That sinking feeling

I’ve only had it once that wasn’t in a dream. Literally, that sinking feeling, when there’s water coming up past the floorboards inside the boat and despite the fact you know, really you know, that thanks to the mud that makes up a large part of the River Deben, your boat can only possibly sink about two feet at most, given the tide, some primeval part of your brain is screaming much louder than the rational part. And it’s screaming something you don’t want to hear.

“You’re going to die! Very soon! do something!”

I’d had my boat out of the water for several years. I bought it when it had been out for at least two. I worked on it, sanded it, varnished it, painted it, antifouled it, made it look what used to be called all shipshape and Bristol fashion, which doesn’t mean it looked like gigantic breasts because that would be too silly. What I couldn’t do anything about was the fact that it had been out of the water for years and it was a wooden boat. They dry out. The wood shrinks. And the gaps between the planks that make up the hull don’t. In fact, they do the opposite.

I’d told Everson’s boatyard, the one with the crane to put it in the slings on Monday and crane it into the water, leave it on the slip in the slings and I’d come down again on Tuesday to sail it away.

A friend took the day off work to come down on Monday with me to see what was happening. As it turned out, nothing was. The crane driver was off sick. Monday. Nothing to do with a hangover, obviously. It never was when staff went sick on Monday at my company, after all. Ever. Whatever the reason, the boat wasn’t in its sling and the sling wasn’t on the crane. Apparently, their phone had broken as well, as they hadn’t told me not to bother driving down there and wasting my time.

When I came back on Tuesday, without my friend who was going to crew, they hadn’t even bothered to start the crane up. When they eventually did get the boat into the water it leaked. A lot. It’s called ‘taking-up.’ It means the water flows pretty much uninterrupted through the gaps between the planks. This is why you put the boat in the water the day before you want it. Except the yard couldn’t be bothered to do that, or to tell me they hadn’t.

The pump worked. It had to.

It’s only about a mile down the Deben to Kyson’s Point. You turn 90 degrees West there and it’s about another much more winding mile to the mooring. I did it all under engine and everything, on this sunny day, seemed fine. The engine started up, the pump was pumping hard, no wind to speak of, it was just gone High Water and I had a new job starting the next day, teaching at a French summer school on the banks of the Stour, then starting a screenplay for Film Suffolk. Plus I had a lovely boat under me. Life was good.


Life started to get less good when I got to the end of Martlesham Creek to find two things I hadn’t planned. First, the boat that was supposed to be out of my berth on the jetty was very much still in my berth on the jetty, and there wasn’t room for two. Second, and more immediately pressing, was the fact that the pump wasn’t keeping up with the inrush of water, as I saw when I looked down into the cabin and saw the floorboards floating. I did that because the odd noise I’d heard was an automatic lifejacket stowed under the seats had done what it was supposed to do when it was under water.

Don’t panic! Don’t panic!

Except I didn’t know what else to do. I’m in a rapidly drying-out channel, I can’t get onto my berth and the boat I’ve spent months making nice is sinking. It’s actually sinking. And I’m probably going to be drowned.

The fact I had a lifejacket on, the fact it could only sensibly have sunk about three feet at most, the fact that I could have stood on the cabin roof if it did without getting my sailing wellies wet, none of that came into my thoughts at all. The only thing that did was a primeval fear of drowning.

And of course, I didn’t drown. And nor did the boat actually sink, or not much more than it had, anyway. The boatyard owner told me to moor on the end of the jetty. When my voice was somewhere near a normal register I told him what was happening, so he told me to just point the boat at the bank and open the throttle. We’d sort it out later. Over there, between those two boats. I went for the gap, Fern softly stopped, we put some lines out fore and aft and that was pretty much that.

We got a big petrol-driven pump onboard and cleared her, then rigged a float so it would kick in if the water kept on coming in. From the streams of water visible under the cockpit floorboards that looked likely. I had to go to school so I couldn’t see Fern for about ten days after that. I ordered some caulking cotton and Stockholm tar but stopped short of buying proper caulking irons which was just as well, as Fern stopped leaking – sorry, taking-up – on the second day in her new berth, the yard told me. They’d checked. I’ve never caulked anything, then or since and never needed to.

I learned what a good boatyard I’d chosen, totally by accident, tucked away at the end of a forgotten creek in Suffolk. I learned that the tide goes out far and fast there too.

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They called it Martlesham

I came within thinking distance of dying today. As in thinking ‘hmm, this is a distinct possibility. Glad I made a bail-out plan.  Now let’s see if it works.’

Boat stuff. I had two things to do, and only took oooh, most of the day to mostly do one and half-do the other. When I checked the boat yesterday I found water in the bilge -about a foot of it. Nothing that hasn’t been there before and rainwater rather than river water, which is good because the leaking through the hull has stopped, but bad because the roof leak hasn’t gone away. Whoever put the grab rails and winding blocks and all the other deck furniture on the the coachroof (no, I don’t know why it’s called that either. Cabin roof. Better, isn’t it?) used screws that went all the way through. So does the water when it rains. Well done, that man.

That should have been easy. Take out the old pump and float switch and put new ones in.  Would have been one answer, but being thrifty and prudent I had to convince myself they were both irredeemably shagged, so had to work out which wire fed which, and of course they’re under water so I couldn’t see what colour they were until I thought just chop them out and replace anyway. Which I did. And found, of course, that the exit hose wouldn’t fit the new pump and neither would the adapter. It took over an hour to think of how to fix this. Answer 1 – Gaffa tape was rejected in favour of Answer 2 = superglue. Eventually.

Then the new pump stopped working. For reasons unknown. I think I tripped the push button cut-out when I shorted everything. Because water. There don’t seem to be any actual fuses, just this push button thing.  Worst case, 12 volt shock. I thought that wouldn’t kill me but I didn’t get a shock anyway, somewhat surprisingly.

Task two was to go onto the river bed and dig a hole around the rudder. It’s a drying berth. That means when the tide is out – and there’s around 4 metres of tide to go out – the boat sits on the mud of the river bed. Because the Folkboat rudder is where it is and the shape it is, it dug itself a hole in the mud, four and a half tons of boat settled on it and in a month it snapped the tiller.

I made a new one, but that month has also warped the rudder to one side. Instead of lashing the tiller straight at the next high tide, thinking what’s done is done and leaving it be I went over the side. But I wasn’t entirely stupid. For once.

I put the boarding ladder over the side first. I wore waders. I considered carrying a whistle and wearing a lifejacket. And didn’t do either. More to the point, I tied not one but two lines to the boat and to the jetty and draped them where I could get at them if I sank into the mud.

I sank into the mud.

But that’s ok, I thought, because I’ve got waders on, and the boarding ladder, and these two ropes. Which was all true, except I was up to my left knee and past my right knee and I couldn’t actually get out. Every time I got a leg a little bit higher the other leg sank deeper. It went on for a bit. Getting deeper. People had to live like this for four years in Flanders. Usually they did it for two weeks at a time or until they got shot or exploded. But frankly, I wasn’t thinking about them today. And that’s not just all me, me, me. This was a bit serious.

The only way out was to jettison the waders and climb back up the ladder, pouring sweat, having achieved nothing at all apart from nothing. And realising how you could actually get a heart attack doing stuff like this, because it was massively, massively draining and I couldn’t and still can’t quite work out why. But it was. I could feel my breath getting short doing it. Four hours later I ache pretty much all over, even after a hot shower.

But I got out. I didn’t die, from drowning or a heart attack. I found almost a metre of plywood in the bow I’d put there for General Purposes and these definitely were.  I dropped it over the side near the boarding ladder and climbed down again, in the wellies I’d stupidly forgotten were in the starboard locker anyway and stood on the plywood to recover the waders, only getting 90% muddy in the process. I tried to dig the mud out from around the rudder but water kept flowing into the hole even though it was pretty much Low Water. I couldn’t see where I was digging and each shovel full was heavy as a very heavy thing and I thought: ‘Actually, this is stupid.’

And it was. I gave up. It took another hour to get all the mud off the waders and the ladder and the plywood and the ropes and me and just about everything I could see, apart from the swan I was worried was going to attack me when it came over to where the hose was. I was hit by a swan once when I was a boy. I literally didn’t see it coming until it did. It didn’t break my arm as advertised, but it wasn’t fun.

I wasn’t looking forward to a renactment today.  But this was an old swan and a swan well used to people as it lives in the boatyard and it doesn’t bother the boatyard people and we try not to bother it, moving slowly and not towards it. Turned out it was just thirsty and wanted a drink from the puddle of water spilling off the muddy ladder, less than three feet from me.

I got the pump and the float switch mostly wired up, even though I ran out of rubbish connectors and had to Manfix it with twists and insulating tape. The push-button cut-out didn’t. The solar charger does. I’m going back tomorrow to stow the hopefully dried-out ladder and lines and lash the tiller again, and make sure everything’s ok. Which it will be. Just so long as I don’t go walking on the river bed again. There’s no future in it.


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Another chance

A long time ago I was in a musty weekday sailing club bar, on one of those English days when life is passing helplessly along outside the window, the other side of where the buzzing fly was. I looked out over the little lake outside and caught the end of what the woman next to me was saying.

On the water, she said, out there on the water, it’s like having another chance.

We didn’t fall sobbing on each other. Or wrestle each other to the floor tearing at each other’s clothes. We were English, after all. But we knew exactly how the other was feeling. Sort of but not quite the same as those silly plaques you find in twee marina shops, that say things like A Day Spent On The Water Does Not Count As Part Of Your Allotted Span. Which if there is a God and he’s English (and obviously he would be, if there was. Unless He was Jimmy Stewart, which was always distinctly possible) is almost certainly true, but not the point. What the woman meant was just as an impressive friend can’t recall canoes at school without relishing the recollection of teenage solvent abuse (yes, you. Bless you x) something about sailing always makes me think about school and the way we learned to sail there. It wasn’t grand. We had two Enterprises and two Mirror dinghies I hated because they were ugly, and a gravel pit next to the railway station and Mrs Shearn, who was cool and Mr Collins, the good PE teacher, who’d been a paratrooper in the War,m the real war, so he didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, unlike the runty little wannabe PE teacher he had to work with. We did sailing because we were rubbish at games. Because we were the cool kids. Because we could read, and drove to Stratford to see Shakespeare on our own time and wore silk scarves and desert boots and generally weren’t right. Except we were, in our haze of patchouli and Samson rollies in liquorice paper gusting up whenever the dinghies went round the back of the island out of sight of the teachers. Who knew exactly what was going on. Who were utterly cool, those two.

But some years on, I tried to get my Folkboat into the water today. It’s been out for two years so a seam has opened up and needs re-caulking. We’re going to have to try again tomorrow and there is a lot on tomorrow, with a new summer school starting, although thankfully not too far away. I don’t know the schedule yet, so I don’t know when I can get to the boat if I can’t get it to its new mooring tomorrow. Launch time is 11:30, High Water is 13:15 and there is two hours either side to get her into her berth. Then she’ll get another chance. Again.

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On the slips


After another six hours, there’s another coat of white above the waterline. Of all of it, painting the stern and rudder was the hardest part, not because it was particularly big but because the ground slopes away under the boat there on its trailer and there is what I think is called a negative sheer. At least, the line of the stern is at a fairly steep angle up and out from the waterline, giving less hull in the water and more overhang above it. In theory you get less drag and more boat. In practice it’s a pain to paint it left handed hanging on a rope with one foot in a tree and the other on the boat trailer.



But it’s done and I have to say it looks good. It really does. I gave up on the Mickey Mouse hanging off a rope nonsense and went and got my proper folding ladder, hooked that over the rudder and tied it off so it definitely wasn’t going anywhere. That worked brilliantly. This is what I like best about boats, I think, aside from the now suddenly stunning beauty of this one that’s even getting compliments from the guy who runs the yard.


“Beautiful. Black and white. That’s what I would have done.”

Keep it simple. It doesn’t need flash. It does need a cooker though. That and getting it in the water is the next project.

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Back onboard

Simple, pure and true.


Well, not quite, but the end of the initial ‘getting the boat ready’ thing is definitely in sight.

I haven’t been able to do anything to the boat for about ten days but today was sunny and windy and ideal for drying paint. I was waiting for a phone call about a job so I thought instead of sitting indoors I’d go and do something useful instead. So I did.

All of the old red topsides are now buried underneath a coat of white paint. It needs another coat, but that’s why I bought the second can and it took one can plus five brush-loads to do both sides, so I’ve got enough paint. Which is good.

Even better is how it looks now. With a simple, austere black and white finish, the way I think boats ought to be, especially wooden boats, especially wooden boats with beautiful lines, especially wooden boats with beautiful lines and a Scandinavian lineage, I like to keep it simple and pure. And it looks great. So great that people are stopping in the yard and asking about it. One today estimated it cost me twice what I paid. I nearly asked him to make an offer, but I want to sail this firstIn fact,

The way it was.
The way it was.

I want to keep it. It feels like my boat. It was nice to get back to it again. I spent about five hours there today, too long, so that by the end, clearing up, I was grunting when I moved from using muscles I never normally use. I do my 10,000 steps a day thing, but it’s not the same at all. That’s the thing with wooden boats. You have to put the hours in, but the difference is unbelievable. Actually it’s not. The even better thing is being able to say “See that? I did that. Me.”

So I’ll be there tomorrow to finish the paint by putting another coat of white on and using up the last pint of anti-foul. It’s going to be a good summer. Good things are happening. And not just on the boat.

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Going to Russia

I’ve just spent four hours or so putting black anti-foul on the Folkboat Fern. I haven’t had time to do anything to her for six days and I’ve been feeling a bit guilty about it.

I ached so much last week from sanding that I really couldn’t do much more. I got all of it done apart from some bits I missed on the rails and the stern itself, because I didn’t bring my big ladder and I can’t reach where I need the sander from the ground. I started this the stupid way, the old way, with a heat gun and a scraper and it was hard, hard work. The power sander made things a lot easier, not to mention quicker.


Black - the proper colour for below the waterline.
Black – the proper colour for below the waterline.

Do you imagine it was easy?

It’s beginning to look like a manageable project, if the rain that’s started doesn’t wash all the anti-foul off again. But it might not be raining where the boat is, nine miles away from here. And it was drying quickly in the wind there anyway. It’s not raining much.

I bought enough sanding pads. I have the white yacht paint and probably enough for inside as well. I bought the brushes and the white spirit and the Tonkinoise and if somebody somehow ran out of time and couldn’t quite do what she’d said she was going to do and pick it up from the chandlery then it’s the last thing that needs to go on anyway, and she made it up to me somehow. But it’s still been quite hard work.

I had a friend whose family got hugely rich from wool. After they pretty much controlled the entire British woolen industry, sharing it and Halifax as a sort of feudal fiefdom with another family, my friend’s ancestor went to Russia to get cheaper wool. This was one of the reasons you don’t see a lot of sheep’s cheese in England. With no need for the large flocks they sent them to slaughter. Actions have consequences. Not being convinced he couldn’t get wool still cheaper elsewhere the wool baron, or at least High Sheriff as he’d become went on to Australia, where he was sure wool was even more of a bargain.

He got fabulously even richer. I remember my friend’s indignation when I complained about something being hard work.

“Do you imagine it was easy going to Russia? Well? Do you?”

The boat isn’t that hard work. It doesn’t get me seven hundred million pounds if and when I sell it either, unlike some concerns, but that isn’t really the point of this boat. I’ll sell it if someone gives me a good price for it but it feels like the kind of boat I could keep for the rest of my life, or until I can’t sail it, which given the state of my pension might as well be pretty much the same time.

Time seems to stop when I’m with this boat it. It’s not much like going to Russia, really.

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The measure of days

I did a bad thing. I started using an electric sander instead of a heat gun, a scraper and a sanding block. Today I did all of the port or left-hand side of the hull above and below the waterline, as well as half the mahogany rails and the coachroof around the hatch which was blistering. It was unbelievably faster. A week’s work in a day.

Right-hand side done. It needs a soft brush to get the dust off it but maybe it'll be windy tonight.
Right-hand side done. It needs a soft brush to get the dust off it but maybe it’ll be windy tonight.
That isn’t to say it wasn’t tiring. I put about five hours in today and I ache. I wore a breathing mask to stop getting paint dust in my lungs, a wooly hat to keep my hair out of my eyes, safety glasses to keep them if something flew out from under the sander and ear defenders to damp down the noise. Despite wearing thick gloves there was nothing I could really do about the vibration and it’s still pretty cold being outside in the wind, mostly keeping fairly still for that length of time.

I’m getting back home, making a hot drink, having a hot shower and still by eight pm every move is accompanied by a grunt, like some parody of old age on an indifferent comedy show. Sometimes it’s better that I live on my own. It isn’t funny. I can hardly move or think or type. About all I can do is surf Facebook, which doesn’t actually progress any of the things on my To Do list, let alone the boat.

But it’s nearly, nearly done. The rest of the coachroof could have a rub over while I’ve still got the sander out and there is some more varnish that could be looked at. The Tonkinoise project was gone back a step because although I bought it the friend who was going to pick it up couldn’t find the place where it was and had to get her mother to the airport and she’s really sorry because she said she’d do it but luckily it wasn’t German Wings that flew into the Alps and sorry. Couldn’t be helped. These things happen. Would I like a swim and some breakfast tomorrow?

And if I can stop grunting when I move, yes. Yes I would. Maybe I can get the anti-foul on tomorrow before I catch the train to London so I can be at Heathrow to meet someone from Big Brother and take people to the theatre on Friday. It’s one of the things I do. I’m going to need some different clothes to the boat-painting kit though, I think.

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Our friends electric

One of the reasons I bought a wooden boat was that I like traditional ways of doing things. Or I thought I did, anyway. On Friday I spent six hours stripping old varnish with a heat gun and a scraper. Saturday I managed four. Sunday three and a half. I ache all over. By the end of each session when I get home I eat, shower and sit down. Within half an hour all I can do is grunt every time I move and I live on my own. This is how people used to spend their lives, until they died.


I sanded from the bow to the metal post in about two hours.
I sanded from the bow to the metal post in about two hours.

Today I made a start on sanding the paint down on the hull. I did the bad thing. I used an electric sander. After I went to the shop and bought some new sanding pads, enough to do the whole boat and some left over for £9 something, because the old ones had got damp in my friend’s shed and all the scrapey stuff had come loose and then spent the obligatory half hour fiddling about with the other sander, the savage belt sander that strips deep grooves into things because that’s what it’s for, not roughing up a paint surface, I got started.

A friend from a famous yard walked by. I didn’t know he was working here today. Sometimes he plays keyboard behind my spoken word stuff, when we’re Frank Admiration & The Extraordinary Renditions, but today we were wooden boat guys. I felt pretty wooden anyway.

As a break from the paintwork I ran the electric sander over the wooden rail I was going to strip the old way, the one that in three days I hadn’t got near to starting. It took all the varnish off in about a minute instead of ten.

The lighter part? About five minutes of sanding.  The old ways are the best? Really?
The lighter part? About five minutes of sanding. The old ways are the best? Really?

My mobile kept ringing and I made some arrangements for Thursday and Friday night because I have some work to go and do in London and I need to sort that out and not mess it up, but working on the boat is going to be a lot faster now.

I still ache. I will for a couple of days. Now I feel stupid as well. But that will go. And the boat is going to be fine.


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No pain, no gain

My lunchtime view. I've seen worse.
My lunchtime view. I’ve seen worse.

Today was another day of varnish scraping. I meant to spend a whole day doing it, but I was too tired, too achey after spending the past two days doing the same thing, heating up old varnish with a heat gun and scraping it off with the other hand. There isn’t much room on deck amidships as I suppose I ought to call it, or half-way along the boat in more normal parlance. I didn’t particularly want to do a header over the side and drop eight feet onto the metal boat trailer if I overbalanced doing this, because with both hands full I couldn’t have the traditional one hand for what you’re doing and one for the boat that’s supposed to keep you safe, or at least safer. Obviously it doesn’t work if you get in the way of a super huge container ship coming out of Felixstowe, but nothing will. I did what sailing is all about and improvised, clipping a safety line through my leather trouser belt at one end of the other around the nearest fixed bit of metal attached to the boat. It would probably stop me hitting the ground, or at least at full speed. I didn’t want to find out anyway.

I started work on the boat at about one o’clock today and had to stop just before six. I couldn’t do anymore. It wasn’t as cold as yesterday, or at least it didn’t feel as cold. It said 4.5C on the car thermometer today, but 7.5C yesterday when there was a steady breeze blowing, which there wasn’t today. A huge high tide yesterday too, to go with the eclipse, the water up over the quayside. It looks very wrong when that happens.

This is what I did today. It felt like more.
This is what I did today. It felt like more.

All I did apart from drink tea and eat a banana was heat and scrape. It was ok. I like jobs where I can see what I’ve actually done, whatever they are. I wanted to get all of the port or left hand side of the deck rail done today but I just couldn’t do it all. I can’t work out what’s been going on with this boat. Parts of the rail had three layers of varnish on them, one of them a deep red. Other parts just a few feet away had a green coating that looked more like moss just beginning to grow and hardly any varnish at all. There is a six inch strip of toe rail – to stop your toes and then the rest of you going over the side – that is rotten and crumbling while the rest of it is completely solid. I don’t understand why that part would have gone rotten. It makes no sense.

So tomorrow is another day. I think it’s going to be two days to finish stripping all the varnish off and probably another two to sand down the deck unless I can find a sander. I thought I had one but I can’t seem to find it anywhere. I don’t like using sanders anyway. I don’t like the vibration through my hands, nor the noise.

It’ll be another day to sand down the paint above the waterline on the hull ready to change it from red to white, the proper colour for Nordic Folkboats but the below-waterline part feels quite rough already. I’m wondering if just a wash down with water to get the mud off would be enough, without bothering to sand it. I can’t tell. It would save a lot of time.

It will be worth it. Really. It will. Honest...
It will be worth it. Really. It will. Honest…

Then a day painting, then she can go back in the water and I can paint the inside of the cabin white now that the wet rot cure has done its stuff. There is a crack along the cabin roof side that is letting in water too. I thought I could get away without stripping the varnish off that but I think the only thing to do is lift that off, fill the crack with clear epoxy glue and sand it back flush, then seal the wood up again with Tonkinoise. All day I have cursed the man who invented yacht varnish. He must have had his reasons to invent something rubbish that comes off again in big ugly yellow flakes like old man’s toenails. I just don’t know what they were.

I got back home about half-past six. I wanted something good to eat so I made the broccoli quiche I’d promised myself when I made the pastry and put it in the fridge yesterday. I was cold and aching and if I had had a tin of baked beans in the cupboard I’d have had that, but I didn’t. I hadn’t done quite enough pastry either and I rolled it out with a big Kilner jar, which was lazy and stupid because the fastener made a hole in the pastry and some of the filling dripped through. Not enough flavour. I should have put salt in and maybe just maybe a tiny sprinkle of chilli flakes. But it was ok, So was the cake I made yesterday. It’s now nearly nine. I haven’t seen anyone I know all weekend. I’m tired and aching and I seriously think I’m going to shower and go to bed with a cup of tea and a book right now.

It’s the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the town a friend of mine grew up in. The RAF did it. Nearly half the population was made homeless. There was nothing there apart from a beautiful medieval town and the war almost over. I haven’t known whether to mention it to her or not. She has. But what would I say? Sorry about the unpleasantness earlier?

I thought that as I saw someone pressure washing their plastic boat today, cleaning it up in about an hour while it’s taking me a week to do the same thing. That’s the trouble with wooden boats. Sometimes they make you too tired to think. But there’s nothing, really nothing like them at all.



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Stripping it back

The thing about wooden boats is they’re wooden boats. They start rotting from the time the first bit of water touches the wood after the sap has stopped flowing. But they’re still a million miles better than floating Tupperware, because you can fix them.

Something odd has happened to this Folkboat of mine some time in the past. There is a hairline crack in the side of the cabin roof that lets water in and where water stays in it starts rotting, so I have to fix that. There’s another patch where someone has drilled a hole through the roof to secure the grab rail that makes going forward from the cockpit not quite so perilous, given there are no rails at the sides and it’s a nice eight foot drop to the ground that I really don’t want to do. The water is getting under the wooden grab rail because there’s nothing to stop it. Taking the rail off, putting a dob of Silkaflex (a kind of putty that never really dries out completely) and put the rail back on should fix that, and there are a couple of other joins that need filling in with the stuff too.

A little imperial relic, from the days when you could sail away somewhere out East, cut the trees down and paint your ship with the juice. Obviously get the natives to do it for you and burn thier huts if they won't. British foreign policy hasn't changed in many ways.
A little imperial relic.

Yesterday and today I spent scraping off old varnish. You can see where it needs to come off because although it’s still glossy it’s a yellowy white colour, which tells you air or water or both has got in under the varnish. This is one of the reasons I hate yacht varnish. It sits on top of the wood as a hard impermeable layer, like concrete and just like concrete, while it keeps water out it’s great and when it doesn’t it’s a nightmare, because it traps the water underneath the varnish where it starts eating your boat. I don’t know why more people don’t use Tonkinoise. It’s French, it’s been around for a hundred years or more and it goes into the wood rather than sitting on top of it. You can see the advantage straight away. The disadvantage is all the old varnish has to come off first. Which means getting the scrapers and the heat gun out.

I sat there for six hours yesterday and three and a half today, in a wooly hat, four layers of clothing, safety boots, gloves and a PVC smock, heating up old varnish in one hand and scraping it off with the other. I froze. I’m writing this sitting on my sofa at home ninety minutes later and I’m still cold, with the heating on, a cup of tea and a disgusting shop-bought so second-hand biscuit, not really able to think straight yet because I’m so cold. But it’s getting done.

I’m getting the feel of the boat, finding out what needs to be done. There’s an electrical thing in the battery compartment which got rained on for six months and that’s going to need bypassing or replacing. At the moment bypassing looks the best option because I don’t know what it is, but I might revise my opinion on that. Really, all it needs apart from the electrical thing, whatever it is (and it’s metal with fins on and one wire goes into it and about four wires come out of it if that makes any difference), all it needs is doing it. Just scraping and sanding and painting. Wooden boat stuff.

Making a start. The deck looks like teak but the varnish on the edges hasn’t worn well. I think someone just varnished over varnish, without taking the old stuff off first. Task One.

Practical meditation. It sends me into almost a trance state. It’s a great way to calm down and think. Except when it’s cold, when it stops you thinking long after you should have thought that it’s too cold to keep on doing this.

I spent six hours scraping old varnish off yesterday and another three and a half today. I’m getting better at it and it’s one of those things that improves with practice. I’d done just about a third of the deck now, and treated the wet rot around the windows inside. I have all the paint I need, the white paint for the hull and the black anti-foul and the Tonkinoise arrives on Tuesday. I have the brushes and the thinners and about enough sandpaper and all of this week to get this boat ready, if it doesn’t rain.

Years ago when I was learning to sail (me and Mr Dana, out of San Diego, obviously) I read one of those stupid folksy maybe-traditional sayings carved and burned into a plaque above a yacht club bar. It was empty, as they always are in the afternoon. A fly was buzzing at a window. The air was full of the scent of damp cotton drying in the sun with that special smell faded sailing it always has.

It was just a stupid motto:

A day spent sailing is not counted as part of your allotted span.

It was just a little sailing club on a lake by a dual carriageway. The woman at the next table finished organising her children. She looked at the sign, then at me, then she looked away across the lake as she said ‘A day on the water – sometimes it all feels like starting again.’

She didn’t mean learning. I knew exactly what she meant. Just that timeless thing about wooden boats and the water. Maybe it’s not part of your allotted span. Or maybe just days when you have the space to be on your own, doing something that needs doing that you can do, something you can work at and see the difference and think at the end of the day that maybe it isn’t completely fixed but you can finish it tomorrow, that you’re on top of this by just working at it, that you can work this out, maybe that’s what feels out of time.

Summer’s coming soon. And summer on the water is a special thing.

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