Long Time no Sea - Part I
22 March 2022 | or "Every Form of Refuge Has its Price
Pour yourself a drink, sit down, and make yourself comfy. It's a long one - 4,200 words, since you ask. So I've split it into two parts á la 'Dancing with Doctor D'.
It had been two years to the day since we last saw Birvidik II. I was beginning to think she was just a pigment of my (highly coloured) imagination. It was a strange sensation, being land-based, especially for so long. It felt as if we were in some form of nautical Limbo, drifting aimlessly between the terrestrial Hell of The Land-bound and the marine Elysium of The Full-time Liveaboard. Before getting the back of Boris's hand and a good kicking from covid, we had been full-time liveaboards for fifteen years - that's a good chunk of anybody's life. Over a fifth in my case and getting on for a quarter in Liz's.
You could tell that we were drifting towards The Dark Side though; we had signed up for a two-year lease on a bijou little end-of-terrace here in Portugal and were now the proud possessors of fibre-optic internet, a walk-in wardrobe, two bathrooms, an industrial size fridge-freezer (front opening(1)) and a washing machine. Most damning of all, though, we had bought a car. This, apparent apostasy, however, was a double-edged sword. It may have represented a seismic shift toward the dull tedium of lubberdom, but it also enabled us to take a short (ish - 2000 km each way) road-trip to Sainte-Jean-de-Losne, where we could renew our acquaintance with Birvidik and see if our love-affair with the life aquatic had survived the lengthy separation (2).
My problem (well, one of my many problems) is that I have an irresistible tendency to anthropomorphise. Anything that can, by any stretch of the imagination, be attributed human characteristics will do - animals, natural forces, Jeremy Kyle, machinery, boats.
This led me to a series of reveries where Birvidik displayed the all-too-human qualities, traits, and feelings that I subconsciously projected onto her.
You know what it's like when you arrange to meet up again with old friends (3) after a long time apart. The run-up to the reunion is characterised by intermittent episodes of unease as you wonder just how far you may have drifted apart in the intervening years. Your imagination conjures up nightmare scenarios where you all sit squirming with embarrassment, while conversation consists mainly of self-conscious, awkward silences, interspersed with desperate and increasingly bizarre attempts at conversation starters, only for them to peter out as you all shuffle in your seats and look down at your feet for inspiration:
"Have you read any good books recently?"
"Yes. I'm the Editor of the Times Literary Supplement."
This does happen from time to time. It's bad enough if it lasts for a few hours over dinner. If you have rashly arranged to stay with them for a fortnight in an isolated yurt on the fringes of the Gobi Desert, then it's untrammeled purgatory. It's even worse if you're all trapped within the confines of a small boat. Nine times out of ten, however, you slip seamlessly back into your old ways with barely a thought. It might take a little longer with some than with others, but it remains the default position. In this happy state, silence is not the bugbear that our abovementioned desperate conversationalists struggle so hard to paper over. Rather, companionable silence is a gift from the Gods to be relished and savoured, a quintessential example of 'Philia', one of the four Greek words for 'love' (4).
These were the thoughts that tormented me. Would this be the case with Birvidik? Would we be able to keep our parting promise to come back and give her some well-deserved TLC, or had we succumbed to the siren call of the land-based sybaritic easy life? Surely we couldn't betray her innocent trust for the sake of a walk-in wardrobe.
Mind you, that washing machine is a boon, you know.
There was only one way to tell, and that was to go and see her, given that she was unlikely to come and see us, to make the reciprocal trip on her own bottom (5). This is where having the car crossed the metaphorical floor and enabled us to reinforce our links with Birvidik and the cruising life. It also highlighted the psychological and behavioural differences in the same man (namely me), when in boaty mode as opposed to landlubbery, not-so-boaty mode. The differences are striking (and totally irrational).
In boaty mode I am given free rein to express the paranoid, QANON side of my nature. Conspiracies abound. Everyone and everything is out to get me: lurking reefs, floating ropes, mechanical failure, other vessels (especially ferries), and, towering threateningly above all these put together, The Weather.
Any trip of any significance is preceded by days of obsessive maintenance, planning and checks. If it involves an overnighter, then you can double that. Anything that could possibly go wrong is pulled, waggled, woggled and hit repeatedly with a tuning hammer, before being closely scrutinised through a binocular microscope for any signs of damage, weakness, or incipient failure. Routes are planned in ludicrous detail and unfailingly include alternative safe havens, back-up alternative safe havens and they usually also sport reserve, back-up, back-up, just-to-be-on-the-safe-side, safe havens.
When we finally arrive at our safe haven, I heave a sigh of relief and lay out three anchors, two 30kg chums and as many lines ashore as I can get away with. Just before going to bed, I invariably take a 'turn around the deck' during which I check the nav lights, moorings, rigging, weather, nearby boats, emergency escape routes and spare clean underwear. I then set every alarm I can find, leave sharp knives by every mooring line, lay out lifejackets in strategic places, turn the radio to channel 16, prop up the MAYDAY script alongside it and leave it on standby. All in all, the whole exercise is a gallant, if unrealistic and ultimately futile, attempt to thwart the laws of thermodynamics. When I'm ashore you're lucky if I remember to switch off the lights and feed the cat.
Taking the car somewhere is a completely different, much more laid-back, exercise. I climb in, turn the key, and drive off. If I'm feeling particularly attentive to detail, I might deign to check the fuel gauge. If travelling to Kuala Lumpur by way of Timbuktu and Tierra del Fuego, I might also take a quick butcher's at the tyres, oil and brake fluid.
The vehicle in question is an Audi A4. Sounds flash, doesn't it? Allow me to disabuse you of that notion. It is an Audi A4 diesel. To be precise, it is a 1998 Audi A4 diesel station wagon, and it sounds like a tractor with a longstanding 60 Capstan Full Strength a day habit and the consequent chronic emphysema. (6)
And it's got air con.
Unfortunately, as we soon discovered, said air con didn't work. We soon did something about that - without the air con, driving over the summer was akin to being sentenced to the corrugated iron 'oven' in a Japanese POW camp. In the light of all this, we made damned sure that it was fully serviced and functioning before September, when we left Portugal for Sainte-Jean-de-Losne. This was a pity really - all that time, effort and money would have been much better spent improving our knowledge and understanding of autumnal climate conditions in continental France.
Aircon? - we didn't need aircon. What we needed was heating, de-misting, (screen and side windows), rear window heating and wipers front and back. All of which, as we rather belatedly discovered, were the very things we didn't have. Well, we had them but they didn't work.
Well, we did only pay 1500 euros for the thing.
I've had my fair share of technicals at sea, but never any comprising the quantity and variety that coincided in this one trip by car. There we were, bowling happily along a busy French autoroute, when we spied an ominous-looking squall line ahead.
Well, I say 'ominous'. That is somewhat of an understatement. If I'd seen that while on a boat, I'd have been hyperventilating and doubly incontinent while simultaneously shouting out obscure commands, such as 'All hands on deck!', Batten down the hatches', 'Make guns fast', 'Lower & lash yards!', 'Clear strum boxes and prepare to man pumps!', and finally, in desperation, 'Splice the mainbrace' and 'I want my mum', before huddling in a corner of the cockpit, hugging my knees and whimpering pathetically.
In the car, I just glanced at the fuel gauge, grunted, and eased off the accelerator.
Then immediately pressed it down again.
Boxed in as I was, I had little choice but to keep station with the surrounding traffic. This was 95% French and therefore drove like The Furies on crack. This, so far, I could cope with. Then the squall hit. Torrential rain, augmented by the tyre-spray from the vehicles hemming us in, reduced visibility to single figures.
I gave Liz a world-weary sigh and reached confidently for the wiper switch before realising that I had no idea where it was - in the five months we'd had the car I'd had no occasion to use them. Thirty seconds of frantic scrabbling later, having confused the Hell out of the surrounding traffic by the random operation of fog lights, hazard lights, indicators, sunroof, wing mirrors and headlight flashers, I managed to waggle the right stalk and the wipers sprang into action.
Well, not so much 'Sprang into action' as 'juddered erratically across the windscreen whilst simultaneously emitting a tooth-grating screech (7) and leaving barely translucent smears right across my field of vision.'
I managed to maintain some forward vision by tilting my head and leaning forwards like an inquisitive parrot, thus enabling a letter box view through the 20cm2 of windscreen that wasn't rendered opaque by a suspension of birdshit, old engine oil, and tyre debris. Just as I was entering smug, self-satisfied mode, humidity came into play, and every one of the eight windows promptly misted up. The surrounding traffic, however, took no notice of this change in conditions and continued at its customary breakneck speed. I was now in the enviable position of being herded along the motorway at around 130 km/h by a sodding great mobile cement mixer in front of me, a sodding great fuel truck alongside me and a sodding great refrigerated artic doing its level best to climb into my boot.
We did manage, eventually, to weather the situation. (Pun unintended) Liz dug around and managed to come up with a couple of cloths which might, just, take more crud off the windscreen than they put on it.
Do you remember those plate spinning acts that were inexplicably popular on TV variety shows in the 60s? You know, the ones where some vapid twat with an idiot, vacant grin minced his way around the stage trying to keep ever-increasing numbers of plates spinning on flexible rods. As more and more plates were added the action became more frenetic and the rictus became more manic and strained. Just as this pointless exercise approached its shuddering anti-climax, the perpetrator rushed frantically from plate to plate, barely managing to avoid impersonating a Greek restaurant in Soho after the pubs chuck out.
Liz employed similar tactics in trying to keep the windows clear enough for me to have a rough idea of whatever it was that I was about to hit. She started on the windscreen (driver's side), which made driving an interesting experience. Once she'd got the screen on the grubby side of murky, she moved onto the other windows in priority order and tried to clear them before the windscreen completely fogged up again. The rear window was a lost cause. Nevertheless, we blundered our way through in reasonable humour and without undergoing complete nervous collapse. Compare that with my OCD approach to navigation and seamanship.
You have been reading for nearly ten minutes now. Take a break. Part II follows.
(1) Most boats are fitted with top-opening fridges. These win hands down at conserving both low temperatures and battery power, but they're a pain in the arse to use. Whatever you want is always at the bottom.
(2) "Absence is to love as wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small, it inflames the great."
Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Bussy (13 April 1618 - 9 April 1693)
(3) Or an old lover, of course, but that adds layer upon layer of complications
(4) 'Eros', 'Agape' and 'Storge', since you ask or Ερος, άγάπε, & στοργε if you want to show off.
(5) A nautical term meaning traveling under her own power as opposed to being loaded onto a freighter or a road trailer to be transported as cargo.
(6) Or Congestive Obstructive Pulmonary Disease to use its current name, which is so much more succinct that they've had to abbreviate it to COPD. That helps matters no end, doesn't it.
(7) In the Good Old Days, before blackboards had been supplanted by whiteboards and overhead projectors and they in turn by interactive whiteboards, I used to keep a supply of cheap and nasty chalks. With these I could produce tooth rending screeches at will, more than sufficient to reduce even the rowdiest of classes to whimpering compliance. Thank God for heightened teenage sensitivity to very high frequency sounds.