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For those who may be curious as to what it’s like to grow up on a sailboat I will write now.

Artemis drawing

A drawing i made of L’ Artemis de Pytheas

Broadly, there was life at sea and there was life at anchor;

At sea

Leaving a harbour would be a rather sad affair for me leaving friends and sometimes little girlfriends behind, in the dimly fainting grey landmasses astern.

Sailing itself tends to be rather monotonous, despite weather changes, and life becomes very routine. Meals cut up the clock and are also the high points of each day.

If we had been at harbour too long, I would be seasick for the first few days and then the seasickness would gradually disappear.

I would spend time playing lego and if seasickness allowed, reading. A lot of reading. Drawing I very much enjoyed as well, but this could only feasibly be done on unusually calm days, on account of the motion, which jerks your hand around.

My room was in the bows so I had the strongest motion. Upwind in strong weather, I would be nearly weightless as the bow begins its descent, and then at the bottom of the motion, crushed into my bunk and against the side of the boat or the lee-board. Sometimes I would amuse myself by jumping slightly when the bow starts to drop and remaining ‘airborne’ for a few instants more than what seems normal. I had to be careful not to get thrown badly and hurt, though. L’ Artemis had that characteristic pitching motion of boats with a shallow but sharp forefoot, in that when the forefoot is clear out of the water the bow will pitch more or less vertically downwards, but as the forefoot bites back into the water, it tends to follow its own axis pitching down diagonally to windward, following a kind of “j” shaped trajectory. In practice, this would feel like you are very light, then as you get heavier the boat gets sort of jerked sideways under you. This may be a reason why I can sleep anywhere (as long as i’m not cold) and sleep very soundly.

Also I could spend hours at a stretch just looking out from the companionway hatch – until I was 10 or 11 I was never allowed on deck when sailing – contemplating the waves rolling on and on from horizon to horizon. One wave builds, then breaks and sighs back down, only to be consumed by the next wave growing behind,..meanwhile, my thoughts pondering all manner of things great and small.

Inside, the sound of a wave breaking just to windward would predictably be followed by a mighty thump against the side punching the boat bodily to leeward.

Downwind the motion is much gentler naturally; the stern lifting up to an overtaking wave while the boat accelerates onwards down the incline of the wave, eventually the wave passing and the boat balancing down the rear of the wave more slowly only to be picked up and propelled along by the next one, all the while rolling. The rolling downwind goes in cycles; big angles for awhile, then the rolling almost stops, then a wave or other picks the boat up from one side and the big rolling starts up again. I would lie down on the saloon settees and press my ear against the wood and listen to the water sloshing around in the water tanks and the bubbles rushing along under the hull, the centreboard dully clunking in its case.

Upwind, the centreboard does not make any sound as it is down and the whole boat is pressing hard against it. Indeed, so hard that it is quite impossible to move up or down; for an adjustment to be made one must luff up to relieve the pressure. The centreboard case was an imposing central feature to L’ Artemis. It went right up to the cabin top, dividing the boat into right and left halves.

Sometimes at night I would sit in the companionway and marvel at the stars. The air is generally astonishingly clear at sea. The blackest black is not as black as the space in between the stars there, except that upon closer scrutiny that empty space has hundreds of stars too, almost too faint to distinguish individually, so the velvety blackness becomes elusive, like the concept of absolute nothingness filled with infinity.

We had star charts and I came to know and recognize the stars by name and constellation. A mind game would be, if cloudy, to see how quickly I could recognize the stars despite only seeing a few at a time.

In fact the stars are so many and so bright that you can clearly see the boat in the starlight and manoeuvres are made easy. For the ultimate darkness you actually need a moonless and heavily overcast sky, as well as the running lights out and only then does it become truly pitch black. Manoeuvres in this case then have to be done entirely by tact, and this is why one must know one’s boat very intimately.

The full moon is also quite magical. Hours could be spent observing that dancing streak of silvery moonlight going from the boat all the way to the horizon, curiously nearly never directly under, but rather a little to one side or the other of the moon silently illuminating the tumult under, the rushing boat, the never ending roaring wind and shiny black waves.

One time we saw a ship’s illuminated tower bridge. It seemed to be coming more or less straight at us. As it approached it became visibly larger, then we could see it visibly grow – just how fast can a big ship approach us !!? Getting very alarmed, the clouds shifted slightly, breaking up the tower bridge’s symmetry revealing the orb of the rising moon glowing pinkly in between clouds…

At sundown, father would get the lights in and fill them with kerosene, checking that the wick is neat and straight and the globe clean. Then he would light them and place the two white running lights back in their light boxes with their fresnel lenses, and then these on their respective platforms at each quarter taffrail, securely tied down, usually with wedges underneath to keep them level despite the boat’s heel.

On approaching land, often the first sign is the loom of a large town or city glowing over the night horizon. A large city can have a loom that can first be seen when still 60 or even more miles off. Then there is the smell; approaching places where there is a goodly amount of nature the smell is some variation of humus, damp earth, and rotting vegetation, and this can be smelt ten or more miles away depending on how the wind blows. But approaching a large city the smell stink is overwhelmingly of auto-mobile exhaust with a fainter smell of refuse, and this can be smelt quite far indeed, considerably farther than the musty nature smells. I always wondered how people could willingly live in places that stank so bad that you can detect the stink 50 miles away! But the sense of smell is the sense that most quickly desensitizes itself and so city dwellers are quite unaware of the tremendous stench of their surroundings.

Smell or stink, excitement would build over the imminent new place to visit and make new friends in. Then as land ever so slowly gradually makes itself visible all eyes are riveted landwards. With my keen eyesight I would not only be almost always the first to see land, but also the first to pick out the outermost approach buoys. Then the features become more and more distinct, landmarks then houses, masts in the harbour, then cars and finally people can be seen. And the calm! After days of never ending jostling around, the boat’s motion as it enters more and more sheltered waters becomes surreally serene..

After deciding on a good spot to anchor, we sail in amongst the other boats and round up into the wind, coasting to a stop, while the jib is smartly dropped and mainsheet eased. The anchor goes over and the rest of the sails come down in sequence, from the front to the back always.

In a harbour

After taking in our new surroundings and after the usually tedious entry formalities we would go visiting the other sailboats. I was an expert at judging which boats were most likely to have other children on board.

If father expected to stay more than a few weeks, I would be enrolled in the local school. In this way, I have ended up studying in fifteen different schools.

School

Father would row me ashore so I could get to school in the morning, and later on when a bit older I would scull or sail my dinghy ashore myself.

Most of my time at school would be spent counting the hours till I would be released from that day’s serving of mind crushing boredom.

I can only remember a few things of note that I learnt at school; one of them being that history books are very far from being objective, and would describe the same events very differently depending on which country one is in.

Almost all the important things I learnt, was from listening to adults converse, and reading. That, and always asking a lot of questions. School was definitely a waste of time. It could be argued that one does learn social skills at school, but that can be learnt anywhere there are people, not necessarily at a school.

Eventually I discovered the thrills of skipping class. I would sit close to a window and when I could take it no longer I would slip my bag out the window and ask to be excused for the bathroom. After recovering the bag I would head out and explore the hills or go bodysurfing.

No school

If I was not attending school, my mornings would be spent studying aboard. This is how I learnt to read. Otherwise I would be assigned certain chores appropriate to my age to get done. The afternoons I was free to do as I pleased.

When we were in Faro, Portugal, when I was seven, one of those near daily ‘chores’ would be to walk to the bakery and buy a bread. One day I came back with the wrong change and my Chinese stepmother sternly ordered me to return at once to the bakery and reclaim the missing change. Luckily I was able to convince them to correct the matter, but ever since then I am always careful to check my change.

Up till a certain age my father would always read or tell me a “bedtime story”. When I was six, one of those times, instead of the usual story he explained to me what a loan was and how not only do you have to pay interest in addition to paying back the money, but also if you miss your payments the bank can just take back whatever you had bought, even if you had already paid almost the whole loan back, in fact more so, due to the interest.

I have never taken out a loan.

Starting around nine I started reading the many books we had on board on boat building and naval architecture. When I was ten my father explained to me how to draft a boat’s lines plan. This was much more interesting than the drivel they were teaching at school! Later, I started making model sailboats, eventually making nearly thirty of them, although not all were completed. This proved to be extremely useful in testing out different design concepts as well as providing me with much enjoyment.

When i was thirteen a neighbour lent me Marchaj’s “Aero/Hydrodynamics of Sailing” as well as the “Seaworthiness; the Forgotten Factor”, which were a step above Herreshoff’s, Skene’s, and Uffa Fox’s books in thoroughness, and which i devoured and tried to delay returning for as long as possible. Now i have my own copies and they are the centrepieces of my library. These two books may well have been the real motivating reason i ended up studying mathematics at university.

On board "L'Artemis" sailing in Martinique

On board “L’Artemis” sailing in Martinique

I'm the one to the left in both pictures

I’m the one to the left in both pictures

All the basics I learnt by osmosis; complete immersion.

The correct angle to trim the sails for example was just “Obvious” and needed no explanation. Sail trimming angles is something that only much later did I study the actual why and wherefore of.

Where the wind comes from for example is something that is so obvious that when I first met someone who was genuinely baffled as to how to tell which way the wind is going I was in shock. Even with one’s eyes closed one just feels how the air is moving across one’s body and head and knows without any further analysis, just like you know which way is up and which is down. Later my father did refine on this, because for a sailor knowing how the wind is moving is not enough; he needs to know exactly from where it comes.

He said to wiggle my head from side to side a little until you feel it just the same in both ears so you are looking straight at the wind. Then he said «There is another way too. You see the smallest of the waves riding upon the other less small riding upon the bigger ones and the way the smallest of them all go is how the wind moves»

He did not explain to me that there was in fact a fundamental difference between these two though, and I will never know if this was by accident or design. Eventually I noticed the difference myself and asked him about it. So he then explained what apparent wind is. I had never thought about it, but it made perfect sense right away.

Which way the tiller goes to turn the boat likewise was completely self evident and again I was surprised when I discovered it was not actually at all obvious to everyone.

How to steer a sailboat to windward high as possible while keeping the sails full and keep good way on also hardly required belaboring.

Indeed the first time I steered was the “L’Artemis” all 15 meters plus considerable appendages into a crowded anchorage. Due to a sudden and extremely unfortunate situation he needed me to steer, while he dealt with the sails, something I certainly did not have the strength for yet. It can’t have been too big a deal for me because the memories of that are kind of indistinct, like it was not very important.

I remember much more clearly the first time I sailed a boat all by myself. I guess the “All by myself” part must have been quite thrilling because this I do remember very well. It was a friend and neighbours’ sailing dinghy. There was very light wind and father called out to me that I was sitting on the wrong side! Slightly embarrassed, I quickly shifted around as I knew better than that. I guess being so used to sailing bigger boats I forgot about the importance of weight positioning in dinghies. The light wind allowed me to get away with it that time.

And so that is it really. How to operate a sailboat just comes down to knowing how to steer it and understanding the correct relationship between boat/sails/wind. You got that, you’re sailing. The rest is just refinements, old tricks to keep you alive (seamanship) , and of course not getting lost or ending up aground, otherwise known as navigating.

Once I was 11, I was rapidly given more and more responsibilities as far as sailing the boat went, from watch keeping to extended stints at the helm, and tending the jib or steering when manoeuvring in harbours. Eventually, as my father’s heart got tickier it became my job to get the anchors up, especially the last one.

Getting under-way in an engine-less sailboat things are very different to in an auxiliary. Once the anchor rode is straight up and down and enough pulling has made it lose its grip on the bottom, (loudly announced: “We’re free!”) the boat will fall off on one tack or the other and start sailing off. Which tack it falls off on is normally deliberately chosen beforehand and making sure that this is so is part of the art of sailing, and I will write more about the details of this in the future.

Having the anchor hang under the boat creates a tremendous drag though and severely hinders the boat’s handling, thus it is imperative to get the last bit up as fast as possible, a task much more suitable for a young teenager than for someone with a bad heart.

At 13, I discovered another branch of sailing; sailboards. I was hooked! My thing was to try and find the perfect combination of smooth water and strong winds so I could tear back and forth as fast as possible, delighting in the sensation of flying at fantastic speeds inches above the water, the board clattering like a drum over the wavelets.

I suppose it must be the same with most anything. If you grow up with it, it rubs off on you so deep that you would not be able to forget it no matter how hard you try.