An emotional homecoming to the River Thames, where Dave’s sailing odyssey began...from his October 2017 PBO column and podcast
‘What is zee point to sail round zee glob just to end oop where you starteed?’
So said Bernard Moitessier, or words to that effect.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not comparing myself with the paté-loving French vegetarian mystic who, ‘to save his soul’, abandoned the Golden Globe race with victory in his grasp. I’m not a vegetarian.
Neither can I sit in the lotus position, nor prise myself out of it without the help of a power winch attached to a Land-Rover anchored to a sturdy tree stump.
Other than that, we’re not too dissimilar, me and my mystic choom, except that I disagree with him.
For all voyages are a homecoming that starts the moment you step aboard and feel your boat tremble alive beneath your feet, each nook, nick, cranny, scuff and tea-stained mug more familiar and more intimate than anything in your, ’ow shall I say eet, house-machine, zee prison of your soul… Ooh la la, cripes! Sorry, I was so spiritual for a moment I started talking Franglais.
And so it was as I stepped once more on board Marlin in July last year. I was home.
Zis was my universe, my – qu’est ce que c’est en Anglais? – world entire, finite but infinite, for zee horizon lay beyond but always out of reach… Zut alors, lorks! I’ve come over all Moitessier again.
But part of Marlin’s Mission truly was a homecoming, and that’s why I chose to sail the Thames to London alone. It’s a course that runs through my life, an escalator of time, a pulse of history, without doubt one of the great passages in the world.
And it revealed my life in flashback and reverse as it transported me back to where it all began, where I began.
As I sailed west last year under the QE2 bridge on a warm July morning, for the very first time in my Sailfish, my heart soared as I looked up at the suckers on their way to work. It was the glinting Golden Gate to my past.
And at Erith Yacht Club I crossed the track of my past and saw my younger self in 2006, grasping for a visitor’s buoy and hanging on for dear life.
From Gallions Point in the Royal Docks, where my Sailfish had been launched by a forklift truck, it had been an 8-mile white-knuckle ride to Erith entirely under motor.
I’d told my girlfriend it was too rough to raise sail, but I wasn’t even kidding myself – it was Force 2-3 max.
It was an age ago, but I still recall how crestfallen I was when I realised my dream to sail from my East London home round to my mooring on the Blackwater in Essex was simply beyond my capabilities.
But now, at last, I’d sailed back and closed the circle. And my eyes moistened.
And then, as I called London VTS for permission to pass through the Thames Barrier, for the first time as commander of my own vessel, I felt a swell of pride.
A returning circumnavigator could not have been more elated. And passing Greenwich, the man who sails an 18ft Sailfish saw a vision of the 10-year-old boy who marvelled at how small Chichester’s 54ft Gipsy Moth IV was.
She’s been resurrected from her concrete tomb, but don’t get me started on the Cutty Sark, jacked up and her stern vandalised for a souvenir shop, a dead thing, a monument to architectural vanity and curatorial hubris.
A real sailing boat could have been built for a third of the money, but at least she’ll keep conservators in white gloves and sable brushes for all of time. Enough, that’s maudlin.
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And so to Limehouse, where in 2002 a timid non-sailor walked into the Cruising Association’s crewing service one Wednesday night in winter.
His eyes widened and his jaw dropped in wonder as he discovered there were people with boats who’d let him on board. It started there.
A new world opened up and a new life began. In July 2016, when he returned in his own boat, they remembered him and offered him a room for the night.
And do you know what I said? ‘Thanks, but I can’t abandon Marlin: it would be a betrayal.’
Perhaps I have got a soul, but at least I didn’t say it in a French accent.