To Realise What You Live For
Patrick Evans on his slow journey from Plymouth to Bude in a sixteen-foot dinghy.
On a bell curve of westerly wind and a crackle of two horsepower outboard, we drift half-asleep under peaks of china clay past a black headland where tide wrenches angrily like a sodden towel squeezed of water. “It smells of fish round here,” says Toby.
We’re sailing around Cornwall in a sixteen-foot dinghy, and this is our first night. Clouds hug the moonlight like mothers swaddling a reluctant infant. The harbour squats in an elbow nook of cliff, fishing boats screeched up a concrete slip; ours is the only vessel with a mast, the only one with unseemly rope ends tousling over the side.
We’ve bought petrol for rain-forecast tomorrow from a fisherman-builder. He makes £200 a weekend netting in summer, bare-topped Dartmoor sleeps East under the horizon, and our abdominals ache excitedly from leaning out. “We’ll come home looking like Peter André,” Toby grins.
Flagstones in the lee of a church are our mattress. Downpour water-tortures our faces till we can’t stand any more and get up while a milkman clangs by. Opposite an island colony of damp frustrated seabirds, shale slopped into cliff ferns metronomes rain’s rhythm as we pass. Lonely we sail, the only thing afloat bar a colossus, a redundant car carrier moored up blue-ghostly in thick mist.
Slamming into chop, knifing smoothly inland, we grit, inching for hours through grey murk until we meet a busy harbour. Almost safe – until I take a pre-mooring pee over the side, overbalancing her. Slow motion arcs us into the icy cold duvet. Lifejackets explode – a soft expensive automatic whoosh.
Our green hull floats, beetle-back bobbing uselessly at the sky while we work to right her. Exposure wrangles adrenalin in an effortless death grip. We phone a friend for hot showers, and gorge on pizza.
Slack water sucks oilily around submerged sharks’ teeth of black granite reef, so Toby spreadeagles the bow, pointing left or right. A bleak headland used to shelter competing pilot boats, hungry usherettes of sea-traffic in days before fish finders and GPS. Today, slipped amphitheatres of grassy cliff watch us pass alone; technology stifles sea’s appetite for navigators.
Toby rummages a cove for his torch while I snooze on a crate of warp and net. A boatyard has lent us fuel cans, flares and a stirrup pump. I’ve been trying to learn weather’s ways by squinting at cirrus, but Met Office forecasts define our tomorrows.
Seagulls sit drinking in a freshwater stream running from valley into brine. Last night a pub fly-tipped nutcrackered crab shells and bread rolls on the beach. This morning it’s been polished off. Sandhoppers seethe, devouring rot.
Fog and wind beset the sea, so we stay onshore and walk. At a lifeboat station, twin bronze propellors poise like hawk talons above a launchramp ready to snatch potential drownings from death. But who rescues the rescuers?
We swim, chill livers of seaweed wrapping our ankles, then watch the tide race south of England’s most Southerly Point, three miles of tumult through which tomorrow we must hustle.
Back at base, a tractor nosing fishing boats off the beach rasps the cove walls. Nutty Noah, legendary pilchard entrepreneur, is bankrupt and lives with mother now. Wife still cooks his tea pending a divorce. He gives us a lift downhill at two miles an hour so he can socialise and save diesel. Auntie rides shotgun smoking a ten centimetre cigarette.
Late night rum and early morning sheep outside our tent foster good spirits. Tidal turmoil subsides, then a bay hollows out in front of us like a vast cleaved yawn. Expedience dictates we must steer straight across, unable to tramline its treasures. Meaty sandbar and looming castellation are shoulder and nipple to the shore, distant beneath the sallow hang of our boom.
Extinct fishing villages slip under our quarter as we flip cobalt mackerel off hooks into our bailing bucket. Land’s End squabbles with a lighthouse for the title of most dramatic landmark. The first is a set of Titan dentures, the second a Captain’s minaret templing miraged rocks a mile offshore; to sail between them is to pass warning markers to a realm of giants. Swell rears monstrously, boulders as big as bungalows bastion the land, and sky stretches three thousand miles West to America. Petrol nudges us the first league or so through this gigantic new world; we peel into the safety of a cove, dumb with awe.
Toby and I have stopped talking. Shared captaincy is seductive, but neither of us wants to be mastered and no amount of beer or phonecalls to girlfriends will untangle mutiny. Fortunately the sea is our arbiter, and after lunch tide urges us together past Cape Cornwall.
Iron cloud brims moodily, curtaining the Southern horizon, so we reef the mainsail while storm’s puff tickles our necks by what guidebooks call Charles de Gaulle in his bathtub, seasuds shining his skin. We surge in gathering blackness past a flop-finned basking shark, waves like electric pulses through thin fibreglass under our toes. A human sardine can of a resort offers little to the ad hoc bivouacker, but we have no choice and bed down, snoring under the sail until sand bangs us awake with incoming tide at six a.m..
Our second day ashore – a gale forecast, so we split up for the afternoon to unburden our differences. Rejuvenated, we park Callisto nose toward the setting sun off golden sands while a metre-long sunfish leaps beneath a train track, and swim ashore to supper of spear-caught bass brought by a friend.
Rampant with stags and hens, our berth is a harbour as homely as anywhere we’ve stopped. People have moved here from all over Britain, joyous at living by the sea, happy to make us their new friends. A boy from Trelawny, Jamaica becomes the world’s fastest sprinter on TV inside the gig rowing club. Meanwhile beside Callisto seals bob loglike, noses sucking in air as they sleep.
A small port hosts us familiarly, its slate-clad shanty of old Cornish architecture leans over the sounds of our green beans and fish spitting on a gas stove amid other clustered beachgoers. But melancholy gnaws - only two days remain of our trip. The freedom of being at sea, the friendliness and surprise of people in port unused to dinghy travellers, the rituals of bedding down on grass or heather and rising with the sun – all convey a feeling of great luck. King Arthur’s island glistens invitingly, a final gem on our northbound route.
Lock gates. The end of a journey is when you realise what you live for – the adventures in between routine. Wilderness crowns Cornwall’s final stretch, wild horses and deer and giddy open-face geology looking seaward. In the few coves, spangled umbrellas share land’s view of us as freshening surges spur us towards home. We’re leaving a world where you feel in contact with something really important inside which I’m not sure is definable. Pure sensual pleasure dominates, danger dances nearby, light changing as weather approaches over swell and Coastwatch huts twinkle silently on cliffs high above, but land will lose its vicious aspect once we’re ashore. A honey bee travels with us most of the way today, gripping a coil of rope in the stern.
Patrick Evans and Toby Floyer sailed from Plymouth to Bude in Callisto in August 2009.