Blue Water, Green Skipper: A Memoir of Sailing Alone Across the Atlanticby Stuart Woods, Stephen Collins
Stuart Woods had never owned more than a dinghy before setting out on one of the world’s most demanding sea voyages, navigating single-handedly across the Atlantic. How, at the age of thirty-seven, did this self-proclaimed novice go from small ponds to the big sea?
Now with a new afterword that looks back at how one transatlantic race changed his life,… See more details below
Stuart Woods had never owned more than a dinghy before setting out on one of the world’s most demanding sea voyages, navigating single-handedly across the Atlantic. How, at the age of thirty-seven, did this self-proclaimed novice go from small ponds to the big sea?
Now with a new afterword that looks back at how one transatlantic race changed his life, Woods takes readers on a spectacular journey not just of traveling across the world, but of being tried in fire, learning by accepting challenges, appreciating the beauty of the open water, and living to tell about it.
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.36(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.03(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Meet the Author
Stuart Woods is the author of over forty-five novels, including the New York Timesbestselling Stone Barrington and Holly Barker series. He is a native of Georgia and began his writing career in the advertising industry. Chiefs, his debut in 1981, won the Edgar Award. An avid sailor and pilot, Woods lives in New York City, Florida, and Maine.
- Key West, Florida; Mt. Desert, Maine; New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- January 9, 1938
- Place of Birth:
- Manchester, Georgia
- B.A., University of Georgia, 1959
More from this Author
Read an Excerpt
Istood in this place for the second time in forty minutes, a small, neat bay, surrounded by low hills, white cottages, a ruined mansion, and an unspecified number of dairy cattle, chewing their way through the morning. This choppy stretch of water was covered by a churning gray sky and contained half a dozen small plastic buoys and an old stone pier. Perhaps “stood” constitutes sloppy use of the language, for about forty knots of wind had me leaning at an unnatural angle to the perpendicular and the hairs on the leeward side of my body standing at an equally unnatural angle to my skin. I had not yet learned that a mild, sunny beginning to an Irish morning does not obviate the necessity for a sheepskin coat and gumboots at a slightly later hour, and I could not, for the life of me, see the Galway Bay Sailing Club.
I drove back to the Thatched Pub in Oranmore and explained my problem to its keeper. As he had already done twice on that morning, he began patiently to direct me to Rinville Bay. I interrupted to explain that I was certain I had found the bay but could not find the clubhouse.
“Ah,” said George the innkeeper, with the raised eyebrows of the enlightened, “there’s not a clubhouse, y’see; there’s just theclub, like.”
I gaped at him uncomprehendingly, unable to shake my preconception of the neat building, the flagpole, and the ruddy-faced chaps gathered in the net-draped bar. George leapt into the silence, which every Irishman abhors: “There’s just the club, and I’d say they’re not likely to be out just yet.” It was March, I had to give him that, but it was a Sunday too, and the paperback I had read had led me to believe that your enthusiastic yachtsman, if not actually on the water nowabouts, would at least be varnishing or splicing something in preparation for the event, and if not that, knocking a few back and talking about it at the very least.
George fixed his gaze on the Guinness pump handle before him, trying hard to be helpful. “Pierce Purcell,” he said, looking relieved. “You’d want to speak to Pierce Purcell, he’s the secretary or one of the people, like, and you’d find him in the book.”
The Irish Department of Posts and Telegraphs, because of the small size of the country, the low density of the population, and its own extreme reluctance to provide any of them with a telephone, has managed to gather all the nation’s telephone listings into just one directory, which is, in size, roughly equal to the combined bulk of the Old Testament, the New Testament,the I Ching, and The Joy of Sex. It proved to contain at least a page of closely spaced Purcells, far too many of them P.’s, P.J.’s and even Pierces, and none of them in Galway. George tried again.
“Ferdia O’Riordan,” he said, this time with real conviction. The book offered us even more O’Riordans than Purcells, but no Ferdias in Galway. “The Bank of Ireland,” said George with finality. “That’s where he works, at the branch in Salthill.” But in Ireland only the pubs are open on a Sunday, so I thanked George and postponed my search for sailing yet another day.
Sailing had been wafting around the hindmost part of my head since the summer of 1966, when friends had invited me to their summer home in Castine, Maine, and, back in my native USA, taken me sailing every day the wind blew. I had been enchanted with the notion that one could move across the face of the waters, fueled by nothing more than the wind, and I had resolved that if ever I were domiciled in any reasonable proximity to the sea I would learn to sail upon it. I thought, even, that since so much of the world was covered with water and since it lapped against so many interesting places, that I should like to sail right the way round, stopping everywhere.
Eventually, I finished a ten-year hitch in New York advertising, did another three in London, and then, propelled by a lifelong desire to write A Novel, hied myself to the west of Ireland, to County Galway, to Lough Cutra Castle, near Gort, where I resided not in the castle but in the adjacent stableyard, in a flat. I spent two days a week in Dublin, writing television commercials and ads for an advertising agency, and the rest of the time in County Galway, writing my novel or, at least, thinking about it.
Lough Cutra was an ideal placefour hundred acres of grounds, twelve hundred acres of lake, and enough peace and quiet to make it very difficult to find an excuse not to write. To live this sort of existence you have to be either very lucky or very single. Looking back, I still find it difficult to believe I was able to get away with this for two years.
Soon after my arrival in Ireland, in early 1973, I perceived that it was surrounded by water, and the sailing notion, so long displaced by an absorbing career and an athletic social life in New York and London, began to winnow its way into my frontal lobe. I bought a book which suggested that the way to go about learning to sail was to start with a small dinghy, then work up to larger things as desire and funds dictated. For several winter weeks I scoured the west, looking for a small boat to buy or someone who knew where to buy one or someone who knew someone who knew. Just when I was beginning to think that I was the only person in the counties Galway, Clare, and Mayo who realized that Ireland was an island, a friend in Galway, who believed that water should be fished in and not sailed upon, admitted that he had heard of the existence of a sailing club in or near Galway City.
He was pretty cagey about it all, but still, I had managed to penetrate the alleged club’s apparent security arrangements to the point where I now had an actual name and an actual telephone number to call. Journeying to the public telephone in Mrs. Piggot’s Grocery Store in Gort, I gave the operator the number, inserted the required coinage into the instrument, and waited the customary seven minutes to be connected. To my surprise, there really was a Ferdia O’Riordan at the Bank of Ireland in Salthill, and he very generously invited me to join him for a sail the following Sunday, behaving as if the Galway Bay Sailing Club were common knowledge and had nothing whatever to hide.
During the week which followed I reread my book on sailing and bought another, wishing to be as au fait as possible without actually having set foot in any sort of boat for seven years. The Sunday arrived and I again found myself at Rinville. Nothing had changed, except that the wind was blowing slightly less hard and the temperature had crept up a degree or two. The place was still deserted, and I sat in my battered Mini, chatting idly with Fred, a four-pound, five-week-old example of the golden Labrador breed, who graciously permitted me to share my flat with him. At last, a car materialized next to mine, towing a boat covered with canvas. From this car emerged Ferdia O’Riordan, his very pretty wife, and two irresistible little girls, with whom Fred evidenced an immediate empathy. Leaving the two children and the puppy rolling in the grass, we removed the canvas from the boat, revealing a gleaming example of the GP Fourteen class, erected the mast, bent on the sails, and trundled the lot at breakneck speed down the rocky shore. Ferdia and I stripped off our shoes and socks, rolled up our trouser legs, and waded into the icy water. In a trice, I was experiencing again that giddy sensation of motion over water which had so mesmerized me in Maine seven summers before.
We thrashed about Rinville Bay, Ferdia issuing a steady stream of calm instructions, I trying to remember what I had read during the last week, while shifting my weight about in such a way as to keep us upright, and endeavoring to cope with sheets, cleats, and centerboard. “We’re nearly planing now,” Ferdia said at one point. I made a mental note to find out what “planing” meant. It had a familiar ring.
Back on shore, while gathering my wits about me again, Ferdia, who turned out to be the club secretary, produced a membership form and relieved me of a check. We discussed what sort of boat I should buy and the consensus seemed to be a Mirror, a ten-foot ten-inch plywood dinghy whose design had been sponsored by the newspaper of the same name, which could be bought ready-built or in kit form, and which was the most popular boat in the club.
Considering that in an entire year of woodworking classes in high school I had produced only one wobbly bookcase and half a lamp base, I thought the ready-built form of the boat appealed most, although I was assured that twelve Girl Scouts had once built one in eight hours. (Twelve Girl Scouts represent a multiplication of my woodworking talents by a factor of twenty-four.) Since demand for these little boats was high and supply slow, I would probably have to wait a bit for delivery, but the club, it was disclosed, owned two Mirrors for the use of members who did not themselves own boats, so I would be able to sail in the meantime. Also, the club was holding a boat show in a couple of weeks’ time, and there I would be able to peruse a number of other craft before purchasing.
During the time remaining until the boat show I dropped by Rinville several times more, and on one occasion was invited out for a sail in a twenty-foot dayboat by a rumpled fellow of about my own age, who looked as I imagined a Galway fisherman looked and, to my American ear, sounded. It is a measure of my discernment in these matters at that stage of my Irish experience that he turned out to be the Minister for Local Government.
The First Annual Galway Boat Show took place in the car park of the Salthill Hotel. On display were a dozen assorted dinghies and powerboats, some fishing and diving gear, and other water-oriented paraphernalia. Also on display was a gleaming new Mirror dinghy, which was being raffled as a fund-raising project for the club, and which I did not win. However, a large Dutchman and I unearthed one of the club Mirrors from Ferdia O’Riordan’s garage and, after an hour or so of puzzling over fittings, rigging, and sails, got it afloat.
We pottered about between Black Rock Pier and the Margaretta Buoy in the middle of Galway Bay, tacking and jibing the little boat in a lovely breeze. My reading program was paying off handsomely, things making a great deal more sense than they had on my first outing with Ferdia. I had another short sail with another member, and then dropped him off at the pier.
My recent reading had included Sir Francis Chichester’s book Gypsy Moth Circles the World and Joshua Slocum’s superb account of his three-year circumnavigation in the last century, the first by a man alone. No doubt these had served as some sort of inspiration, for I pushed off in the little dinghy and sailed her single-handed out to the buoy and back, ajangle at the newness of it all and terrified of capsizing the thing in sight of the crowd on the pier. This was a kind of high several notches above sailing with somebody else. Now, for better or for drowning, I had the thing all to myself, my first command, as it were, and I relished the experience. Tacking around the buoy went much as the book had said it should; the dinghy scooted across the water, seemingly in defiance of, rather than in harmony with, the laws of nature, and I returned to shore light-headed, as if having breathed an enriched atmosphere.
I felt it was some sort of beginning, though of what I wasn’t certain, and to my distant fantasy of sailing around the world was added the even more fantastic notion of doing some part of it alone, and although the next time I sailed a boat alone the circumstances were much more exotic and the possible consequences far more serious, the special euphoria of that first, short, single-handed voyage remained unrivaled.
Carol, Fred, and I arrived at Rosturk Castle on a Friday evening in June, the club dinghy in tow behind the Mini. Carol, an old friend from both New York and London days, was passing through Ireland on her way back to live in the States, and we had been invited up to County Mayo for the Westport Show. The dinghy, much used and a bit battered, was for sailing in Westport Bay, for Rosturk Castle is situated on one of the most beautiful inlets of that very beautiful body of water.
Sunday we went sailing, which was not as simple as it sounds. The inlet on which Rosturk stands habitually dries out twice a day, when the tide recedes, leaving a quarter-mile or so of lovely golden sand to replace the water, which ends up some distance from the castle. Since our time of rising and breakfasting coincided with low water, it was necessary for someone to come with us down the long strip of sand to the water’s edge in the Mini and, after the dinghy had been launched, return to the house with the car and Fred, who, in the two or three times I had sailed since my debut, had shown himself to be not much in the way of a yachtsman. He either fell asleep with his head on the tiller or strolled about the decks until he fell into the water. He was, at least, good for man-overboard drills.
We successfully launched the dinghy and sailed off into an already increasing breeze. Westport Bay is filled with islands, reputedly 365 of them, and it had been our intention to sail among them for a sufficient number of hours for the tide to allow us to sail right up to the doorstep of the castle. However, on the water everything looks a bit different; the wind blows a bit harder, the waves are a bit steeper, and, on top of everything else, it was starting to drizzle. I am not sure if I had confided the state of my experience to Carol, but she seemed willing to sail wherever I wished, so I probably hadn’t.
Webeat out from behind an island and the wind and waves both grew in strengthnot to an alarming state, but sailing the boat required great concentration. There was little time for absorbing the beauties of Westport Bay. Carol, incredibly, managed to light a cigarette. We agreed that a shorter sail than originally conceived was in order. We sailed around the island and headed into the channel separating it from the shore where the castle stood. Then we were running, that is, the wind was directly behind us, and so were the waves. We began to surf in a small way, which was exciting, and then we “broached to,” which was a little too exciting. When a boat which is running broaches, it appears suddenly to change its mind about the direction in which it is sailing and to attempt to change its course, swinging abruptly around and abeam to the wind. This action, in proper concert with a passing wave, can cause the occupants of a dinghy to become swimmers. We were wearing buoyancy aids, but these did not make the prospect seem any more inviting. We broached twice before I learned to anticipate the movement and keep us on a straight course.
We drove on up the inlet until the boat touched the sand, then we hopped out. We were still a quarter-mile from the castle. I sent Carol up for the car and trailer while I got the sails down and stood in the water, holding the dinghy. The tide was coming in quite fast now.
Carol arrived with the car and backed the trailer down to the edge of the water, which was still several yards away from the Mini. I unhitched the trailer, pushed it down to the dinghy, and asked Carol to help me lift the boat onto it. This seemed to take no more than a minute or two. I turned to start pulling the trailer toward the car and saw, to my horror, that water was lapping at the hubcaps of the Mini. The tide was moving faster than I had realized.
I dropped the trailer, dived into the car, and started the engine. I breathed a sigh of relief. I put it into gear and tried to drive out of the water. The wheels promptly buried themselves in the sand. The front axles were now resting on the bottom. I sent Carol back to the house for help, while I tried vainly to rock the car out of the sand by shifting alternately into first gear and reverse. The wheels spun happily back and forth but remained in precisely the same position. I got out of the car and looked around for help. Far up the inlet, perhaps half a mile away, I saw a man driving a tractor, towing a trailer-load of seaweed across the sand. I jumped up and down and waved. He seemed not to see me. I blew the horn of the car repeatedly, but clearly the sound would never penetrate the noise of the tractor engine. There was no one else in sight.
I got back into the car and raced the engine; it seemed terribly important, somehow, to keep it going. Then I began to blow a signal on the horndot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dotSOS, the only Morse code I had ever been able to learn. The water continued to rise, and I continued to honk my signal. I could see Carol; she was not quite halfway to the castle, tired already from her first hike back for the car. The water was now beginning to creep over the door sills. I considered abandoning ship, but continued to honk. Far up the beach a figure was running toward the tractor, pointing my way. The tractor changed direction. Now it was a question of which would arrive first, the tractor or the tide. The tide seemed to be winning. The carpets were now underwater.
The tractor moved faster than I could have believed possible and arrived accompanied by a German guest at the castle, who had been awakened from his nap by the sound of my Morse SOS. Thank God the German Boy Scouts did a better job of teaching its members Morse code than, in my experience, the American branch. Just at the point when I was about to be sailing a Mini instead of a Mirror, the car came free of the sand. It even ran for a couple of miles before dying. The salt water had eaten away the fuel pump and one or two other essentials. If anybody knows of a more graphic way for a budding dinghy sailor to be taught about the tides I don’t want to hear about it.
The next thing I learned about sailing was that some boats, for no readily apparent reason, go faster than others. I learned this in the most embarrassing possible way for an adult, from children.
While I waited for my new Mirror to be built and delivered, a period of ten weeks, I tried racing the club Mirror in the regular Sunday- and Wednesday-afternoon events. In the beginning I had had no interest whatever in racing, but I soon found that cruising in a dinghy was not especially appealing, particularly if the wind died and the bloody thing had to be paddled home. So, having memorized about three of the several dozen International Yacht Racing Union Rules, I grabbed a passing teenager for a crew and thrashed my way around the buoys, losing to everybody except two tiny individuals who had capsized and retired. Fortunately, I had a number of excuses with which to console myself: the club boat leaked like a sieve; the sails were old and worn; the bottom was rough with age, and so forth. I bought a dinghy pump, and this kept my feet drier, but my ego remained damp. My new boat would solve all this, I was sure.
The new boat helped. I collected it, all dark blue and shiny, and named it Fred, in the hope that it would like the water as much as the puppy. It liked the water, and I finished third in my first race, but that was as high as I could scramble for several weeks. I began to investigate all the go-fast fittings and ideas allowed by the measurement rules of the Mirror Class Association. I grew accustomed to being handed small brown-paper bags in yacht chandleries, while a supercilious clerk intoned, “That will be thirty pounds, please.” I began reading the specialist books on racing and poring over the yachting magazines, looking for that elusive instruction which would send me surging to the fore of the fleet. And lo, I began to improve. I began to beat the smaller children. Progress.
Racing Fred in Galway Bay.
A big problem, of course, was that I did not have a regular crew. Most grown men who race in the smaller dinghy classes breed sons and daughters for this purpose, lashing them to the boat as soon as they are old enough to be shouted at. In my bachelor state I was so far behind in this game that it would have taken six or seven years to catch up. So I had to be content to borrow the odd kid when Dad was away or too hungover to make the start. Adults were too heavy, learned too slowly, and had too low a humiliation threshold for crewing a Mirror dinghy. Once, at a two-day meet on Lough Derg, I persuaded a grown-up acquaintance new to sailing to crew for me. In the first race we did miserably, our combined weight destroying us in very light winds. In the second race, after a lunch at which we consoled ourselves with a liter of plonk, a huge wind appeared from nowhere, capsized us, and left us riding to anchor in the half-filled dinghy, drinking still more plonk and waiting for the crash boat to come and take us away. His wife phoned the next day and said he wasn’t well and couldn’t make races three and four.
So for the rest of the season I found crews wherever I could and continued to chase, and occasionally even beat, the leaders, all of whom were in their mid-teens except my archrival Dr. Tom Coll, an alleged adult with an enthusiastic younger brother for a crew. We exchanged good-natured abuse ashore and afloat, and whenever I beat him he would pretend to sulk for a week.
The highlight of the season was the national championships, a weeklong event held at Lough Derg. I arrived crewless, as usual, but found a twelve-year-old Dublin girl named Caroline, who was small for her age. She turned out to be a shrewd and experienced dinghy sailor, and her small weight helped make up for mine. We finished thirty-ninth out of a fleet of sixty. With luck we could have done better, but still, I had never before beaten twenty-one boats.
It ended the season if not on a high note, at least on one which would hum through my mind all through the following winter.
Iwas thirty-five years old when I first sailed that Mirror dinghyin my late youth, one might say. My figure had assumed those slightly more generous proportions so attractive in a person of my age, and just a tiny bit more of my scalp was exposed to the sunshine than had been true a few years before. (Someone once described me, unkindly, as “balding.” This is not strictly true. I am balding only if you are taller than I am and stand behind me.) This is a time of life when a man has a duty to his family, his society, and probably the United Nations to go forth and painfully extract seventy-five or a hundred thousand dollars a year from his nation’s gross national product and then plow back about twenty-five percent more than that into mortgage payments, insurance premiums, school fees for his children, analysts’ fees for his wife, and quadraphonic sound and electrocardiograms for himself. It is a known fact that unless everybody does this there will be another Depression and a Communist Takeover, followed shortly by a Nuclear Holocaust. I know that it was terribly irresponsible of me, but at this critical juncture of my life my existence was ruled by the compulsion to find a way to make a ten-foot ten-inch plywood dinghy go faster than that of the thirteen-year-old kid down the street. I know this is no way for a grown man to behave, but I couldn’t help it. I was hooked.
This confusing condition becomes even more inexplicable if one examines my career in sport up to that time, which, believe me, will not take long. In my school days in Manchester, Georgia, I fought a pitched battle for two years with a co-student to see who could become the worst football player in the history of Manchester High School. He never had a chance. Every winter for four years I went out for the basketball team and was cut from the squad after the first two weeks of practice, which the coach considered a decent interval, given the state of my native ability. I did, however, make the tennis team in my senior yearmostly, I believe, because I owned a tennis racket and only three other boys went out for the team. I was instrumental in the loss of every doubles match we played that year, and for my efforts was awarded a school letter in track. The coach said something about having ordered too many track letters and not enough tennis. When I lived in London I played tennis about twice a week in Battersea Park, where I could acquit myself fairly well in mixed doubles if the girls were bad enough.
And now, in the middle of my life and with that record behind me, I found myself consumed by and even achieving a kind of competitive mediocrity in a new sport. And when the season ended things got worse. I pored over every yachting publication available, taking notes. I trudged up and down the aisles of chandleries examining the available equipment minutely, buying everything which held the promise of that extra tenth of a knot of speed. I read ever more advanced books on techniquebooks about roll tacking, spinnaker handling, eliminating weather helm. I ordered a new mast from Collars of Oxford and new sails from Jack Holt. I memorized the yacht racing rules. When spring came I started screwing and bolting the fruits of my winter’s search to the dinghy.
And then a wonderful thing happened. Harry McMahon bought an Enterprise. An Enterprise is a larger, heavier boat than a Mirror, and Harry needed a larger, heavier crew to help keep it upright. This size requirement shanghaied Harry’s bemused wife into action and his eldest son, Dairmuid, out of it. Dairmuid had all of the qualities I could have wanted in a son of my own. He was eleven years old, skinny enough to help make up for my bulk, and had been shouted at by his father for two seasons in a Mirror. He knew more than enough to keep me out of trouble and he wasn’t big enough to yell at me when I made a stupid mistake. The day Harry showed up with the Enterprise I offered to adopt Dairmuid. Harry compromised by offering to lend him to me for the summer in return for a good price on my old Mirror sails. Everybody was happy except, possibly, Dairmuid. Nobody asked him.
At last I had a regular crew of my own. At last the boat was light enough to sail in light winds. At last the spinnaker was being used well. At last I was being beaten by adults instead of children, and a lot of the time I was beating the adults. Life was full of meaning.
Dairmuid and I campaigned the boat hard that summer, going to as many open and regional meetings as we could manage. We sailed fast but too often made one gigantic, unforgivable mistake in a raceenough to put us fourth or fifth instead of first. Still, it was hugely satisfying and a wonderful excuse for not writing, something every writer desperately needs.
We looked forward eagerly to the Mirror National Championships, when boats from all over Ireland (and some from England) would congregate at Sligo for a week of battling around the buoys. Championship week arrived, and so did Dairmuid’s appendix. Dairmuid was desolated. I was suicidal. Harry offered to take his son’s place.
A fully rigged Mirror weighs 150 pounds, which means that Harry and I weighed a lot more than twice as much as the boat. This disadvantage, combined with the fact that Harry and I were both used to skippering and not crewing, giving orders and not taking them, made things a bit tense. In the first race I completely screwed up the rather complicated gate start, to the extent that we started the race about a hundred yards behind the last of the other seventy boats. This seemed to annoy Harry. Then the wind went very light, and, since we weighed so much, we had little chance of catching up. We retired from this race, because, as I explained to Harry, I would rather have an “R” on the scoreboard next to my name than a “71st.” Harry had a number of brief but incisive comments to make about this and other of my decisions during the race. The second race went a lot better. I screwed up the start again, but there was more wind and we managed to work our way up to about twenty-fifth. Our relationship as skipper and crew was improving, too. Harry threatened to get out and walk only once.
Then came the third race and, with it, the wind. The wind blew and the waves got biggerideal conditions for Harry and me with our weight, and bad for the small kids. Wonderful. We started well but then sailed off on a tack by ourselves. Still, we seemed to be doing fairly well, concentrating hard on keeping the boat as upright as possible and sailing fast. As we rounded a mark and relative positions became a bit better defined I looked around to see how we were doing. “Harry,” I said, “I know this seems odd, but an awful lot of those boats seem to be behind us.” Harry shot me a look of withering disbelief and looked around. His face unfolded like a rose.
“Jesus,” he said, “I think you’re right.” We finished eighth out of seventy boats, better than either of us had ever done at a National, and we were now in a position where, if we finished well in the fourth and last race, we might place in the top ten overall, a circumstance beyond our most lurid fantasies. But the wind continued to rise, and finally, because there were so many small kids involved, the last race was canceled. But there was still glory. We were given a prize for being the oldest and heaviest crew and we had finished twenty-ninth out of seventy boats. It was my finest hour.
There had been talk of Fireballs for some weeks now. A Fireball is a high-performance racing dinghy with a big sail plan and a trapeze for the crew. It was a different kettle of fish from a Mirror, but four of us were pretty hot on the idea. I assembled costs on everything from the hiring of a mold (we were going to build them ourselves) to spars and sails, but, one by one, people dropped out, and, anyway, something else happened that pointed me in a new direction. Dave Fitzgerald asked me to go sailing with him.
Dave owned a Snapdragon 24, a tubby little cruising yacht of some age but of considerable charm, at least to me. He had sailed her to France earlier in the summer and was bringing her back in stages. The final stage was from Valentia, an island just off southwest Ireland, to Galway, and he invited me to join him and his regular crew in bringing her up. I suspected that he had run out of people to ask who actually knew what they were doing aboard a cruising boat and had been reduced to accepting a dinghy sailor, but I leapt at the chance, having never actually been anywhere on a sailboat. I had spent two summers sailing triangular courses, and the idea of floating from one place to another was enormously appealing. This was much closer to sailing around the world.
We drove down to Valentia on a Friday evening, the plan being to set out from Knightstown, on the island, early the next morning and sail to Kilronan, in the Aran Islands, and thence on the Sunday into Galway. It was a long drive to Valentia, but we moved quickly, it being important to get to Knightstown before the pubs closed. We slept quite comfortably on the boat (Pegeen, she was called), and we got up early enough for the morning BBC marine weather forecast. Five minutes later we were asleep again, as the BBC was forecasting a possible gale Force eight, which seemed to be more wind than Dave wanted to face with a hangover. We passed a sunny day idly, and the gale never materialized. Next morning, after another night at the pub, we overslept and got away later than planned. We had to beat out through the Blasket Sound in a short, choppy sea and, having been anxious about the possibility of being seasick on my first coastal passage, I had taken a seasickness pill, which rendered me semiconscious for the first couple of hours. I recovered by mid-morning and found us broad reaching up the coast with a nice Force four southwesterly breeze behind us.
The company was good. Dave was a large man with a meaty nose who has been known to sign autographs for Tommy Cooper, and when he is not sailing he runs the Tynagh Mines in County Galway. Philip, his other crew, is smaller than Dave and his nose is less meaty, but he is working on that. They are both very Irish, which is to say they never drink between eight and ten a.m. and never stop talking. There was a constant stream of banter in the manner of Robert Newton playing Long John Silver. Great care was taken to impress upon me at all times the infinite knowledge, skill, and courage required to sail a cruising yacht, as opposed to a dinghy. I kept expressing my surprise at how much easier everything was on a larger boat.
It went on like that all day, until Dave announced that he had made a command decision not to continue to the Arans, our late departure having made it impossible to reach Kilronan before the pubs closed. Instead, we would divert to Carrigaholt, in the Shannon estuary, where the state of the tide and the closing hours were more in harmony. We did so, and sailing into the estuary Dave showed me how to use a hand bearing compass to plot a position on a chart, my introduction to the art of coastal navigation. We berthed the boat at the village pier, then moved on to the pub to wait for Dave’s attractive and patient wife to collect us for the drive back to Galway. When we returned to the boat to pick up our gear I discovered another facet of cruising the west coast of Ireland: the rise and fall of the tides. In practice this means that you can tie up nicely level with a pier, trot up to the pub for a few pints, and return to find the boat fifteen feet down from its previous level. Negotiating this distance with a full load of Guinness can be tricky. The following week in Dublin I purchased a new item for the inventory of Pegeen: a rope ladder. How Dave and Philip had survived for so many seasons without one was beyond me.
The following weekend we journeyed back to Carrigaholt and sailed on to the Arans under spinnaker, with a stiff following breeze which blew us right on to the pubsall of the pubson landing. I forget how many we visited, but the largest had two bars, and the smallest was the tiny sitting room of an Aran cottage. We lazed about Sunday morning and then sailed into Galway as the sun set. Everything all those songs say about the sun setting on Galway Bay is true. The place seems to be arranged to show the sun at its bestlong summer twilights, just enough cloud to catch and color the light and the shining waters of the bay itself. It is best seen from a boat, and it is breathtaking.
All this yachting had quite turned my head. Thoughts of Fireballs vanished. Visions of cruisers now appeared. I just might be able to scrape together enough from my two-day-a-week income to buy something small.
In the meantime there was more sailing with Dave. Next was a new event, the Round Aran Race, to start from Galway on a Friday evening and be sailed around all three of the Aran Islands and into Kilronan, a distance of about sixty miles, with a nice night passage thrown in.
After that came the Galway Bay Sailing Club Regatta. Dave felt that an event of this stature required a pre-race conference on tactics, and this was duly held at Moran’s (also known as the Weir), a lovely little thatched pub on the Kilcolgan River, which empties into Galway Bay. We sailed Pegeen up the river, dried her out alongside the pier in front of the pub, and all concerned, plus a few others, gathered there. I will not place too much emphasis on the condition of the crew the following morning; suffice it to say that we ran aground three times on a falling tide en route to the starting line in Rinville Bay. At one point, half the crew were over the side in water up to their thighs, pushing Pegeen. Recovery was rapid enough for us to win the coveted Sonia Cup that afternoon, and we repaired once again to Moran’s for a suitable celebration.
There remained but one weekend before the end of the season, that is to say, before Pegeen’s insurance coverage expired, and it was a memorable one. Racing was finished and, Philip having allowed his work to interfere with his sailing, Dave and I took a short cruise.
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