Simon's Blog - Life in a country castle
Whenever Wendy goes away we joke that the castle is a rudderless ship without her. On a recent trip away myself, the sailing metaphors took on a whole new significance.
There are two categories of once in a lifetime experiences. There are those that you are never going to get another chance to repeat and then there are those you’d never want to repeat.
I have been invited to join some army friends on an ‘adventure training’ sailing voyage across the English Channel. I am not a good sailor but accept in the knowledge that this is definitely going to fall into the former category of once in a lifetime experiences and in the hope that it does not qualify for the latter.
As the adventure draws closer I am getting more nervous about my ability to cope with whatever the channel is going to throw at us. On hearing the news, a friend who has known me longer than anyone exclaims, ‘What are you thinking of, you get sea sick on skateboard.’ She’s not far off the mark but Oliver reminds me with typical ten-year-old wisdom that ‘you might not get another chance like it Daddy, you’re not getting any younger.’ Thanks son.
Our yatcht is moored at Portland marina on the south coast. It’s a six or seven hour drive and I leave none of my shipmates in any doubt about what they have taken on in inviting me along by insisting, like an aged aunt who will not be moved once she is settled, that I must sit in the front of the car for the whole journey because of my propensity for travel sickness.
When we arrive at Portland we are greeted by the Regimental Sergeant Major whose opening gambit is ‘It’s a f*****g small boat sir.’ He introduces himself as the RSM but says I can call him Dean as I am a civilian. It never does sound quite right and because it just suits him better, he remains RSM for the duration of the voyage.
As we set foot on the marina pontoon I am already feeling queasy and this isn’t helped as we get a first look at the yatcht. The RSM’s initial assessment may have been a little generous. Seven men will spend five nights in a boat no bigger than the one in which the Owl and the Pussycat set sail.
Of course, this being the army I’m not about to say anything and it transpires I don’t have to because the rest of the crew are soon whining like a bunch of pansies about where to put their kit, who’s going to sleep where and the dubious stains on one of the pull out hammocks. One wonders whether the defence of the realm is in safe hands. I gain the moral upper hand by keeping quiet while they are all dealing with varying degrees of confusion with their admin (that’s unpacking for non military personnel) whilst quietly sitting down on the best berth, spreading my stuff out and so bagging it for myself.
After a lively debate over whether we should go out into town for fish and chips or eat some of the on-board rations that the Training Major (herein known as the TM) has brought, I am over-ruled and we have to endure mountains of rice topped with tinned chicken in white sauce. It’s filling but tasty would be stretching the truth. We all politely decline seconds.
We spend our first night in the marina waiting for the tide which takes us out into open water at 8am the next morning and then the fun begins.
The TM has nominated himself as ship’s cook and insists, against everyone’s better judgement that we should fill up with fried egg and fried spam sandwiches before setting sail. It’s a decision that will come back, literally to haunt us time and again before the day is over.
Roughly two hours into our twelve hour crossing of one of the most congested and unpredictable tracts of sea in the world (these are facts that were not contained in the pre-board briefing) Captain Preston (Regimental Organisation Support Officer, herein known as ROSO) has offered up our first gift to the sea. Whether or not the fish appreciate the friend egg and spam, it’s clear that ROSO did not enjoy tasting it all again. He remains motionless for several hours whilst I and our valiant second lieutenant Charlie join the chunder club with further offerings to Neptune.
For a while I feel much better and fit enough to take the wheel. This, of course, helps enormously as there is no time to dwell on how I am feeling. Unfortunately I have overdosed on my sea sickness pills and when I suddenly exclaim that I have sighted land I am told it is just another ship. I am not to be dissuaded though and steer a course for salvation. I remain convinced that we are heading for land even though it is moving away from us and there is a plume of smoke coming out of the funnel shaped top. Later I read that one of the side effects of too many pills is hallucinations.
By now the weather is closing in and our skipper, who I think has developed a particularly dry manner from too many years on the water, tells us that the wind and tide are fighting each other, resulting in an ever larger swell, there is no way we can get to France and the tide may even push us past our safe haven at the channel island of Alderney. I dare to ask where we’d end up if we missed Alderney and don’t much care for ‘the Atlantic’ as an answer. It’s news that neither I or Charlie can stomach and we’re over the side again. By the time I have recovered sufficiently to focus again there is rain lashing our faces, we’re bobbing around like a cork, the yatcht is practically on its side and I would be near to tears but for the fact that the repeated vomiting has left me practically dessicated.
Unfortunately, during my stint at the wheel we have steered of course in my quest for the mythical island and failed to take heed of a fast approaching super tanker. By the time the skipper comes on deck (apparently he was checking the tide times but I suspect he was actually swigging rum) the tanker has had to take evasive action by way of a 360 degree turn around us.
This is not good seamanship on our part and puts us in potential peril.
Once danger has been averted and land is eventually sighted by someone less medicated than me I can barely raise a smile. ROSO is still motionless. I’ve known ROSO for some years and this is the longest I have ever known him be silent so I know things must be serious. They are made no more bearable by the TM’s ridiculous efforts to cheer us all up by taking on the mantle of Captain bloody Beaky and offering everyone a cheese and ketchup sandwich whilst singing sea shanties.
Through all of this the RSM has been making no effort whatsoever to familiarise himself with the routines of sailing and has been asleep below deck. I decide that this is the best place to be as we are now being drenched by bucket loads of water at the bottom of every wave. My stomach is completely empty, possibly even inside out by now, so I retreat to the lower quarters.
Once laid down I dare not move and am determined to hold on to whatever I can no matter what. My resolve is soon put to the test. An hour off Alderney we hit what can only be described as a maelstrom. Two tides and what feels like seven winds are conspiring to create the perfect storm through which we have to pass to get in to harbour. The contents of the galley are flying through the cabin, everything is falling out of lockers (this is called bad admin) but I am holding on. All of a sudden the RSM, a big man by his own admission, comes flying horizontally through the air from the front to the back of the cabin accompanied by tea bags, the remnants of the rice from last night. He is closely followed by ROSO who apparently now thinks the whole thing is worthy of a video. Sadly he can’t operate the camera because he can’t see anything through his salt encrusted glasses. His request for help with the camera proves too much for the RSM who simply says ‘excuse me sir’ as he lunges for the toilet. He is a jolly polite sort of chap. Unfortunately he becomes entangled in a bungee cord on a rucksack and can’t quite reach the toilet bowl. The other end of the bungee is caught around ROSO’s ankles. They are both desperately trying to pull in opposite directions. I can do nothing to help as both my hands are grasping something solid and immovable. ROSO is once again rendered motionless and the glance he throws me is one of sheer panic. He would later tell me that the look I returned him was one of sheer terror and I wouldn’t disagree.
By the time we reach the relative calm of Alderney harbour (which isn’t all that calm) I have packed my bag (or completed my admin) and am making plans to return home by plane, train, mule or foot. The RSM has vowed to join me. I ring home as soon as I am ashore and recount the experience. Wendy reassures me that I’ll have found my sea legs now. I remind her that I’m still missing my stomach and when Emily warns me not to get eaten by a shark I tell her that that would have been a blessed relief. So how it is I set foot back on that yatcht the next day I will never be able to fully explain. Call it peer pressure.
And the tale of how we got back to England three days later is one for another time.