Sort of… Actually, not since November, and even then it was (very) short distances over a day or perhaps a weekend, but most importantly, over water rather than solid ground, AND – NEWSFLASH! – on her own boat!
Yes, you read that right. More than 18 months since last setting foot on a sailing vessel when I left St Lucia, I have somehow reached the dream I originally set out to achieve, albeit not remotely the way I imagined. (Although, let’s face it, there was so little ‘plan’ involved from the outset that I am not at all surprised).
Where to begin… If you’ve followed this blog from the beginning, you’ll know that I left my home and job in December 2019 with the aim of sailing (as crew) across the Atlantic, through the Caribbean and back to Europe, hoping to learn both more about sailing (I’d spent only a week on a boat before I left) and boats, so that when I got back I would feel prepared to buy a boat of my own to live and sail on, avoiding the debt trap of a mortgage or drain of rent.
I made it from the Canaries to the Caribbean with Gill and John on board Mehalah, and managed one island hop to St Lucia before covid struck and the world went into lockdown. With boats allowed to leave but not return, and other islands shutting their borders like dominoes, I found a land-based workaway to sit out the storm. But when St Lucia announced they were closing their airport with no idea when it might re-open again, and with the window for sailing home before hurricane season rapidly closing, I decided to book the last flight back to the UK.
I spent the spring, summer and autumn living in a shed in my parents’ garden, transforming what had been a field into vegetable production, and growing more cucumbers than any family could eat. Covid restrictions prevented me from travelling too far to view or crew on boats, but I was happy to be greening my fingers.
Autumn arrived and the prospect of staying in a shed with no insulation, power or water did not appeal. Besides, it was due to be filled with furniture from the house my family was selling.
I took the opportunity to overwinter with a friend in her house in Cornwall, imagining I’d spend a few months close to the sea, boats and crewing opportunities, ready to buy a boat in the springtime. Alas, it was not to be. The combination of continuing covid restrictions, the depressing reality of Brexit (and not being able to stay in Europe for more than 3 months in any 6 – not ideal for a plan to cruise the Med!) and my newly acquired puppy walking off a cliff and taking a significant chunk of my savings with him (he survived with a wonky leg full of expensive metal and his usual cheeky personality) meant that the prospect of sailing again, let alone buying a boat, faded away.
Fast forward a few months and I have met Michael. He’s sailing regularly with a local charity, building up miles and qualifications on his way to being a Yachtmaster and hopefully an instructor. His stories and photos of his trips and the places he gets to visit make me long to sail again, and his experiences make him long for a boat of his own.
We half-jokingly browse facebook marketplace for boats for sale, and view one that turns out to be a wreck. Then one sunny Wednesday morning in October, Michael is away sailing and I avoid my very long to do list by taking a walk down the river down the road from where we live.
The first boat I see is called Mehalah – the only other one I have seen since my Atlantic crossing. I pause to take a photo for Gill and John, then notice that another boat on the slip behind is for sale. I took a quick photo, and in the spur of the moment, sent a text to the number on the for sale sign asking for more information. Furzey dog and I continued our walk in the sunshine without thinking too much about it. Later that day, I sent a picture of the boat to Michael, joking that I’d found our boat. He spent the evening on facebook marketplace and found her there.
It turned out she was a Westerly Centaur (which you might remember was the very first boat that I set foot on and looked at buying back in May 2019, and subsequently sailed on between Weymouth and Poole with friendly Steve who I met at a bus stop whilst walking the South West Coast Path that summer).
I’d thought them the perfect little boats for starting out on then, and this one was no exception – well maintained, fully equipped and ready to sail away (single handed, if one so desired, with all lines running back to the cockpit). A bilge keel, so suitable for taking up river and keeping on cheaper moorings that dry out at low tide, and with such a mooring about as close to our home as it was possible to be without being on land.
We arranged to go and view her that weekend, keeping our fingers crossed that the couple who requested a viewing first didn’t take her. We met David and Helen on Sunday morning, and spent 2 hours chatting to them on board. Whispering Willow, as she was called, had been well loved and cared for by a handful of owners in her 40ish years, making her way slowly westwards down the south coast. She came with a file of receipts and records of all the maintenance work she’d had done, showing that she’d been at a tiny boatyard downriver from the town where I’d been at school, then for many years at the yacht club nearest to where I lived in Devon – where I’d been sailing for the first time at a Push the Boat Out weekend, and where I would have driven past her every time I’d gone to the beach (very regularly).
She’d been sailed extensively between the Solent and the Scillies and didn’t seem to have ever come to harm. Having said goodbye to David and Helen, saying we’d be in touch later that day, the conversation on our afternoon walk quickly turned from “shall we buy this boat?” to “do we want to buy a boat?” – if we didn’t buy this one, seemingly the perfect boat in the perfect place at the perfect time, then it seemed unlikely that we ever would.
Having reviewed our combined savings, we sent D&H an offer which, remarkably, they accepted! We moved the boat down to her mooring with them (via a short motor down river) that Friday afternoon, and took her out for a first solo voyage on the Sunday. Without perfect wind or tides, we mostly motored, but enjoyed a brief period under full sail seeing how she handled, and lunch in the sun on a pontoon up river.
The following weekend we went for longer, the tides not allowing us to get back on the mooring in one day, and spent the night on a pontoon at a nearby yacht harbour. Our first night of rocking, squeaking lines and fenders, and our first breakfast watching the sun rise over the calm water.
Furze wasn’t sure about his first sail – the proximity to the water seems to worry him somewhat (even with his very small life vest on, which we deemed necessary after he nearly drowned himself in a slow moving river in the summer, adventure dog that he is), but very happy to sleep down below when we were underway.
So there we have it. Mariel has a boat, a man, a dog, and is looking forward to a spring and summer of south coast voyages as a family of four. Yes, four. If you’ve read this far, you deserve to know that there is another plot twist in Mariel’s travels – a mini sailor is expected to join the crew any day – eek!