When we were children, my parents took us sailing on their wooden yawl (small boat). This boat was loved, cherished and impossibly hard work to maintain. Winter days were spent as a family bundled up in woollens, scraping barnacles off the hull; the tang of varnish and epoxy resin filling our nostrils and making our already raw eyes and noses run like little streams.
We would take a break from the enforced manual labour at lunch time and feast on cheese toasties and Coke in the sailing club. The club room was nothing special: a community centre for weather beaten sea dogs, perched atop two steep flights of wooden steps, smelling of cigarettes and vinegar, with flaky wall paint. My siblings and I would play with our friends along the balcony that ran the length of the building. There were often no adults watching us – engrossed as they were in finding a missing rowlock or cleat – which may be why, aged eleven and with a competitive streak growing faster than Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, I decided I could jump the seven foot drop from the balcony and land safely.
I made the jump but not the safe landing. Face and knee met with a ‘crack’; my nosebleed took wads of bandages and half an hour to slow and my knee still bears a scar where my tooth sliced the skin. The pattern on the roof of our car, which I stared at whilst lying on my back in the boot waiting for everything to stop spinning, is memorable now. I was simultaneously defeated and triumphant.
We were ungrateful sailors. You might imagine that the graft we all put in for seven months a year would leave us champing at the bit to get on the water – but no. We loved the beach but not the lifejackets, tippy bits of the journey or the wind. We liked picnics but not the packing, rigging or bilge pumping it took to get somewhere to eat it. There was an engine on board – a Stewart Turner (‘Stupid Turner’) which only worked once a year, on a Hunter’s Moon, when there were dolphins in the channel and mermaids on the rocks.
My friends thought we were crazy. “You have a boat and you don’t like sailing..? You’re mad. You have a boat!!”
“A third share,” we would point out.
“Can I come?”
They could and they did – and we sat on the deck, stretching our teenage legs out in the sun, slathered in Johnson’s baby oil and not helping. But I never took to it. Even with a week’s dinghy sailing course at school, the enduring memory is of my waterproof shoes being too big for me and the weather being horrible. I mean – it was February.
Mum and Dad gave up in the end. When we were old enough to be left at home, they would head off on sailing weekends to the Isle of Wight, France, Cornwall… and we would skulk at home, comfortable and cossetted, with CD:UK on at lunch time and a towel to eat our baguettes on in the garden. We were inexcusably whiny. I cringe when I think of how surly and frustrating we must have been – to this day, I don’t know why our parents didn’t just tie us to the mast and ignore us for most of the trips. To say we missed out would be a gross understatement.
Fast forward twenty years and enter NW.
He was no sailor, but he was sporty. He grew up surrounded by mountains and the sea but it was the slopes that held his heart. Skiing was his thing and so I thought no more about it when he perked up at the thought of a day trip on my parents’ boat shortly after we started going out.
“How big is she?” he asked, his eyes shining.
“I’m not sure. Medium?”
“How many sails does she have?”
I couldn’t remember. “Three?”
“So she’s got a mizzen?”
“Um…” No idea.
“I’ll ask your Dad – and get some sailing gloves before the weekend and find a waterproof bag online…”
So it started. He took to it like a toddler to yoghurt – and at the start of his obsession, made nearly as much mess. But gradually, through borrowing dinghies from my parents and their friends and practicing in all weathers, his enthusiasm wore off on me. It helped, of course, that the first time he took me on the water was on our blow-the-budget all-inclusive holiday to Turkey, where the perfect conditions made sailing feel like scissors shearing through silk, even if you were as clumsy as me.
He persuaded my sister and her family to resurrect an old Wayfarer and share the cost. We started to take it out in the summer – first I had NG strapped to my chest and NL at my feet, then NG by my side and NC on my chest – and now we go out as a family and the children helm. We even skippered a Drascombe Lugger and took my parents out this summer. Wonderful humans that they are, they bear no grudges. They have welcomed NW as a kindred spirit, though I think they are having a hard time seeing me with sea legs.
“There’s a lot of talk about her ‘honeyed thighs’,” I sit down to breakfast and gaze ruefully at my untoned legs and not-sailing-induced scar. NW has the day off; it’s still the school holidays – and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have just gone ‘head to head’ for charity on the Solent in a sailing race. It was a thrilling event, with Bear Grylls winning overall for the charity Tusk, but of course much of the media coverage is about Catherine’s appearance after her recent Mustique holiday.
“She lost, didn’t she?” NW grinds pepper onto his fried egg.
“As Kensington Palace says, it’s the taking part that counts. Charlotte stuck her tongue out and she got given a wooden spoon.”
NG looks confused. “Why?”
“It’s a sort of punishment.” I pour coffee and pull NC’s finger out of his nose.
“Seems a bit harsh to me,” says NW.
Surely he understands the concept of a loser’s prize? In May, NW and I competed in our first sailing race – an amateur event called ‘Calves’. We received a very small trophy for being the first dual team to compete in a lumbering Wayfarer against zippy Lasers: the adult equivalent of getting a present on your sibling’s birthday when you’re four. It has pride of place in my office at work.
NG sticks out her tongue and NC scatters Cheerios from his mouth like a leaf blower. Standard behaviour at our breakfast table, sadly. “Mummy, can I have a wooden spoon?”
“Because I stuck my tongue out so it’s my punishment.”
“No,” I sigh patiently, spooning yoghurt into my bowl and squeezing the honey too hard so it ends up on my thigh. “This has all got very confused. You get a wooden spoon when you lose something. Princess Charlotte stuck out her tongue but the Duchess of Cambridge lost her sailing race, so…”
“Woohoo!” NC leaps off the bench, banging my calf with his foot and runs around the table, closely followed by NG. “I lost my Lego space shuttle so I can have a wooden spoon too!”
They pull the ceramic pot of kitchen utensils off the counter, find the two sturdiest spoons and unload the biggest saucepans from the bottom drawer. Within seconds, a makeshift steel band has been set up on the floor and two small drummers are making a godawful din.
NW winces. “They’re terrible – no natural aptitude at all.”
I shrug. “Practice makes perfect. It’s the taking part that counts.”
I rub the honey off my leg and get back to my yoghurt.
NW – Not William
NG – Not George, 6yrs
NC – Not Charlotte, nearly 4yrs
NL – Not Lupo (now dead)