Sunday, March 16, 2014

Land people, sea people and Michaelmas Island

"I have always wanted to hang out with these kinds of people. I want to understand them, to rub through the veneer of people who spend their lives on the water. I say 'veneer' because being away from land and then returning can produce a kind of aloofness. Land people will never understand what sea people are talking about."
(Me. Salt Story, of sea dogs and fisherwomen.)

Lately, as part of my drive to get out to sea more and not compromise a day job, I've taken up racing sailing on Saturday afternoons. It's much the same mindset as commercial fishing: the moment you step off that jetty and onto a boat, you leave all problems associated with land behind. To the families associated with sailors or fisher folk, this may seem a selfish ideal or even (gasp) escapism. Maybe the whole sea thing these days is meta moral. But the truth is that when you step off that jetty, everyone on the boat has to work together and deal with crises that have nothing to do with your lives on land, only your lives at sea. It's that simple and it's quite addictive. It's a fugue, this bubble.

It can often be shitty too. I'm learning from my latest sea-going mentor Happy that he is fine with calling me a 'fucking donkey' while I'm reefing in the wrong side of a spinnaker in 20 knot winds. By the time he's swearing at me, another crew mate is by my side pulling in the sail as well, both of us laying on deck and trying to stop the billowing canvas from 'prawn trawling' and the boat is sliding along a wave and someone's bum is in the water. Once the crisis is over, Happy will still be at the tiller and yelling "Well done everyone!"

Last night we sailed through the channel and out to Michaelmas Island. It was blowing a fierce westerly and we surfed most of the way out there under a kite.
"12 knots!" Shouted Jumpy.
"That's what I'm worried about, mate." replied Happy.
The full moon rose. Ahead of us a boat was slewing sideways in the slop, its spinnaker falling into the sea. I could see dark figures moving around the deck, struggling to get the sail in, while the sail was blowing the boat all over the place. The boat broached and swayed upright again.

So we'll get back to the bar after the race, have a beer and talk about our maneuvers. Happy will explain where we went wrong or right. Intricately.
I guess the point of this post is that I could tell you about rounding Michaelmas Island as it grew dark and how we hit the wind on the other side, about racing two other boats to Seal Island, the full moon glowing the sea, hazing the mussel farm ropes with a quick jibe or that moment when all of us realised that no one was stationed on the runner winch as the boom came swinging down with the weight of the sou westerly behind it.

I got home close to eleven pm last night and sank my tired body into bed. This morning I went to the March in March in Denmark to voice my lack of confidence in the policies of our current government. I was still shattered from last night's sail. My condition reminded me of how I felt in the mornings of the years I spent night fishing in really rough conditions. On meeting old friends at the protest, I tried explaining what had happened last night, where we had been, what had happened. The blank faces of the land people brought it home to me (again). They have no idea of what goes on out there.
It's part of the aloof beauty of 'stepping off'. 


  1. Yes, I have noticed that sea-farers treat land people as 'civilians'. Iain Banks used to refer to his non-writing friends as 'civilians' too.

  2. I'm therefore diagnosed as a 'non civilian' proper.