good company and planning for the future. When he suggested that an extra hand can be useful on a passage or when coming up to a berth, I think that he knew what he was talking about.
There was silence in the bar, and I could feel the waves of embarrassment and humility as these cynics, dreamers and know alls realised that anything is possible if one only has enough imagination and courage.
Jane N Hill