Sunday 16 June 2019

David Robbins: My dreams of plain sailing were dashed upon the rocks early in my career

David Robbins

I realised fairly early on in my sailing career that I was not Volvo Ocean Race material. The prospect of nine months of heroic battle against the elements, followed by a hell of a hooley in Galway was, sadly, beyond my reach.

Mind you, I showed early promise. I managed to pull the right ropes and wind the right winches when I crewed on a stately old cruiser skippered by my friend's dad.

On a beat across Dublin Bay, sitting on the gunwales, with the spray in my face, I had a Toad of Toad Hall moment: "This is the thing," I thought. "This is the only thing."

Sailing, I learned, is like the sixth dimension -- a world that runs in parallel with the normal one but does not intersect with it.

Sailors think about wind and tide the way we think about the bail-out or the X Factor. In winter, they practise their knots; in summer, they plan imaginary voyages to the Antibes, but end up going to the Isle of Man instead.

They read the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O'Brian, the memoirs of old sea captains, or the sea-faring works of Jonathan Raban.

In Passage to Juneau, Raban describes the art of navigating by the swell of the sea. The native peoples of north-west America could do it. They knew by the look of the sea, and by the feel of it, where they were.

They would plant their feet on the deck, look at the surface of the ocean and "navigate by their testicles", according to Raban. It is, perhaps thankfully, a lost art.

I found it difficult enough to navigate using the rudder. I realised that helming was not for me when I managed to crash a dinghy into Dun Laoghaire pier.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and the pier was crowded with after-lunch strollers. There was even, I seem to remember, a band playing on the old bandstand.

"Why is that man in the water, daddy?" was the first thing I heard when I surfaced and swatted the mainsail out of my way.

I decided to stick to shore for a while. But the sea was not finished with me yet. In the early days of our relationship, my girlfriend invited me to come sailing from Southampton to France on her uncle's boat.

It was, I learned later, a trial by sea. She put all her boyfriends through it. One began crying like a baby once the boat passed out of sight of land. One refused to come on deck at all. They didn't last long.

But once again, I loved it. A 48-footer, under full sail, in a Force 4, with the spray flying and the salt drying on your skin. On the night watch, under the stars (or were they the lights of the car ferry?), romance blossomed.

My girlfriend's uncle turned out to be a pragmatic sailor. Some skippers like to plot a course across the Channel to the port with the best harbour. He chose the one with the best restaurant.

After a couple more trips on the uncle's boat, I began to dream about the sailing life. There is a wonderful practicality about it. You have to be active, but you have to think too. It suits a certain personality type -- independent-minded, stubborn and enduring.

This fitted my idea of myself. The old sea dog, calm in the eye of a storm, at one with the elements, in touch with the eternal verities.

That was until I was hit by the boom of my friend's boat. I was knocked unconscious and needed stitches to a nasty head wound.

When my head cleared, I realised that I knew very little about sailing, really. I didn't understand the wind, or the way it worked on the sails. If I had, I wouldn't have needed the stitches.

This week, as I watched the crew of Groupama spray the champagne in the air in Galway, I thought: that could not have been me.


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