Julian and I are often quite conscious of our lack of sailing experience. Since buying Carina over four years ago we have met so many people with vastly more experience than us. People who have grown up aboard boats; people who have sailed the world three times over; people who have been professional sailors; people who have taught sailing. We have also met people who were less experienced than us when they started out. But for the most part, the other live aboard sailors we meet are more experienced than we are.
Recently we met Tom, an elderly man from Cullen in Scotland, who has been sailing since he was ‘a wee laddie’. Before he was 13 years old he picked shellfish, sold them and saved up his earnings to buy his first little boat and then sailed it out to sea to fish for mackerel so he could earn the money to buy an outboard motor. By the time he was 16 he was a cook aboard a North Sea fishing vessel. He was a professional sailor for years and now lives on his own boat. The sea is in his blood. He’s as cool and at home on the sea as most people are at their land-lubber kitchen tables. He talks like a sailor, using nautical language that I at times struggle to understand.
We told him how inexperienced we were. He quickly corrected us.
‘How did you get here?’ he asked. ‘Did you have the boat shipped down overland?’
No, we said, and told him the route we had taken from Plymouth to Falmouth, across the English Channel to Brittany, from there across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia, down the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula, into the Mediterranean, along Mediterranean Spain, across to Morocco, back out of the Mediterranean again, and up the Rio Guadiana to our current location.
‘When you crossed the English Channel you did more than 80% of the people in the marina you left behind in Plymouth’ he said. ‘When you crossed the Bay of Biscay you did more than 99% of them. So don’t tell me you’re inexperienced’.
It’s easy to feel inexperienced when you are always surrounded by people so much more experienced. And we still are novices. We haven’t crossed any oceans, we have no two week or six week ocean passages under our belts. We haven’t experienced any great violent storms. But we are also cautious sailors. Our pleasant and mostly uneventful crossing of the Bay of Biscay, one of the world’s great patches of rough ocean, was as much due to careful planning and weather watching, and going when the conditions were right, as it was to beginner’s luck. I have no yearning for near death experiences at sea, I have no desire to put my children in danger. So we sail carefully and cautiously – departing quickly and suddenly because conditions are right, or hanging around for days or weeks waiting for the right conditions.
I’m not saying we won’t or don’t experience danger or that our lives won’t be threatened by the conditions we find ourselves in. That’s life. But we are cautious enough not to put ourselves in the way of danger. When we one day make those big ocean crossings (as we hope to) we will plan carefully and go when the crew, the boat and the meteorological conditions are right.
Every time we put to sea, every time we anchor, or raise the sails, or face a storm, or come alongside a pontoon, or do the thousand other things we do, we gain a little more experience. We are not the greenhorns we were when we set sail for Ireland in the summer of 2012. But neither are we this Scottish sailor Tom or Paudi Kelly, or the Dutch guy I met in La Palue, or Ruth and Duncan, or Hazel and Dave or the others we know whose ease and comfort makes us blush at our own ineptitude. We don’t yet, and maybe never will, have their levels of experience.
But Tom made a point that was both enlightening and sobering. ‘You can no longer use inexperience as an excuse for the mistakes you make’, he said. We have sailed a long way from our home port, powered in part by bravado, hubris and optimism. But the sailing we have done comes with a heavy responsibility – to not get ourselves in trouble, to not have others endanger their lives to rescue us, because we’ve done something stupid or intemperate. Everyone has accidents, everyone runs into trouble from time to time, but when something goes wrong we cannot plead inexperience. Having come this far it is our responsibility to act on the experience we have and to use that knowledge and skill wisely in every new situation we face.
After that discussion about (in)experience, Tom presented us with a jar of peanut butter and a jar of his own home made mango chutney. Wise words and food – he’s won me over!