Last week, overlate, I put my boat on her mooring and the next day had my first sail of the year. It was a weekday morning and I had the Estuary to myself. The sky was blue and there was just enough breeze wafting down river from Dartmoor to promise that my Poppy would ghost across the waters. I cast off and immediately began to feel the exquisite charm of controlling her movements by a light, yet firm, touch upon the tiller.
I have stolen this last sentence from that gem of a book by G Christopher Davies, 1849 – 1922, first published in Queen Victoria’s reign and entitled Boat-sailing for Amateurs, containing Particulars of the most suitable Craft, with Instructions for their proper Handling. His writing is redolent of his times:
“Crack! The sail has gybed, but it took you unawares, knocked your hat off into the water, and made you drop your pipe. Serve you right.”
I experienced no gybe, a word much closer to the original obsolete Dutch gipjen, to shift, than the usual form. In any case I have no boom to take me unawares, another lovely old Dutch word, nor did I have a pipe to drop from its jaunty angle between my lips and sadly my hat was not the boater with the college ribbon that Mr Davies would have sported. My time too was limited. A yachtsman’s time before the Great War for Civilization always seems so expansive. I had promises to keep and had only an hour or two to glide slowly across from Lympstone to Powderham and to make a triangle home from Powderham to Lympstone by way of a buoy called Number Thirty Three. But this was enough to reassure me that the Estuary was still there, sparkling and waiting.