As a general rule, to avoid any big surprises, I usually try to make my expectations as capacious as possible, so when Niall Power of Advantage Engineering asked me to go sailing everything from visions of myself having cocktails served to me while I lounged on a bar stool made of whales foreskin to baiting hooks for Spencer Tracy as the Old Man and the Sea drifted though my mind. I really had no idea what to expect and I was so busy wrestling my fears that I neglected to ask.
My fears did not have a lot to do with falling into the water and drowning. I have been on boats before and I like being on the water. I went down river many moons ago on an old wooden yacht and travelled to the Blaskets in a tiny boat on heaving indigo seas. I have been out shark fishing in a little motor boat miles off Dunmore and I have even been sea-kayaking. I am afraid of deep water for sure but I am practical too and once I am out on the water I relax into it. What else is there to do?
These fears were of a different stripe. I have bad hearing and social occasions are a bit of a nightmare for me. Ironically, its worse since I got hearing aids since they pick up every bloody thing and poor Brain can’t cope with all the noise. The idea being around lots of people I didn’t know in a tiny space with lots of background noise(be it cocktail music or the dying moans of a swordfish)was a bit challenging.
On Sunday morning we met at the Marina Hotel in Waterford and went down to the boat. The Crown Duel is 36 foot. No room for a bar I thought but it turned out that I was wrong and it was a relatively spacious vessel. Five of us made up the crew.
Niall and myself grew up on the same street and though we didn’t know eachother well back then we had reconnected though this blog which he seems to like. Great taste that boy. Tom, Jimmy and David were the other three and they all made feel very welcome .
There were other boats going out too. If I had read Nialls message in its two-line entirety I would have known before that moment that I was in an actual race and I would never have made an appearance. The Waterford Harbour Sailing Club have 5 fun races in their October League every Sunday down the Suir Estuary.
Standing on the pontoon I nervously mentioned to a woman from another crew that I had done no sailing to which she replied that she had heard that I was athletic and that would suffice, a comment which only added to my trepidation. Four strange men and an athletic lady?What class of a race was this?I wondered if there was a cocktail bar downstairs after all..
On board it soon became apparent I would have to actually “do” things and I don’t mean pole dancing. I hadn’t thought beyond sipping cocktails and baiting hooks and the stress-levels ramped up a notch.
I know myself to be a slow learner. I can’t be told anything, I need to see things. Over and over. I considered asking to be sent me away with an off-cut of rope and a toy capstan to practise for a few hours but by that point we had motored out onto the river and there was no going back.
There is plenty to do on a boat it seems:steering, putting up sails, taking them down 10 minutes later, pulling ropes back and forth. It’s cold on the water but all that jumping around warms you up. So they told me…
It was a dull day and rainy but it was good to see the world from a different angle. Down river we went, past Waterford Castle on its island, past herons, statue-still on mud banks. Gulls took off and landed, took off again. Belview Port and its War of the Worlds cranes loomed. Cheekpoint slid by with its jetty and the famous McAlpins restaurant, the railway bridge and the two towers of Great Island power station. Further along the land rose as a forest of trees, their crowns like russet and umber afros, marched peacefully down to the grey-brown water.
We(they) all put up the sails for the start of the race. In the event I was tacking with Jimmy. This does not mean we were making dresses. It roughly means taking a zig zag course in relation to the wind. It is done by adjusting a sail with ropes. I was to release the rope and Jimmy was to wind it. I suspect I should have done a bit of winding on my side too but it was probably apparent that letting go of a rope was all I was capable of and so Jimmy and I swapped sides as we tacked back and forth.
At the start there were a lot of other boats about tacking too, all part of the course. After a while, we headed for Passage East with its car ferry between Waterford and Wexford counties.
Every time I see the ferry I am reminded of an elderly relative of mine from the parsimonious side of the family.
“All my life I have wanted to go on the car ferry!” he declared passionately one day. “Its a dream of mine.”
“You can do it!”I said. “Next time you’re going to Wexford you make that dream come true!”
And I pictured him on the car ferry, wind trying to ruffle his brylcreemed head, happy at last.
“How much is it?” he asked.
“I dunno, five euro maybe?”
“Five euro!”I think I’ll drive around by New Ross instead.”
So much for dreams.
Nearer the sea the wind was stronger and the waves rougher. We stopped tacking and headed straight out. Beyond Passage is Crooke Village. When Cromwell said he would take Waterford ‘by Hook or by Crooke’ he was talking about Crooke Village and Hook Head.
On the west side of the estuary is Duncannon with its fort, its beach yellow despite the dull day, kite surfers punctuating the grey sky with red commas. Freed from worrying about my rope-letting-go techniques I was starting to enjoy myself.
As we headed seawards between Creadon Head and Duncannon the tacking began again and we swerved around a marker and headed back up the estuary. Thank God I thought, no more tacking!But then we reached another marker and did an almighty swerve around that too with the boom cracking by overhead. By the time we righted I realised we were headed back out to sea. Jesus, I thought, how many times do we do this. Still, we were in the lead. Home faster eh?
Actually I was enjoying it it’s just I was a little tense. After all I couldn’t help feeling that if I had a job to do on the boat then it must need to be done. Which meant if the job wasn’t done then something bad would happen and the only bad thing I could think of happening was that we would all tip into the water and drown.
I imagined that if I pulled the wrong rope it could be like pulling a plug and having us all sucked down to our deaths. The people on the other boats would try to save us and get drowned too. Then I pictured all the widows and widowers and their orphaned children lining the quays of Waterford wailing while the headline in the local paper would read STUPID WOMAN PULLS ROPE!121 DEAD! The posthumous embarrassment of it.
We tacked twice more around the markers. I was starting to get the hang of things. I was even getting used to the fact that the boats sail on their sides most of the time. At one point Jimmy pointed down- yes, down- to a handle on the other side of the boat which was practically in the water and told me I would need to fetch it for him. And I did.
I even dangled my legs over the side with the proper sailors though I couldn’t help wondering, as I leaned against the hawsers holding me on board, if anyone had ever fallen through the wires into the water, divided up like an egg falling out of an egg slicer.
We finished ahead of the pack. I think we won, maybe not, it’s hard to tell but I can tell you it had nothing to do with me if we did.
It was good to finally sit back and not worry about causing the deaths of half the town. I watched the lads taking down the sails. Niall said, “Anyone like a beer?” and things slid up towards the Onassis end of the scale.
We cruised back up the river, me and this crew of absolute gentlemen who were so good-humoured and patient in the face of my clumsiness, laughing and telling stories, occasionally getting up en masse to do ropey things while I sat back with the cold rain freckling my face and drank a beer far sweeter than any cocktail in any bar decorated with dead animal genitalia and thought about how good it is to be alive.