We’re flying along on a 10 knot breeze across the Channel. The ‘Betty Alan’ is in her element and so are my three trusty crewmates – all passionate sailors. I’m in storyteller’s heaven, adventuring somewhere out there in the world of my plays and short stories, one minute with Captain Baudin and his ‘Geographe’; next I’m dreaming on the wrecks of the ‘Lovespring’ and ‘Katinka’ in my beloved south west WA’s Hamelin Bay; then transforming my imaginings to the Dollmaker and her children swimming the ocean currents of the Sponge Dolls (yes I will post that short story soon). We’re all as happy as gannets and ahead of schedule to fly past the Needles and into the Solent of the Isle of Wight in 4-5 hours, a 12-hour cranking sail from Aldernay clocked up in our expectations based on Ed’s wind and tide planning. And I’m learning the art of taking bearings on huge container ships on the horizon, lumbering their way down the traffic lanes between England and France, and becoming attuned to the sounds of the boat as she slides and leaps through the light choppy swell….
The taste of salt spray, the feel of the wind, the sound of a…helicopter, what? We each turn our ears to the foreign noise, and see, scooting across the sea nearby, a green and grey British Navy hornet, looking for all the world like its heading straight for us…a bee to honey, a hornet to prey. Suddenly its upon us and hovering behind the yacht, twenty metres above the ocean, sending spray scooting up like a skater on air. ‘Betty Alan’ continues to slide her way north and we’re yelling at each other to grab the cameras. Fran and Pete and I all capture the apparition, then suddenly its upon us again, on our bow, right next to us. We are flumoxed, then Fran yells “maybe they’re taking our photo” and we get the strange paradoxical image of these two opposite craft, the magnificent 50 foot wooden yacht in full sail and the noisy hovering hornet in full camouflage, with occupants clicking away at each other. It gets us giggling at least, while still shaking our heads in disbelief.
Just as Ed appears from catching snatches of sleep below from the early start, the helicopter pulls off to the south west and hovers over its original spot. We are travelling so fast on the wind, we now watch from a distance as it hovers, then circles, hovers then moves lower. We have the radio on and between the Coast Guard static chatter, we start to glean snippets of conversation, “salvage”, “piece of debris”, “flotsam”, “floating objects”. Between us we start putting pieces of logic together. Could they have found some wreckage there? Were we perhaps passing through more? Fran sends me forward to the bow to watch we are not going to hit anything. Ed radios in to the Coast Guard. No reply. We’re still moving fast away from the helicopter. and then suddenly he is upon us again. We are in the midst of his spray and noise, he is buzzing us like a hornet to prey…he is beside me on the bow. They are suddenly on the other side, so close I can see the Pilot and his passenger, there are hand signals, unclear….are we about to get shot down! Shit this is too weird! I open my arms in helpless gesture. His white gloved arm signals upwards and they rise up and away as quickly as they came. We are all talking at once, the pieces of puzzle are coming together out of the seeming chaos of this bizarre anomaly. We try the Coast Guard again…”Betty Alan to Coast Guard…do they want us to investigate something floating there?” But why has the hornet not made contact with us themselves? The voice of the Coast Guard starts to relay to the helicopter…they want us to turn and check out a substantial piece of debris…they can not understand us on the radio…we are right in the midst of a large area they are searching due to lots of reports of unidentified items floating about. And thus we find ourselves in the midst of search operation. We drop sail and start the motor, turning around to spend the next hour or two working in a team with helicopters and Coast Guard operators to check out each floating item they find. The red and white Coast Guard helicopter which soon takes over from the Navy hornet is far more friendly and comforting – associations with worthy rescue rather than wrongdoing! The first debris item found, which caused the justifiable fuss, being a wooden hatch cover to a boat, the others less significant…a suncream bottle, a hard hat, pieces of wood, loose bubble wrap, a strange bit of spongey boaty stuff…. Eventually the Coast Guard decide to do their own sea search and we are freed to continue, somewhat bemused, none the wiser, but having taken part in what appears to be a possible disappearance of a unknown boat, perhaps lost, perhaps not…a strange experience of going round in circles chasing hovering helicopters in the open sea, that doubles as one of the busiest sea cargo highways in the world. It somehow felt like finding a car door by the road, then searching for a missing troopie on the Nullabor! Overwhelmingly though, I am left with the image of that huge ugly green hornet hovering in my face, waiting for the missile to fire…”Tomorrow, when the war began” in the midst of the English Channel.
We may not have found a lost boat but now we must catch up the lost time …the sails up again, the wind obliges and we take off for the south coast of England, and I witness with great joy, seeing my dear sister at her finest, standing at the helm of her beautiful boat flying up the Solent at dusk several hours later. But fortune will strike again before our day is done. A slight glitch in bringing down the mainsail sees us motoring in circles again, this time in the dark in the large ship turning area at the entrance to the Medina River, so close and yet so far from our berth on the Isle of Wight…a second and far more intense team-building experience (which clever Uncle Pete managed to sleep through most of). Suffice to say, we survive in tact, and moor at midnight at Cowes Yacht Haven, 14 exhilerating and exhausting hours after leaving the Channel Islands. We finally fall into our cots at 2am, our belly’s full of stew, our adventure debriefed, our stories shared over well earned whiskey and water.
Two days later, holed up still in our safe haven while it blows a 20-40 knot howler out there and delays our sea journey, I’ve been reading Alex Miller’s ‘Lovesong’, recommended by friend Robyn. Miller describes the difference between writer and teller of stories,
“The writer cruises the ocean currents, and often comes to grief out there. The writer who loses his way in what Christina Stead called the ocean of story. It happens all the time. We drown out there. We go under. A familiar voice falls silent and is never heard from again. The ‘Mary Celestes’ of the writing world. It’s not something you can calculate. The loss is mysterious and puzzling. The teller, on the other hand, keeps to a familiar stretch of the river and remains safe.”
So what am I, as I return to the fray? A bit of both I suspect, and loving the journey…