Are we aground again?

Guest blog by author and artist Justin Ruthven-Tyers

If ever you find your boat has run aground, you may wish to hear some words of wisdom from an expert; may I present myself to you as that expert? I’ve run aground thousands of times.


Sometimes I run aground deliberately; sometimes I run aground when I thought I wouldn’t; and sometimes I run aground when I’m not expecting it at all… and I’ve reduced all our years of experience into some advice that you won’t find in any of your sailing handbooks. To give credit where it’s due, the idea isn’t mine at all; I learned it from a novice – on his first outing.

He and his wife were considering buying a lovely old sailing skiff – well, I say lovely; it was rotting, but where there was no wood there was plenty of filler; and to unify the filler with the boards the whole thing had had a fresh coat of paint. Fresh – heavens… in some places it wasn’t yet dry!

My wife and I were at our mooring dabbing some varnish on bits of bright-work using last-years’ brushes – whose hairs stuck out at all angles – and found that by straining ourselves into silence we couldn’t help overhearing snippets of their conversation. What we learned from it, together with his choice for the day of cotton blazer and a ‘short’ pipe, told us that this vessel, if he decided to buy it, was to be his first command; and today was to be the first time he’d set foot on the water.

He pushed off from the slip and the skiff drifted around in circles for a few minutes offering its sails to the wind on a take-us-as-you-find-us basis, whilst he filled his pipe, beat the dust off some cushions, took some choice morsels from the hamper, and then settled himself down to form a general impression of the area by flicking through the pages of an Atlas. In response to a plea from his wife he moved the tiller to one side so as to make more room and learned that he could direct his vessels course; and with that helmed away for the reef.

The weather was glorious: cat’s-paws chased each other over the mirror of the sea, and the lazy silence of the afternoon was broken only by the refreshing sound of ice-cubes in a bucket, either falling together or being driven apart by a bottle. By following its sound we could tell, without looking up from our sticky wood, what progress the skiff made across the bay.  When it found that part of the reef which lies just an inch or two below the surface, and seeing that it was generously upholstered with kelp, the skiff hauled itself up, as will a seal, and settled into the soft weed to bask.

For five minutes no one spoke… it was such a peaceful scene you didn’t like to. With one leg cast full-width along a thwart, and the small of his back against the gunwhale, the prospective buyer twirled his glass at the sun catching its sparkle, and offered his face up to its warmth as a soft breeze toyed with his hair.

Seeing the boat’s owner arrive back at the slip and begin shuffling nervously from one foot to the other, the sailor called across to explain why they had spent so long on the same spot – his voice was slurred, as though his words had been slowly marinating, and these had been the most delicious moments of his life.

‘Ab-so-lutely becalmed!’ he drawled, and then raised his glass in the owner’s direction as an after-thought.

So whenever our boat chooses to haul its fifteen tons on to a bank we lounge around – as Monet would have painted us – affecting a crisp Edwardian delinquency to say for us that this is how we planned to spend our weekend.

Well, I say ‘weekend’ – it might be twelve hours… or it might be a fortnight.

Visit Justin Ruthven-Tyers’ blog for more on sailing and life on a Hebridean island. His new book, Phoenix from the Ashes, is out on 1st March 2012 and available on Amazon pre-order now.

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