Rites of Passage by Julia Jones

PD annual return to the river.
(these photos from 2016)

I was standing on the river wall in Woodbridge, watching at a little distance while Geoff, Steve and Tim from the boatyard concentrated on their annual task of lifting Peter Duck back into the river. There’d been a bitter northerly the day before, driving rain and gusts predicted to reach 40mph. We’d all been relieved to Abort Mission. They said they were worried about my boat: I said I was bothered about their backs. Probably the truth was that none of us fancied getting soaked and frozen that Monday morning. Suddenly a day spent catching up on office chores had seemed an attractive option.
Today the weather was bright but chilly, the breeze stiff-ish, threatening to buffet PD's precious hull sideways as Geoff and Tim hung onto the warps and turned her precisely while Steve drove the crane. In calm conditions only one person is required, guiding both of the warps – on those days I almost feel  I’d have a go myself. Today Geoff and Tim needed all of their strength to hold her steady through the 180° rotation. The chain, running down through the sheaves, from the jib to the hook that holds the broad webbing straps around her passed neatly between the main and mizzen masts. Just as it always does. A controlled set down.  PD was back in the water, in her element.

I love watching that manoeuvre. Never fails, year after year, as the annual routine of fitting out reaches its full stop (or at least a colon: there’s always one more job that I’m promising myself to do when we’re settled on the mooring). Then I’m back on board, my moment to take charge, everything feeling unfamiliar. Can I even remember how the engine starts? The lines are cast off. Geoff shouts. I’m powering away from the jetty so as not to be blown sideways into the shallows. Soon confidence returns as we reach the main channel and I remember I can do this thing after all: I’m in command of my own boat. No need to look back or to wave: Geoff, Steve and Tim have already dispersed to their other tasks. For them it’s a job: for me a ritual.
2016 was the last time my mother,
then aged 92, oversaw the ritual

This year I was chatting as I kept out of the way of the crane: first to a child, watching with his mother, then to a man probably somewhere around my own generation who, I discovered, was a Yachting Monthly reader. We talked of the mag in the Old Days when Maurice Griffiths, ur-editor, was in charge and we were young shavers. The editor today is from our children's generation. We pooled our nostalgia, relished PD’s shapliness as she swung and turned. My companion mentioned that his yacht was a classic GRP, a Morgan Giles, “but I think if I were buying again, I’d probably go back to wood”.  I asked about his cruising plans for the season. “I’d like to revisit the Spanish Rias – but it’s hard to get the crew.”

My brain was faltering as I failed to remember where, exactly, the Spanish Rias were (answer= Galicia, south of Cape Finisterre on the border with Portugal).  “I’d have thought there’d be plenty of people wanting to crew for you going that way,” I offered.  “My daughter likes to come," he answered, "But she’s got her own life now.” He wasn’t grumbling but accepting the situation: you spend happy years growing your crew then, just as they’re really useful, they’re away, lives of their own….

I had Bertie with me that day, which was a joy, but there was better to come.  Frank, one of my older children, and his wife Alice, had amazed us all at the end of the previous season by buying a yacht, Blossom, an Artenko 35.  For a moment I was sad that they'd no longer be available for delivery trips on Peter Duck but, like my friend on the river wall, I accepted the inevitable and was glad for them. Lives of their own...

Blossom is elderly (for a GRP yacht -- probably about the same age as the current editor of the Yachting Monthly?) and had spent the winter in a shed having technical things done to her. Now she too was back in the River Deben and ready for adventure. Frank wanted to take her to distant Essex for the weekend. His children were at school, Alice was at work, he needed a crew...  Ok, it wasn’t the Spanish Rias exactly but to be requested as a crew by one’s own child - oh yes!

He turns his head, but in his ear,
The steady trade winds run,
And in his eye the endless waves
Ride on into the sun.

(from a poem by Laurence Binyon, used by Arthur Ransome as the heading for the first chapter of Peter Duck)

Carl Herman Sehmel,
the original Peter Duck
I abandoned all responsibilities, left my current project on the desk, arranged substitute carers for Mum and presented myself the following Friday, willing and ready. "Peter Duck came to the edge of the quay and rolled his kitbag off his shoulder. It fell with a thud on the deck and was followed by a bundle of oilskins. He came slowly down the ladder in his big sea boots that he was wearing to save having to carry them. 'Come aboard,sir,' he said."

Blossom’s First Voyage passed sweetly and without incident. Bertie had signed on as well. He and Frank could easily have managed without me -- Frank could have managed alone -- but I was the Ancient Mariner figure, a version of the old Baltic seaman who accompanied Arthur Ransome and Evgenia Schelepina in Racundra in 1922, the original for Ransome’s fictional ‘Peter Duck’ character. I was there for my local lore, my inarticulate fund of experience, my long white beard. 

Blossom's own crew
bring her home
We left quite early in the morning, crossed the Deben bar without incident and set a course out to sea; we rounded the Cork Sand and pointed so'west by west for distant Essex. When we arrived, late that evening, we were met by the dancing figures of Alice and the children. They would take over now.

Blossom spent the sunny Bank Holiday weekend on the River Blackwater, then her own crew sailed her home. On Monday afternoon I received a text from my oldest granddaughter (age 10), “We have crossed the Bar”. It felt like a passing of the generations.


Jan Needle said…
Stop it, Julia - you'll mek me cry
Susan Price said…
Oh, Julia, like a trip to the seaside in a stiffish breeze. Your posts are always a treat.
Lydia Bennet said…
How lovely to read this continuing salty saga is still going strong. Pleased to know the younger lot are carrying on and making use of your experience, and beard.
Bill Kirton said…
This is beautiful, Julia. It brought back so many memories. Made me want my boat back, and triggered the same reactions as those of that old softie, Jan. Keep us posted with your progress through the season please - a bit of vicarious messing around in a boat is always a pleasure.
Umberto Tosi said…
Love you descriptions, contextualizing and feelings with which you recount this happening. I could feel those stiff breezes. I saw boats being put back into their marina berths along Lake Michigan here in Chicago not long ago, a marker of spring and summer having arrived.
Dennis Hamley said…
Absolutely marvellous, redolent, resonant post, Julia. Among the many things I've gained from knowing you (and Jan) are a wish that my knowledge and experience of sailing was not merely in my head and, closely allied, a reawakening of my old childhood love of Arthur Ransome and all his works.

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