As it happened, I thought he’d bought a corker. 26 feet with a pilot house, helming positions inside and out, lines led back to the cockpit, aged but lovingly maintained. Deep, comfortable cockpit, lots of instruments inside, hefty new batteries to power them and well-kept two cylinder auxiliary for punching the North Sea swells, winds and tides. Scandinavian built, with a fibreglass layup that would stop a six-inch shell.
I’ll look forward to sailing it with him: I’m a commercial yachtmaster who’s just spent a season in charge of big ketches, so I think I’m pretty good. But on this boat, I’ll sit back and be deckhand, do as I’m told. Because the owner isn’t my blood uncle, he’s my sailing Dutch Uncle.
My first experience of sailing was being told by people I now recognize as racers to **** off when I asked how to sail, could I sail with them? Generalising from this, I thought all sailors should be hurled into pits full of poisonous snakes – not very poisonous, I didn’t want a quick death for them - until I met DU.
He taught at a special school and one day needed bodies to help on a days sailing with some of his kids – Wayfarers. Remember that epiphany the first time you’re in a boat that gets up on its toes and you know you want to sail? Well, that was the day, gloriously made better by watching our school’s head boy, pompously skippering another boat, sail it into the embrace of a fallen tree.
Pause to re-live that happy memory.
Anyway. Uncle saw that I liked, was besotted by sailing and invited me on his 25-clinker-gaff-bilge-keel-motorsailer-thing. None of which meant anything to me. Uncle brought his regular crew, another experienced dinghy sailor and boat owner, who we will call Captain Caveman. I rapidly pegged Uncle as a methodical man: the boat was tidy, he did things in a certain way and always thought, looked and checked before he acted. Captain Caveman was sailing entropy personified. Cheerful disorder attended his every move.
The sailing wasn’t wildly exciting: a series of day sails from our home port. But it was all there: the chest-bursting pride when they trusted me with the tiller, the feel of the mainsheet, cocking up your tacks, then taking notice of the growled, ‘sail her through this one…’
I learned my basics on Uncle’s gaffer. Then learned some lessons on Captain Caveman’s Silhouette. It was as chaotic as Uncle’s gaffer was orderly. At its floating moorings it looked a boat that had seen better times, but what did I know? When I put my head below, I knew for sure that an outboard engine shouldn’t be lying in a few inches of oily water.
But, I was young, Uncle was there (albeit frowning and muttering Bardic disapproval) so all would be well.
We sailed down the coast on the flood, a light airs day. I can see it now: you’ll see why. I learned that a light boat drags her stern and sails badly if too many people lounge in the cockpit, that my 13 stone elsewhere made a difference, that sail trim matters. No GPS in those days, but the Jurassic cliffs slipped by a little quicker if my weight went forward.
We came back on the ebb, and as we got to within reassuring sight of the pier ends, the inshore ebb-swell was starting to build. It was the first time I’d ever been heaved up on a long, powerful, deliberate swell. A swell I watched march about half mile inshore and break before crashing into the foot of the cliffs.
Then we caught a stray lobster pot line. Captain Caveman mucked around trying to untangle us, then Uncle took charge: cut the line. Youngest, strongest, most supple I was nominated to hang over the side and do the honours. Caveman’s knife was blunt and loose. Uncle’s was scalpel sharp and on a lanyard, loops neatly spliced in each end. The wind had died, and each swell now heaved us towards the cliffs. Caveman went for the engine. A decrepit Seagull, which spent its downtime in oily water.
It didn’t start. Pull after pull after pull, wide eyed assurances that it used to start every time, first pull. A smell of oily petrol as the ‘gull refused to do its duty. The wind still dead, swell by swell we headed for those cliffs. Long before we got there the swells, the big swells would have upended our boat. Smashed it to bits. And killed us.
Uncle: ‘Maybe we should give the coastguard a call.’
Caveman: ‘Battery’s flat on the radio.’
Uncle (ominous): ‘Flares?’
Caveman: Addresses himself to the outboard. What flares?
I, meanwhile, am looking at the piers. 400 yards away, ladders up the side, I’m a strong swimmer. Maybe I could make it before the North Sea numbed my muscles and I was dragged by those breakers and smashed into those cliffs.
The breaking crests, the cliffs get ever closer. You know what happens next. The Seagull clattered into metallic life. Huffs of justification and relief from Caveman, looks from Uncle. I refastened my shoes. We motorsailed clear of the breakers, around the pier ends, into the harbour, picked up our buoy. Admiring, possibly envious people watched from nearby piers and proms as we put the shabby boat to bed and tumbled into our tender. I detected strain in the air, unspoken recriminations (pas devant le sailing enfant) as we rowed back to land.
Since then, I’ve sailed many of Uncle’s boats. He hasn’t got his yachtmaster, maybe not even his day skipper but he hasn’t put a sailing foot wrong while I’ve watched and crewed. Boats he’s bought and done up, boats he’s designed and built, experimental rigs and all. Including the one that the berthing manager said looked like someone had ‘cut the end off a ****ing shed, bodged a mast on it and dropped it in MY harbour.’ It had a dipping lugsail rig, went like the clappers and but wouldn’t tack. The best was a return to gaffers. Uncle would take her off the mooring and we’d motor downriver towards the swing bridge, its environs usually packed with gawping tourists – she was a pretty boat. Uncle is the least ostentatious man I know. But as we approached the bridge with its audience he would give the tiller, the precious tiller, to me and he would stand on the coachroof, holding onto the shrouds to ‘look out for other boats’ while we passed the admiring faces, dozens, hundreds and in summer thousands of them.
Lookout my Musto-clad backside. He was showing off. And quite right, too. He had bought a clapped out gaffer, made it look lovely, sailed it as well as ever it could and been generous with its decks. And he had taught me lessons I remember to this day. But wasn’t just the lessons, it was the tone.
I still go sailing with Uncle: he’s 20 years older now, stiffer in the joints, loves my tales of big ketches. Still loves his wooden gaffers, and bonkers experimental rigs, but age and sense has brought him to a pilothouse 26 foot GRP boat with inside helming (outside tiller, too which will get the use until the North Sea does its very worst), Eberspacher, furling main and jib. He bought it the morning he went in for big joint surgery. He still sets the tone.
Kids I skippered last year still ring me: some want to get into sailing. Suddenly, I’m an Uncle. And I’m only one because I had one. When a 13 year old comes down the pontoon, looks wide-eyed at your boat, asks about sailing, remember that some people need sailing Dutch Uncles and Aunts.