Time for an anti-shanty rant

In his latest column, published in the February 2015 issue of PBO, Dave explores how singing on passage to keep spirits buoyant can sometimes have the reverse effect.

It’s a well-known fact that all skippers are desperate: not just desperate for crew, but generally desperate. Fortunately, crew are usually even more desperate.

At least I was. In fact, when I first crossed the Channel everyone on board was desperate: me, my girlfriend and the skipper who was lying below on his bunk, his face an unforgettable yellowy-grey hue tinged ghoulish red in the cabin light.

Martha couldn’t swim, I didn’t know port from starboard and the skipper was totally incapacitated, heaving his guts into a bucket. Oh, and it was dark and windless, as we wallowed with the boom crashing from side to side in the lumpy leftovers of rough weather.

One other thing: we were in the middle of the busiest shipping lane in the world.

‘What can you-hue-eee see-argh?’ cried the skipper. ‘Lights everywhere,’ I replied. ‘Green, red and white, mostly.’ After a lengthy Q&A punctuated with heart-rending hueys and cries, the skipper gasped: ‘Starboard.’

Here I should explain that I’d done a dinghy sailing course so I was even more confused than someone who’s never been sailing, and I queried: ‘Wot, do you mean turn the stick or the boat? …And which way’s starboard?’

We survived and made it to Cherbourg, where I discovered that the skipper knew he was prone to seasickness but had forgotten to bring the pills he usually took.

Beforehand I didn’t even know such things existed, so I was fuming – I think that’s the polite expression. And the polite word for what we did next is ‘mutiny’.

Our ultimatum was that unless the skipper bought some pills and agreed to cross the shipping lanes in daylight, me and Martha were going home on the ferry. We also prepared sandwiches and Thermos flasks of tea to have at hand in the cockpit.

We survived again, although the shipping lanes were terrifying: and at one stage as a leviathan crossed our path, Martha – who still couldn’t swim – cried: ‘I’m going downstairs.’

As by then I was beginning to feel a bit nautical, I blurted: ‘The correct word is “below”… and that won’t help anyway.” Looking back now with a certain amount of pride, I realise that was the exact moment I gave voice to my very first skipper-ish sentiment.

For years after Martha entertained friends with the story of ‘the day Dave tried to kill me’. I, on the other hand, was hooked and did more courses, which increased my vocabulary no end and made me even more confused and confusing, almost like a proper skipper. And in no time Martha built up a fund of amusing anecdotes about all the other times I tried to kill her.

Meanwhile, I found a fabulous crewing service that opened up my world. The world literally was my oyster: there were Hallberg-Rassys, Westerlys, Beneteaus, Rustlers and Victorias too.

A day-sail on the Crouch, or the third leg of a circumnavigation from Panama to Australia, were mine for the choosing. I had some wonderful, life- enhancing experiences and made lifelong friends.

But I realise now that it was that first Channel crossing which changed my life. I’d vowed on the passage back that I would stay awake all the way: more importantly, the skipper agreed to do so as well. Martha was too scared to sleep.

To keep our spirits up we sang on watch. Martha sang Abba, which was tolerable. I went nautical and warbled ‘Sea of Heartbreak’, ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat’ from Guys And Dolls and ‘Somewhere Beyond The Sea’, but my rendition of ‘Splish Splash’ made Martha feel queasy: I don’t think she likes Bobby Darin.

As for the skipper, he got into the full-on Blitz spirit with ‘We’ll Meet Again’, ‘Roll Out The Barrel’ and ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’, which had me scanning the skies for a Messerschmitt 109 and the sea for a U-boat periscope.

That was traumatic enough, but it was when he started on the sea shanties that I made a life-changing decision. I’dbuyaboatofmyown purely so I could ban sea shanties. Meanwhile Martha, who still can’t swim, has taken up Pilates.


Find more of Dave’s podcasts here…