Date: 27th April 2005
Subject: Tied up in knots
Place: Opua, Bay of Islands, New Zealand
Tied up in knots by my sailing challenge
Our Bay of Islands sailing challenge was proving more of a challenge than I wanted. I had a feeling it wasn’t for me and I seemed to be proving myself right. It wasn’t sexy or glamourous and there was no gin and tonic served on the deck. And when I wasn’t giving Stuart the silent treatment, I wanted to scream at him and say I told you so…
Am I in a coffin?
I lay in the damp tunnel, feeling claustrophobic, anxious and cold. I buried my feet deeper into my three season sleeping bag, which seemed to offer no warmth at all. Stuart lay about a metre away from me in his own long dark tunnel, staring out at the Southern stars through the open deck hatch, trying to puzzle out the unfamiliar solar system.
“Do you think that orange one is a planet?” he asked cheerfully.
“Do you feel as though you’ve been buried alive in your own coffin?” I answered.
“It’s certainly cosy.”
“It’s a tomb. Except a tomb is warmer.”
It was our first night on Kakapo, the very basic tiny yacht that was to be our home for five days and four nights. Stuart and I were sleeping in bunk holes under the cockpit, but despite the discomfort, I reminded myself that we had the first class accommodation. When the children joined us, they would be sleeping in the toilet.
A stressful first day
It had been a stressful day.
“Tack, take her into a broad reach, close haul, beam reach, jib, gybe, why are you in the no go zone again?”
It was all a foreign language to me, and I was terrified of the yacht tipping over completely as it lurched onto its’ side in the wind.
“Don’t worry,” said Dave our sailing instructor, as if reading my thoughts. “This is one of the most stable boats around. There’s no way she’ll go over.”
I imagined the children being flung across the cabin as we jibbed and gybed around the bay in two days time, and felt sick. I turned my attention to the arrow that was positioned on top of the mast, apparently giving us a reliable indication of the direction of the wind. It looked very pretty dancing in the wind but I had no idea what it should be doing. It was also giving me a crick in my neck, and sore eyes from gazing directly into the sun.
The wind seemed to be shifting around as Dave kept asking me which direction it was coming from. As I couldn’t glean this information from the godforsaken arrow, I worked out a system of flicking my hair into the wind to see which way it blew every time he asked. But sometimes I needed two hands to steer and the flicking hand unbalanced the boat. Now and again I took a chance on the wind and haphazardly pulled the steering stick towards me in the hope it would drive us into the close haul that Dave was asking for.
I am my own wind teller
“Kirstie. You seem to have stalled the boat again. Why did you just turn her straight into the wind?” I flicked my hair into the atmosphere to check if he was right.
Dave let out a long sigh. “Shall we go back to basics again? He pulled out his drawing of the points of sailing once more, while Stuart took the stick and began to point the nose of the boat out of the wind. My head was throbbing, and although I understood his simple idiots’ guide to close hauls and beam reaches, I still couldn’t transfer the concept to the boat and the damn arrow. All I knew is that I was a hopeless sailor.
“Right,” said Dave, throwing his clipboard into the cabin. Why don’t you take a break from steering and have a go at the sails? Let’s take them down while we’ve stalled.”
It was the moment I’d been dreading. I eyed all the equipment with suspicion; little sail, big sail, funny clamping gadgets and dazzling selection of two ropes and their winding machines. They terrified me. Stuart, as usual had displayed a flair for everything. He had instantly comprehended both steering and sail setting, was masterful with his compass, and wholly at one with the wind. But I felt he had cheated his way into the instructor’s affections, failing to brief Dave about his practical engineering background, years of experience with dinghys, canoes and kayaks, and general ability to master anything in a day, while the closest I’d come to sailing in the last ten years was a rowing boat on Coniston water. I felt stupid, and the mechanics of sailing were light years from my grasp. The only thing I’d managed to show any ability for was the reef knot, something I’d learnt at Brownies thirty years ago. The fact that Stuart hadn’t shown an outstanding talent at reef knots, or in fact any other form of knot hadn’t cheered me up.
“I’m not very practical minded,” I shouted to Dave as I wrestled with the ropes on the mast. “I’m a writer. Less of an engineer, more of an artist.”
“Really? What do you paint?” asked Dave, coming to help me with a jammed clip thing. It took him moments to release the main sail, but longer to sort out the little front one that I’d managed to successfully tie into a reef knot.
“Do you know that Nadine used to sail this boat with Sylvan when he was a baby? He loved it, because in French Kakapo means poo potty. And quelle surprise this boat is a poo potty. I don’t know why I ever agreed to step a foot onto it.”
I tried to warm my feet with my hands, which involved getting into a foetal position, not an easy task in a fibre glass coffin.
“Look, it was a difficult day for you,” said Stuart, his voice muffled as he had buried his way into his sleeping bag to stave off the cold. “You’re a complete novice, and it was a lot to learn. You were good with the knots.”
“Right, ok then. You can sail the boat and I’ll be on knot duty for the next four days. And let’s hope that Matthew can understand the six points of sailing so he can steer the poo potty clear of an iceberg.”
At the mention of the children I started to panic once again. How on earth would I be fit to crew a boat safely around the Bay Of Islands with our two precious children in it?
“By the end of tomorrow, if I’m not happy then there’s no way I’m bringing Matthew and Cameron onto this boat you know,” I said firmly to Stuart.
I lay in the dark and suddenly felt an intense loneliness sweeping through me. The children. Why weren’t they with me? They were miles away in Kerikeri and I couldn’t say goodnight to them. Had Cameron had gone to sleep with his nightly milk? Had Matthew lasted a day without having a tantrum? For the first time in six months I felt homesick and longed to be back in Cumbria in my comfortable bed, the children sleeping peacefully in their cheery bedrooms, not imprisoned in a coffin on a small yellow boat that smelt of wee.
I want to quit
“Stuart, I want to quit. I can’t do it. I’m totally rubbish at sailing, hate the sea, and will never grasp it.”
I waited for his response. When it didn’t come I ploughed on with the idea that had been niggling at me all day.
“I’m giving up in the morning. It’s not just me, it’s the kids. How could I, as a responsible mother, bring my children onto this potential deathtrap? I’m not going to do it. I’ll do the second day of instruction, but after that I’m off outa here.”
Still no reply.
“Stuart are you listening? Stuart? I give up. Hey I was wondering, do you think many skippers use the hair flicking technique when it comes to checking out wind direction?”
A huge snore came from the coffin to the left of me. I tried to turn onto my side away from him in a huff, but my pregnant belly got stuck in the coffin. I wrestled it out, banging my head against the metalwork, closed the hatch, and shivered in my coffin for an hour or so. I tried to think nice thoughts about sailing, then gave up and imagined I was back in Brownies, chanting ‘left over right and under, right over left and under.’ It was little consolation that reef knot duty was going to be a breeze.