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Thursday, 28 February 2013

All at sea thirty years ago

Thirty years!? Thirty years!? Neigh, quit horsing around. Where did that time go? Surely it was only yesterday.

I was looking through an old photo album the other day because (or is that bec-horse) I had a picture of the frontage of a horse meat butcher's shop in Cherbourg amongst them and had been mentioning this to some friends at work. The album was of an adventure I had years ago (yep, thirty years ago) with my old friend Mike Leech and his then partner, Yvonne, her son Richard and his then girlfriend, Dawn. The adventure took place from Saturday 20th August 1983 and lasted a week.

Mike Leech

Mike encouraged us all to join him on a sailing holiday crossing the English Channel via two overnight stops at Brownsea Island and the coastal town of Lymington. Only Mike had sailed before and we hired a yacht called Slap Happy in Poole and sailed out to Brownsea Island (famous for being the place the very first Boy Scout camp was held with Robert Baden-Powell in charge) dropped anchor, and moored overnight. The next day we sailed across to Lymington through choppy waters and drenching spray and the Isle of Wight bobbing up and down to our right. We stayed in the Lymington harbour overnight, explored the pretty town of Lymington, enjoyed a pub meal and left very early in the morning on the voyage to France across the English Channel. I recall being quite startled to see oil rigs and the big cruise ships sailing rather closely by us. As we each steered our way in turn tightly holding the rudder and keeping our novice eyes on the 'Contest' maritime compass, we each took it in turns to throw up over the side too. The compass heaved from 250 to 190 degrees as we heaved our breakfasts into the grey waves. Mike seemed convinced that eating tinned rice pudding and honey would settle our sea sickness.

I remember being terrified throughout our time on the open sea that Mike would fall overboard, slip on the wet deck or be catapulted into the spume by a rough boom swing, and we would lose not only a friend but also the only person on board that really knew what they were doing. We put a lot of trust in this one man.

After nearly nine hours at sea we finally cruised into the Port Chantereyne marina at Cherbourg and found a space among the other yachts, some certainly grander than our small berthed Slap Happy.

We ended up being fog bound in Cherbourg and so, for me, it was the ideal opportunity to explore the town with my film camera and a batch of 36 exposure films. No subject escaped my eagerness to take photos; the solid stone old harbour itself and ageing paint worn fishing boats; lines of the local fishermen with long rods on the Quai de France; aerial shots of worm diggers in the wet beige/brown washy sands, huge rusting capstan chains coursing across the harbour floor; a tug boat racing across the harbour and vast lobster pots made from bleached wood, criss-cross wires and sea stricken green rope.

I also took photos of the old French buildings including one with a fading Curvoisier Napoleon Cognac sign in the roof space; narrow intriguing alleyways and the Rue de l'Abbaye being dug up for pedestrianisation. Eventually I came across the Chevaline sign-age with the horse's head. From my recall that was 'it'. I curiously took the picture and left to find other French things to capture. As I said at the beginning of this piece, it was thirty years ago. I would like to think, looking back, that my past butcher's curiosity compelled me to spend some time checking out the wares (and maybe I did) but I simply have no memory of that.

Further on were other photographic intrigues to capture on film like masses of twisting telephone wires thrusting out from houses and businesses into the void and long rotten wooden posts on the shingle beach looking for the world like a small fresh air gallery installation of decomposing giants teeth exhibiting by the sea.


We ate at some cheap French bistros and drank some even cheaper red wine from orange plastic mugs and little French wine glasses. Eventually the fog cleared and, reluctantly we headed back to the UK via the safety of the port of Cowes in the Isle of Wight. Why do I say 'safety'? Because I was shattered at this time and tiring of steering this boat out at sea, around the dangerous needles by the Isle of Wight – the grim site of many a sudden vessel. Luckily Mike came up on deck just in time to wake me up and quickly steer the yacht from the rocky shallows into deeper-safer waters. I could easily have torn the bottom of the boat  (hull and keel) off had we gone on a few more nautical yards!!

In Cowes we watched the rich and even richer with their expensive maritime vessels and caught regular sightings of the Red Funnel Services ferries taking and bringing travellers from the mainland to the island famous for its yacht races. During a walk along on of the pebbly beaches we saw the weird sight of tomatoes growing on the beach! There they were, three tomato plants and full of little cherry tomatoes.

We returned to Brownsea Island on the Friday afternoon and then back to Poole to clean up the yacht and return it to the hire company. On the long way back to Derby we called in to Portsmouth on Navy Day and explored the Hermes aircraft carrier and the HMS Victory.

I look back now and think “Was that really thirty years ago?” It was – time sails by.


Jean said...

What an amazing adventure.
Scary and exciting in equal amounts. When I look back on things I was doing thirty years ago, it seems like it was on a different planet.

philip lowe said...

I know what you mean Jean. But thirty years? Blimey. I hope the next thirty don't go so quick.

PS: I got your email and have sent you a reply.