43 - Sloop of destiny
I had been making a sporadic series of trips down to the harbour to draw. This particular day was an unpromisingly windy one, with black clouds looming, but I reckoned I could squeeze in an hour before the rain. So I selected a very large, very tough piece of khadi paper to take with me, a bottle of ink and a stick.
Rolling the paper, I tucked it discreetly, as I thought, into a bag so that only 50 cm or so stuck out the top. Trotting up the railway bridge steps towards the marina, I heard a voice “Ooh! Handmade paper! That’s really cool!” The young man who had caught up with me was an obvious aficionado, and appreciated the delicious feel of painting onto paper – handmade or otherwise. At the foot of the steps, we wished one another a good day and parted company, I heading for the shelter and, as I thought, invisibility of the harbour wall, where I unfolded a tiny camping stool and pinned down the said handmade paper with a boot at opposite corners and selected my subject.
Barely had I applied ink to page when I had company once again “What are you doing?” Fearing prosecution for trespass, I raised my head guiltily from my work, relieved when I realised that this was not the harbourmaster about to chase me off the premises but a kindly soul who was simply keen to ensure my precious paper, flapping like a sail, “didn’t turn into a kite”. He searched the ground and contributed a stone to my anchoring system. “Are you doing that one over there?” he pursued. “Do you know anything about it?” I had to confess that I didn’t, beyond the battle-crinkled lines and underdog appearance of the boat that had appealed to me in the first place.
“It’s a steel-hulled sloop” he said. He confided that he was on the look-out for a similar-sized vessel for a “project” he hoped to be embarking on very soon. While we were speaking, a young man arrived at the pontoons, approaching the weatherbeaten boat, and my new friend followed him down towards it, eager for information. He was soon back. “Nah, it’s not right for me… that hull is just 4 mm thick – 4 mm is OK above the waterline, but I need at least 7 mm below the waterline. I’m just waiting for a bus now, I’m going to look at a boat in Falmouth – after that, if it’s the right one, I’m going to sail it to New Zealand. He told me the sad tale of the disappearance of his father from the family home when he was just a boy. Now, in his retirement, he had traced his father to New Zealand, alas just a few weeks too late to find him alive. He resolved to make the trip anyway, as he said, to live out the rest of his days seeking out the people who had known his father and piecing together his story. And he was going to sail his way there, single-handed. That was indeed “a project”.
“I’ll go via Gibraltar – there’s a big Morrissons there and I’ll be able to stock up before the voyage.” I was impressed at this planning and sense of adventure. “Have you done this sort of thing before?” I asked. “Nope!” he said happily. “Anyway, I’d best go and catch my bus! Mind you make a drawing, and not a kite!”, and off he went on the first stage of what would, I have no doubt at all, be the journey of a lifetime, leaving me to absorb the incredible story I’d just been told as I made my drawing.
When I came home, I googled "Ryde pier collision" and discovered a little history on my battered sloop. One wild night very recently, she had had to be extricated by the Bembridge coastguard, Calshot lifeboat and Ryde Inshore Rescue when she had sailed slap-bang into the pier. There were further details in a somewhat matter-of-fact report in the Island Echo. Casually the reporter mentioned that, only a few days before colliding with the pier it was thought that the same 40 ft sailing boat had gone aground at Needs Ore Point and been rescued by Lymington RNLI.
A couple of weeks later I revisited the harbour. The boat was not at the pontoon where I had drawn her. Wild imaginings filled my head as I walked on. She had been patched and was now moored up at Morrissons, Gibraltar, waiting to be stacked high with provisions for the expedition ahead. A boat like that needs the wide ocean for a comfortable sail, not the scrawny inlets and nuisance piers of the Solent forever getting in her way. I walked on and found her tethered to the harbour wall – not apparently going anywhere for now. But whenever I see her, in my mind, she will be battling the seas around the Cape of Good Hope, scudding through a chicane of shark fins in the Pacific before crashing triumphantly into a jetty after staggering up some remote New Zealand creek. But I have no doubt that, in reality, those adventures await some other sturdier vessel, and her bold one-man crew.