Hostile land, friendly sea
The sea is a much friendlier place than the land
Jonathan Raban was 39 when he decided to explore Britain from the sea. He discovered a roomy, abandoned ketch in Fowey, had her re-fitted as ‘a one-man floating house’ and set out on 1 April, 1982.
I could see the land creeping past the wheelhouse window. I shut my left eye and squinted, lining up a coppice of dead elm trees against the steel rigging of the mizzen shrouds. The trees were making definite but slow progress while the boat stayed still. The land was a limping ship, making just a knot or two through the water, its decks littered with cars, cranes, containers, scaffolding, blocks of flats – a lifetime of accumulated junk. The long low vessel of England looked dreadfully patched and rickety, and I wouldn’t have put a penny on her seaworthiness as she shuffled painfully westwards under a charred flag.
This was not a tired hallucination. I had set off in my boat on the assumption that England would have the grace to stay in her charted position. It was Gosfield Maid which was supposed to be making all the running on this trip. But within 24 hours of my departure, England had decided to go off on a voyage of her own. I was pointing east by north for the Dover Straits; England was headed west and south for the Falkland Islands.
On the extreme edge of my world there was the occasional pale silhouette of a passing ship, and sometimes the boat would give a sudden lurch as it hit the wake of something big that was too far away to see.
I met a pair of scallop dredgers working in consort, raking the bottom for shellfish with what looked like antique bedsteads. The fishermen waved as I went by. The sea is a much friendlier place than the land: when you see someone else afloat in it – at least in difficult weather and away from yachting slums like the Solent – you salute them to acknowledge a solitude momentarily brightened for being shared.
The warships made themselves heard long before I saw them. I was searching the haze for the loom of Rame Head on the west of Plymouth Sound when the VHF radio yielded a sudden harvest of clean cut naval voices.
‘Achilles, Achilles, this is Ajax, Ajax. Do you read please?’
It was an hour before the warships became actually visible – first as angular shadows, then as grey dirigibles apparently suspended in the sky. Stealing cautiously up on these giants, I felt the walnut shell littleness of my thirty-two feet of boat. Slabsided, beetling, rudely engineered in what looked like bare cement, they made no concessions to the usual curve and frills of marine design. Her Majesty’s Navy was a seaborne industrial estate of displaced tenements and factories: it looked as if Slough, Milton Keynes and Newark, NJ had taken to the water.
I hung back to make way for a monster ahead. Its guns were masked in tarpaulins, clumsily wrapped Christmas presents, and in the deck space between the guns men in the uniform of the Royal Marines were at drill, jerking and snapping to their orders.
The enormous ship breezed past with flying colours. The white ensign rippling on a jackstaff at the stern gave the thing an incongruous touch of daintiness; a single rambler rose trained on the wall of a tower block by some optimistic tenant. Keeping at a safe distance, I followed the Navy down the broad triumphal avenue of Plymouth Sound. Lined with forts, flagstaffs and monuments to the famous dead, the Sound was a place for ceremonial processions and state occasions. A civilian interloper, I sneaked along the edge of the buoyed channel, fearing summary arrest by the policemen of the water. At Drake’s Island the fleet wheeled left for the River Tamar and the naval dockyards; I bore right into the Cattewater, following the antique, but still good, advice of Greenville Collins:
‘Catwater is a good Place. There is a Place within the Citadel and Barbigan called Sutton Pool, where ships lye aground on soft ooze at low-water, by the Key side before the town of Plymouth.’
In Sutton Pool I tied up alongside the trawlers by the fish market. I climbed a slippery ladder, a rope’s end in my teeth,
stepped ashore and learned that war had broken out.
Even when you’ve spent just a few hours at sea, it is always a bit difficult to learn to walk on land. After water, earth is such a sickmakingly unstable element. Your feet keep on encountering thin air where there ought to be paving stones; you have to crouch forward, raising your arms and bending your knees like a toddler to balance yourself against the lurching street.
At first I took the news of the war as another symptom of this general topsy-turviness of things on land. I didn’t trust it, any more than I trusted the scaly cobbles of the fish market or its green filigree roof, which was swaying dangerously overhead. It seemed beyond belief.
It had begun six weeks before as a silly diplomatic comedy: a bunch of scrap metal merchants had cheekily raised the Argentine flag over their campsite on the island of South Georgia. I had rather enjoyed the exploits of these jingoistic rag-and-bone men, and had thought that the questions raised in parliament had sounded unnecessarily indignant and pompous.
Yet in the short time I’d been away from land the thing had turned from trifling farce into a drama of the most frighteningly serious kind. Argentinian troops had invaded the Falklands, and the governor of the islands had surrendered in Port Stanley after a short skirmish between a detachment of British marines and the Argentinians. Diplomatic relations with Buenos Aires had been broken off; a naval task force was about to sail from England to the South Atlantic to reclaim the colony.
No wonder the warehouses and shops of Plymouth were pitching in a tricky sea. There were far too many wars in the world already – too many bangs and flashes and screams and unattended bodies in suburban streets. Beirut and Belfast were at least explicable: those miserable twin cities were built on enmities so old and loggerheaded that it would have taken a miracle for them not to break out sometime into state of open warfare. But this Falklands business, so far as I could understand it, was perfectly gratuitous. Two governments were preparing to kill each other’s soldiers, to go widow-making, for no better reason than that the exercise would be good for national kudos or, perhaps, that it would create a handy distraction from the unhappy tangle of affairs at home.
Coasting was first published in 1986, then in paperback by Picador. It’s now in print in a new edition from Eland.
Jonathan Raban is a British travel writer, critic, and novelist. He lives in Seattle. A Passage to Juneau: a Seaand its Meanings (1999) is his account of a voyage from Seattle to Alaska. Old Glory, about his 1981 voyage down the Mississippi, was recently republished by Eland Books.
Jonathan Raban First published 1986 New edition Eland books 2018