Silence

The mother of all broaches played out to the accompaniment of Maurice Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”.

It happened somewhere off the Grand Banks during the 1988 Singlehanded Transatlantic Race. I was having a clear-out recently and found the article I wrote for Yachting World.

That was in the days when you cut two enormous holes in the cockpit and plumbed in a pair of waterproof speakers. Then there was the Motorola radio cassette player… and, of course, the box of cassettes: How do you choose 30 tapes to take with you across the Atlantic? At least with Desert Island Discs it’s not real. If you can’t live with just eight records, you can always listen to the rest when you get home.

Now we have Spotify with every piece of music ever recorded and a tiny waterproof speaker which doesn’t need any wires at all and demonstrates the fact by flying from one side of the cockpit to the other where it bounces, still happily churning out Willy Nelson.

Although it was Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that was on as we emerged from the Casquets Traffic Separation Scheme, the Genny drawing nicely in the light North Easterly. If the GPS had calculated correctly, we should reach Torquay by dusk. Frankly I didn’t care if we did or we didn’t. I could stay out here forever: There is nothing, absolutely nothing more pleasing than doing five knots over a flat sea with the boat not even rocking. It’s as if there’s no resistance and the momentum just builds and builds until the wind and the sails and the hull and the water reach a sort of equilibrium which will continue forever – unless, that is, one component falls out of balance.

In fact it was thinking this as I watched the white water zipping past the cockpit that I realised there was one thing missing – the sound… the sound of rushing water. Not the crash and surge of a boat charging over breaking waves but the smooth, subdued “hiss” as she slips along as if there’s no effort in it at all.

Except, of course, I couldn’t hear the “hiss” – just Bob Dylan. I turned him off – and that was the beginning of a magical twelve hours when the middle of the English Channel might have been the Atlantic’s Central Abyssal Plain or some lost and unvisited corner of the Greenland Strait. Because gradually the light North Easterly died away. The speed dropped off and with it, all sound until Samsara was moving, apparently without any propulsion at all, at a knot and a half.

The sails hung in their aerofoil shapes, apparently with no air to hold them there. It was like perpetual motion – except, of course there is no such thing and, sure enough, the knot and a half dropped to one knot and then half a knot and eventually, the Aries vane gear could no longer cope and we turned in a dignified half circle and stopped.

It was now dusk, when I should have been arriving at Torquay, but instead, I furled the sails and allowed the boat to drift with the tide. Taking the good glass from its own locker in the galley and a cold beer from the bilges I sat in the cockpit and listened to the silence.

And this was real silence. The kind that, if you concentrate very hard, you can hear a sound in your ears which is really the nerve-endings straining to do their best but giving up and reporting “nothing received”.

The AIS* was receiving OK. The plots showed that in fact there was no other human activity within seven miles as the little green triangles followed each other in an orderly queue down their westbound lane.

It was only later, poking my head up through the hatch in the middle of frying onions, that I realised this time there was a sound – a deep, almost imperceptible throb: The engine of a big ship – the sound which – reverberating out of a fogbank used to fill me with such terror. Now the AIS showed me exactly where he was – even that he was the Maersk  Santosa, 319 metres overall and carrying dangerous goods, harmful substances or marine pollutants (Category B) and heading for Newark at 23.5knots. His RAIM, I can report, was not in use – but I don’t know whether that is helpful or not. What I do know is that on an evening like that, you can hear a ship’s engine at a range of five miles.

I listened to him until the sound faded to nothing.

Of course, real life re-asserted itself eventually. At about three in the morning, there appeared to be a bit of a breeze but I didn’t trust it until it had put in some effort and showed that it could still be blowing at four O’clock.

So, I am writing this in Meadfoot Bay outside Torquay (don’t need to pay Harbour dues until tomorrow) and the little rubber speaker is playing Humphrey Lyttleton’s Bad Penny Blues. The good glass is out again and there’s the other half of last night’s putanesca sauce. In fact, under the influence of proper jazz and the very small bottle of wine which is even now reaching cabin temperature (heater going gently because May is not really summer), I might even get out the clarinet and play the sun down – after all, I’m the only one here…

The Old Man

  • AIS – Automatic Identification System. This transmits ships position and details to other ships. Incidentally you can track me by downloading and app like Findship and searching for Samsara and my identification number 232010712.

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