Here’s a statement:
“Ships don’t sink because of the water around them; ships sink because of the water that gets in them. Don’t let what’s happening around you get inside you and weigh you down.”
It’s a very valid statement but doesn’t it depend on the size of the waves or the size of your boat? I always tell people that I earned my sea legs on the Mersey ferry. If it was a rough day I would go onto the top deck outside. There I would stand at the front, gripping the rails, trying to imagine the Atlantic. It was pure fantasy. There was no chance of the boat sinking.
The nearest I’d get to a bit of a soaking was when the boat turned to face the tide before docking. By this time I was on the lower deck at the stern. The wind would pick up as the boat faced the current with a broadside. The chill of the air would buffet my cheeks and yank at my hair. I’d disembark with the distinctive sign of a “Mersey Coiffure.”
Then it would be a warming visit to a local inn to break up the short walk home.
There have been other rough ferries. I did the same cling to the rails bit on a catamaran from the mainland in Queensland to Great Keppel Island. The only difference was the sizzling temperature. It still gave me a bouffant. I’ve had some epic cross channel rides. When one is starting to lose balance and stability through MS, even the mildest swell makes a trip to the toilet interesting. We would have everyone milling about in the gentle roll and pitch of a spring day whilst I’d be clinging to the nearest rail screaming inside.
By far and away the best ferry trip was from Stromness to Scrabster. Two hours of heaving mayhem. Once out of the shelter of Orkney we were open to the thrashing of the waves. Fuelled by the constriction of two land masses, this boat began to rock and roll. My mate and I stood inside a glass door on the top deck. It was a display of awesome beauty to see the vicious sea snarling and growling between us and the god-like cliffs of Hoy.
In the true tradition of farce, there was a school party on board. I don’t think it was an ordinary school. Graced with the beauty of an unintelligible Glaswegian accent, these teenagers had no discernible uniform other than a cigarette hanging off their bottom lips.
As the bows dived into the raging foam, several of these intrepid youths thought themselves worthy of strolling around the promenade deck in a force eight. They would squeeze through the heavily sprung door by us and venture out with the sort dour wizened expression we might recognise from early editions of Taggart. I’d count to five then hear their screams as they faced the oncoming wind and sea.
Thirty minutes later, these poor bedraggled souls decided enough was enough and retreated to the downstairs lounge. It wasn’t the end of the ordeal. Once deprived of the perspective of the true horizon and the subsequent stability of knowing whether you were going up or down, the beast of vomit came visiting.
When Gary and I finally decided to spend the last half hour sipping a fine malt, the bar was awash with the groaning Glaswegian masses turning various shades of green. There’s an important message here. We knew about the horizon thing. It’s all very well letting yourself get thrown about but you need to keep a sense of perspective; id est, the horizon.
And so I come to my own personal sea. How on earth does one manage the currents, the undercurrents, the swell, the rollers, the waves, the spring tides, the neap tides, the rip tides, the storms and the doldrums? For most of the time, we are ferrying across the Mersey. (Get that bloody tune out of my head!) We get a succession of short journeys; some are calm and some are stormy. But they are short journeys and we can see across to the other side. Sometimes there is just a horizon if we’re lucky enough to see it. Sometimes we are just clinging to the life raft. And sometimes we are under. There are two styles of under water being; we can be focused and determined life the ruthless gannet or a bit drifty just waiting for our natural buoyancy to bring us back up. Then there is overwhelmed, when the sea has invaded our space and shows no sign of abating.
I’ll tell you about my voyage between September 1989 and the following July. Rearmed with another two litre Mark Four Cortina, I set off one fine Autumn evening to Yeadon. Where? Yeadon is the home of Leeds Bradford Airport. It was also the home of my old pal Martin. I was going to stay at his during the week for my PGCE at Leeds University.
My parents thought it was an earthquake. When I received that fat brown envelope from the university in March of the same year, I sneaked upstairs to open it alone. I’d had a few previous rejections but this seemed too full to be a bugger off letter. With shaking hands, I ripped it open and smiled. Then I shouted. Then I clumped about the bedroom like an over active hippo.
“What the hell………” or words to that effect interrupted my euphoric jubilation. “I thought it was an earthquake,” said my father as I handed him the letter. I was at the harbour, berthed and preparing to sail.
The first weeks of the course gave me calm waters. I was back every Friday with a bagful of washing (thanks mum) to teach the piano over the weekend. Every day was a sea day but the university days were serene and still. Even my best efforts in the Robin Hood and the Narwab Tandoori did little to ruffle the waters.
But I’d sprung a leak.
The first real signs of MS were holding me back. Concerned by a growing weakness in my legs, I went to see the doctor. Two days before Christmas day he told me to stop drinking. So I did. I became everyone’s taxi.
One day in the holidays I took my two nephews up Moel Famau.
There was no sign of the weakness. Was not drinking the answer? Had I carefully sailed round the trouble? (Well we know the answer to that!)There had been some roughness but it was balanced by the excitement of the imminent teaching practice in the new term.
“You may have to suspend your weekend piano teaching,” advised the course director. I promised to do just that then carried on as usual. No-one noticed. I felt like a racing yacht cutting through the swell, bouncing off the breakers.
The shadow of MS was banished to the bottom of the in-tray. I was standing proud at the helm.
On the final day of the practice, I celebrated with a night out in Leeds. It was brilliant. We saw two live bands in the Duchess of York. The pub was full of thirty-somethings. People moved out of the way. There was no pushing; so civilised. I was in the land of the grown-ups. I’d sailed the Atlantic. The hole in the bows was still there but it had little effect. In fact I was ignoring it.
In the summer term I took my trusty old bicycle to commute between Yeadon and Leeds. Despite the consequences of a full and unhealthy diet, I was battling through the waves. On the journey back, I had to be careful. It’s downhill to Leeds. Coming back I took a more circuitous route to avoid one long hill but there was Brownberrie Lane. It was over a mile of hill. It was hard sailing but sail it I did. The engines were well and truly tested.
I was still at the stage when I thought exercise and fitness was the best way to overcome the leak. It didn’t make any difference at all but I had the satisfaction of still being afloat. And the year had been fruitful. I’d qualified as a teacher and there was a job waiting for me in North London.
The voyage that followed lasted twenty two years.
Once established in my new home I proceeded to plough through the roughest waters. Balancing jobs, social lives and the leaky boat was testing. But even in the calmest of waters, a hole is still a hole. I remember a bad storm in late 2000. I’d stumbled across a deep depression. The waves were high and I began to drown. No-one wanted to sail with me (I don’t blame them) so I was capsized and all alone.
What righted my boat? It was a sense of order and self-discipline.
But it was a sign of things to come. The storms never really went away and my navigation began to suffer.
Today, I’m back to single handed. The leaky boat has failed me in many ways. But it’s still sailing. I’m up to my neck in safety gear. I have the most enormous life jacket and the only thing I’m drowning in now is this metaphor. In reality however, I’m still waving.
There are many more voyages to write about but 1989 to 1990 was a key journey.
It defined my future.
Thank-you for reading.