I’ve been invited to join two old friends and another chap, crewing a 36-foot sailboat, from Plymouth, across the English channel to France, then down the coast of Brittany.
We will be on board for about 8 days.
Travel plans? I can fly back direct from Brittany to Dublin. Connections are pretty good.
Getting to Plymouth however, where the sailing starts, is far more complicated. There are no direct flights. Routing through London is generally stressful and a disaster. Luckily one of the crew members, my old friend Lindsey, lives in North Wales. We resolve to travel down by train from Wales to Plymouth throughout Friday. I’ll cross by ferry to her on Thursday afternoon and we’ll leave the next morning.
Getting there, part i…
Day Zero minus-1. “Disaster looms…”
The first leg of my journey is by the regular Dublin to Hollyhead ferry service to North Wales. There I will overnight with this old friend. The next day we will travel down through England by train, to rendezvous with the boat and our two other crew members. At least this, in theory, is the plan…
In practice, the Irish Sea has been raging for the last two days
It is by no means certain the ferry will even sail. To walk down Dun Laoghaire’s east pier is to witness huge swells, and screeching high winds.
There are reports of flooded roads and power lines down across the UK. I even hear a bizarre story on the radio news, about an American rock band tour bus, crashing and falling off a flooded Viaduct ! Will our train make it across England and Wales? Come to that, can I even get across from Ireland to Wales in the first place?
Planning for the trip now starts to acquire all the usual attendant stresses of travel, and last-minute organization, plus a few, extra nasty surprises still to come.
Back home from Dun Laoghaire. Over the ‘phone, the rep for the ferry company seems to advise me to hold off on my booking, just until the weather picture clears.
When the sailing finally is confirmed later, I go straight to the ferry website to book my ticket.
To my disbelief and dismay, the sailing now appears on-screen marked as completely sold out. No tickets available!
It’s impossible to describe the utter chaos this setback throws my plan into.
We have to leave Plymouth on the 4pm tide Saturday afternoon. People have taken time off work for this holiday. There are no direct flights from Dublin to this part of the UK. Without the ferry, a series of missed connections looms instead; a domino effect of mounting stress, rising expense and inconvenience, for myself and for the others.
I swear loudly and deeply, a long, richly-textured catalogue of obscenities.
Then I get on the phone to the ferry company, and launch my secret weapon. It’s a bizarre mix of special-case pleading, (Naturally, I never specify what makes my case special) thinly-veiled threats, (the “threats”, again are unspecified) and a sort of shameless, craven groveling.
It is surprising, frankly, how often this works.
I like to call it “the iron-mail fist in the velvet abject-grovel.” (Catchy, no?)
Anyway, it works. The ferry company rep, a likable, efficient Liverpudlian, has to make some calls. Waiting for the answer is stress. But in the end he comes through. An extra seat is found.
Relief is not the word.
Day-0 (Thursday, 16th August) Actual disaster.
I am teaching the morning immediately prior to my departure.
In fact, so I can leave from the school direct to the ferry port, I’ve brought my luggage right into the classroom with me. I am also somewhat distracted. My wonderful students, an intelligent, urbane, highly educated bunch of excellent young people, are very understanding. I use the mid-morning coffee break to book a taxi for 1.15. and sit away from the downpour, under a sodden awing outside a nearby café, chain smoking, in a general air of what I imagine is worldly stoicism, but probably just looks like someone stressing and sulking about the miserable weather.
Because I’ve had to pack for sailing in all weathers, including this 22-hour cross-Channel at nighttime sail England to France, my bags are bulging, enormous. They include a massive 100-litre behemoth, packed full of heavy duty, pro-standard, all-weather gear and sail boots. This bag sits in the corner during class, like a dead man, propped up against the wall.
I don’t really have any choice about the sheer volume of gear. But this bag will haunt me, for the rest of the trip.
Class ends. Even now, being a conscientious admin-freak, I’m still filling out notes for the two substitute teachers, (both colleagues, one of them a friend of mine) even after my taxi arrives. Eventually, my boss, our director of studies, tells me to chill, just go, and enjoy my holiday.
I will, in time.
But things are about to get worse, before they get better.
The traffic across town is not too bad. My taxi driver is an absolute star, even helping with the monster bag, like the total gent he clearly is.
I get to the ferry terminus in good time. My last-minute ticket is valid. I check the monster bag through, no problem. I am not arrested; nor strip-searched, nor (as happened once years ago in Italy) waylaid by a team of detectives who have mistaken me for some travelling drug-lord, terrorist or visiting assassin.
No, I simply go up the stairs from the terminus to the departure lobby. So far, so good.
There, upstairs, we all wait for the covered gang-plank walkway to be connected to the ship before we can board.
Then something nasty happens.
The last few stragglers – a young backpacker couple- arrive up the stairs. I can see they’re looking at something. But they keep on walking into the departure area.
I follow their glance and don’t like it. What I see is a man’s legs and feet. There is something unnatural. He is clearly on the floor; his feet are kicking hard.
I cross to the stairwell and see a large, strong man, in his late 50s or early 60s, lying on the floor, helpless and convulsing. He seems to be having an epileptic fit, or a stroke, or a heart attack. He looks in agony and absolute terrified.
Having absolutely zero medical training, not even basic 1st-Aid, I don’t have the first idea what to do.
I am kneeling now, holding his hand. Naturally, I shout for help. But it’s very slow in arriving. Minutes feel like hours.
The man is frothing at the mouth. His eyes are bloodshot and he looks terrified, and in extreme pain. I’m frightened, and frightened to do something stupid, but at the same time I can’t be here and do nothing because I am very worried he’s going to die right here in front of me.
If he is having an epileptic fit, (and of course I don’t even know this) I’ve a hazy notion of the need to prevent him swallowing his tongue. The required object is a spoon, no? But I tend not to travel with a set of cutlery. (do you?) I shout, roar, for a spoon. (There is café just off the terminus). People seem to be stirring but very slowly and this man is most certainly dying right now. No medical staff, nobody, still nodody. Events seem to move as though through treacle. What the hell should I do?
True, a few people now start to gather around the doorway and they look on. But I don’t particularly want sightseers, or witnesses. What I really want is a team of doctors, nurses and paramedics; an ambulance; a defibulator, and fully equipped mobile surgical unit.
I’m really terrified this poor, huge, frightened man is going to die, right now. I am still holding his hand hard and telling him help is coming. But I am worried that, perhaps this is a lie. I decide I absolutely must do something, almost anything would be better than nothing. (Wouldn’t it? Or would it?) I apologise, then use a pen to try and hold his tongue down. I am very conscious that I am invading his dignity, so spend most of the time apologizing, while also repeating my matra about the soon-to-arrive staff.
A laid-back African guy standing beside me tells me – in a slightly laconic tone- the pen idea is all wrong. I’m on the floor, and in my rising panic, I resent his sense of apparent ease. But I also recognize he is very possibly absolutely correct. Because, (can this get any worse?) it looks more and more like our fellow traveler is having a heart attack.
We have had two, very old, very good, very close family friends (both men I loved) die in this manner in the last year.
I feel about as useful as a… actually, no suitable metaphor presents itself.
Okay, instead then, the general sensations are a sense of utter incompetence and impotence and profound, personal shame.
At last staff from the company arrive.
I back away to let them work, push my way through the on-lookers away from the stairwell and back into the waiting area. I feel pretty faint myself. A kind elderly lady notices. She tells me to sit down and I obey. The crowd of on-lookers around the stairwell means now I can’t see the poor man anymore. But he must be a goner by now. I bury my head in my hands, because it seems certain the staff were too late, and I was too bloody useless.
A few minutes later the ferry arrives. The walkway to the ship is connected and people start to cross over and walk onboard.
Obviously afraid to learn the worst, yet desperate to know the truth. So I hang back until the last minute.
When at last the crowd clears away and are aboard the ship, I can see the ferry staff have put the man in the recovery position.
To my unbridled joy, astonishment and relief, the rise and fall of his cheast makes it clear he is breathing and- somehow- miraculously (and absolutely no thanks to me) somehow, still alive.
Relief is not even the word. It really seemed impossible.
Did I mention I had a slightly stressful start to this holiday?
Read on, things get nicer, more pleasant and picturesque.
The ferry crossing is, predictably, rough. The sea swells and pitches the boat around. Normally this would be fun. I’m no expert sailor, not by any means. On the other hand, my parent used to sail a lot. So as a little kid I did cub, or cadet sailing. I’ve knocked around boats most of my life, as well as bit of diving, surfing and plenty of snorkeling and swimming. I’m not scared of the water or the sea.
And, although, like any other sane person, I treat the sea with deep and wary respect, I’ve never, never been sea sick in my life. No, Sea-sick is for softies; poor hapless, unfortunate muppets; landlubbers and all-sorted whimps. Not for hard-assed, tough bitten sea-dogs like old AQH. Hell no.
The lady at my table is a kind and chatty English lady, a singing teacher, now domiciled in the west of Ireland, going home to England to visit her elderly parents. I’d like to chat, really, but can’t, because as the boat rocks and pitches and rolls about, I feel absolutely vile. In fact, I’m as sick as a dog.
I excuse myself and make my way out on deck. (You’re always better out on deck.) The day is a cold, and dismal as my mood. But sure enough, the fresh air works. Nausea slowly retreats, I feel like a human being again.
Back downstairs the nice lady (this crossing seems full of them) suggests the sickness might be shock or stress related. I reflect she is probably right. Maybe so. But I’m also acutely conscious that in a day and a ½ I’m supposed to help crew a small, single-masted 36-foot boat across the channel. It’s the busiest shipping lane in the world, full of huge cargo and oil tankers, I will be on watch at night and we all need to able to rely on each other. Of all the times to get seasickness, now and for the first time in my life! What the hell is going on?
I strongly, bitterly resent this unwelcome new development. I need sea sickness like a canceled ferry or or sold out crossing. I need sea sickness like I need a hole in the head.
Things start to look up when I arrive in Hollyhead. Lindsey, very kindly, is there to meet me. We drive in a rather fabulous, open-top sports car, across the massive, spectacular Menai Bridge that spans the Menai Straits between the island of Anglesea and mainland Wales. Designed by Thomas Telford, it was, is, the first modern suspension bridge in the world. Although it was at the absolute cutting edge of material and engineering technology, the wild, rough nature, and historic of the surrounding landscape, prompted a pleasant pastiche of castlated decoration, as so not spoil the views.
I love being in this car. We whip through the bends, along the cambered roads of North Wales, into Snowdon National Park. Finally we arrive at the little cottage, nestled in the shadow of the Mt Snowdon. Rain runs down the hillside and clouds scuttle across the sky. North Wales is just as grey, dismal and windy as Ireland. But at least we’ve got this far. Tomorrow trains across North Wales and down the length of England. The day after that, the yacht, the open sea and the channel await.
That evening, we have a snack then go meet some Snowdon neighbours. One is a experienced sailor, a veteran of several channel-crossings. He’s an intelligent man and speaks well. He gives us some insights into what to expect, from the strong currents and tidal races of the North Atlantic Breton coast.
This is not Captain Cook, nor Scott or Shakleton or Tom Crean. Nonetheless, adventure is in the air. The talk is good and the whiskey goes down easy.
Life is not too shabby after all.