Wizard lore and the singlehanded sailor

Harry Potter’s wand chose Harry Potter. Everyone knows this.

So, is it beyond the reach of imagination to suppose that the boat chooses the skipper? Because to some of us, boats are not like cars or washing machines. Boats are not things. If you don’t believe that a boat enters enter into a partnership with her skipper – particularly the singlehanded skipper – then you have not sailed a long distance singlehanded.

Read Joshua Slocum. Read Bernard Moitessier. Read Ellen MacArthur… These sailors understood that it wasn’t just them sailing the boat. The boat itself had an input. Indeed, when the skipper was exhausted and unable to make sensible decisions then it would be the boat that would take over and ensure that they both survived.

Of course, this is not something you would want to rely on – like the Winnibago owner of legend who set the cruise control and went to make a sandwich (and then sued the manufacturers when the thing drove off the road). In fact I would suggest it is possible that peculiar instances of a boat appearing to take over might occur two or three times before the more logical type of sailor can bring themselves to talk about it. But in the annals of singlehanding, there are just too many accounts of unexplained good fortune for it to be a coincidence.

There I was sailing across the Grand Banks in not the best of visibility. It was 1988, so radar was a luxury but I did have a gadget which was supposed to detect radar signals from other vessels. It was very expensive and the box made it sound tremendously clever – but I had never known it to work. Meanwhile the Aries windvane steering was in command and I was asleep with the alarm set for 20 minutes.

This had been going on for 12 hours or more and I was heartily sick of the incessant hopping up and down. There was never anything there – all day long, just an opaque grey curtain about a mile away. Now, in pitch darkness, it was like being in another dimension – no stars, nothing to distinguish the sea from the sky. Just a faint glow of phosphorescence in the wake and only the rustle under the bow to show that we were slipping along nicely at three knots.

And now the alarm. The kitchen timer was on the other side of the cabin. It wasn’t going to stop until I got up. Of course, being so well used to this incessant beeping, I experienced a certain satisfaction in lying there and putting up with it.

And then the boat lurched. After a while you get to recognise a lurch. It can be from the sudden shallow water. It can be a whale surfacing alongside (although it’s more the fishy smell that gets you with that.)

It can also be the wake of a passing ship.

Very close.

Suddenly, framed in the companionway – filling it with a blaze of light – was a Grand Banks trawler, the stern filled with men in filthy oilskins staring out into the darkness.

And then, as they watched, the boat swung back onto her course. I looked at the compass. Good Lord, we had been off course. That was why we passed across the fisherman’s stern, not his bow. In fact, we must have been off course by as much as 30 degrees just when it made the difference between being rammed and being an object of curiosity for the crew during a long night gutting cod.

And how was that possible? On a calm night with a steady breeze, for the windvane suddenly to bear away by that much – and, more to the point, resume the course once the danger was past? On a scale of weirdness, this was right up there with abominable snowmen and Morris Dancing.

I reckon I know because the same sort of thing happened once in the Chenal du Four when the fog came down in the middle of tricky bit – and on the way to the Azores when it would have been just as easy to sail into the enormous, rusty structure floating just beneath the surface instead of so close past it that I could see the little crabs scuttling about on the long fronds of seaweed.

I know what the cynics will say – that there are just as many examples of singlehanded sailors who perish with their boats. The cynic might argue that all of this is just the Law of Averages mixed up with an unhealthy dose of Wishful Thinking.

But I believe it happens.

And I believe it’s happening again.