On a cold, soggy night, I was running down a pier. The object of my breathless toil was a 50-ft high yacht moored alongside a marina in Falmouth. The Celtic name of the Cornish town reads ‘Pennycomequick’ — inviting wry observations — but in the freezing rain, all I could and did pray for was the yacht to come quick into my blurred line of vision. On my husband’s birthday in summer, we had booked a weekend holiday aboard a yacht in Cornwall. The effort towards finding our sea legs was not the most blessed thing for me; I am not a water baby. With the passing years, I have even managed to forget that life-affirming skill called swimming.
The yacht’s polished interiors were a welcome sight on that dreary night. A feeling of warmth radiated through my body. The owner of the yacht, Cyprian Heckstall, took off after a detailed update on the many machinations of the boat. That included a host of don’ts. I did not envy him — handing over his precious yacht to a pack of strangers was not an easy decision.
We snuggled into the saloon (nautical for a social cabin), warming up with red wine and conversation. A kitted-up galley kitchen stood adjoining the room. A brief exploration yielded a double bedroom, appropriated by my husband and me, while our friends took over the wing on the other end of the saloon. The good thing about the yacht was space. It could sleep up to eight, but the owner recommended about five for comfort and space.
The next discovery was the tiny cubicle adjacent to our bedroom: the toilet. A shower head stood attached at the entrance, and a step away from it, a Lavac vacuum toilet, highly favoured by sailors since the ‘60s. How, do not ask. The cranking mechanism on it had to be yanked a couple of times, a pause of a few seconds thrown in. You also had to count the number of cranks to flush out the waste effectively. All of which meant that I refused to drink further.
I was hardly having a Laura Dekker moment. Reference: the 14-year-old Dutch girl who had sailed the world alone on her boat, embarking on a two-year-long journey that spanned 27,000 miles. The lulling motion put me to sleep on the cramped, but curiously comfortable, bed. In that state that hovers between consciousness and the netherworld, I was convinced that we had floated into the river, soon to be disgorged into the sea. There was no way that any of us were bathing in the if-I-put-my-arms-out-and-jump-I-shall-get-stuck kind of toilet. We trooped every morning, out of the yacht to the shower stalls at the marina’s foyer. Right above was a lovely pub where we tucked into for hearty breakfasts and lunches. My personal bit of happiness was the cup of cappuccino every morning.
The high point of the yacht experience was turning skipper for a day, a feeling magnified by my aquaphobia. At the helm of affairs was Cyprian and his sailing mate, straight out of a Daphne du Maurier novel with his ginger-coloured hair.
Rigging up the yacht and letting the sails down took us some time. The sun peeped out occasionally from behind the dark clouds — not a surprise in England. The wind raised the hair at the back of my neck and I resolutely put on the life jacket. It gave me more comfort than the thought of hitting the river bottom and becoming one with it.
We were sailing from one of the deepest natural harbours in the world that was also the base of the US Navy during WWII. A yachting race was underway in the river Penryn. Sailors braved the winds and almost keeled over into the water as they sped past pastel-coloured houses in Flushing, a smallish village along the river opposite Falmouth. Before the onset of the 16th century, those charming rows of houses would not have existed. Instead, there was just the town of Penryn, a heartbeat away from Falmouth, where rumours flew in the air — of coaches drawn by headless horses that appeared before Christmas every year. You dare not look at them or you would just vanish.
Only a manor belonging to the local and powerful Killigrew family stood on Falmouth before other houses came up on it. It has a Maurier-esque touch to its name — one of the Killigrew wives was a famous pirate. Now, I could not espy the manor, but out of the wooded landscape along the river stood the impressive Pendennis Castle. Henry VIII had built it when he realised the importance of the natural harbour of Falmouth.
All my concentration turned inward and around the wheel when I took over skipper’s position. I had never felt more apprehensive and yet more focused. Lives were on the line. “There she sails with the most serene look on her face,” noted our amused skipper. Of course, I followed his directions and steered us back into harbour.
A rush of adrenaline and fear was replaced by exhilaration and weak knees at the end of my sailing venture. I was relieved to see the shore and reflect from the safety of land on actor Morgan Freeman’s observation: “If you live a life of make-believe, your life isn’t worth anything until you do something that does challenge your reality. And to me, sailing the open ocean is a real challenge, because it’s life or death.” I had lived a little.
Arundhati Basu is a writer, translator and blogger based in the UK