Life on a Twelve-Foot Boat

HPIM0001I was relating the Semaine du Golfe with Sophie last night, and she pointed the discussion towards the “domestic” aspect of life on a boat rather than descriptions of places to which she could not relate or the technical aspect of sailing. This would in my mind become a dimension to discuss here on the blog. It would certainly put some of the arguments over “churchy” matters into perspective.

Obviously, we dinghy sailors had an option of commuting between a camp site or a hotel to the place where we had left the boat for the night. Most did, being brought by coach to the port in time for the morning’s briefing and getting the boats ready for sea. Three of us “roughed” it by sleeping in our boats and staying in port overnight. Sometimes the boat would remain floating moored to a pontoon or at anchor. Other times, the boat would “dry out” when the tide went out and the movement would stop, leaving the boat surrounded by wet mud, sand and seaweed. We did what we could, sometimes having to moor to other boats and trusting the solidity of their moorings.

The two words that come into my mind are cramped and dampness. There is nothing romantic about living in a small boat or indeed living rough in any way. We humans need dry conditions and the possibility of daily washing to maintain any degree of dignity. Beyond a certain time, the health goes. I have known or heard of clergy living for a determined time as down-and-outs in the streets in order to develop empathy for people living in that state because they have no choice about it. Their state is even more radically stripped than someone who has a boat, clothes, bedding, food and money. I spent six nights on my boat, which I equipped for this purpose.

The first thing is to remove the two halyards from the boat’s gaff / yard and the topping lifts (which prevent the boom from going into the bottom of the boat when the mainsail is lowered). Next, there is a support made from two hinged pieces of wood to hold the gaff / yard and the boom at a set height at the stern. Then a tarpaulin / rudimentary tent is thrown over the gaff / yard and hooked to some brass rings screwed into my gunwale. Fore and aft, the tent needs to be attached from outside – from neighbouring boats, on the beach or by standing in the water if it is shallow enough. That creates a very cramped space as can be seen in the photo above. Bedding consists of a self-inflating mattress, a sleeping bag, an inflatable pillow and a camping pillow. The legs squeeze between the centreboard casing and the floatation chamber at the side of the hull, under the thwart. My torso and head had more space at the stern as long as the tiller of the rudder was pushed over and lashed.

My arrangement revealed some design problems. I should make the boom support much higher. I intend to make some plywood boards that would make it possible to establish the bed at the level of the thwart rather than in the bottom of the boat, but which would fit into the bottom of the boat when not in use. I have learned many things.

In the morning, the transition between bed and breakfast is interesting. The mattress, sleeping bag and pillows have to be put away in my bow locker. Bedding and clothes to be kept dry go into a “dry bag” specially designed for the purpose. That leaves space. Then, depending on the weather, the tent is left in place or taken down partially or completely. If completely, by attaching the halyards to the gaff / yard and the topping lifts to the boom, I can get better headroom, especially with the boom to one side rather than dead centre. Two things – you get somewhere for your head, and you don’t risk burning the sail with the primus stove! The next stage is clearing away all the clobber to get access to the “galley”, a splash-proof plastic box containing my gas burner, scout mess tin kit and food. I insisted on real coffee, which I made with a plunger type pot. For food, I would have bread and cheese the first days. I had access on Tuesday to a shop for more perishables. For the rest of the time, food is tinned meals and instant pasta. Most days, it was possible to get a sausage and chip take-away if the queue wasn’t prohibitive as a price to pay for so little. My “galley” would at least give a hot meal.

That is for the fundamental human needs of sleeping and eating. Was there anything spiritual about this experience? Precious little. When we are concerned for basics, the instinct is not existential or spiritual. This is a fallacy believed by many who think that belief and piety decrease proportionately with material comfort and that people return to God and the Church when they suffer deprivation. The two world wars in the twentieth century brought many to belief and radical vocational decisions, but also destroyed the faith of others – Vaughan Williams and Elgar to cite examples of two English composers having experienced the horror of World War I. It may seem paradoxical, but this fact can help us understand those who are destitute or in any survival situation. That was far from my case of someone like me having gone for a week’s adventure as an “overgrown scout”!

In the evening before going to bed, when I was satisfied that everything was in shape, I would spend some quiet moments in the beauty of nature, the silence of the night. Using a battery powered lantern, I could read. I took a breviary and Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels, a book I had been wanting to read for a while. Much of orthodox Christianity is so woefully inadequate for explaining or comprehending at an intuitive level many of the issues that dog us. It is necessary as a discipline and a framework, but we are on our own to work out the things that really matter. Like in the boat, go out too far on your own and you can get into trouble. Fr Tyrrell had that experience back in the 1900’s as a Modernist theologian.

The Gulf du Morbihan in south Brittany is like an immense lake with islands, but it is open to the sea via a narrow mouth. This creates the incredibly complex system of tides and currents that can exceed seven knots. Simply, you cannot sail against the current except in a very powerful motor boat. The art of sailing in the Gulf depends on your knowledge of the tides and the currents. The laws of inertia produce situations where the tide is still ebbing when the new tide is flooding in. That creates turbulence and whirlpools. You either have to know those waters extremely well or be guided. Last week, it was the latter. We were guided, organised and watched by rescue boats ready for any kind of accident. I and another boat had to be pulled out of a whirlpool and from the path of a ship! The worst is when the boat is becalmed, has no steerage and cannot keep a stable heading. Oars come in handy, but are no match for the relentless current. I was grateful to be in a “mainstream” and organised situation. Freedom would only been in little things, but we followed what we were given at the morning’s briefing. Each fleet had its leader, and ours was in a powerful Zodiac with a black flag and a siren like the American police.

I could make the comparison with churches, except that I trusted Xavier and the rescue boats, the extremely well-organised event. What faith can I give the Church of England or the local RC parishes around where I live? I feel the alienation acutely, and I am thankful to my little ACC diocese in England for keeping the flax smouldering and my priestly vocation alive. My religious life is a little like the cramped and eternally damp boat, having to make do and to value the smallest comfort.

I turned on my computer last night for the first time in a little over a week. I have seen the few comments in the Interesting Reflection on Quo Primum. My immediate reaction was one of nausea and inability to relate. I cannot subscribe any more to “suck up and conform” than to the eternal dissatisfaction of others. During the Semaine du Golfe, there was not the slightest sign of any religion. Ascension day was gloomy, wet and windy. Sailing was cancelled. Church bells rang from this or that village or island, in a place where the piety of seafarers was once very fervent, though perhaps a little pagan for many monotheistic tastes! True, we were pleasure sailors, on the sea in our spare time and in fair weather – and protected from dangers to our lives. Most lived it easy, and a few chose it “hard”. As the paganism was got rid of by the “socialist” monotheism of the 1960’s, nothing replaced it other than the preachy moralising of the bourgeoisie and those working for national education and the civil service. Nausea sets in and the knowledge of God is to be sought elsewhere.

Sophie said to me this morning that I probably wouldn’t do this again, but would prefer to join the grey line of commuters on the bus between the camp site and the port of the night’s stopover. I replied that there were improvements to make in terms of usefully used space, a better tent to give more headroom and better ways of dealing with damp and cold. I will make a new and more snugly fitting tent using modern tent fabric, which is much lighter and easier to work on a domestic sewing machine. I am determined to do it again, beating the “system”, but with a learning curve based on experience. There will not only be the two-yearly festival, but also the north of Brittany, the possibility of going with a few friends on something informal but yet with each other to rely on for safety. There are also the Chausay Islands to the west of the Cotentin. The west Finistère is challenging as is the Rade de Brest. We can’t be tough indefinitely, but I am determined not to become one of those old men needing more than a certain level of creature comfort. It is something of the hermit (and the anarchist) about me!

To those who get things out of proportion, I might suggest that he “go thou and do likewise” – buy an old boat, sail somewhere wild and learn to make do…

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3 Responses to Life on a Twelve-Foot Boat

  1. My dear Anthony,

    It was a great pleasure to read this account …slowly. Savouring how you poured your soul into it.

    Oh yes, I bet that sleeping again in your own dry warm bed and pyjamas after six days WAS the spiritual experience!

    And when you are rested, you will do all the improvements you saw necessary on the boat, and …you WILL cruise again.

    Cramped and damp is by no means fun, but he who has known hardship learns to appreciate basic comforts as luxurious pleasures!

    Ora et Labora

    Faut pas se laisser abattre!!


    • Juan, It was just how I felt it. My dream when I was 12 was to go to sea in a small boat and live aboard. Many years later, I did it for a week, and experienced the reality. I do not wear pyjamas. At home I wear either nothing in bed or a night dress. On the boat, I took off everything except my shirt and got into my sleeping bag – and I was a little less damp. I appreciate the words of Rudyard Kipling: Teach us Delight in simple things… as he wrote in his Children’s Song.

  2. Yours is a happy child! Good thing you got a video camera for next time.
    I am planning next to sail and camp in Alfaques Bay, the southern tip of River Ebro,s delta, around San Carles de la Rapita.
    Hopefully in June.
    Lets have a grand sailing season!

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