To the seasoned observer, the sight of boutique branded sailor wear in the pub at this time of year signifies a successful Christmas haul as opposed to an intrepid bout of winter sailing

Brace yourself! It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s about to. I can feel it in my bones.

Any day now the door of your favourite waterside pub will burst wide open, an unfeasibly cheery and ruddy- faced bunch of Famous Five hearty winter sailors will tumble in, leave the door open, throw their salt-drenched oilies into a steaming heap on top of the pub dog, back up to the fire while making jokes about prop walk, start rubbing their buttocks in an unsavoury fashion, then roast their chestnuts – that’s if they’ve got too close.

Let’s be clear, this is downright unsailorly conduct. For a start, you can tell by their insufferable enthusiasm and the newness of their spotless branded boutique sailor wear that they’ve recently been on a course, and have closed all their seacocks before coming ashore. If they can do that, why can’t they close a pub door? Haven’t they done that course?

Of course, as locals we don’t say anything, but just glower at the open door, for nothing since the big freeze of ’63 has actually stunned us into speech – and even then no one’s really sure if it was actual speech or just teeth chattering.

Other giveaways are the fact that they’ve put their lifejackets back on after removing their oilies, and in a fit of giggles have snapped their lifelines on to the brass foot rail around the bar. The fact is, though, that they’ve made a very basic navigational error.

They’ve failed to correct for deviation – ours, that is – and have ended up in the wrong bar; ours, that is. The back bar at The Queen’s Head, which is, errr, actually at the front, is also known as the members’ bar. It’s for locals. It’s the way of the waterfront.

The front bar, which is actually at the back, is the one for ‘blow-ins’ or ‘randoms’, as we call anyone who lands in Maldon wearing a lifejacket to the pub.

But they’ve made one more truly fundamental error, for anyone with any sense at all has by now swaddled their boat in layers of shredded tarps, roofing felt, rubble sacks, old sails and mildewed army surplus canvas ground sheets.

The true aim of this is not to protect your boat from the ravages of our British winter, but something far more practical: in the first place, to prevent you getting on board to do any maintenance; and second, to stop you doing anything as utterly foolish as going sailing in Britain in December, January, February or March.

Perhaps I’m being cynical, ‘cos in the past I’ve sailed in December in my Sailfish, which has all the thermal insulation of a soggy thong. It was wondrous for the first five seconds, until my frozen feet froze solid to the frozen cabin sole. I’ve sailed in snow too, and that was magical too,
for three seconds, until it started stinging.

Once, when I was younger, I was enticed sailing on New Year’s Day by super-eager friends who’d read so much Arthur Ransome it had affected their minds.

‘Isn’t it perfectly magical? There’s no one else out here,’ said one. I offered an explanation you won’t read in children’s sailing books.

The Frostbite race

I’ve also sailed in the Frostbite race from Limehouse to Erith on the Thames in February on an old mate’s ancient Westerly Renown, which had a domestic paraffin heater lashed to the compression post (you won’t learn that on courses!). Trouble was, we couldn’t go below at all ‘cos it was so hot down there we’d melt; so we had to freeze in the cockpit and just hope the paraffin ran out before the compression post caught alight.

Of course, all this is character- building, but I realised I’d had enough of that years ago when, after four hours freezing my futtocks off, the skipper said:

‘I think we can head back now, honour has been satisfied’. ‘Honour had been satisfied’ is sailor code talk for: ‘It’s bloody miserable out here, so let’s pile into the yacht club bar and pretend it wasn’t’.

There is, however, one exception. If a band of gung-ho types walks into your favourite waterside pub or sailing club bar on Boxing Day in spotless branded boutique sailor wear, lifejackets and lifelines, don’t be fooled. They’ve not been sailing, they’re just trying on their Christmas presents! And that’s really bonkers.