Lending my boat to the next generation
Julia Jones plucks up the courage to let her son Bertie borrow the family’s classic yacht for the summer
Julia Jones plucks up the courage to let her son Bertie borrow her pride and joy for the summer
I’d been planning for the summer of 2016 as Peter
Duck’s 70th anniversary year. Our 28ft wooden ketch had been commissioned by Arthur Ransome in 1945, built at Pin Mill on the River Orwell, launched and sent on her sea trials in 1946. She was not, however, officially registered or sailed by her owner until the early spring of 1947. I had various ideas to mark the anniversary – some rather significant cruise, a dinner at the Butt & Oyster pub at Pin Mill, and transcription of log books – but in the end I did nothing.
I spent one night only on board, had two small flurries down the Deben and that was it. My mother’s dementia had worsened significantly and I needed to help her move into a nursing home. I had an eye operation and then my daughter was dangerously ill. These were family Force Nines: I had to accept that I was weather bound.
But how would PD cope with a summer spent growing weed on her mooring? Over the 17 years that I’ve been responsible for Peter Duck I’ve discovered that she has an extraordinary capacity to convey her reproaches if she feels neglected. If regular visits are not paid she begins to intrude into my dreams. I find I am sailing her up a creek that morphs into a motorway or heading into some impossible tunnel where she will inevitably lose her masts. Please, don’t attempt analysis – I understand I am neurotic. I’ve been known to leave my warm bed at 0200, drive 50 miles and row down the river in the dark because I’ve become convinced that her seacocks have been left open. How could I expect her to forgive me if 2016 became a complete No Sailing Summer?
The answer had been glimmering on the horizon since the previous year when my son Bertie (aged 20) and I had been together for an early morning departure from Wells-Next-theSea and heading north for the Wash.
‘I think I’d like to go round Britain when I finish university,’ he said suddenly. He began to mutter about dinghies and sleeping bags and I struggled to contain my surprise. Bertie’s a computer scientist; he’d done research internships
every summer and I’d assumed he’d continue immediately to postgraduate study. He mistook my silence for disapproval, as children tend to do, so we didn’t get much further with that conversation. Then he dropped out of university altogether and I did struggle to adjust my ideas – until I discovered that for the first time since I’ve owned Peter Duck I had a volunteer to help me with her fitting out. This was a game-changer.
‘So, Bertie, if I’m not going to get much sailing this year, do you want to take her away? But I don’t think you’re quite ready to go round Britain yet,’ I added hastily. Bertie’s absent-mindedness is legendary. The previous summer when he and his cousin had been asked to move the boat from Levington to Shotley they’d spent half an hour sailing up the Orwell in the wrong direction... And then there were the two family cars he’d written off within five months of passing his driving test. What was I thinking to lend him my beloved boat?
‘Take two or three months. Go where you like – but maybe mainly explore rivers?’ I suggested. Bertie has been a crew member on
Peter Duck since the age of five, in the same way that I first joined her almost 60 years ago when I was three. There is, however, an unimaginable difference between being a child on board and taking sole responsibility, particularly if you have a bossy parent who likes managing everything herself. I remember my moment
of utter panic soon after we’d bought her back into the family in 1999 and she was no longer my parents’ yacht: she was mine.
It was opening her aft locker that did it for me. All those warps – the smell of them! They were proper hairy ones that had come home from Russia with her. I remembered my father having names for some of them: ‘Old Faithful’, ‘Young Faithful’, ‘New Old Faithful’ and so on. They all had different functions but how was I to remember which one was which? I’d only ever done as I was told.
Small and handy, almost
I’ve trained myself to think of Peter Duck as small and handy. She’s only 28 feet long, an oversized dinghy really. Looking at that locker full of ropes compelled me to recognise the potential forces involved – 8 tonnes of boat, several knots of tide, the wind … I felt hopelessly inadequate and weak.
Perhaps this helped me hand her over? As another of my children had shrewdly remarked, ‘We know you really love sailing Mum, but you’re not exactly an expert, are you?’
Perhaps something whispered that if I could learn to take responsibility – which I have, knowing my limitations, then Bertie could as well. ‘If not duffers…’ and all that?
Peter Duck is a very safe boat, well-adapted for sailing singlehanded. There’s no pretence that everything can be managed from the cockpit but her decks are wide and her motion is generally steady. One of my daughters-in-law spent a weekend on board doing Day Skipper practice and describes Peter Duck as ‘forgiving’.
One of my personal confidencesapping problems has been dealing with the ghosts of former owners. Not just Arthur Ransome, though that historic connection does make me feel extra conspicuous when I run her aground. It’s the lares and penates (the household gods) of first my father and mother then, also, Greg and Ann Palmer, her owners from 1987-1999, all of them so knowledgeable and competent. I used to imagine them hovering over my shoulder appalled by my ineptitude. I’ve had to get over that. Worrying about what other people might have done in a situation is a distraction from the demands of the situation itself and whatever your boat is trying to tell you.
A question of trust
So I had promise myself that I was not going to hover over Bertie. If he was taking her, then he was responsible. I trusted his basic seamanship; the decisions needed to be his. I wasn’t going to be there, even invisibly. End of.
I’d forgotten, happily, that I wasn’t dead and that he possessed a mobile phone. It was a tremendous pleasure to be called several times in the course of his adventure, sometimes for advice on a good anchoring spot, once for mechanical breakdown and at other moments simply for him to tell me how lovely it was or to recount a particular triumph.
He took a hefty pile of books as well as his laptop and spent the best part of two months systematically exploring the Suffolk and Essex rivers, frequently spending several days in a favourite spot, reading, writing, rowing and watching the changing colours of the water and the sky. His triumphs were small ones; manoeuvring singlehanded in and out of marina berths, passagemaking from one river to the next and enjoying some of those stonkingly good sails where the old lady bubbles into life. Those are the sorts of triumphs I understand.
I visited a couple of times and felt tremendous pride and gladness to see the two of them getting on so well. Peter Duck looked neat and workmanlike, and Bertie fitter and more confident. At the end of the 2016 summer he announced, equally suddenly, that he was going back to university to finish his degree. Which is a good thing because I’ve recently recalculated Peter Duck’s anniversary and have decided that it’s more properly the summer of 2017, which is 70 years from when her first owner took command. And for now, that owner is still me.
The creeks of the East Coast rivers offer a huge amount to explore
Julia and her family celebrate the relaunch of Peter Duck, with Bertie and his grandmother at the bow
Julia Jones normally cruises Peter Duck around the East Coast rivers
Would you lend your yacht to any of these? Bertie is on the right, in the days before he took charge
A beautiful morning in a gloriously calm Pyefleet
Moored up alongside amid the Maldon mud at the top of the River Blackwater