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Life’s many ports of call

By Mindo - 21st Apr 2020

I learned valuable lessons for self-isolation during the trip of a lifetime

In recent weeks, a long-distance sailing trip I took with my parents came to mind as a result of the challenges we now face.

In 1995, my mum and dad retired. They were 50 and 54 respectively, positively ancient by my reckoning at the time. They had bought a 40-foot boat the year before and were about to sail around the world on it. It would take them two years, following a well-worn route around the middle of the planet that takes advantage of the trade winds and the Suez and Panama canals. So the easy way round, like.

We had been sailors for most of my life. A small boat to begin with, a little racing sporty thing with no proper cabin or toilet or cooking facilities. (This did not stop my parents from bringing us on ‘holidays’ in it, sleeping on plasticky benches and weeing in a bucket). My family had moved to Crosshaven in the 70s, and we lived up the road from the famous Royal Cork Yacht Club (or the ‘Arsie YC’, as it is sometimes known). It was sort of inevitable that we would spend time on the sea, and yet for many years I was deeply ashamed of being a ‘yottie’. It did not fit well at all with my grungie teenage look, and was far too petit bourgeois to mention when I was drinking cider in Sir Henry’s. I hated the presumption that boat ownership implied immense wealth, and I despised the snotty accoutrements of branded bright jackets and sun-bleached hair. We competed in the racing competitions in the club, and I loved the thrill of teasing the last bit of speed out of a big lumbering whale of a machine, with the wind slicing past my face and the swish of the bow wave urging us along. But I still felt a pang of embarrassment any time that I mentioned my favourite sport to a non-sailor.

But now my parents were about to do something incredible, something noteworthy, and I was so proud. I was able to tell people that they had sold their house to buy the boat, so in fact the boat wasn’t a luxurious toy; it was their home. I was 18, had just finished First Med and was living with my brother and his friend in a flat in town. I was already living fairly independently, but now we were going to have the ultimate ‘free gaff’ for two years. It was very exciting.

In the summer of 1996, I flew out to Australia to join my parents and sail with them from Brisbane to Darwin. It was quite surreal to walk through the high-rise buildings of downtown Brisbane and open the gate onto a little marina tucked under the shadow of glossy apartment blocks. There was Atlantic Islander, just as she had looked when she left Ireland, with my parents sipping cans of beer and waving at us. My older sister Cathy was with me, having travelled from Cambodia, where she was working for the charity GOAL. We set off up the coast, spending time in places with names like Mooloolaba and Maroochydore, my parents taking advantage of fancy things like supermarkets and English-speaking banks and hot showers. They were stocking-up for the coming year, as this would be their last chance to bulk-buy ‘Western’ food. There were tears of laughter streaming down our faces as we manoeuvred three bulging shopping trolleys down the marina gangplank, beer bottles clinking dangerously against each other as we careened towards our berth. Then we set to stowing all of the tins and packets and boxes and cartons away into various cubby holes around the boat, trying to ensure that they would remain watertight and yet accessible, writing the contents on the tins in indelible marker in case the paper labels were washed off in some unforeseen disaster (a lot of time on boats is spent thinking about unforeseen disasters).

It is no surprise, then, that in recent weeks my memories of long-distance sailing have been bubbling-up in my brain. Days and days on end spent in close confines with family members, trying desperately to get on with them but secretly hatching all sorts of homicidal plans. Making three meals a day out of chickpeas, sardines and peanut butter. Having very little to do, and yet finding at the end of the day that the one thing that needed doing remains undone. Bursting into uncontrollable giggles at the stupidest thing, and into uncontrollable rage at the most minor inconvenience. Being, most of the time, a teeny bit terrified, and occasionally frightened witless. Knowing that the time is passing, that the dot on the map is moving inexorably forward, but not really believing that we would ever get there.

And then the sweet, sweet relief of arriving into port, windswept and dirty. Stepping tentatively back onto dry land, legs wobbling a little. Tying-up the lines, straightening up the deck a bit, and then cracking open a beer to congratulate each other on another successful voyage.

We will get there in the end, and it will all be worth it.

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