Sunday, March 28, 2010

Reflections on boats


I first fell for boats, sailing boats, when I was about 10.  Before that it was horses.  My yearnings were for big things, animate or otherwise, which could carry me places and give me an exhilarating ride on the way; dolphins and magic carpets also swam and floated around the borders of my imagination.

I had riding lessons, for a year or two, which were OK; I'd cheerfully get up early on Sunday, and my dad and I drove through the bright or misty or frosty edges of Ashridge forest - I still dream of those roads and woods, I think.  He'd read, come and watch me ride for a bit, wander round the stables, chat with the rather posh stable owners.  Thinking back, they were rather pleasant times we had together, though neither of us made much of it.  He kept a bit of the countryman in his heart, and like his father, who had left the land on account of his family's poverty and his own fecklessness, since he prefered to head on down to Priddy horse fair, appraise the stock and chew the fat with the gypsies, so the story goes, than mind the sheep on Mendip, my dad liked to be around horses. 

However, though the hacks through the forest on fine mornings were great,  plodding round the indoor school on fed-up and stubborn ponies, their mouths hardened by the clumsy hands of  learner riders, grew uninspiring.  When the instructor, who was, I think, as fed up with her job as the ponies, hauled me off a bigger horse who I couldn't get to do anything, and got on him saying 'This horse is deaf to the leg, this is what you have to do...', thrashing him with her crop until he shook and stumbled, I decided that it was time for me and horsiness to go our separate ways.  Yet horses still have a place in my heart, horsy people rather less so.

Then I read 'Swallows and Amazons' and most of the Arthur Ransome canon, and my inner narrative switched and coalesced into that vision of independence and escape, to an island or a further shore, propelled by the wind and one's own gumption, of sheltering and feeding oneself, of cutting loose from the adult-ordered world, while still, of course, maintaining safe links to it.  I know Arthur Ransome is a terrible cliche of the English middle class childhood, that whole scathing critiques could be written about this from every psychological, sociological and historical persective, and that probably no child would even look at them now, but they were meat and drink to me then.  I wanted to live them out, and I wanted to sail. 

Practically this was difficult; even if such adventures had been possible in the Lake District of the 1920s they weren't in the Home Counties conurbations of the 1970s.  There weren't the 'Outward Bound' opportunities for kids then that there are now, so I had little chance to get on the water.  But they nourished further games and fantasies, and we did get a small inflatable dinghy (without a sail), which in summer Ruthie and I used to paddle about on a quiet stretch of the Grand Union canal, our parents steeling themselves presuambly against fears of our drowning, being poisoned by canal water (more likely than drowning) or being abducted, and in the winter we sometimes inflated it in our dining room and played 'Swallows and Amazons' around the gateleg table.  My parents were quite accommodating when I come to think.

About this time, my second brother came back from a stint working in Bermuda, where he had taken up sailing.  He climbed the box elder tree and slung up the rope ladder I had had for Christmas, and though, as I've remarked before, box elders are not well-designed for climbing, tree houses or other three-dimensional adjuncts to childhood fantasy, in a pair of red rope-soled shoes I'd found in a chandlers in Falmouth, I made believe I was climbing the rigging.  I can still make a reasonable fist of climbing a rope ladder, though I don't often get the opportunity.  He also gave me a couple of sailboat recognition books, which I loved; with the youngster's (particularly perhaps the boy's or tomboy's) fascination with typology which I was only just beginning to apply to birdbooks, I studied them until I could recognise and give chapter and verse on any dinghy or small yacht by its sail insignia, and identify any rig or mast configuration going.  Most of this has left me now.

Despite living in landlocked Herefordshire, my brother bought a small blue fibreglass Moth dinghy, and sailed it on Llangorse lake in Mid-Wales.  I was fairly impressed, but the Moth was purely and simply a ride, a light flat craft with a single sail for one person to scoot around the surface of the water on at speed - no room for a pudgy little sister on board - little more than a sailing surfboard, the forerunners to the as yet unknown windsurfers.  It wasn't quite what I was looking for, I wanted something to travel in, not just sit on.

Well, painted wings and giants' rings ... the craze dwindled and passed, and I never really got to sail.  By the time I was old enough to take up the offer of a PGL holiday I shrank from the idea of spending a fortnight in a crowd of other teenagers being energetic, preferring to stay with the familiarity of holidaying with my parents in the caravan with Scrabble and bird books and solitary exploration. The nearest I came was a few years later with my 6th form sailing club, a couple of the younger male teachers and a handful of students, pottering round a Sussex gravel pit in some old Mirror dinghies during the evening after school.  Looking back though, those sessions, the laughter, the relaxed chat and friendliness, the trips in the minibus to and fro stopping at the bakers, being wet, windblown and scruffy and somewhat outside of my usual orbit - I was never sporty in any way and the other students and teachers were not people I saw much otherwise- the clunky little wooden boats and their bright red sails, and the occasional pleasure of achieving a satisfactory manoeuvre in a gust of breeze, are very good memories from a time, my later teens, which on the whole I don't look back on with much rosiness.

The stories and dreams of childhood, the books, films, games and activities that create and feed them, don't all have to be lived out and fulfilled.  They don't all have to be a source of sorrow and failure and disappointent either. If we are allowed to hold to them as dreams on our own terms for as long as necessary, and not have them stripped brutally away, so we can weave and smooth and inlay them into our growing realities, they can be there for us always, revisiting and enriching our lives with surprising joy and intimacy.  

Now I live in a place where I can quite easily go and meander and dream around ports and harbours, and the sturdy old-style boats, like the sturdy old-style horses, are preserved and cherished, and that's really rather fine.  Since I never came to know and understand larger sailing boats from the floating, moving, in fact rather frightening, inside, seeing them in boatyards, up out of water, is like being able to wander among and look closely at awe-inspiring great creatures, tethered and docile and able to be approached, stroked and studied. They fill me with wonder, but not with any great longing.

Though I may yet take a trip across the bay in La Pauline...


15 comments:

Rosie said...

Small boats make me claustrophobic, in fact, all boats do to some extent. It is because you can't escape from them .... or your fellow passengers.

A Write Life said...

I've been having natural disaster nightmares lately. I'm always saved by a sailboat. :)

Thank you for your lovely story.

Barrett Bonden said...

Oh definitely - please! - take a trip in La Pauline and come back stuffed with facts like rope ladders and Mirror dinghies. Then simply regurgitate. Not that I need my jealousy cranking up any more notches. My brother is dithering about another yacht and if I can't do it myself you are my preferred surrogate. But with heavy responsibilities. Two unique sensations: the living touch on the wheel when she's close to the wind, together with contemplation of the multi-coloured depths sitting in the cockpit less than a metre above the sea's surface. But you know all that.

Just a minor deflationary point. There were Outward Bound Schools as far back as 1954. I spent a month at the one in Eskdale (primarily mountainineering of course) and my romantic streak had to be removed surgically afterwards.

Zhoen said...

Lovely memories. I love being on any kind of boat, though a rarity in my life. Rowboats, a friend's small sailboat, a ferry or a canoe, will all do. Never got sea sick either, only cars and busses bother me.

PurestGreen said...

What a wonderful post. That horse instructor has some bad karma on her hands. I love the look of boats. It is large bodies of open water that make me nervous.

Dale said...

Swallows & Amazons made an indelible impression on me, too.

Rouchswalwe said...

Nice point you make in the 2nd to the last paragraph about the stories and dreams of childhood, sweet Lucy. For me, it was all about archaeology, an unfulfilled dream I revisit with pleasure from time to time. Do take a spin around the bay!

Dick said...

Much as a I love to see the photos, I do enjoy your sustained written posts: you write with such fluency and elegance. This is a delightful account of a passion set within the context of childhood memory.

Fire Bird said...

enjoyed reading this v much...

Plutarch said...

Thanks for reminding us to keep dreaming. I read Swallows and Amazons with a torch under the bed clothes because I was supposed to be asleep. I was eight. I have been at sea ever since.

Julia said...

So far the 6 year old over here loves the Swallows and Amazons series (we have a tent up in the living room as a result; she and I share our barometer).

Maybe next time we visit Brittany we can take a trip on La Pauline together - I've watched her pass by our windows many a day with her beautiful sienna sails.

Lucy said...

Thanks all, and glad to see so many votes for Swallows and Amazons, and not only from Brits and those over a certain age. Way to go Caroline!

One of the nice things I think about the Arhur Ransome books was that, although of course Susan was a bit stodgy and did the cooking (eggs and sausages fried in butter anyone?), the girls were quite as competent and adventurous as the boys, if not more so, and were much more realised and rounded characters. The Amazons were truly formidable and worthily named, and, despite her rather unfortunate name, short for Laetitia, I believe, everyone I knew who read it wanted to be Titty, even the boys...

Yes, there were indeed Outward Bound courses, and Duke of Edinburgh awards and similar things, but as I wasn't gregarious, sporty, rich or poor, or a boy, I rather fell through the net, though I went on a good outdoor pursuits week at Burwash in Sussex when I was about 17; no sailing but I turned out to be quite good at rock climbing, and enjoyed the kayaks. I think my sailing boat craze was a bit early, at 10 I was too young really, and it had peaked before the opportunity might have arisen.

Also, the truth was probably that I was better suited to read and play at and dream about it than to do it, which is fine.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I loved Swallows and Amazons too! I love blats though i don't go out very often. I've canoed and had a go at sailing, mostly when i spent three months in Cornwall working in a field studies centre. I prefer wandering round just looking at boats though. Your photo of the reflections is gorgeous

Isabelle said...

What a lovely insight into your childhood and youth.

My older daughter - now, admittedly, 30 - adored "S and As".

Sheila said...

This was a joy to read. Thank you for sharing your memories and dreams.

I agree, that as long as the dreams are not ripped away, they can be lovely, whether realized or not. And for a dreamer like me (and I imagine you), realizing them all would have been impossible, anyway!

Your boat photos are all just gorgeous, it's making me want to find water and someone to take me out on it!