I’ve always been comfortable on boats. Mum told me at a young age that I was made on a boat in Nice. Dad, a lifetime sailor, had dragged her screaming across the English channel to the South of France, and there – presumably while he comforted her WHICH I CAN’T BEAR TO THINK ABOUT OBVIOUSLY – was I conceived. Apart of the all-out vom-inducing grossness of considering one’s parents frolicking about in the act of conjoining their essence, I’ve always found it a romantic tale. I like to imagine “Made in France” like an invisible label on me, like I’m a jaunty summer cardigan. Probably striped. That’s French isn’t it.
Dad joined the Merchant Navy when he was a lad; I suspect to escape boarding school. He sailed around many seas of the world having top larks with lads named Pancho, Ratty, and Edmeades. He loved boats ever after and took great care to instigate the same passion in his choiceless children. My childhood holidays would usually involve being pulled onto some sort of vessel on some sort of water. Yachts, dinghies, rowboats, pedaloes. Oceans, lakes, rivers, ponds. Paper plates on puddles if we really got stuck.
One of my favourite memories of Dad is when we nearly died. We were in Turkey, as good a place to die as any. In the sun, happy. I had just turned 16, he had just turned 50. We went out alone on a tiny two-man bit of scrap and lurched without life jackets out into the Aegean, bound for open seas and adventure. Twenty minutes later I thought my bum was going to fall clean off. Dad had taken us out too far, the feeble boat was only vaguely seaworthy in the shallows, and we were smacking hard against the deep waves, writhing like concrete serpents. I felt a strange mix of terror and elation as we kept on going, still blindly trusting that my Dad, Man of the Sea, would save us before it got really dangerous. Dad could control the waves, couldn’t he? (How magical is that time when you think adults are invincible).
It was the most alive I had ever seen him. I can still see him turning round to me with his hair whipping around his neck, eyes wild and happy, his mouth broad and laughing. I laughed too. Even though I probably already suspected I wouldn’t be able to sit down for quite a while. If we didn’t die.
We didn’t die.
Years later, in an attempt to create quality time while I was at Uni he bought a small four man dinghy called the Sammy Jod. It was four leaf clover green with caramel wood inside. I loved it. But it came too late; I was at Uni in London and didn’t have time for the sea jaunts he thought we’d have. Dad sold the Sammy Jod about a year later admitting it had been bad timing. I always felt like I’d let him down by growing up.
This weekend I went to a boat race held yearly for the last twenty or so years in the honour of the father of one of my best friends, Jack. ‘Welcome Back, You Didn’t Die’ drinks were being held on the big boat HQ of the Essex Yacht Club in Leigh, just a few meters from where the Sammy Jod was moored for its brief year in our family. I wanted to be there for Jack, who lost his father when he was a baby, knowing what that race means to him, and I wanted to go with all my love of boats and dads and water and Jack that I hold in my heart as though that is somehow a transferrable thing that can be of some use. Hearts are sometimes at their stupidest when they’re at their fullest.
But the wind was hard that day and the estuary waters churned around in choppy fashion and the race was called off.
So we had a beer instead and raised glasses of ale to Jack’s father while the wind carried on its amiable tyranny outside. Even though the fleet of pretty boats were not put to full use, it was as though the elements that make them move, the power of the wind and waves were talking and saying hello, like two fathers shaking hands.
Lads on a boat, being lads. That’s Dad at the back with the ears. He got those pinned in the 70s. Lad.
Mum & Dad by some boat or other, maybe in Nice. Ugh. Maybe I’m in there.
After we’d come back, just about alive. Turkey 1996.
Jack teaching me to play ukulele that one time when I thought being able to play Somewhere Over The Rainbow might make me a better person. I’m sorry, Jack.