Je ne m’appelle Escoffier

My name is not Escoffier. I know that may come as some surprise. Admittedly, it’s never been a great source of confusion in the limited parts of nautical society I’ve inhabited over the years, from the Trowbridge High School Sailing Club to the Nautical Institute and the Honourable Company of Master Mariners. It’s a long story.

My sailing career, such as it is, went from Enterprise dinghies to fun things called Sunfish on summer camp Wisconsin lakes to a ridiculous Laser to a Drascombe Scaffie, then a Mirador, now a Folkboat and today as well, a Drascombe Lugger.

a little Sunfish A long time ago, in another life.

Enterprises are just lovely and life would probably have been a lot simpler and definitely a lot cheaper if Mr. Escoffier and I had stopped there. Lasers – well. What are they actually for? No, really, actually FOR, apart from an excuse for loud-voiced overweight men the worn side of 50 to squeeze themselves into wetsuits on Sundays without even having the grace to wear shorts over the collection of overstuffed black puddings they always appear to be overly fond of?

I capsized the Laser badly once and scared myself. Capsizing a Laser isn’t exactly news, obviously, but the scary thing was realising that thanks to the water temperature I couldn’t get myself back into the boat, and the longer I was in the less I could feel I could do. I’d never felt increasingly physically helpless before. Starting to die isn’t a nice feeling once you work out what it is. My partner of the day called the Laser a plastic tea tray and refused to have anything to do with it. That was a fairly apt description if you’d stuck too big a sail on the top of a tea tray, alongside the utterly depressing wetsuit element of the exercise. The talcum powder and having to dislocate your arm to reach the long strap which is the only way of doing up the back zip – I mean, please. Really, don’t tell me that’s all about sailing.

A Laser. Seriously.

The Mirador was another frightening disaster. Disaster One happened when the engine stopped working in Southwold Harbour with a tide running out. Southwold is marked Dangerous on the chart, principally because when the wind blows from the East it ramps up big waves all the 140-odd miles from Holland. Stuff them into a tide ripping out at 5 knots – faster than you walk – in the opposite direction, in three feet of water and you can quickly have something of a learning opportunity. When your engine stops, for example. And won’t start. But no matter, because we can just steer for the bank. Except we can’t, because all size six of the woman who claimed her ancestor built the Balcarry Lass on the beach in Kippford – and why would you make that up? – managed to snap the American oak tiller in half with her bare hands. And no, it wasn’t rotten. Afterwards I couldn’t stick a knife in the end we had, anyway.

More fun happened on the next trip, which my by-now mutinous crew sat out. There is a lump in the middle of the river in Southwold Harbour, as well as the notorious three feet of water just outside the harbour mouth, so I thought it was as well the Mirador had a lifting centreboard you could wind down. When it was up the boat pulled just about nine inches of water. It was up. It was still up when I got into the North Sea past the harbour mouth, with big rollers coming in. I couldn’t physically leave the tiller to get to the winding handle without the boat turning itself sideways to the waves, and with just nine inches of hull under the water the whole thing, including me, would have been rolled over and under in a second or two. All I could do was time the waves, get out a bit, away from the concrete posts at the harbour mouth and turn the boat on the outboard, timed to avoid the waves hitting the boat beam on. As we salty sailor boys are wont to say. Sideways, in other words.

It was rubbish. The Mirador was a boat which managed to sink itself on dry land. A big tide in November lifted it off its well-appointed trailer but luckily or not, the boat was tied loosely on so it didn’t go far. It went up though, just enough for the rollers underneath it to flip upright, end-on, which is where they were when the tide went out and the boat settled down onto about a square inch of metal post, which predictably went straight through the hull. The next big tide that night filled the boat up inside. On the dock. It had to go.

This year, with lockdown and furlough and so on, I’ve done more sailing than I have for years, all of it in the Deben in Suffolk. Which means I’ve gone aground more than ever before too, and got not only the Coastguard called out but, it being the Deben, the Mud Rescue team, none of whom were needed in the slightest.

All of which means I have to confess to taking some schadenfreudian delight in much better sailors than me utterly and totally messing it all up. The Sunday Times 1969 Golden Globe race has always been supposed to be one of the cornerstones of modern sailing legend being the first non-stop round the world single-handed race. Bernard Moitsessier became famous for refusing to stop sailing “parce que je suis heureux en mer et peut-être pour sauver mon âme” .

It’s been translated as “because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.” Or “perhaps because he’s gone a bit nuts” as his wife (yes, he actually had a wife…) probably put it. In 1982 he sailed with an actor who had a sailing film coming up. HIs boat dragged her anchor in Mexico, hit another big yacht, had her mast smashed off and wound-up on the beach full of sand and sold for $20. Even I don’t mess up that badly. I mean, $20.

Donald Crowhurst was another competitor in the Golden Globe Race. He went slightly more nuts than Moitessier and almost certainly ended-up stepping off the back of his boat in the Caribbean and forgetting to ever get back on.

IT IS THE MERCY

Apart from the classic look-I’m-really-seriously-not-coping-well phrase “it is the mercy,” Crowhurst’s logbook noted “The quick are quick, and the dead are dead.’ In ocean racing they’re sometimes very nearly both. Other boats cracked up and literally fell apart during that race. In 1985, Simon Le Bon’s brand new Drum did the same thing. This week it was Kevin Escoffier‘s turn.

Me, I’m not that mad. I don’t want to sail around the world. The Deben and maybe, once I’ve conquered the equally not-to-be-done-lightly entrance to the Deben at Felixstowe Ferry a trip up the Orwell to Pin Mill is about as much as I want to do. It would be nice to trailer down to Dittisham again, to sail under the trees that look exactly like the ones in children’s books I recall.

And maybe I will, because today, after a long lockdown wait, I took delivery of my Drascombe Lugger, a boat that’s been sailed to Australia. I have more modest ambitions. I like the fact the new boat needs only ten inches of water because my name is not Escoffier. But neither is my boat snapped in half.

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