I used to really enjoy mucking around on the water. My best mate, Simon, has been living a severely aquatic lifestyle for most of his life, and I used to do my very best to leech off him and enjoy that lifestyle by association.
For the last few years, though, with my very much dry-land focused job and limited spare time, I have had very little chance to get my feet wet. I miss it. And every now and then I’m reminded just how much. Last weekend, it happened again.
Nicola and I went to Pinn Mill in Suffolk, home to the very finest pub fish ‘n chips on the east coast. The Butt and Oyster is its name, and filling you up with the most delectably cooked cod, prepared in an Adnams Ale batter, is its game. I’ve been there on several occasions, but this was the first time with Nicola. An auspicious occasion, you’ll agree.
Trouble was that we seemed to be surrounded on all sides by yachties. With wind-tousled hair and healthily ruddy complexions, they bobbed and lurched around the pub as if recreating a regatta. All decked in Helly Hansen or Henry Lloyd, all wearing faun coloured cargo shorts and rugged looking sandals. They spoke in hushed, cultured tones and sat in groups; every now and again a beer-fuelled roar would go up.
Some of them were family groups, too. The kids were identical to their parents, but scaled down. The lucky little mites were being brought up into this environment, this atmosphere. I hoped, as I tucked into my enormous cod and sipped at my pint of Adnams, that I looked like I belonged. My North Face waterproof jacket was beside me, but I was firmly an outsider.
After dinner, and full to bursting, we went for a stroll along the shore of the Orwell, along the delightful wooded banks to Woolverstone. There's a big, recently expanded marina jutting out into the river here, and for the duration of the twenty minute walk, big, showroom-clean yachts were slipping past us, their cockpits and flying-bridges populated with privileged folk in day-glow life-vests.
When I was pubescent, Simon would invite me to go the London Boat show as part of the annual Sea Cadets pilgrimage. I loved it, sharing the bonhomie of 50 kids and parents all about to indulge their passions. By the time the coach reached Earls Court, enthusiasm had reached critical mass. We exploded through the turnstiles, the adults heading to the chandlers to look at different coloured bits of rope, and the rest of us heading straight to royally piss off the staff on the Sunseeeker stand.
The smell lingers still in my nostrils. Polish, fibreglass resin, leather, vinyl, PVA and wood. A heady, thick, sickly smell permeating every recess of the hall, but most palpable when you're down below in the master stateroom of a Princess 65, in 1992, when you're eleven.
I'm a bit odd, that's a given. In 1991, when my mates were swapping Panini football stickers and reading about sport, I typically read two titles on a regular basis; Autocar and Motorboat and Yachting. I was seriously into boats, I absorbed every word of the review of the Storebro Royal Baltic 420 Aft-Cabin, and cooed over the lavish photos of the lavish interiors. And when they spoke of seakeeping and handling, I was right on deck with them, salt spray dousing my face.
I had read and registered a load of information, and this somehow made me feel involved with the world afloat. So much so that I was able to ask the chap on the Fairline stand whether he'd recommend going for the Volvo Penta TAMD 61s. Bearing in mind I was eleven, he probably thought I was insane. I probably was.
I would arrive home later that evening with two big carrier bags full of glossy brochures and magazines, and would spend the evenings for the net couple of weeks poring over them and absorbing more and more details, none of which would eventually benefit me in any way whatsoever.
More's the pity.
Here I am, with my girlfriend, taking in a vista of several million quids worth of nauticalia, masts tinkling in the afternoon breeze. And all of it represents a lifestyle which is so far beyond my means, it stings.
With a view to procuring a coffee each, we turn towards the Royal Harwich Yacht Club building. A sign proclaimed “We welcome visiting yachtsmen and women”. Well, we were certainly visiting, but we still felt slightly nervous as we crossed the threshold. It was a busy day in the bar area, families wearing identical pricey leisurewear were clustered all around, everybody looked like this was their second home.
“Are you members?”
I'm 30 years old, and it's been a long time since I remember looking sheepish. I muttered in the negative under my breath, and the chap behind the counter paused for a few seconds, considering his response. We were reasonably smartly dressed, of respectable age and surely unlikely to tarnish the atmosphere too much, we'd cause no trouble, we promised. And we wanted to buy two cups of coffee, not steal them.
“I'll make you a coffee, no problem.”
Thanks ever so. This was good; we had scored the coffee we needed so badly. But it hurt slightly, being made to look so obviously alien in front of everybody else. Serves us right, of course, for visiting a members-only club. I should have told the man that I'd join there and there, and paid him the thousand quid or however much it would be.
But it did say that they welcomed visiting yachtsmen. That was clearly where we went wrong:- we didn't look authentic enough. We should have been wearing jerseys embroidered with the name of our yacht. We should have been wearing MerCruiser baseball caps.
We took our coffees outside to drink them without everybody wondering who the hell we were and why we were interloping on their private society. The coffee, as it happened, was excellent, but the circumstances made the aftertaste slightly bitter.
I know that envy is a deadly sin, and I'm not usually afflicted. Yeah, I feel slightly green-eyed when people I know find themselves getting career promotions, or coming into money, but I generally feel happy for them. Jealousy achieves nothing. But somehow, from the time my Dad first took me out in our Mirror Dinghy when I was 5, I somehow always assumed my life would have boats in it. And it hasn't.
But then again, central to the appeal of anything in life is the anticipation. One day, maybe, I'll be able to walk proudly from my little yacht, down the pontoon and into any yacht club of my choice, and hold my head up high; for I am a sailor, like all of you.
Dreaming doesn't cost anything, does it?