Nothing changes. At this time of year a middle-aged man's thoughts turn to... Well, read on. Written some years ago, but it's a propos of the mood I am in at the moment, notwithstanding the dark days are getting longer (so they say).
“Call me Morgan.” OK, OK, it has not the ring of “Call me Ishmael”, the opening line spoken by Herman Melville’s hero in Moby Dick but, at this time of the year when the days are short, the old urge to make some long sea passage, to clean the soul and refresh spirits dulled by long months spent ashore, is certainly common to us both. And to most of us who have a romantic notion of the seafaring life.
Melville’s Ishmael ships aboard a whaler, the Pequod under captain Ahab to seek the white whale - hardly a romantic notion. A year at sea to purge the senses of landlocked ennui, and a hard year, with no certainty of return. Being of somewhat weaker mettle I’d settle for a three week passage to Antigua. No shorter, for it is only after a week or more at sea that one begins to feel its rhythm. Until then the habits and preoccupations of land intrude. Trivial things annoy. Not that trivial things don’t annoy at sea, but they are different ones. Who the hell cares if your shirt’s not ironed? A shipmate whistling “A life on the ocean wave” all day long, now that’s another matter.
On a long passage priorities change. We revert to a more primitive state. Not to say barbarous. It’s a perfect example of the so-called pyramid of human comfort, the apex of which is life itself, breathing. Further down we find then water, food, warmth and sleep until, near the base of the pyramid - now grown bloated with spurious luxury - we might find (depending on one’s proclivities) such essentials as not missing the latest episode of Friends. A hot bath comes much further up the pyramid, though not, I confess, for me.
Whereas, on a boat, and I mean the smaller, probably wooden, ancient sort most of us go in for, the pyramid’s base is small. The apex will be identical, but the base might simply comprise of a good book (with all the pages), a pair of dry socks and not being called by the watch for a sail change at midnight. It is an altogether simpler life in which the first priority is the boat. After all, breathing and sleeping will be shortlived if you neglect to stem that leak.
And it is surely this reduction to basics that so appeals to us. On a short passage we are never far from shoreside luxuries. The longer we are at sea the more absurd these become, though we may dream of a hot bath and a bottle of Bollinger while someone rubs our back. That’s part of the enjoyment; the dreaming. And we all dream of different things. Ironically, on land, I dream of being at sea.
Clearly, on that glorious morning as we approached the island of Barbados Neil, our shipmate on that long ago transatlantic passage, has been dreaming of a close shave and a clean body. No one noticed he’d disappeared below. When he reappeared in the cockpit the sight of his freshly scrubbed, wind-reddened face caused great amusement. Then, when he stood on the counter and we caught the first whiff of cologne, brought down on the trade wind breeze our amusement turned to disgust. To this day I cannot recall anything worse than the smell of that aftershave. After three weeks at sea it was enough to send the three of us retching over the side. Just goes to show that in the pyramid of necessity one man’s luxury is another’s total anathema.