[Mooring n.s. a place of safety where
a vessel is secured by chain or rope.]
Some years after leaving the Merchant Navy, I recalled a boyhood ambition to own a sailing ship and explore the South Seas. As I stared wearily past my reflection on a crowded train from work, I heard surf breaking over a reef and pictured myself landing on some flowering coral shore and surrounded by beautiful maidens. All I asked was 'a tall ship and a star to steer her by'. By the time I got home, I had made up my mind to buy a boat, learn the ropes, and set sail for Paradise. Unfortunately, the great adventure did not unfold in quite the way that I had anticipated.
I searched for my dream ship with an abundance of optimism matched only by my ignorance. After exploring several boatyards and marinas, I was much taken by Osmosis, a simple but rugged craft named, I assumed, after some ancient Egyptian god; very possibly a god of the sea. This seemed to be confirmed when the owner nudged me and with a knowing wink said ‘Tempting fate, eh?’ Indeed, Osmosis may have been cursed but not by any form of wet rot which her name, apparently, implied. After a trial sail, and having accepted my first offer, he handed over a large bunch of keys. ‘This one will get you into the clubhouse at B. This one usually unlocks the showers at M. This opens the yard gates at D.’ etc. ‘And what about the keys to the boat?’ I asked as he hurried away up the pontoon. ‘Oh nobody will want to pinch that.’ was his brief reply. He was leaving the country to open an underwater diving school in the Canary Islands. Little did I know, that with the passage of time, I was to envy his occupational skills. Later, I sat in the cabin and studied the boat’s papers. She was registered under a different name, and had six previous owners: all were ‘company directors’ and none had kept her for more than two seasons. Heartened by their experiences in this modest yacht they had probably upgraded to something more in keeping with their status. Reassured by these thoughts, I spent several challenging hours starting the engine.
I liked the small marina in which Osmosis lay and wrote to the manager expressing an interest in retaining the berth. His reply was swift and blunt. The previous owner had left several unpaid bills and, as the new owner, these were now my responsibility. Under marine lien, certain debts remained with a vessel and he would have no hesitation in impounding the yacht if they were not paid immediately. I was stunned and pictured a writ being nailed to the mast and steel barges forming a menacing blockade. Fortunately, a friend had advised the insertion of the phrase ‘free of all encumbrances’ in the bill of sale so I wrote a stern letter to the previous owner reminding him of his responsibilities. Would this be sufficient? I stared doubtfully at the large bunch of unofficial keys which I had inherited and planned our escape. Then more unfinished business at other yards came to light and it was clear that something more drastic was required. Armed with a bowsprit and fittings, an unusual boom support, some quick-drying deck paint and a pair of temporary name boards, I sneaked into the yard under cover of darkness. At dawn, the pea green cutter Little Owl slipped quietly from the marina and out to sea in search of new and distant cruising grounds. On reflection, it had been a useful experience. For the first (and possibly the last) time in my life, I had purchased a cranse iron (galvanised) and attached a bobstay. I had also discovered the meaning of lien.
We wintered in a canal that was choked with waterlogged sailing craft and abandoned dreams. As space was limited, Osmosis was forced to moor alongside a large yacht, the owner of which lived in America. After a few weeks, I noticed that water was gradually seeping into the cockpit of his yacht and lapping around the duckboards leading to the cabin. Thereafter, on my weekly visit to the canal, I manned the pumps vigorously and kept her reasonably dry and afloat. It seemed the right thing to do - ‘hands across the sea’ and all that. One pleasant afternoon, as I sat on Osmosis enjoying the pale winter sun, a man appeared on the towpath. In a hectoring voice, he reprimanded me for my matching pair of Michelin fenders, my overtight mooring lines and for my muddy footprints. It was the yacht’s owner recently returned from the colonies. Maintaining a dignified silence, I slipped my lines and managed to find another mooring further up the canal. Call it mean-spirited if you will, but when we passed a little later on the towpath, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about his leak. Anyway, it had been a useful experience and I had some helpful tips on the etiquette of rafting up.
Spring beckoned. I joined a sailing club and received an invitation to a pre-season meeting. Impressed by pompous titles such as ‘commodore’ and the like, I wore a smart blazer with a Merchant Navy tie and, during the fifty miles drive to the coast, rehearsed a short acceptance speech. The members assembled in the rain on a drab sea wall overlooking a featureless estuary. The vice-commodore (senior) explained to the newcomers that the club had no premises (burnt down), no social activities (secretary resigned), and no newsletter (nothing to report), but it had a shed, a slipway and spare moorings, all of which needed urgent maintenance. Suitably attired for work, the others set about their tasks with enthusiasm. Prancing about like a Boat Show rep in the mud, I must have looked a complete idiot. Anyway, Osmosis was allocated a buoy close to a beach which was overlooked by a large holiday caravan site. Viewed from the fish and chip kiosk, she looked isolated and vulnerable.
A month later, I arrived at the slipway in time to see a gang of kids boarding and ransacking my beloved craft. They had already taken the binoculars, fire extinguisher, clock, torch, compass, lamps, radio and charts, and were returning for anything else on which they could lay their hands. The vice-commodore (junior) and I rowed out stealthily to apprehend them, but inexplicably, as we rounded the stern, he shouted out in anger. They immediately dived overboard and made for the shore leaving behind a large dinghy which he deflated. Several club members trawled through the caravan site and recovered most of my belongings whilst angry parents unleashed their wrath on the culprits. I was grateful for the help the club had given but decided to quit the mooring on the ebbtide. Sailing past a spit of land, I noticed the gang of mudlarks gesticulating and shouting. Assuming they were hurling abuse, I ignored them and sailed on imperiously. Several hours later, I discovered a large dinghy in the forecabin. All in all it was a useful experience and helped to clarify the role of a yacht club's vice-commodore.
Summer was slipping by with still no sign of a permanent parking place. In makeshift havens, Osmosis yearned to be free and persistently dragged her anchor. One memorable night, a borrowed mooring buoy parted company with its cable and the ebb tide carried the three of us gently down the estuary and out to sea. Then a call came from a boatyard which had a spare mooring alongside a jetty. ‘Can you bring her in next Friday? It would be ... er ... more convenient.’ I arrived on time to discover that alongside meant bow lines to the jetty, stern lines to mooring buoys, and breast lines to nearby craft. But worse was to follow. My arrival had been conveniently timed to coincide with an exceptionally high tide. At most other tides, Osmosis squatted in the mud like a trussed-up duck and refused to budge. Even when she was afloat, it took a well-organised operation with the dinghy to release her without fouling a spider's web of lines from other boats. More often than not, I gave up in depair and sat aboard strumming my ukelele and dreaming of Tahiti. Although I hadn’t started baying at full moon, things were moving in that direction so I left, but with some reluctance for it was a friendly place and the staff were ever helpful and considerate. They even sent me a farewell card with their best wishes. However, it had been a useful experience; my knowledge of tides had increased considerably and I now had a clearer perception of spring tides and what it meant to be neaped.
It was autumn once more. Osmosis sat snugly in a mudberth at the edge of some saltings. As the tide rose, an armada of small boats emerged from the mud and bobbed around on the top of the marshes. When the tide fell, the boats gradually disappeared from sight leaving a forest of masts to mark their resting place. On a misty morning, it was a mysterious and fascinating sight; the perfect mooring in harmony with nature. All was serene until that fateful day when, unbeknown to me, the yard made some changes to my mooring stage and snagged my lines. Trapped by her stern on a flood tide, Osmosis suffered what the surveyor's report called ‘a severe ingress of sea water’, ie. she sank. At high tide, only the wooden mast guarded by a lone seagull, was visible. It seemed the last straw, particularly when the yard refused to accept any responsibility and its insurers accused me of negligence. Fortunately, my insurers were not fobbed off so easily. They pursued the case with vigour to the door of the court and the other side conceded defeat. All the costs were recovered including some extra compensation for ‘loss of pleasure’ - a doubtful bonus but one that was gratefully accepted. By and large it had been a useful experience for it had helped me to discover, not only the value of adequate marine insurance, but two extra seacocks. Also, in a brief moment of frustration, I had found another use for that intriguing word ingress.
Raised and restored, Osmosis returned to the mooring. It had been a long season and we were both tired of running. With winter approaching, it was a time to reflect on all those valuable experiences and to face the new season with renewed optimism. Hopefully, there would be more useful lessons and less useless moorings. The South Seas might have to wait, but at least I could now bluff my way in sailing with a whole new vocabulary.