As a twenty-twenty one year old I worked on the beach in Mallorca, where I taught sailing, hired out boats, and worked with a Spanish boy who owned a speed boat to teach water skiing. When people came and asked if they could hire a boat at first I had asked ‘Can you sail?’, but quickly found that there is a class of person, invariably male, who will say ‘Yeah, I can do that’, regardless of ability. After having to get out my rescue boat and return those drifting helplessly in the direction of France, 300 miles away, I learned to ask ‘What sort of boats have you sailed in?’ instead.
If they answered ‘My friends Enterprise’ or ‘I have a Fireball on the reservoir’ we could have a short conversation in which I could re-assure myself they knew the basics at least, if they could not name a boat I would suggest coming out with me first. That quiet mill pond of our bay was the sea, where everything could change in minutes. That gentleman, however, knew ships and boats.
At the outbreak of the Second World War he had been a newly qualified first lieutenant commissioning a new ship, designed with no ferrous metals on board. Intended to map magnetic deviations, she never sailed. Technology caught up during the war and they found ways to do the same thing with aircraft. When I met him he was on a holiday with his family that he had not been keen on, his perfect holiday was a solitary one on a distant beach in Sardinia or Corsica where he saw no-one for a couple of weeks. He discovered a refuge, talking to me, and helping as I repaired rigging, or sailing one of my little boats around the bay, a lovely man who taught me huge amounts about boats, ropes, and the sea.
Of course my first question, after asking what he had sailed, was, “What is a square rigged, double ended, catamaran?”. He had found it on the Norfolk broads, it had a tiller each end, one trailing one steering, and a triangular mast supporting a square sail that could catch the wind in either direction. To go about one did not pass through the wind, but simply made the front the back. Built in the nineteenth century as a prototype the intention had been to scale up and sail the trade winds carrying cargo, but it was made redundant by the coming of steam, which meant ships could take straight lines. I sometimes wonder if it might once more become an economical, and green, alternative in these days of high energy costs.