Something that always amazes me in life is the sheer amount of money people need, or think they need. The maximum becomes the minimum. A big and powerful car becomes a status symbol. We have lost our love of simplicity and simple things.
I have shared a few reflections about my way of thinking about sailing, the aquatic equivalent of back packing and giving the modern world a kick in the face for a few days. Sailing used to be the sport of kings or the occupation of humble fishermen in our coastal ports. Something happened in the 1950’s and 60’s: fishing was increasingly done from large vessels that only an established business could afford, and pleasure boating was increasingly geared to competition and racing. Finally, the yacht became as much of a status symbol as a Mercedes or BMW on the road.
I have discovered a whole new world through trial and error, and then through such great associations as the Dinghy Cruising Association and the Fédération Voile-Aviron in France. I have been on a few adventures and participated in the Route du Sable. One comes to meet wonderful people who bring their boats and show how simple and happy humanity can become. Dinghy cruising restores our faith in humanity and the noblest aspect of our soul. Our little boats can be hauled onto a trailer by hand and transported anywhere we like. There are no mooring charges in an expensive marina berth. There’s no risk of getting the compass or pulleys stolen, because we keep the boat in our back yard. You just hitch up, find the place that takes our fancy, set the GPS or have a map on the passenger seat – and drive there.
Dinghy cruisers are thought of as crazy folk in some way, sleeping in inhuman conditions rather than in a comfortable cabin or a hotel on land when we’re away from home. Throw a tarpaulin over the boom, secure the sides with a bit of elastic around the gunwale, set up the bed over the lazarette and the thwart – and Bob’s your uncle. We live the dreams we had as little boys, certainly as I had each time I saw a red or white sail on Windermere as I passed on the bus each day to return home from school. I am now committed to going to the Semaine du Golfe next year and setting up the boat for sleeping aboard. As when I bivouac in my van on certain occasions when I’m alone, this kind of boating is spartan and a world apart from the glamorous world of what someone once called “floating gin palaces” when referring to modern luxury yachts! I go to London, and I don’t pay £100 a night for “cheap” hotel accommodation. I’m proud of it!
I am slow on the uptake with technology. I was about 35 before I used a computer for the first time. I use a sighting compass, chart and portland plotter for my navigation together with a book of tides and currents. That is when I want to be scientific. If I’m not too far from land and visibility is good, I can do it all by eye and “feel” the vast space and changes of visual perspective. Messing about in a ten or twelve foot boat goes entirely against the grain, in a world where you need to have big money and “status” for everything. Dinghy cruising can be compared with people who go fell walking with just what they can carry on their backs, where it would be more comfortable in a 4×4 vehicle.
The sea is the last place of freedom on this earth, at least for the time being. We experience the sea the most directly in our small open boats. Dinghy cruising is like bivouacking or “wild” camping, unlike the spirit of caravanning, camping in an official camp site – or even worse, being on an organised holiday in a coach sleeping in motels and doing what you’re told from beginning to end. It all seems to depend what kind of person we are. As a priest, I am a kind of “modern Goliard”! At the same time, we dinghy cruisers are an “elite” – not because we have a lot of money, but because we have certain skills and a spirit of individuality and independence. Many of us have had to teach ourselves, with the basis a sailing school gave us in racing round the cans in boats that capsize when you sneeze!
It is another kind of cloister for the contemplative. One might think of taking a Mass kit if the hosts can be kept dry. Nothing is worse than soggy hosts. Alternatively, one can forego Mass, which is not a bad thing sometimes – and be more attentive with the Office. Books can be kept in the dry bag or other sealed containers. It is salutary to think of things in such terms, since nothing is ever taken for granted. Even the clothes on our backs and bedding have to be kept in dry bags. Washing and hygiene become a challenge, but nothing is impossible. Obviously, it will be possible to live like this only for a few days – and in the more clement seasons. These are times of retreat and recreation in contrast with our lives the rest of the year when the boat is laid up and we are back to the old leviathan of the modern world.
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I was very reassured today about the legal status of boats in France. As far as I have heard, a boat needs registration papers like a car, except for very small vessels called engins de plage, beach devices. An example of such a vessel would be a boat of under 2.5 metres propelled by rowing or foot-powered paddles. This category is limited to 300 metres from the beach. It is widely believed that any boat without papers is reduced to the status of an engin de plage.
Now, when someone tries to register a boat, often bought second-hand and without papers (because they were at some stage lost), the Affaires Maritimes requires not only the receipt of sale from the one who sold him the boat, but also the complete technical documentation from the manufacturer. In short, the boat has to be registered to be registered, a kind of circular no-win situation. It is the same for caravans over a very low weight limit that are sold and bought second-hand. Typically, France is a country where “everything is forbidden but everything is tolerated”. Southern European countries are even worse, and bureaucracies in some instances have been known to be corrupt.
Someone with whom I am acquainted knows a lot about the law in these matters, and admits having sailed a dinghy for many years without registration papers. The only time he was stopped for a check was to make sure he was wearing a life jacket, which he was. He was unable to find any sanction provided for in French law for a boat without registration. All the registration card does is attest who owns the boat.
More significantly, this person affirms that a boat without papers does not become an “engin de plage“ assimilated to a child’s toy rubber dinghy with paddles. Dinghies are limited to 2 nautical miles from a place a shelter (beach, port, cove, anything) and are bound to be carrying a certain amount of safety equipment (life jacket, anchor, oars or paddles, VHF, flares, etc.). Yachts may go up to 6 nautical miles with the regulation safety equipment, and further if they have an inflatable raft.
Thus the law is very untidy about this point and needs to be amended like for second-hand but otherwise roadworthy caravans and other trailers over 500 kg. In the meantime, the vast majority of small open boats have no papers and are technically irregular. At the same time, the Affaires Maritimes and Gendarmerie with sea patrolling duties only trouble boats that are manifestly unsafe or sailing in forbidden waters (for example within the security perimeter of a nuclear power station). I once got a warning for this reason, but was not asked for boat’s papers or why I quite a long way out to sea.
I will not be losing sleep at night over this…