I’ve long held a fascination with boats. I think it’s something to do with needing to be near the sea. I’ve moved around a lot in my lifetime so far – I think the last one was my 34th house move – but thinking back, very few of the places that I’ve lived have been more than a few miles from the coast of one country or another. Coastlines may vary in geological make-up but they all have one thing in common. Brits refer to it as ‘the sea’ because, apart from the west coast of Cornwall and Northern Ireland and bits of northern Scotland, we are mostly surrounded by sea. Pretty much everyone else refers to ‘oceans’ rather than ‘seas’, which is one sure-fire way of picking out the Brit in a crowd.
I’ve loved seeing boats and ships in Hong Kong’s harbour, in Barbados (where I lived as a child), in the exquisite Aegean and all around Britain. They are such beautiful structures, so varied in design but all with the same purpose – to allow man to move around, across and through large bodies of water without drowning.
One of the most sublime experiences I’ve ever had involved a sailing trip around Singapore, back in January 1993. I hadn’t secured a full-time teaching job yet, after we migrated to Hong Kong for my husband’s job, so I was free when he had to go to Singapore to fix some computer system or another. We flew down on a Friday, he fixed the problem whilst I went sight-seeing and then we had a delightful weekend together, some of it spent with his work friends who invited us out on a yacht to just hang out.
It started well, sailing majestically out of the marina on this beautiful sloop, which had a wonderfully tall mast with a gazillion ropes, pulleys, windy-things and a world of stuff that I had no idea what it was for. People were friendly, chatty and interested in our lives. One of the party, a decidedly dim girlfriend of our host as I recall, was fascinated by my accent, which she repeatedly giggled at every time I opened my mouth, exclaiming ‘My, oh my! Don’t you just sound so ke-yoot!’ and insisted that I was, without a shadow of a doubt, American. I’m not. I’m about as English as they come. I wasn’t offended by the thought that someone thought I was American – I love American culture for the most part and when I was a child living in Barbados, I affected an American accent for a while when I was trying to impress the gorgeous Sammy, son of the American ambassador who graced my classroom for a few weeks one summer term. But that was many moons before and now I was perturbed that this woman was clearly an idiot and who actually asked me ‘Are ya SURE yure not American?’.
To escape her incessant raucous guffawing, I moseyed out on deck, found a comfortable lookout point up near the front (is that the ‘prow’?) and stared, as if utterly entranced by the sea’s motion, into the far distance. My body language must have been clear – ‘Don’t disturb me, I’m busy contemplating the ways of the world. Leave me alone!’ because no-one did come close for the next hour or so. I was actually contemplating the ways of the world. I was drawn into the motion of the sea, how it pulled one way and then another, seeming to be constantly at war with itself. I began to consider how much like people this was, being swayed by one argument and then changing our minds to see something else of value in what was being said. I became entranced.
The colours were stunning; blue, turquoise, azure, cerulean, Persian, ultramarine, cobalt, indigo – a hundred different shades of blues; then greys, battleship, charcoal, gunmetal, taupe, slate, quartz, silver, pewter and greens, teal, olive, asparagus, grass, seaweed. The effects of these colours shimmering together was totally mesmerising me and I didn’t notice the grey clouds or the increased rise and swell of the boat on the water, I didn’t really spot that the deck had cleared of other people or that I was completely alone out on the prow. I didn’t really pick up on the fat globules of rain that had soaked me through – I think I thought it was just spray from the sea. I felt truly alive, at one with the elements, part of the sea in that moment. It was so exciting, exhilarating and I began to smile, then laughed out loud for sheer joy in the experience.
I could hear some shouting from the cabin door’s entrance. They were all frantically beckoning me to come inside. I assured them I was OK and remained fixated on the space around me, refusing to let it end. I just didn’t want to return to actual life at that moment. I needed this almost out-of-body experience to tell me who I was. The rain was pounding now, virtually obliterating the cabin door, drawing horizontal lines to enliven the vertical and diagonal ones across my memory. I wasn’t afraid at all. I felt completely and so very assuredly safe, safer than I have ever felt in fact. I knew I would come to no harm at all. This storm in this great body of water where the Indian Ocean meets the South China Sea at the Straits of Malacca would not be my end, my undoing. It would mark the moment of communion with my earth, my universe that I would recall forever.
And then, almost as suddenly as it had begun, the rain stopped. The swell lessened. The sea becalmed. It was as if my soul had willed it so and the sea had responded positively, like it was on my side. I smiled and rose to walk toward the cabin. When I opened the door and peered inside worried faces met mine and a chorused cacophony greeted me. I had frightened everyone in there, including the yacht’s captain, who thought I was going overboard at least. Only one person was not afraid for me. He knew I’d be alright and that’s why I loved him.
Boats really do bewitch me. I love to take photos of them, to paint them and to be in them. One day, I’m going to own a tall-masted yacht of my own and I’ll sail it away for a year and a day… ay, perchance to dream! Until then, I’m just going to love this boat… the ‘Stoney Broke’.