“Harbours of England” by John Ruskin,1856.
From the introduction to my book, Tide by Tide, much of which is based on stories in this blog. It was privately published. The photograph is of a fishing boat on Aldeburgh beach, Suffolk, in 2018
Why do we go down to the sea, again and again? It’s uncomfortable, risky, time consuming and expensive, and interpreting the language makes the offside rule in soccer seem as simple as the basics of a game of snap. That’s before you get on to the deeper question of motivation and emotional attachments to the sea and boats.
I did try to answer my own question in plain English, but gave up; instead I’ve tried here to show rather than explain, with a collection of personal sailing stories that go back to the 1950s, which I hope give some clues to why we put so much time, energy, money and concentration into small boats.
The 1950s, when I first learnt to sail, was a time when sensible boating clothes were tennis shoes and khaki shorts, life jackets were stuffed with nothing more hi-tech than buoyant kapok fibres (from the seed pods of a tropical tree), oilskins were just that – an oil coating over canvas – and any boat not made of wood was regarded with deep suspicion.
I did not have anything to do with offshore yachts until the beginning of the 1970s, but that too was a different world. Navigators possessed very little in the way of electronic aids, so that on a passage across the English Channel you would congratulate yourself for turning up within five miles of where you meant to be, and it was possible to get hopelessly lost in only 24 hours at sea – I know, I did that a few times. Now you would have to have a catastrophic electrical failure and run out of battery on all the smartphones on board before you could fail to know your position within a few metres in the middle of the Atlantic.
Fibreglass yachts were still regarded as a touch experimental and treated with suspicion. Most boats were rather small but they began to grow in size, as the middle classes grew wealthier and production lines brought down prices. Nowadays, they are packed with electronic aids to navigation that the cruise ship the QEII could only dream of in 1970. I know that because the co-owner of Spring Fever, which we bought in 2009, was a first officer on the Cunarder.
I am an irregular sailor who manages only 6 weeks a year on board, if I’m lucky; passionate sailors I meet spend many months cruising each year. I raced regularly as a crew but never as an owner, which is time consuming and expensive, but I knew people whose lives were dominated by racing. I’ve never crossed an ocean, though that is a feat that tens of thousands of amateur sailors have achieved in recent years: a round the world sailor would be lucky on return to get a mention in a local paper.
In short, I’m like the great majority of boating people who love doing it but have many other things to occupy them, not least (until recently in my case) a job. Even celebrated sailing writers such as Maurice Griffiths and Adlard Coles often mentioned the pressures pushing them back to daily chores at their office desks, though in their cases the jobs were respectively as editor of Yachting Monthly and as a publisher of nautical books.
Some places near home are a challenge, with their own particular hazards, that can be just as dangerous as many far flung voyages. For years I explored the Thames Estuary, with its ever-changing sandbanks, strong tides and murky weather, an area where Maurice Griffiths sailed for most of his life, rarely feeling the need to go further. Round the tip of Kent from the estuary, the English Channel is one of the most demanding stretches of water in the world, according to people who have sailed the oceans, combining bad weather with tides among the most powerful anywhere and some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes: I came across a sailor who had cruised from California and was holed up in Cherbourg looking for a pilot to help him cope with the ferocious tides in the area, the stuff of basic yachting courses in the UK.
Weather and tides dominate planning; often the tide runs at a third or half as fast as a typical sailing boat. Moving at 6 knots through the water, you may be going at 9 over the ground when the tide is with you and 3 when it is against. If you are crossing the tide, the boat will move in a very different direction from the one in which it is pointing. In places such as the Alderney Race the tide is unbeatable and at its strongest can drive even a fast sailing boat backwards. Running against the wind, a tide can create a maelstrom. The strength varies in a cycle linked to the moon, with the most powerful about two days after the full and new moons, so it becomes second nature when looking up at the sky at night to think about what the tides are doing. We plan and think tide by tide.
Apart from the simple, outdoor enjoyment to be had, many of us find we develop an emotional attachment to boats, and not just our own. Wouldn’t it be better to get a cat or a dog, you might ask, than to be entangled with a boat?
Much writing about boats displays an almost physical attraction for them as objects, with adjectives such as “pretty” and “elegant” commonly used. That surely has something to do with the aesthetics of the shape of a hull. But why?
Here is an intriguing answer, by a Frenchman, Emile-Auguste Chartier, writing in 1908 about tuna boats from the Île de Groix, off Brittany: “Every boat is a copy of another boat…to copy what exists is to make what one has always made. Let us think about it the way Darwin would. It’s obvious that a badly made boat will go to the bottom after one or two fishing seasons, and so will never be copied. So one can say, with complete rigour, that it is the sea herself that shapes the boats, chooses those that are suitable and destroys the others”. So the sea designs the shape of a boat in the same sense that it creates the pressures of natural selection that produce a dolphin; the demands of speed in the marine environment make both of them beautiful.
The great Victorian art critic John Ruskin also searched for an explanation of the aesthetic appeal of boats. He writes that there is not “anything in nature so absolutely notable, bewitching, and, according to its means and measure, heart-occupying, as a well-handled ship under sail in a stormy day.” I prefer another passage in the same book of essays on JMW Turner’s etchings, in which Ruskin describes one compelling detail in tones that are complementary to Chartier’s explanation:
“But one object there is still, which I never pass without the renewed wonder of childhood, and that is the bow of a Boat. Not of a racing-wherry, or revenue cutter, or clipper yacht; but the blunt head of a common, bluff, undecked sea-boat, lying aside in its furrow of beach sand. The sum of Navigation is in that. You may magnify it or decorate as you will: you do not add to the wonder of it…. That rude simplicity of bent plank, that can breast its way through the death that is in the deep sea, has in it the soul of shipping…. I know nothing else that man does, which is perfect, but that…. the boat’s bow is naïvely perfect: complete without an effort. The man who made it knew not he was making anything beautiful, as he bent its planks into those mysterious, ever-changing curves. It grows under his hand into the image of a sea-shell; the seal, as it were, of the flowing of the great tides and streams of ocean stamped on its delicate rounding…. But in that bow of the boat is the gift of another world.”