Hos­tile land, friendly sea

The sea is a much friend­lier place than the land

Yachting Monthly - - A BOOK AT BUNKTIME -

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

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