Dave Selby's humorous Mad About the Boat column

Self-isolating has never been a problem for me. In fact, I’ve been following government guidelines ever since 2005, when I bought my Sailfish 18, and two months later the sheet music for Neil Sedaka’s Solitaire. The two are not unrelated.

Imagine the excitement of all my friends when I told both of them I’d bought a ‘six-berth family sailing cruiser’, which, before the banning of irony in advertising, was how the Sailfish 18 was marketed.

The 18, it should be noted, was a whimsical reference to the length of something, but not a Sailfish 18, and manufacture eventually ceased following an acrimonious court battle when the builder refused to re-brand it the Sailfish Not-Quite-18 Singleton sailing cruiser.

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What I could not have imagined was how all my so-called friends ‘cancelled’ me shortly after stepping aboard for the first and last time.

One said: “Well, where’s your yacht, then?” and the other, with no irony at all, said “This tender’s a bit small.” A third, who was a girlfriend, so not strictly a friend, abandoned ship at a marina and was last seen heading in the direction of a Hallberg-Rassy.

Loneliness became my one true and faithful companion as I whiled away the evenings in the solitude of lonely creeks playing Neil Sedaka’s Solitaire on my triangle.

It works better on a ukulele, but it wouldn’t go through the hatch.

As a pair of swans glided by I plaintively sang “Ooh, ooh, plink, there was a man, a lonely man, ooh, ooh, plink.”

In a vain effort to lift my spirits I improvised with an “ooh, plink, ooh,” and just as I got to the bit that goes “plink, plink ooh, while life goes on around him everywhere, he’s playing solitaire, plink, plink, ooh” a Hallberg-Rassy dropped anchor nearby with 25 people singing and dancing to ABBA’s Take Chance on Me.

“Oh, what cruel irony,” I thought as the string on my triangle broke.

These were dark days, yet now I laugh at my forlorn woes, for something wonderful has come into my life – a stowaway!

Early this season I’d noticed my Sailfish 18 had developed a list to port and when I went below to investigate there he was, staring straight at me, defiant and insolent as he munched on some ghastly flesh locked between his jaws in a spasm of death.

He was a messy eater.

As SAS hostage negotiation training advises against saying “Oi, mate, you could have used a plate,” I just sat back and studied him, while surreptitiously edging towards my handheld VHF to call for a berth at Bradwell Marina, where I ventured ashore in the hope my intruder would make a bid for freedom.

When I returned he was still there, munching away and not even using a napkin. In the end I could bear it no more and said softly: “Hello, my friend, looks like you’re in my bubble.”

And me and Ralph, for that’s his name, have been crewmates ever since.

He’s not much of a conversationalist, on account of being a spider, but he’s a good listener. Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs, like the time I accidentally damaged his web reaching for my head torch, but the brave little stoic rebuilt it without complaint.

There have also been problems with boundaries as his beautiful gossamer web spans the shelf where I keep my dividers, and without them I have difficulty peeling satsumas.

As for his culinary requirements I’m learning, because I’m almost certain the tiny crumb of ginger nut biscuit I left out for him is getting smaller.

Now, each time I step aboard my Sailfish the first thing I do is check on Ralph and clean the tiny insect carapaces from the plate I’ve placed below his web.

At night I no longer read but just wonder at this doughty little fellow who’s weaved his way into my heart as he goes about tending his web.

Where did he come from? How does he find sustenance where I see none? And how long do spiders live? And then I think it won’t be long before I’ll once more be playing Solitaire on my triangle.

But no, it turns out Ralph is a she, and Ralphella has just had puppies. Boy, are they cute.

In this tangled web of life the gift of sailing shows us how lucky we are and how little we need, though I would quite like a Hallberg-Rassy.

Originally published in PBO Jan21 issue

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