My father’s always had an obsession with sailing. His annual trip to the Boat Show at Earl’s Court was akin to a pious man’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, but instead of returning home with scallop shells, he’d have a sheaf of brochures for boats he dreamed of owning. He wasn’t greedy, he didn’t want a big gin palace, just a 36 footer we could use for adventures. Sadly for my father, my mother doesn’t share his obsession, so it never got beyond the dreaming stage.
I can clearly remember the year that I was deemed old enough to visit the Boat Show with him. Walking down the Earl’s Court road on a dark winter’s evening, holding his hand, bursting with pride and excitement. We climbed on board every boat we were allowed to, discussing what we’d do with it if it was our boat, whether the galley was adequate, where we’d lay out charts. I had recently fallen in love with Arthur Ransome, so every boat was alive with the possibility of exciting escapades, and I returned home to harangue my mother on my father’s behalf. To no avail.
So when my father’s American friend announced he was chartering a boat, the summer I left primary school, and asked if we would join him and his children for a week’s voyage down Long Island Sound, I don’t suppose it took my Dad too long to say yes.
The preparations for the trip were undertaken by our mothers, who fussed over the packing and took us to the supermarket to buy supplies, while the Dads played with ropes. As the eldest girl, I was in charge of catering (I channelled Susan in Swallows and Amazons) and was very excited by the range of convenience food options in US supermarkets. There was a new kind of drink on the market called Capri Sun, which came in silver pouches, imagine! I think the rest of our diet was largely Pepperami-based.
When our mothers waved us off from the quay side, the feeling of freedom was overwhelming, no more rules for a week, no more houses, beds, baths.
It was a still, humid, grey day. We were disappointed that we couldn’t hoist the sails, but I think the Dads were relieved it was an easy start. We motored noisily up the Sound, taking it in turns with the wheel, discussing how far we’d go that first afternoon. We were making decisions, we had no deadlines, we could do what we wanted.
Our days were long and freewheeling. Breakfast was a variety pack of sugary cereal, eaten on deck, and a pouch of Capri Sun from the cooler. We climbed up and down the swaying cabin steps, hoisted sails, passing scratchy ropes hand over hand, turned shiny metal winches, stretching our arms in huge circles, and learned to navigate, using the compass in it’s brass casing. I matched the boaty terms I’d learnt from books with the real activities I was actually doing. We jibed, went about, reefed. I was a member of a ship’s crew, and it was exciting.
When we moored the boat, we children would leap off the side and swim in the murky Sound. Sometimes, we were allowed to use the inflatable dinghy, with it’s small outboard motor, all by ourselves. This felt naughtily dangerous. I was sure our mothers would have been fussing over us at this point, but our fathers seemed to barely notice.
For a week, we went barefoot on the smooth teak deck and after an initial trial of the novel shower, we didn’t wash or clean our teeth. We ate what we wanted, when we wanted and went to bed when we felt like it. For an eleven year old Londoner, used to rules, regulations, strictures, this was dizzyingly exciting. Imagine not cleaning your teeth for a whole week!
In the evenings, I’d cook a meal for all six of us on the galley’s tiny, swinging stove. I have no doubt that it wasn’t any more exotic than super noodles, but I was so proud of myself. I felt Susan would have approved.
My bunk was the bench alongside the main cabin table, so every evening, we’d put away the detritus of the day, fold the table and get out sleeping bags from the cupboard under the bench. I’d lie on the narrow bunk, reading ‘Thy Servant, A Dog’, by Rudyard Kipling, while my brother fell asleep on the bench opposite.
All night long, the boat rocked with the ebb and pull of the tide, lulling it’s tired, salty inhabitants to sleep. It was inky dark, but never quiet, waves slap slapped against the hull, wet ropes creaked, sails flapped, fenders bumped against wooden docks with a gentle clunk. They were comforting noises, noises that soothed, noises that promised more adventure in the morning.
For a week, I lived a story book, I couldn’t quite believe that I was so lucky. It was magical. Almost thirty years later, I still love Swallows and Amazons.
This week, I chose the prompt “Share a powerful memory, or memories, from your childhood” in the Sleep is for the Weak writing workshop