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Incompetent Crew by Jo Reed

© Jo Reed

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An autobiographical short tale - just for fun!

I’ve always loved the sea. On childhood holidays at the seaside I was drawn to the harbours, to the sights and sounds of boats of all kinds; I loved the pleasure cruises across the bays that my father took me on. I’d never really experienced sailing boats though, and when I married it was quite clear that my husband did not share my enthusiasm. I succeeded, one year, in persuading him to come with me to take a week long course in the Solent in the middle of February, from which we both returned, cold, wet and exhausted, to a broken central heating boiler. He made me promise never to suggest such a ludicrous adventure again. Nevertheless, as I sat huddled in three sweaters and an overcoat, waiting for the engineer to return the miracle of hot water, I stared with a sense of exhilaration at the piece of card stuck in the back of the booklet I had been given by the skipper. It said ‘Competent Crew’. I put the booklet on a shelf and forgot about it.

Many years later, my two sons grown and gone, one to Brisbane, Australia, the other to a nearby town to make his fortune as a songwriter, my husband and I split up. I was fifty, single and broke. It would be nice to travel, I thought, see the world. It was something I had always wanted to do. Amazingly, though, I’d never travelled abroad on my own. I’d always lacked the confidence, especially with strangers. Also, I reminded myself, I didn’t have the cash. I was idly sorting out shelves filled with decades of junk, when something slipped out and onto the floor, so dust laden that I had to brush it off to make out what it was. I found myself staring at my old sailing log book, my enthusiasm rekindling as I leafed through the pages to the certificate on which the words were still just about visible: ‘Competent Crew.’

Half an hour, a quick internet search and a few phone calls later, the die was cast. In the three and a half years since that day, my life has been filled with the most extraordinary experiences, in the company of the most extraordinary people. I have known despair, terror, triumph and pure joy of the unique kind that can only occur among those thrown haphazardly together with a single purpose in mind – not to look ridiculous in front of an entire marina of expert onlookers. I’m still a long way from becoming an expert sailor, but I’m learning fast. The most important maritime regulation that I’ve managed to grasp so far is one that I don’t think has yet been entered into the syllabus. When it is, it will read: ‘When involved with yachting of any sort, never take oneself too seriously.’

Of course, on my first nervous and ill fated attempts to enter the world of sailing, no one thought to mention that particular rule, and as a result, I almost fell at the first hurdle. As I pored over the listings of various sailing activities on the internet, I soon found that most were way out of my pocket. The pages were full of terms that I wasn’t very familiar with, like ‘charter’ (which seemed expensive) and ‘skippered charter’ (which meant even less to me and was even more expensive). Finally, I came across a section entitled ‘sail training’, which seemed more hopeful, under which was listed ‘competent crew’ and ‘day skipper’. Both were more within my budget, and my logic told me that having already done a competent crew course, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to do it again. Therefore, I thought, my best bet would be to sign up for the week long Day Skipper course. The dusty certificate in my log book was by this time more than ten years old, and I had completely forgotten everything that happened in the only week of my life that I had ever spent on a yacht. Never mind, I thought. I would simply explain when I got there that I actually only wanted to sail around for a bit to get the hang of it, and all would be well. Then, my eye was drawn to some smaller print underneath. It said: ‘These prices are based on candidates sharing a cabin.’ At once I started to panic. Weren’t most sailors men? What if… My mind started to boggle. Then it occurred to me that if I were the only woman on board I might be asked to pay extra to avoid unwanted company. The course was going to take every last penny – I couldn’t afford extras. However, at the bottom of the page was written: ‘Women only courses will run if there is sufficient demand. Please ring for details.’ I heaved a sigh of relief, and rang for details.

Four weeks later, in the first week of April, I arrived at the clubhouse in Portsmouth, instructions in one hand, a soft holdall and sleeping bag in the other. My cleaned and dusted ancient log book was in the pocket of an old hiking jacket that I had bought years ago as a raincoat and never really worn. Consequently I was very aware that it looked almost brand new, and that everyone in the bar where I was waiting was probably sizing me up as a pretentious newbie. Already nearly nervous enough to make a run for it, I clutched my orange juice and stared fixedly at the door, hoping that the instructor wouldn’t be too long.

In the event it was about half an hour before I saw a large woman in full sailing regalia, complete with yellow Wellington boots, stride confidently into the bar, her imperious gaze sweeping round the room until it finally rested on me. I gave a weak smile and huddled into my raincoat, feeling like a mouse that had just been noticed by a pretty ferocious cat. There was definitely the hint of a regimental sergeant major about her as she marched up to me and stuck out a hand.

“So you’re one of my Day Skippers?” It was more a statement of fact than a question. “Got your log book handy?” she asked, thrusting out the hand again.

I nodded, pulled it out of my pocket and reluctantly handed it over. She sniffed, and as she started to rifle through it I decided that the time had come to explain my intentions. I didn’t get the chance though, as another woman came up to us.

“Ah, and I take it you’re the other one,” the skipper declared. Like me, the newcomer, who introduced herself as Kate, looked to be round about fifty. Unlike me, she was tall, fit and confident. Nevertheless I felt slightly encouraged. It didn’t last long though, as the skipper’s eyes had fallen on the pristine, polished log book that Kate had presented. There followed a short silence while the documents were examined.

“Ah – you did your ‘Comp Crew’ last year,” the skipper commented to Kate, nodding wisely. “And have you done much sailing since?”

“Oh yes,” Kate replied. “My gentleman friend has a yacht, on the Hamble. We go out most weekends. I’m hoping we can take a look at it while we’re here. It’s an ‘Oyster 56’, you know.”

Kate sniffed proudly, and the skipper at once looked eager. I had no idea what an ‘Oyster’ was, apart from an unpleasant tasting type of shellfish, and was beginning to feel well and truly out of my depth. Then came the moment I dreaded, as my book was minutely examined, and the beady eye, now containing a look of contempt, was fixed on me.

“This certificate is ten years old,” came the accusation. “Your sailing log doesn’t seem to have much in it – did you forget to fill it in?”

“No,” I admitted, feeling myself blush. “I’m afraid I haven’t done any sailing since.”

“And you’re here to take ‘Day Skipper’?” The voice was almost a sneer by now.

“Well, actually…” I began, taking my chance, but once again I was interrupted, as two more women appeared in the doorway. Immediately, I was forgotten.

“And here are my ‘Comp Crew’ people,” the skipper beamed, giving me a last contemptuous glance before greeting the newcomers. One, Sandy, was, I learned later, fifty-eight. She was recently divorced, and had a new boyfriend who loved sailing. She was doing the course so that they could go on yacht charters together, an aim that the skipper found impressive. The fourth member of our crew, Jenny, was an expert dinghy sailor who wanted to make the move to large yachts.

“Right,” the skipper said briskly, once the introductions were complete. “I suggest we take our bags out to the boat, and then eat here at the yacht club tonight. We can all get to know each other, and be up bright and early in the morning for a safety briefing.”

My heart sank again. I had seen the prices in the club restaurant. The course details had warned me that ‘some meals ashore’ were not included. I had been thinking more along the lines of the odd portions of fish and chips. I wasn’t in the mood to object though, and after rapidly chucking our bags into the saloon of what appeared in the growing gloom to be a frighteningly large yacht, we all decamped to the restaurant and made our choices from the cordon bleu menu.

As it happened, my fellow crew women weren’t half as bad as I had anticipated. Jenny worked in local government, and although she was an experienced dinghy sailor, she had never been on a large boat before and was clearly as nervous as I was. The only differences between us were that a) she at least knew how to steer a boat, even if it was a small one, and b) the skipper, who still perched, unthawed, at the head of the table, wasn’t under the impression that Jenny had signed up to do ‘Day Skipper’. Kate was something important in a local hospital. After a long marriage she had found herself alone, and her new boyfriend, the owner of the ‘Oyster’ and a consultant in the same hospital, was keen on having a partner who could handle a boat. Sandy’s potted history was constantly interrupted by text messages from her boyfriend, but between pauses we were able to glean the fact that she had been married and divorced twice to and from the same man, was trying to maintain a lifestyle to which she had become accustomed, and had the idea that finding a well heeled yachtie might do the trick. Thankfully the evening petered out long before anyone thought to ask me for my life story, and as soon as coffee and chocolate mints had been dispensed and consumed, we made our way to the vessel that was going to be our home for the next six days. I was allocated the saloon, we were given a demonstration in how to use a sea toilet, and less than half an hour later we were tucked in our sleeping bags, fast asleep.

Any hopes I might have had that things would look better in daylight were soon dispelled. The skipper’s lecture began with an overview of the galley in general, and the fridge in particular.

“And this is my food,” she announced, once we had been shown how to turn the gas on and off and light the cooker. We each peered into the fridge, following the direction of the pointing finger. Stacked carefully into one side was a selection of salads, fruit and cold meat. “This is yours, here,” she continued, and we obediently took in the pile of pasties, eggs, streaky bacon and extra thick sliced bread. The same arrangement applied to the cupboards, and my crewmates and I glanced at each other nervously. There followed a safety briefing, and we were all fitted with life jackets and harnesses. The moment I was dreading was fast approaching. Very soon, we were going to be asked to do something nautical, and while I was sure my companions would have no qualms, I still hadn’t managed to explain my position to our formidable skipper, and was beginning to feel terrified.

My fears, as it turned out, were entirely justified. My idea of taking the boat off a pontoon involved taking half the pontoon with me. In answer to a request to tie a bowline, I dutifully turned the cockpit into something closely resembling a half eaten plate of spaghetti. When asked to ‘bear away’ I turned the boat into the wind. ‘Luffing up’ almost resulted in an accidental gybe. By the time I had worked out the direction of the wind my turn on the helm was over. Even when I wasn’t looking, I could feel the skipper’s despairing shake of the head. My crew mates seemed to think the whole thing amusing. I, on the other hand, spent most of my time trying to think up ways to jump ship without being seen.

By the end of the second day I still hadn’t had an opportunity to catch the skipper alone to try to explain my situation. Things were made worse by the fact that she never seemed to eat with us. She never joined us as we sat round the table each morning for a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs. Most lunches were taken on the move, and while we ate sandwiches and soup she would disappear down to the chart table. Evening meals were all taken ashore at local pubs – thankfully far more down to earth establishments than the yacht club – and then she would join us briefly, usually for a light salad, before excusing herself on the grounds that she had to check the tides/weather/charts etc. for the next day.

If the skipper’s behaviour seemed a little unusual, Sandy’s was downright odd. Each evening, as soon as the mooring lines had been secured, her first act was to leap off the boat and rush to inspect the shower block of whatever Marina we were in. She would then return, moments later, a look of supreme disappointment on her face. Jenny, Kate and I were at a loss. We had so far moored up at fairly well equipped marinas, and saw no reason for her obvious dissatisfaction. Sandy was clearly not about to offer an explanation, however, and none of us felt able to pluck up enough courage to ask. On the fourth day, however, the mystery was solved.

We arrived in Cowes just after lunch. Kate and Jenny moored up and cast off from an empty pontoon several times, and I succeeded in narrowly missing an expensive motor cruiser whilst nicking the bow on a concrete pylon. We finally settled ourselves in a berth not far from the pub, and my three crewmates went exploring while I stayed on board, hoping for an hour of peace and quiet to brush up on some knots. I was in the cockpit trying to work out why my clove hitch had transformed itself into a granny knot when a shadow looming over me announced the arrival back on board of the skipper. It was too late to hide the tangled length of rope in my lap, so I reluctantly met her disapproving gaze.

“About time we had a little chat, don’t you think?” she remarked, brows beetling with ferocity. “How would you say you’re getting on?”

I didn’t think that was really meant to be a question, but I’d had enough, so I answered it anyway. In a fit of pure frustration I blurted it all out – the whole story, together with an accusation that I would have spoken out a lot sooner if she hadn’t been so stand offish in the first place. After all, I protested, a skipper who can’t even eat with the crew doesn’t exactly give off an aura of approachability. I came to the end of my tirade and folded my arms, out of breath and feeling deflated.

The skipper stared at me in surprise, and then a sheepish look came into her eye. She sat down next to me and took up one of my jumbled attempts at a recognisable knot. We both fiddled with ropes for a while, then she said glumly, “I’m on a diet. The trouble is, sailing makes me hungry, and every week I get groups of people on board expecting bacon and egg every morning, pasties for lunch, chips for dinner. I can’t resist. You don’t know what it’s like, sitting there with a yoghurt and a pile of lettuce watching other people eat. It’s awful.”

I nodded my agreement. “Yes,” I said. “I suppose it’s as bad as turning up on a Day Skipper course and people expecting you to be able to sail.”

We looked at each other, and both started to laugh at the same time.

“Right then,” she said. “Watch me. This is how you do a round turn and two half hitches. Tomorrow we’ll make a start on wind direction. As for tonight – I don’t suppose one plate of steak and chips will do me that much harm.”

I had just managed my first bowline when Sandy returned from the shower block beaming with contentment.

“At last!” she announced, plonking herself happily on the transom. “Somewhere I can plug my heated curlers in!”

The skipper and I exchanged looks. We were still giggling when the others arrived to see if we were ready for dinner.

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