Dick Durham: Why is it that most of our sailing heroes, from Chay Blyth to Ellen Mac Arthur, seem to come from landlocked places?
The Cotswolds market town of Chipping Norton is seventy odd miles from the nearest salt water and yet it has a yacht club, as I discovered recently when they asked me to give them a talk. It’s a bit like discovering a mountaineering club deep in the Fens, a sub-aqua centre amid the deserts of Chad… Or, to be fair, like finding a bobsleigh team in Jamaica.
It all began some years ago when a yachtsman, enjoying a charter in the Ionian, offered a glass of retsina to a neighbouring yacht’s crew and discovered they were neighbours in Chipping Norton, too. When a third yacht’s crew, in the same flotilla, also owned up to residing in the Oxfordshire town, it seemed to be written in the runes that a yacht club must be formed.
On the night I started waving my Powerpoint wand there were forty sailors sitting in the audience. They included one chap who had competed in six Sydney-Hobart races, another who’d taken his Drascombe Pilot Cutter through the mysterious waters of the Dutch and German Frisian Islands, a la Erskine Childers and,believe it or not, the ocean sailing legend Sir Chay Blyth!
It was disconcerting, to put it mildly, to find myself addressing such intrepid seafarers with my tales of coastal pottering and I began to ponder the virtues or otherwise of having grown up on the coast.
I was born, you see, within earshot of ships’ foghorns on the banks of the Thames Estuary, yet I have rarely ventured beyond my own home waters. And here was Chay Blyth, who sailed solo and non-stop the ‘wrong way’ around the world, to name only the most famous of his great adventures – and he was born in landlocked Hawick on the Scottish borders.
When you come to think of it, there are many people who have made incredible voyages without the benefit of coastal nurture. I am thinking of Clare Francis, the first woman to skipper a Whitbread Round The World Race – she’s from Surrey – and probably most famously of all, Dame Ellen MacArthur, born in a village near Matlock in Derbyshire, which is almost as far as it’s possible to get from the sea in Britain, who raced solo and non-stop around the world in the Vendée Globe.
It’s enough to take the swash out of anyone’s buckle, and I wondered if it was the childhood stories from my father, who helped dam the breaches of the sea wall at Canvey Island after the 1953 flood; my own experience of witnessing ice-floes drifting down the estuary, complete with boats torn from their moorings in the great freeze of 1963; or just the sheer cold of a winter north-easter which almost produced frostbite on my oarsman’s hands, that had given me a prohibitive respect for the sea.
Maybe, if you don’t witness the power of the sea at first hand when you are at an impressionable age, you don’t fear it until you are mature enough to gauge it.
It’s a peculiarity of the British that we don’t revere our sailors in the same way the French do. When Pete Goss rescued Raphael Dinelli in the Southern Ocean he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur by President Jacques Chirac, yet Goss is virtually unknown in the UK. Few nonsailors know or care who Ben Ainslie is (born in Macclesfield, by the way). This is partly because the media sees sailing as something that toffs do when they are not throwing food at each other in the Bullingdon Club.
The French, by contrast, take their sailors to heart. I still recall motoring one summer, many years ago, to south Brittany on a family holiday and passing beneath a banner stretched across the high street of a sleepy hamlet, which advertised a sailing rally at the port of our destination. ‘It can’t be far now,’ I said to the ratty kids in the back of the car, but I was wrong. We drove for a further 30 miles before we got to the coast.
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