Epic Fal

Last night I was looking forward to writing a post all about how refreshed and hopeful I felt about our great adventure. This morning it turns out that most of the rest of the UK (especially the older generation) have decided we’re going to leave the EU, so here’s my post from the grey drizzly land of GLOOM, and, indeed, DOOM!

We’ve been in Falmouth since I last wrote, and managed to get a few boat jobs done and say goodbye to a few more people during its spectacular Sea Shanty Festival. The Falmouth Classics was at the same time, and though nobody seemed to know what was going on during the races it was great to see Grayhound and a few other Millbrook craft among the bunting-lined beauties. We watched them from our usual noisy spot at Trefusis, rowing ashore for booze and shopping and booze and songs and booze and showers when needed.

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Grayhound shoot past us to anchor after a race

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Falmouth: Okay

I could write a whole blog about each person we said goodbye to. My inspirational mother and I enjoyed an evening of shanties sung by her other half, Mike, and his group The Press Gang. We talked about plans and ideas and enjoyed each others’ silliness as always, and the following morning I bid her a quiet and unceremonious goodbye on The Moor before rushing off in a stress to meet my dad. By contrast, our lunch with him and his partner Sue was filled with talk of everything but our impending adventure. It was only as his eyes started to redden as we bid our goodbyes at the marina that the purpose of the visit became stark. It’s an odd gut feeling, seeing your dad cry, and it set me off too so we rowed off quickly for a lie down and a movie at home on Gwen. I will miss them both.

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Mum and me enjoying Press Gang at The Grapes

That evening we decided to return to Falmouth for some more of the shanty festival, even though we’d already heard enough shanties to last us a good long while. Fortunately, so had the festival and at our second stopping point for the evening we were lucky enough to catch a wonderful Cornish folk group instead. I leapt in and joined the dancing that was weaving a line in front of them, although the driving “five step” 5/4 beat of a few of their songs was more than my feet were capable of following. Their musicianship was incredible and we’d seen a couple of their number at Port Eliot festival as part of the Cornish “shout” movement who sing in pubs throughout the county, so we trusted their advice when they said to stick around for something really special from the next band. After quite a bit of setting up, a Basque group called Oreka TX bashed our minds with their tiny but powerful drone horn and spectacular “txalaparta” instrument, a gigantic stone xylophone played in complicated rhythms passed between two men with big sticks. We had just enough amazed energy to traipse up to the Jacobs Ladder and bounce about to some punk before rowing home.

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One two three four five, one two three four five, one two three… agh!

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Txalaparta!

Cornwall voted to leave the EU, too, by the way. Cornwall gets a good share of the UK’s European money which has helped fund many resources as well as things we’re super proud of like the Eden Project. I felt so proud of you, last week, Cornwall. I’d decided I would definitely move to Falmouth when we got back – it has a pub with a bookshop in, and a music scene I could get involved with, and all this lovely sea. This morning we’re saying things like “well, we don’t HAVE to move back”. If throwing the EU’s support back doesn’t seem stupid, and if giving more power to hate-fuelling people like Nigel Farage, a man so odious that I’m not even surprised by his crass comment that Leave have won “without a single bullet being fired”, is more what you’re about then you’re not the place for me right now. I still love you, though. Idiots.

By Monday we’d got ourselves sober and soggy enough for the second bout of visits, this time from my darling Didds. She arrived to find me intoxicated already at lunchtime, not from alcohol but from the sweet, sweet masochistic pleasure of having been tattooed. Finally I had joined Rich in having my Gwen design emblazoned on my back, and after some initial discomfort the whole experience had felt like a sensual massage of subtle, selective pain. I can’t explain this at all, but I heartily recommend a back tattoo for its heady mixture of relaxation, torture and eventual invigoration.

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Beaver on board

Didds and I pissed about together, and then with Rich and with her boyfriend Mike, and it was all huge fun and included watching Jaws, rowing around a lot and making pictures out of stones on Gyllingvase beach, and culminated in getting plastered on something called “Beavertown” which was a strong ale made with blood orange. We parted ways the following morning over the kind of breakfast that rebuilds sanity and revitalises organs, her to visit to family nearby and us to a slow and mizzly dinghy trip up the Fal to vittle at Penryn’s Lidl. I can’t wait to see her again at some warmer spot in the world, and other than that am pretending she’s still just down the road.

Yesterday we decided enough was enough with the noise from Pendennis shipyard. We pootled ashore for a shower before buggering off in Gwen mid-afternoon, not entirely sure where we were going. A good westerly wind seemed just high enough to give us a great sail down past the Helford, and we’ve been there before, so we aimed further towards the Lizard and tacked back in to anchor in pretty Coverack in time for tea. My confidence was back and the sailing was good. Rich was calm and gentle, I was calm and gentle, the sea was calm and gentle, and it felt great to sit on deck last night with a hot meal in a new place watching the gannets dive for fish we still can’t catch. We’ve overspent to excess in the last week in Falmouth, so we’re stocked up with wonderful fruit and veg and a determination not to eat or drink ashore for a while.

We have tentative hopes for a voyage of some distance soon. Though the money we’ve saved up to disappear with is about to be worth sod all when we eventually get to France (next month, we hope), we’re still on our way out towards the rest of the world. Now we’re out of Falmouth we’re living again by the weather and the wind and it feels good.

Slow Down

It’s midnight, and in the quiet darkness I can hear our anchor chain’s deep metallic moans as Gwen turns her back to a shifting wind. This is usual enough, and not loud, almost soothing, but my brain is buzzing and will not sleep so I get out of bed, grab water, tobacco and my laptop, and head on deck. Here the engine whirr of the nearby shipyard, the traffic buzz of Falmouth and the slapping bobbing of our dinghies play quietly to my right against gentle waves swooshing the shore to my left. Way ahead in the blackness I can see a tall ship’s anchor light revealing its masts, some huge luxury motor yacht glowing orange from every window and a distant lit building across the channel, and to my right even the shipyard’s cranes and colossal craft seem pretty in gentle illumination*. Soon it starts to rain and I head back inside. Not for the first time, I note that we should add “fix the stiff hatch” to our jobs list, and don’t.

Back by Falmouth again, and back to internet and phone access. We sailed a short passage to the Helford soon after my last post, and again our trip went technically well but was mired by personal distress. Despite working my absolute hardest to do everything right, Rich’s tiredness came out in more impatience, more stern (ha!) words, and though this time I had the wherewithal to call him out on it I was back to doing my usual lip-biting chin-up speak-only-when-necessary puppet act by the time we tacked into our eventual resting place. I cried hard and loud that night, filled with terrors that this was to be the way of sailing for me from now on. Confidence, built on my pride at how naturally I felt I was taking to the tiller and responding to a wildly shifting and sometimes absent wind, seemed so easily dashed by any displeasure from Rich. I should be able to see his residual stress for what it was and ignore it, but in the effort and endurance of sailing it crushed me.

The Helford became a training ground for relaxing, and for accepting that we really don’t have to be “on it” as much now as we have in the grafting months that have brought us here. One day Rich sailed and then rowed us (when his dinghy rig collapsed on my head) to the impossibly picturesque Helford village. We had a pint at its charming pub, where we met a fantastic chap who instantly regaled us with so much information about polar expeditions and boat history that we could barely remember it by the time we got to our next destination – the mysterious beach near our anchorage where we sometimes saw people sitting. Leaving Fanny on the sand and walking inland it soon transpired that we had accidentally broken in to Trebah, a popular (and paid entry) sub-tropical garden, but we’d had a couple of pints and decided to make the most of it.

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Rich’s view from the Shipwright’s Arms, with Fanny on the jetty

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Gatecrashing

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Caution: drunkard in the jungle

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Gwen in the mental Helf, apparently beset by giant flies

I spent the whole of the next day reading, lounging and moving files in to separate hard drives for music, film and photos, and on the next I rowed us to a beach for a long coast path walk culminating in another pint. As we returned to the dinghy I removed my coat for rowing and we were over half way to Gwen when fat plopping raindrops began to pelt the water, transforming very quickly into the tinny ripples of a downpour. Richard started to complain, which seemed a bit rich seeing as how he wasn’t the one rowing and still had a waterproof on.

“Go faster!” he prodded.

“I’M TRYING!” I yelled with all the power my hoarse throat could muster, and cracked up laughing. We carried on laughing and yelling over the clatter of raindrops all the way back to Gwen, and standing drenched on her deck I felt that somewhere in that rainy river I had probably shed a little tension and started work on a set of cracking stomach muscles.

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When shore power is absent, it’s time to adapt

Slow days, and sweet. We managed to beg a cheap second hand optimist sail for my dinghy from a local sailing school. Not much else of any use was done over this time, although Rich extended the clew lines on our gib sheet in the hope that this would stop the blocks catching when we tack, and painted a cupboard door with blackboard paint I’d procured before our departure. I later split it into sections for tides, weather info, shopping and a jobs list – which grew. We decided that was okay because we needed the rest. At anchor even a pop to a shop is a whole lot of exercise and logistics – it was time to drop the panic. All we had to do was move the rest of our files to the backup drive we were planning to leave with my mum, and the others could wait.

Enter the fucking bastard computers. Sorry, computer, but really! The next day – the WHOLE of the next day, became dedicated to the very simple task of trying to back up our files without losing them completely. First our backup drive died without hope of resurrection, then my usual hard drive slowed down to a painfully worrying stutter, and finally the drives that Rich had formatted decided they couldn’t be read. We took turns on the laptop, aching when we weren’t on it to rescue precious files – my entire design and teaching work for the last ten years, the manuals for the boat stuff, the e-books. How charming our absence from the internet had seemed and how cruel it had become – Google would know what to do! In the end we gave up, shoved the laptop into stowage and had dinner and wine on deck in the sun.

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Blackboard, soon to be decorated by me – data without the stress

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Departing the Helford, wondering if we’re still going forward (but not really caring)

Today’s sail started early, with hardly a breath of wind and a short delay while we waited for pretty mist to dissolve from the river mouth. We pulled the boom and jib across by hand to encourage our departure from anchor, and tacked peacefully out of the Helford for an hour at a snail’s pace, even fishing off the stern with Needle for a now familiar absence of catch. The wind picked up closer to Falmouth and I pinched Gwen hard to it to try and get inside the isolated danger marker I now refer to as Spikey, and though veering gusts made this impossible we soon tacked elegantly in to our usual anchorage at Trefusis with little bother. Rich was kind and happy, deferring to my judgement and praising my observations, and guided me gently through knots I really should know by now as we put the sails away. And yet, I could not fully enjoy any of it. As he observed, my confidence has gone, and it takes more than one good sail to get that back. Maybe the next one. We’ll see.

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It’s Falmouth Classics weekend, so our neighbours are sexy

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The perpetual embarrassment that comes with Richard naming a dinghy

Today, while Rich resuscitated the hard drives, I rowed over to Falmouth for a pleasant vittles and crossword trip, and caught up on the news. The shooting of 49 people in a gay club in Orlando, Nigel Farage’s latest hate campaign – the world stinking a little more. Then, this afternoon, the murder of dedicated MP and campaigner Jo Cox. You might think this enough to make me glad to be leaving the “real” world, but somehow I feel a desire to be nearer, to be doing something, to fight that impotence that accompanies tragedy and injustice, to right wrongs with a gesture of good in a landscape of fear. This urge will diminish and dissolve, of course. Tonight, like so many others, I’ll hug my lover tighter than last night and make little resolutions to myself. So I should probably go back to bed and do that now. N’night.

*Actually, cranes are always pretty. I don’t know what it is about the things, but I love them.

 

La Forge Your Own Path

I am tired – physically, mentally and emotionally, and you are a computer with a bright screen and a plethora of shite by which to be distracted. But there’s just too much to tell and too much to come to not to at least try to make a start. Hi.

It all began at Maker with the one and only public performance of the play wot I wrote, which began with me hidden under a sheet. As it was lifted and I opened my eyes to the audience for the first time I saw not, as I had expected, a few drinkers reluctantly herded in from the bar to indulge me and Didds in our latest show-offering, but a throng of over a hundred, already laughing their arses off at the first song. When the damage was done and we’d belted out the last number I was congratulated and allowed to drink heavily on some nerve-soothing rum before Didds beckoned me and Rich to the main bar for a video show. She and her boyfriend had adapted some of the songs I’d written for the not-really-an-opera into a goodbye film for me and Rich, and half the village had joined in. Surprise, exhaustion, love, amazement, adrenaline, rum – we were intoxicated.

We weren’t even at the send-off stage, and we headed out for our first sail of the year the next day. The good will continued to flood in over a sunny weekend spent with Gwen in Cawsand. We spent long days and short evenings with Rich’s family and an ever-changing gaggle of wonderful friends. There was some admin, a beach barbecue, a lot of rowing about in Bob and Fanny, a lot of drinking, a lot of giggling and oh my god a lot of answering the same damn questions over and over again. Yes, our first stop will be Falmouth. No, we don’t know where we’re going after that. No, we don’t know when we’ll get there. Yes, a concrete boat can float.

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Basking at the back of the barbecue (photo courtesy of Chris Ayre on Facebook)

By the end of the weekend our limbs and livers craved a holiday, but we had to pop back to Millbrook for our last coat of antifoul. There were a couple more goodbyes, some more sun and a lot more effort than we were in the mood for, relieved a little by Rachel with her painting skills and conversation. Whelm spilled over and I struggled when bidding my dad adieu, even though we’ll see him and a few more again in Falmouth. Thoughts became insular – let’s get out of here. Even Rich started to aggravate me. I just wanted to get away.

Fortunately, we soon did. Even though Gwen ended up back in Cawsand, waiting for the easterlies that would carry her to Falmouth, Rich and I ran away to Plymouth on the red pig ferry for an anonymous anniversary lunch. Four years together, one day until our big voyage was to begin – it felt good. The brief breather allowed us to reminisce fondly over the weekend’s encounters and share the un-extraordinary strangeness of our goodbyes. What wonderful people we left behind, and how interesting their concerns – “if you end up destitute, we’ll have a whip-round”, “don’t you dare come home without her”, “don’t forget to duck”.

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Anniversary dinner on deck with the no fish that we caught that afternoon

And then, off. Yesterday morning we left Cawsand a little later than intended for our first significant downwind sail. The mist lay heavy so visibility was low, and our departure from the bay was clumsy and confused, eventually starting the engine briefly to chase the wind we knew was close but which eluded us until just before Penlee. Soon we were in it and bimbling merrily along on a calm sea, making up for a slow start by pulling out our reefs (helpfully giving me an excuse to learn how to heave to) and exchanging the staysail for a toe staysail. Rich became impatient to play with the Aires self-steering he’d exchanged for a day’s labour (what a bargain) earlier in the year, so I took the tiller for a good long while.

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Last view of nipply old Rame as it disappears into the mist, and goodbye to our home

After an hour or two and not much faffing he’d fixed the thing to a rough and ready attachment on the tiller, and encouraged me to let go. I’m a bit of a demon for following the course, so I hesitated, but eventually I had to concede to the new controller of our craft. We watched as Gwen wandered gently to the south and didn’t stop. Some fiddling. Try again. This time she edged gently south, then back on course, the wind vane accurately sensing and tilting its mechanisms to the tiller in relation to the wind. It seemed too good to be true.

“So, what are we going to call him, our new crew member?” asked Rich.

“I don’t know, what do you reckon?”

“How about Stuntman Mike?”. We’d watched Deathproof the night before.

“That’s brilliant. But, er… a little too malevolent, and dangerous sounding. We need a reliable name, someone who’ll keep us safe. Chewbacca? What’s number one called? Riker? Can we call him Riker?”

“Riker’s not the navigator though.”

“No, that’s Geordi La Forge”

We never agreed on a name, but somehow after that we began talking naturally about Geordi. “Give Geordi a click” meant adjust the rope to bring the vane turret back one place to a better course. “Easy there, Mr La Forge” I moaned as he took too long to bring Gwen back to our intended direction. The name stuck, and he became an instant part of the family. Here’s a very quick video of Rich fiddling with Geordi as he steers us along…

Sadly, the figurative plain sailing was not to last, and with the tiredness of the preceding week dragging us down we began to squabble. We’d never done this when sailing before, and with all the learning and looking and concentrating I was doing I found this difficult to bear. I bit my lip and kept myself chipper, feeling pretty damn good about how well I was getting on and how much progress we were making with Geordi, but Rich was also tired and seemed increasingly exasperated with me. By the time we came to gybe in to Falmouth he was not interested in what I had to say. A final attempt to insist that we should be steering a little further to the left as we were being dragged towards a hazard by the tide was met with such hostility that I was forced to shut down, take the tiller and quietly make the adjustment I’d proposed, and finish the journey and the myriad little jobs that bring us to anchor and rest in silence lest I break down completely. There was an angry Rich and the two autopilots, one of whom ran away inside in tears once the sails were tied and the anchor light hoisted.

It’s not been an easy night – me crying makes Rich angry (yay) so we steered clear of one another. We talked this morning and I was allowed finally to express some of my anger at what happened yesterday, but I don’t feel as comfortable about sailing right now, or as supported in my learning. I need to be able to be a beginner and ask questions and express concerns or it’s just not going to work. Rich seems confident we’ll work it out, that we’ve done it well in the past so we’ll improve it again now, and I wish I could convince my brain of the same. Time will tell, and Falmouth is being good to us, so I’ll just have to keep the faith. I’ve been practising that a long old time.

We wandered soggy, overcast Falmouth this afternoon looking for sundries: a travel towel, some new rope, a sponge – and it hit me that this is the sort of day when life is just life, now. As we carefully decide whether a burger can be eked from the week’s budget a new way of life whispers the mundanities among its many adventures. After the upheaval of yesterday and of the whole departure I’m glad and grateful for a little mundane. Don’t worry. It won’t last long.

Ready Salted

I woke in the Helford downcast and quiet. In the night I’d found myself on the moonlit deck, on serene water that caught distant swinging lights beneath the glorious streak of the milky way, miserable and despairing, unable to locate the source of the inescapable banging that had awoken me. Rich heard my desperate pulls on this rope and that and came out to sort out the anchor chain, which was the true source of the night’s noise, and we went back and slept. By morning my head swam with worry and complaint.

Is sailing really meant to be this hard? And if so, am I cut out for it? Is a holiday, or the dream life, really supposed to involve so much work, being told what to do for hour after hour in long wearying days, never getting anything quite right? What do I do if I don’t do the boat dream? What does Rich do if I don’t do the boat dream? My head itched from lack of washing, my face wore the kind of weird under-lit tan that you see on people who ski and my body ached from overuse.

We motorsailed to Falmouth because the wind was against us again. It was a short hop, taking only a couple of hours, and I spoke when spoken to, keeping my damn chin up so long as I didn’t have to speak. Once we found a mooring and got ashore we bumped in to Ben, a friend we know from home who was anchored across the river in his pretty catamaran. I feigned a grin and made excuses to get away. The need to wash overpowered everything else – Gwen’s shower tray is not yet plumbed in and we’d missed a chance at Mousehole, so it had been six days since we’d washed with more than a Sainsbury’s aloe vera face wipe.

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Falmouth was already one of my favourite places, but this time it, and Ben, really saved my sanity. After washing in heavenly, life-giving warmth I ran away from Richard for some time alone, wrote postcards and talked about someone else’s problems online. We met up again and had a drink to perk ourselves up – Rich had a coffee while I went for an enormous bloody mary with a bacon stirrer. We slowly sunk a pint in The Jacob’s Ladder, a pub we’d fallen in love with the year before for its unusually decent music and deep sofas, and then made the half hour bimble to Penryn where Ben had told us there would be a jam of some sort in The Famous Barrel.

I’m not fond of jamming. Round our way “a jam” often consists of the same old faces, mostly on guitars, performing the same twenty or so plodding songs they did last week, and the week before that. Occasionally someone gets it in to their head that they’re the best thing ever and goes off on a five minute solo, or introduces a song that nobody else is equipped to join in with, and the joy of music deteriorates into a pissing contest. Everyone’s grinning as though they’re absolutely loving it and giving each other a lot of encouragement and yes, of course, I’m the terrible person for not appreciating it. But that’s the terrible person I am.

Here there were about ten people, armed with a variety of instruments. There were two accordions. Two. A banjo, a clarinet, a bhodran, a whistle, a couple of guitars and Ben in the middle on his fiddle. They played folk songs and instrumentals, and downed tools every now and then to belt out glorious harmonised shanties, all from the corner of a small, warm and welcoming pub. Outside in the fag breaks they told jokes and made merry, freely involving us in overlapping conversations, giggling and making recommendations. I loved each and every one of them by the time we three, Ben, Rich and I, staggered back to Falmouth and headed to Gwen for a whiskey nightcap under the power of Ben’s electric outboard motor. Everything was once again alright.

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After one more day of rest on board by Falmouth it was time to move on. Sadly, we have to get home and even more sadly, the wind is still against us. Yesterday’s sail began with some pleasant experimentation in the art of sailing off the anchor and took us out of the bay in to what we hoped would be a lucky wind. This was not to be and from the angle we managed to cut against its ever mounting gusts it was clearly blowing straight in from where we wanted to be. After a few hours we tacked sharply towards the beach where we’d hoped to anchor that night, but when we finally got near it was not as sheltered as we’d hoped and we tacked back out around Dodman’s Point. The choice was simple – head on to Fowey or back to Falmouth – and really there was no choice at all. We sailed on.

Rich noticed a large group of birds up ahead taking advantage of whatever tasty shoal was beneath. We’ve found a lot of entertainment this week spotting individual distant gannets making their shocking vertical nosedives into the water, spraying a plume of white water behind them. But here we very quickly we found ourselves up close and among them en masse. “There one goes” we shouted “and there” – they were diving from on high right in front of the boat, closer than we’d ever seen them, accompanied by gulls and sheerwaters with their own less spectacular fishing techniques, so many that it was hard to decide where to look. Finally a young gannet dove right next to us on our port side, so close that we could see the shape of its sleek body as it pierced the water beneath the waves and the yellow of its face as it emerged with a fish in its mouth. It was amazing.

The wind was up by now, and the water was what’s known in our log book as “moderate” – read “choppy as fuck”, with waves bashing us every few seconds, veering the boat left and right and washing the slanted decks, and sometimes us, in great splashing bursts. On the tiller this was scary but manageable, but when off shift I found myself feeling tense and unwell. Inside the boat, where I was supposed to be resting, I put my head between my knees. The saloon was no longer my lounge, the galley no longer my kitchen – I was on some terrible drawn-out astronaut training exercise in which my whole world was tossed back up, down forward, left and right, in jolting motions that would be sort of circular if only they didn’t jerk so fiercely in and out of waves. I firmly silenced the voice I could hear approaching, the one that just didn’t want to be there and might soon start begging angels to take me away. Much needed water was only a short scramble away, but I couldn’t face it. I went back on deck and didn’t even try to rest again until we’d got to Fowey.

I got on the tiller, which Rich had tied off to the push pit, and failed to notice and correct a wander towards the wind quickly enough. This isn’t a big deal and is easily rectified, but it was the last straw and I burst in to tears as I untied and yanked the tiller and finally got Gwen round. Rich made me a wrap with crisps in, which turned out to be exactly what I didn’t know I desperately wanted. I started to feel a little better. We began to make plans for our (hopefully) final tack before Fowey when I looked over the side behind Rich. “Oh Jesus Christ”. Rich looked worried “What is it?” Was I imagining things? I didn’t think so… “I think I saw a dolphin”. “Oh thank fuck for that”.

The little dolphin swam underneath Gwen and reappeared on her other side. It bounced once or twice around the bow of the boat and then disappeared. It wasn’t much of a viewing, but it came at exactly the right time, and I grinned through the tack and the next bouncing hour on the tiller while Rich rested below. Fortunately we had timed the tack right (and I’m pretty ace on the tiller) and we slipped in to Fowey just before dark, where we tidied up the sails as quickly as we could and headed straight for land and a good feed, wobbling like the sea was still beneath us for the rest of the night.

We’re still in Fowey so I’ll tell you about that later. We’ll be here for another night or two as the sea and wind aren’t changing much and Rich doesn’t want to put me off sailing for life by dragging me back into that right now. I only have these few recent sailing experiences to give me an idea of what is supposed to come for us, and though I know we’ll have much more choice about when and where we sail in future I can’t help but be affected by these arduous journeys while I’m not used to them. Ten hours is a long time to be at sea when you’re still learning, and we both are in our own ways. You don’t need to add beating to windward in a nasty sea to that. We are, I assure you, despite appearances, ON HOLIDAY.