Night Watches and Nightmares

Woah, it’s a long one. Grab yourself a drink and I’ll tell you scary stories about two beautiful, distressing trips on one big assed boat.

Part One
We begin where I last left off, back in the Shire and unsure about France due to predicted winds that just refuse to stay westerly. I get a text from my dear friend Big Joe (of cutting down our mast fame) asking where we’ll be in a couple of days. I don’t know – it’s either Brest or Calstock, come and see us either way.

When his day off arrives France is definitely out. We check the tide times and go and pick him up from a marina in Plymouth, and after lunch sail up the Tamar towards familiar but as yet un-Gwenned territory. The sun is shining, the wind is favourable, and the coffee already has a smidge of brandy in it (a Big Joe specialty, he’s brought a big bottle) as we pass between the Torpoint ferries and onward to the Tamar Bridge. Joe’s had a big week and is dog tired, so this relaxed sail suits us all down to the ground, however far down that might be.


Brunel: our first bridge


Big Joe – put in charge for having the best smocks and sunglasses

By the time we hit the fine meandering channel towards Calstock I’m on the tiller. It’s quite a treat for me, having to follow the deepest part of the river – visible on the chart we’ve taken outside but also in the gentle changes in ripples on the water – rather than adapting my course to the wind like we do out at sea. Rich and Joe deal with what the wind is doing, I just drift down the strong tide with an eye on the depth sounder and moored vessels that need to be avoided. Occasionally I bung the engine on in case my steering goes in slack winds, and at one point I think I’m doing fine going round a boat when Rich calls back urgently to make me push the engine forwards or I won’t make it, but otherwise it’s all pretty easy going. Huge banks of grasses reveal little houses and distant fields, and we hardly see a soul save for a handful of boats motoring the opposite way. We’re telling stories, eating ginger nuts and discussing the merits of composting toilets.

When we arrive at the pretty waterside village of Calstock there are a bunch of lovely houses, a garden floating on the water covered in ducks and praise be! a pub, and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to put Gwen. The one spot with an anchor on the chart is of course taken, and there isn’t much in the way of deep water on this narrow channel. We go past the village towards a leafy corner turn which the chart says is deep enough, and we motor in to a spot among the trees, which turns out to be too among the trees for any of our liking. With one anchor down it is decided that another needs to be deployed for keeping us still when the tide rushes back, and this is then exchanged for a rope round a tree, after which another anchor can be put across the channel in the grassy mud bank to keep us away from the rocky tree lined side. This bit takes ages and is all quite exhausting so I give up on pointing and nodding and go make us all a second lunch.


Rich not sure about where he’s anchored. This is the sort of facial expression to which I will be paying heed in the future.


No idea when I took this

Later that night we are sitting on deck in the twilight after a muddy pub trip ashore and a big old Thai curry, drinking wine and brandy and enjoying the surroundings. We decide it’s time for bed several times and don’t go, and the night gets darker. We make it inside but I pop out for a cigarette and find that the stars are now gleaming across the curve of the milky way, so we all pop out again for another brandy. The now gently moving river reflects the stars and we wonder if distant shapes in the water are rats, otters or logs. Finally, after half the giant brandy bottle is gone, we go to bed.

It’s dark, and I hear Rich’s alarm go off and see his pants and legs disappear up the bedroom hatch as he checks on our position in the changing tide. He returns and we mutter and fall asleep.

It’s dark, and I hear Rich stir and go up the hatch again. He moves about on deck quite a bit, and is noisier than before – maybe chain, maybe objects being dropped, maybe footsteps – I’m quite drunk and I don’t know. I look up at the hatch and see very little. There’s a thud and he yells “Everyone on deck! Now!”

I pop my head up “What’s happening?”

The engine is being started.

“Look at where we are”.

Rich is dashing about doing things very quickly. I look, and even in the dark I can see that one side of the boat and our mast above me are in the branches of a huge overhanging oak tree. This means the body of the boat is right up against the rocky side of the river. Rich is releasing our second anchor line from a cleat and tells me to go down to the saloon bilge locker to let the rest of the chain out. I stumble along the deck and down past Joe, who is dressing and asks what’s happening.

“Look at where we are!”

Back in a lit room I lift the half-closed lid in the floor and pull the chain so it can freely escape, and it does at an alarming pace. I realise the end is not attached and will soon disappear so I grab what I can and follow it in to the aft cabin, yelling as loud as I can over the clatter of chain whizzing out of the locker and the noise of the engine “I can’t stop it! It’s all going to go!”

Rich’s face appears at the hatch “Don’t fucking hold it! Let go!” he barks at me. I stare at him “but…” “Let fucking go or you’ll lose your hand”. I let fucking go. “Never ever hold on to chain that’s going out like that…” he is yelling at me but I am in shock now, watching the last of the chain tear chunks out of the aft hatch before miraculously becoming jammed in its corner and stopping a few links short of the end.

I put my dressing gown over the loose dress I’ve worn to bed and follow Rich back on to the black of the deck as he releases the tree line. Gwen swings round across the river and stops when we hit the soft mud bank. My breathing is becoming a little short but I am able to function, and somehow I end up on the tiller steering us back out of the mud, using the noisy engine to keep us in place against the tide that is shooting into us. Rich and Joe are trying to release an anchor from whatever it’s caught on at the bottom and I am watching a buoy and a boat I can faintly see in the darkness to keep track of my position, with Rich yelling “forwards a bit” “don’t just use objects behind you” “I said FORWARDS”. I am drunk, it is dark, I am being yelled at constantly, sometimes with what sounds like real anger, and I am trying not to let how scared I am show so it’s seeping out in quiet little hyperventilating breaths. I am on it. I am sobering up. I am doing as I’m told to the best of my understanding. I can’t feel the cold. I don’t know when I last blinked.

This bit seems to last an age.

Eventually there is progress. Joe comes to take the tiller and I try to help Rich with the last bit of hauling our huge fisherman anchor aboard – it’s so heavy he has to take a few rests – I don’t know how he lifts it at all. The sky starts to get a little light and when both anchors are on board Rich pops off in the dinghy to get the line back from the tree. We all breathe again for a moment. Rich and I haul the dinghy on board, streaking my chest, hands and dressing gown with last night’s mud. At last, daylight reveals mist in the water ahead, Joe goes for a nap, and I put on some clothes and spend the next couple of hours keeping Rich company on deck while he drives the boat back out of the channel and towards Millbrook in thick Cornish mizzle.


Gwen’s souvenirs


Post-traumatic “sod off” disorder. Me minus sleep.

On the way he tries to explain what happened in the night, but both of us are near delirious with tiredness so it is not until we’ve dropped Joe off in Plymouth with a hug and a look of “what the hell?”, and anchored in the safe and sure depths of West Mud that I understand. Even then I’m not sure I can remember it to tell you now. A dragged anchor and swinging round one tree into another were involved. The boat could have lost its rig in the oak or done worse to the hull on the rocks. Rich apologises for shouting at me and I tell him it’s okay, he needed to shout. I sleep a heavy afternoon nap and we lounge for a while before more sleep. The next day we leave for Scilly.


Part Two
In the morning I am revived. A little shaken, still, but awake enough to know that it should pass. We have a big trip ahead of us and we motor over to Plymouth for me to buy passage snacks from Lidl while Rich returns Gwen to anchor in Cremyll to sort out yesterday’s mess on deck. I return to him via the ferry I used to take to work, and he picks me up in Fanny from the Cornish side with an hour to spare before our intended departure.

With Fanny on deck and the stowing done we set sail for Scilly for the second time this year, this time intending to include our first ever overnight sail. Our course is set for eight miles south of the Lizard which we’ll reach around midnight if the north westerly wind holds. The sea calms down a while after we pass Rame and the sun shines just the wrong side of the big toe staysail, shifting to the right side for afternoon napping or sundrenched tiller shifts. Cornwall sits to our right, Geordi holds our course and we enjoy doing a few jobs, playing a bit of ukulele and eating a whole lotta snacks on the gentle roll of the sea. The sun drops behind a cloud over a wind farm near the Lizard and beneath it a wide line of  pinkish gold glows between cloud and earth, reflected in the rippling peaks of dark blue waves.


See what I mean?


Big bright boat

Rich figures that he’s better at waking up and I’m better at staying up late, so I get assigned the first night shift from 11 to 2am, and get on it after we’ve rounded a big ugly ship. I have gone from four layers to seven, wrapped in as many jumpers as will fit inside my salopettes and coat, with a life jacket and strap keeping me tied on to the push pit. Night vision kicks in quickly as we’ve turned off all but the red nav-table light inside, but I have a little red light head torch strapped to my harness to check our bearing on the compass if I need it. I stop doing this after about ten minutes – we’re going as close to the wind as can be comfortable and there’s not much more navigation that needs doing.

Over my shift I occasionally untie to go down below and look at our course on the GPS in the aft cabin, just below where we steer. I grab myself a pain au chocolat from a galley drawer but go no further inside, letting Rich zizz away in the forward cabin. I trim the mainsail once after noting a drop in the wind, and for a while Geordi doesn’t want to play ball and I hand steer for an hour or so, happy for something to do to keep me awake. I readjust Geordi and put him back in charge, gazing at the stars above me and occasionally searching the horizon. It is as black as anything but for the stars and a few boat lights, and it’s incredible how much you can see even just by the tricolour light at the top of the mast, and how well you can spot any luff in the sail from sound alone.

I eat to stay awake. I try to remember some French. I try to think in a Scottish accent. I see a shooting star and note it in the log book. I enjoy some respite from the advice and discussions I have to follow when Rich is with me – I am in charge. I am alone on the sea and it feels amazing, and my three hours seem to pass so quickly that by the time I go to wake Rich and make him a coffee I feel as though I could go for another hour at least. This notion is knocked out of me by the warmth of the saloon and after a quick progress report I am soon sleeping soundly below decks.

Rich wakes me to look at a deep red sunrise, and then kindly lets me sleep again until the end of his shift half an hour later. Somehow in this short time the wind drops off completely, and he goes back to bed leaving me in charge of a becalmed boat on a flat pastel morning sea. It is huge, peaceful and beautiful, and entirely useless. The GPS says we’re going backwards, and the fluttering sails bash only slightly more or less depending on where I point the tiller. A seagull swims slowly up behind the boat, paddles awkwardly up beside it, and then overtakes us.


Sunrise, also over the Lizard, which confuses the hell out of Rich


Hoisting the topsail with his head in the stocks

When Rich returns he puts up the as yet unused topsail he’s been fiddling with over the last week. It hoists but does nothing in the sunny stillness. We decide to motor for an hour to make up the distance we’ve gone backwards on the tide, and after that the wind seems to return, further from the south, for our final push to Scilly. This time, we’re going to make it. Our course stays good as we push along, stripping layers of jumpers down to t-shirts, reading aloud and getting on with more fun jobs and even more eating as the Scillies get ever closer. Our new topsail isn’t perfect but it’s getting us a bit of speed, and for the first time ever we have Gwen’s full rig flying.

As we come close to the Scillies we plot our angle of approach, and decide we’re too early for our original high tide plan and that we’ll sail around the north side as far as we can and then motor in between Tresco and Bryher on the west. Two sailboats are heading our way from the north east and as they approach I work out (because I still have to think hard about these things!) that they have right of way. Rich says it’s fine and we decide we’ll probably pull up a bit behind the first, but I’m a little nervous of doing this and he assures me he’ll come up on deck when they get close.

He gets some food going. The boats get closer. He pops up, and then back down, and I don’t know what he’s doing. “Rich, can you come on deck please?” I nervously shout down, as they’ve got to the point across from us where we agreed we’d turn. He comes back up to me, visibly angry, and starts telling me off – he was just going down to check what angle I needed to adjust to. I say “but they’re…” he shouts at me “I have to do just one thing, I was in the middle of doing it and you started demanding that you needed me to come up here and…” I am being shouted at as the boat gets closer, and I turn us gently behind it as we’d agreed earlier. I try to interject to tell Rich, but he starts telling me again how he just needs to go and look at this one thing. I’m sorry, I say. He carries on. I yell “I’m sorry”, angry now, as he goes back below decks and says “you need to turn ten degrees”. I’ve already turned it. The boat goes by, an easy and unterrifying distance from us.

I’m angry. I was the one on the tiller, the one who had just needed a little reassurance, and I’d got a mouthful instead, making the whole thing harder. I hadn’t known he was looking at the GPS or that he was tense about any of this manoeuvre. I hadn’t realised until now that the 28 hours we’d been sailing were taking their toll on either of us. When the danger is gone and I’ve returned Gwen to our course I shout back at him at how unfair it had been, but his rage is still spitting and he isn’t prepared to hear it. When I open my mouth to speak again he says “let me know when we get there”, disappears far inside the boat and shows no sign of coming back.

I am alone again, only this time I am heading straight for an island strewn with rocks, some of which I can only see on the chart, and I have taken Geordi off for the last manoeuvre so I can’t leave the tiller and go inside. I’m scared as hell even though there’s some distance to go, not knowing when, or if, Rich will return. I can’t motor in to my home at Southdown on my own, let alone sail the perilous rock paths and dramatic tides of this unknown place. I can’t do this on my own, but I must. As tears form in my eyes I attempt to get Geordi working, and fail to get him steering but have him holding the tiller enough to grab a look at our position on the GPS inside. Then, looking at the chart outside again I decide that it’s safest for me to head in a more northerly direction, far from where I judge the submerged Hard Lewis rocks to be. I can then take a wider route around the islands than planned, using the extra time to work out a few things, as I can’t yet be free to check our location or deal with bringing down the sails alone. I am repeating “hard lewis rocks, hard lewis rocks” to myself, trying to stay calm and steering while tears run down my face.

This bit also seems to last an age.

When I next see Rich he appears from the forward hatch, far down the boat, and I have taken us north of the route of any potential danger for the forseeable. He sees me there crying and sits at the front of the mast, looking ahead away from me. All the anger and fear I’ve been trying to keep in starts seeping out again in those little hyperventilating breaths, which turn into heaving sobs. He walks back and yells at me “stop that stupid breathing shit” “can’t you just chill out?” I try to calm my breath down, and I am relieved that he is back, but I fail, and he keeps shouting.

When I manage to stop he tells me where to point the boat, goes and checks the GPS, and spends the rest of our journey occasionally giving me practical orders. I just want to get to the anchorage and for all of this to be over, so I do my best, silently looking out at the strange passing rocks and islands to breathe some beauty in to this horrible situation, only speaking when absolutely necessary to the sailing. We glide between rocky peaks, sideways down the tide at an angle I estimate from a transit drawing on the chart, and just about manage to keep from arguing until the anchor is down between the beautiful and very different islands of Tresco and Bryher.

Hours pass and nothing is said. Then I mention it, and the evening builds in to an insane and bitter argument. When it’s done, I hug Gwen’s mast. I ache. I feel guilty about my anger, and feel angry. I go to bed alone. It isn’t discussed again for two days.

The next day I have a shower, put on a frock and take Bob over to Bryher. Excitement builds as I row across, already spotting half-familiar sights on the island I used to work on 17 years ago. I marvel at the things I had forgotten – the sweet smell of sun-baked ferns, the succulents that cover grass and beach land alike, the beautiful turquoise colour of clear shallow water over near-white sand. I see a seal bobbing about, and I go to my old hotel at Hell Bay which has changed almost beyond recognition and pay over three pounds for a single coffee, which I drink among tame garden birds.




Bryher being good for my soul

My mind turns to more positive things – how, despite everything, I have learned so much this last month and steered decently in the face of adversity these last few days. I resolve to look after myself, make my own support for my worries and celebrate my achievements when nobody else will. I can’t not sail, so I just have to be good crew without needing help and harden myself to the way Rich gets when he’s tired and tense, and how I get when I’m tired and tense, and how threatened he gets if I cry, and how easily I brood. I can’t not sail, I love it too much now. Eventually experience will make things easier. I think of Arya Stark in Game of Thrones (a girl has no name) learning all she can from a cruel master until one day…

Yeah, maybe it’s not all workable. We’ll figure something out. We always do.

Scilly is still beautiful, and I’ll tell you all about it next time. Scary stories have to end and I’m pretty sure this is the best place for that to happen. I’m sitting in the New Inn on Tresco right now, gazing around, sure that I danced on some of these tables one night a long time ago. I would say sorry to leave you with only these tales of woe, but now you have something a lot less miserable to look forward to! And so do I, I’m sure.

We’re here.