Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Vagaries of the Sea

The appearance of the sea is for ever changing, since it is affected by particular light settings, moment by moment, and because of the variable effects of wind and tide. William Turner, England’s greatest seascape painter, depicted the vagaries of the sea from its most placid, as in 'The Fighting Temeraire', to its most tempestuous, as in 'The Shipwreck'.
Those who sail the seas know through experience that a variety of visual stimuli upon the water is not just brought about by the effects of innumerable permutations of wind, rain, snow, hail, cloud, mist or fog, but by many types of vessels that ply the sea in the course of their business, whether for profit or pleasure. Such changing scenes have been the reward of mariners since primitive man first ventured out to sea in dugout canoes or papyrus rafts, perhaps to fish or travel afar in search of new lands.
Over the centuries man’s industry, intelligence and technological achievements have enabled him to build a huge variety of vessels, some for peaceful purposes, and others for military use, but their presence has affected the mood and character of the mariner's scene.
In John Masefield's poem, 'Cargoes', we find descriptions of three trading vessels from different eras.
QUINQUIREME of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Paintings by William Turner. The Fighting Temeraire. The Shipwreck.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Christmas Eve

I found this poem floating around in cyber space; therefore I gather it’s there for all sailors at this time of year, especially the very young who know that Father Christmas really exists. If you want proof, then you must read C. S. Lewis’s ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, one of ‘The Chronicles of Nania’, or if you can’t make the effort, then see a ‘documentary’ currently showing at most cinemas.

Christmas Eve

T'was the night before Christmas, I swung on the
With snowflakes a'landing, asleep with my book
When up on the deck I heard footsteps and stuff
"I've been boarded!" I thought, and I tried to be

Then down the companionway hatch came a dude
He was dressed like a nut and I thought, "I'm so
But he laughed and he hummed as he surveyed my
So I figured he must be the resident drunk

His eyes were lit up like a junkie on speed
But he gave me a whole bunch of stuff that I need
Like rum and cigars and new charts and a dinghy
And some kind of fancy electrical thingy

I knew it was stolen but I wasn't telling
I just hoped he was giving and wasn't just selling
And I poured him a grog which he downed with a
Then I poured one for me (Lord I needed a drink!)

Then he staggered above to the dark snowy night
As I peeked I beheld an incredible sight
Eight tiny dolphins and a beautiful sleigh
And the dude hopped aboard and prepared to make

The dolphins were ready to power the sled
But the guy raised a genny and mains'l instead
With a burp and a chuckle he gathered the breeze
And called to the dolphins, now swimming with ease

"Hey Stalker and FEMA and Cancer and Nixon!
Or Stinky and Pepper Spray, Mason, and Dixon!
Or whatever your names are, you cute little
Here's to every last sailor, my best Christmas

As he sailed away leaving a wobbly wake
I hoped he had not many stops left to make
He got close to shore and he soon was aground
But the dolphins proceeded to pull him around

And I heard him exclaim as he sailed out of sight
Happy Christmas to all... and to all a goodnight"

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Yachtsman’s Christmas Tree

The Westerly Yacht Owners Association has a popular meeting at East Cowes Marina on the first Saturday of December. I am reliably informed that these frostbite rallies have been well attended for the past 22 years with the crews of 20 or more yachts coming together for the festivities. There’s a judging of Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, resulting in rewards for those who have arranged the most attractive and creative displays.

This is far removed from years gone by when a few hardy yachtsmen extended the sailing season into the month of December. Such stalwarts may have hoisted an undecorated fir tree to the top of their yacht’s mast as a sign they were aboard celebrating Christmas; but where and when did the tradition come about?

What we do know is that schooners and barges in the age of sail were used to bring a variety of evergreen trees from northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula annually in November to ports in the south for local merchants to sell to the public. No doubt the captains of these ships hoisted trees to the tops of masts to advertise the nature of their cargo.

There is a legend that Martin Luther was the first to display a lighted Christmas tree as a symbol of eternal life generated by the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. Scholars provide evidence that the first decorated Christmas trees originated in Germany, back in 1521, in the region of Alsace. In 1605 a resident of Strasburg wrote that at Christmas, fir trees decorated with coloured papers, apples, wafers, golden foil and sweets were sometimes set up in the parlours of local houses.

In Germany around the middle of the seventeenth century decorated Christmas trees grew in popularity and the idea spread to America at the beginning of the eighteenth century when Germans immigrated to Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t until 1837 when Helen of Mecklenburg had a tree in Paris that it became fashionable in France. In 1841 Prince Albert decorated a tree at Windsor Castle.

There is doubt regarding the symbolism of a decorated Christmas tree, but some Christians may have likened it to ‘new birth’ and eternal life in Jesus Christ; whereas others may have thought of the tree as a symbol of the Paradise tree of life, and therefore decorated their trees with apples, representing the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve.

Today Christmas trees are exceedingly popular with Christians and non-Christians alike, but those who do not regard themselves as Christians simply use them as attractive decorations or consider them a necessity for maintaining a tradition, even being prepared to pay as much as £20.00 for a tree without roots!

More and more yachtsmen are extending their sailing season to include being afloat at Christmas. Perhaps we shall see their yachts being decorated with lights and trees in the fashion of Westerly Yacht owners at their annual December get-together.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

‘Little Jim’

I have no idea how Alastair Law came to name his Paradox micro-sailboat, ‘Little Jim’, but there is a poem by E.Farmer with the name as a title for his poem.

The cottage was a thatch'd one,
The outside old and mean,
Yet everything within that cot
Was wondrous neat and clean.

The night was dark and stormy,
The wind was howling wild;
A patient mother knelt beside
The death bed of her child.

A little worn-out creature,
His once bright eyes grown dim;
It was a collier's only child,
They called him Little Jim.

And, oh! to see the briny tears
Fast hurrying down her cheeks,
As she offer'd up a prayer in thought,
She was afraid to speak.

Lest she might waken one she loved
Far better than her life;
For there was all a mother's love
In that poor collier's wife.

With hands uplifted, see, she kneels,
Beside the sufferer's bed;
And prays that He will spare her boy,
And take herself instead.

She gets her answer from the child,
Soft fell these words from him,
'Mother, the angels do so smile,
And beckon Little Jim.

I have no pain, dear mother, now,
But oh! I am so dry;
Just moisten poor Jim's lips again,
And mother, don't you cry.

With gentle, trembling haste she held
The tea-cup to his lips;
He smiled to thank her, as he took
Three tiny little sips.

'Tell father when he comes from work,
I said "good-night" to him;
And, mother, now I'11 go to sleep,
Alas, poor Little Jim.

She saw that he was dying -
The child she loved so dear
Had uttered the last words that she
Might ever hope to hear.

The cottage door was opened
The collier's step is heard,
The father and the mother meet,
Yet neither speak a word.

He knew that all was over,
He knew his child was dead;
He took the candle in his hand,
And walked towards the bed.

His quivering lips gave token
Of the grief he'd fain conceal;
And see his wife has joined him -
The stricken couple kneel.

With hearts bowed down with sadness
They humbly ask of Him,
In heaven, once more to meet again.
Their own poor Little Jim.

This is a very sad story that could well have been based on fact, before being transformed into fiction, but to my mind there is little to connect it to the name of a boat, but this particular boat of Al’s has become an object of study for me. I’ve made two visits to his place of residence to examine ‘Little Jim’. She’s very unusual in design, in that she has chine runners instead of a keel for minimizing leeway. She was designed by Matt Layden as a very small coastal cruising yacht, eminently suitable for shallow waters.

My interest in ‘Little Jim’ came about when I conceived the idea of building my own Paradox sailboat. Only yesterday I saw Al’s gem of a boat a second time and I made use of the opportunity to photograph some of the more complicated parts as aids memoirs to help me when building my own boat.

I am grateful for his help and encouragement.

Friday, December 02, 2005


As you’ve probably gathered, John Masefield is a favourite poet of mine, especially as several of his ballads are about the sea and ships. I don’t think he could ever have imagined the changes that would take place with the English landscape over the past 38 years since his death, particularly the congestion of our roads. In his time he preferred the sea by far and here is his poem ‘Roadways’ that illustrates this point:
ONE road leads to London,
One road leads to Wales,
My road leads me seawards
To the white dipping sails.
One road leads to the river,
And it goes singing slow;
My road leads to shipping,
Where the bronzed sailors go.
Leads me, lures me, calls me
To salt green tossing sea;
A road without earth's road-dust
Is the right road for me.
A wet road heaving, shining,
And wild with seagull's cries,
A mad salt sea-wind blowing
The salt spray in my eyes.
My road calls me, lures me
West, east, south, and north;
Most roads lead men homewards,
My road leads me forth.
To add more miles to the tally
Of grey miles left behind,
In quest of that one beauty
God put me here to find.
John Masefield