This is something a bit different from my writing blogs (which I’m ashamed to say I’ve been pretty bad at keeping up with). I hope to keep an online journal here so people who are interested can follow our journey as we sail our little boat from Northern Ireland to the warm, clear waters of the eastern Mediterranean.
If you’ve found this page, it’s likely you already know a little about me, but I rarely talk about my family on my webpage. This blog will introduce you to my husband, Fraser, and maybe even some of our three adult children. It’s a lot more personal than a writer’s blog because I’ll probably be talking about our hopes, dreams, fears and even a few near-death experiences. I’m hoping Fraser might take a notion to add his contributions to the blog as well. He says he might, but only if I don’t put him under pressure to do it…
Nearly three decades ago, I read an article in a sailing magazine about a couple who took their sailing boat through the French inland waterways all the way from northern France to the Mediterranean Sea. Both Fraser and I fell in love with the idea, and since then, we have been trying to make this dream come true.
We’ve both been sailing on and off our entire lives, but the need to provide enough income to support our growing family left us without spare time, money, or energy to bring our plans to fruition. To take a boat through the French canals requires several attributes from boat and sailors. The waterways can be extremely shallow in places, so you need a shallow draught boat (draught being the amount of boat underwater, indicating the shallowest depth in which the boat can float). The published information from the VNF, the French waterways governing body, can be misleading about depths and tends to give an optimistic opinion. They say you can get through with up to 1.8m draught, but recent reports tell of far shallower patches, especially in the busy summer season.
The VNF website (see image below) is all in French and I don’t read French especially well, but Google Translate is a great help. Both Fraser and I have been trying to improve our conversational French through classes, apps and helpful friends and family members, but it’s going to be a challenge. Trying to have a conversation on the VHF radio in our native language can be challenging enough; adding in an unfamiliar language, and we are definitely going to embarrass ourselves many times over.
We bought our boat, Barberry, in the summer of 2018, just before the heatwave broke, and sailed her from the River Bann near Coleraine to her new home in Bangor Marina in North Down. She’s an elderly lady, narrow in the beam but with lovely lines. Think Greta Garbo, still beautiful in her twilight years. She draws (has a draught of) only 1.2m, so she should be able to float through the canals without touching the bottom too often.
But before we even reach the canals, we need to sail Barberry from her home port in Bangor, Northern Ireland, all the way down to Northern France and the mouth of the great Seine River that flows through Paris. That’s a journey of roughly 750 miles through some of the most challenging seas around the British Isles (see picture above). For that part of the journey, we need a good, solid, seaworthy boat that can be sailed by two people, one of whom has mobility issues. Barberry, with her long keel and sturdy construction, is just the boat for the job. She can survive far rougher conditions than her feeble crew.
Maintaining a boat is lot of hard work, and this is made harder by the knowledge that your lives will depend on how well the jobs are completed. Fraser is an excellent jack of all trades when it comes to boat repair jobs and has tackled plumbing, electrics, varnishing, canvas work (he stole my sewing machine), GRP work, joinery, etc. The list is endless. His favourite jobs are anything involving wood; the least favourites are plumbing and electrics. There are a lot of plumbing jobs on a boat. And electrical jobs.
I do my bit, too. I stand and watch him painting, kindly pointing out the bits he’s missed. Usually, I wait until he’s sealed the tin and climbed out of his protective clothing. It’s good to keep him on his toes.
We’re not alone amongst boat owners when we use the phrase, “Boat Jobs”, meaning a job that on paper should take a half hour at most but in practice takes several days of cursing, drilling out rusted bolts, bruised body parts, minor concussion, and involves numerous unexpected side jobs that must be completed in order to finish the original job. The other catch phrase is “Boat Yoga”, reflecting the way the human body must be contorted and folded to access bits of the boat that the original builders seemed to have been determined to seal off forever. Also known as Human Origami.
Oh, and if anyone is reading this and thinking, “They must be really rich to own a yacht,” then think again. There must be rich yacht owners out there, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met one. Maybe because they don’t actually do much on their yachts, instead employing mechanics to do all the maintenance and a crew to sail it for them. Keeping a boat is expensive, sure, but a few years ago I was chatting with a group of my ICT students in a fairly deprived bit of Belfast (yes, I used to teach computers, back in the day), and one of them jokingly accused me of being stinking rich because I was looking at boats for sale.
Then I showed them the boats, and several of them admitted that they owned a holiday caravan near the coast. Their caravans had each cost roughly three times the price of the boats I was looking at, plus their site fees were about the same as our mooring fees. Admittedly, you don’t need to add expensive radar or a bow thruster (definitely not what it sounds like) to a caravan, so maybe I was being a little miserly with the truth in my comparison, but equally a caravan is unlikely to capsize and drown you if you don’t maintain it correctly.
It’s probably true to say that most boat owners are maintaining their precious vessels on a shoestring like we do, constantly pushing themselves out of their comfort zones to keep their crew safe at sea. If you own a boat, even if you were rich to start with, it won’t last for long!
We’ve been lucky enough to meet some proper professional boat folks over the last few years and they’ve been incredibly generous with their time, and shared their expertise. We definitely couldn’t have got the far without help from Brian Hanna, electronics wizard. Also Rusty McGovern of Sailschool NI, sailing coach, raconteur and all round great guy. He coaxed us, a pair of oldies, through our Day Skipper practical exam so we could collect the bits of paper qualification we needed to meet the regulations of the many countries we’ll be passing through. And the folks from Bangor Marina have made us very welcome over the years we’ve been based there, not forgetting John and Johnny from BJ Marine, who cheerfully crane Barberry out of the water every year for her annual bottom wash and paint.
When my arthritis began to cause me trouble, about 15 years ago, Fraser and I had to adapt our sailing strategy. Previously, Fraser had steered the boat (we’ve had several boats before Barberry) and I’d be the one hopping about with ropes and lines, making the leap of faith from the deck of the boat onto a narrow, often wobbly pontoon. As my mobility decreased, making me a liability rather than an asset, I started steering the boat and Fraser took over the athletic ropework. I’ve just realised how kinky that sounds. Let’s just move on, shall we?
These days, we make a pretty good team. I shout a lot and wave my arms about while Fraser ignores me and quietly gets on with the job of tying us up safely to whichever dock we’re approaching. When making a passage, we both plan our route separately, working out timings, weather forecasts, tidal streams, and course to steer, then we compare notes before laying the course into our chart plotter (a sort of fancy electronic map). Once we’re at sea we take turns, using a watch system to ensure we both have time to rest and thaw out so whomever is steering (on watch) is alert and able to react to danger. With just the two of us crewing, this can be gruelling on longer passages, but it’s always worth it when we tie up somewhere new and break out the whisky.
We’ve had our share of sailing adventures, some of which have been published by a wonderful sailing magazine, Practical Boat Owner, and I’m pretty sure we have many more adventures ahead of us.
After a tough few years of being a full time carer, we now have the time to sail so 2023 is going to be the year of the Big Adventure. We hope to set off this spring, as soon as we get a weather window, and head south until, as Fraser explained to his colleagues at his retirement lunch, he can jump in the sea without screaming.
We’d love you to go on this voyage with us through these blog posts. I promise to try to write them a little more regularly than my author blogs.