The river flowed past us, slow and gentle, cocoa-brown with silt. Over our heads arched a magnificent Constable sky, piled high with clouds and shot through with pink and coral, as the sun slipped lower towards the horizon. We were surrounded by gentle Sussex marshlands, festooned with wading birds, while swallows (or is it swifts?) darted and swooped into the water.
We were sitting aboard an elegant 1966 teak and mahogany built sloop, Caressa, property of the Classic Sailing Club (based at Suffolk Yacht Harbour on the Orwell). Mugs of tea and slices of cakes in hand, we watched the sun go down. Only one small detail marred the idyllic scene – we’d been there since 4pm, when a misunderstanding over the route led to us burying Caressa’s keel firmly in several feet of soft mud. The tide was falling, and before long the river began to dry out all around. We would be there for some time.
There’s nothing like sailing for putting you in your place. The almost-complete reliance on the winds and tides engenders a proper respect for the natural world. One minute we’d been heading up the Walton backwaters, delighting in the seals and the bird life; the next we were staring in despair at the stern, gunning the engine in reverse, with complete futility. We were stuck, good and proper. A quick glance at the tide tables confirmed that low tide was more than two hours away, and it’d be at least another three after that before we were likely to float free.
As the tide fell, our position became more obviously risible. We’d attempted to cross a massive sandbank which almost obscured the entrance to the barely-navigable creek we’d been heading for. The boat dried out all around. Fortunately, thanks to the force with which we’d thrust ourselves into the soft mud, we were held almost entirely upright. Caressa usually turns heads for her sleek beauty, but we soon became a source of amusement for passing boats, heading safely up the main channel for the Titchmarsh Marina, almost within sight around the bend of the river.
So, six hours to wait. We began with a cup of tea, naturally. I stretched out in the late afternoon sunshine, pillowed my head on my sailing jacket and snoozed. Phil investigated the yacht’s broken satellite navigation system, fixing it after a couple of hours’ detective work with a volt meter. Bernie, the skipper, made tea and studied the chart. We ate cake. I read a medical research paper that I’d stuffed in my bag at the last minute, not really expecting to have time to look at it. I unearthed a copy of the Big Issue, which I buy every week and usually chuck away barely scanned. We talked.
When last, I wondered idly, had I knowingly spent 6 hours doing nothing? Train journeys busily reading newspapers or checking Twitter; lunch hours rushing round the supermarket; evenings attending to paperwork, or churning up and down the swimming pool, or – on a night off – gazing at the television, trying to quieten my brain. If ever there was a corrective to incessant activity, this was it.
The hours ticked by. The sky, that big Sussex sky over a flat and quiet landscape, flared with its sunset, then settled to an indigo dusk. The midges came out. More welcome, a local yachtsman paddled over on his inflatable to ask if we were all right, and stayed to chat for an hour or two. The tide turned, swinging around the boats on their moorings, pouring in faster, covering the mudflats, displacing the birds.
Eventually, around 8.30pm, with water lapping around the boat, we gunned up the engine. Nothing. We gave it another 10 minutes. Same thing. Another 15 minutes, then. We’d called ahead to sailing instructor Richard, who lives on a houseboat in Titchmarsh Marina, and he’d spoken to the yacht club bar. They were doing meals until 10pm, and would hold on for us. We looked anxiously at our watches. We had plenty of food to get by – but the thought of a proper meal and a beer was attractive.
Finally, around 9.30pm, we heaved ourselves off the bank and slowly, carefully, turned the boat to motor up the channel. No mistakes this time, and with Richard’s help we were soon moored alongside a pontoon. A minute before 10, we piled into the yacht club. Soon we were sitting outside, enjoying roast beef and a beer. That night I turned into my bunk and slept like a baby. It takes it out of you, doing nothing.