Last October, whilst my husband was away, my sister-in-law came to stay with me on my beloved boat.
Now us two older women have been known to spend our time comparing knitting as we discuss our grandchildren, but since we were on the boat, it seemed perfectly natural to haul in the mooring lines and set sail for the wide blue yonder. Why wouldn’t we? That’s what boats are for. It didn’t occur to me at all that two older women in a boat is an unusual sight.
We had a wonderfully sunny sail from our home port over to the Kornati, a group of 87 islands which form one of Croatia’s stunning national parks.
We moored up in a beautiful bay with a restaurant. I was very proud of our arrival in the little sheltered bay. My novice sister-in-law was a star. She picked up our buoy in fine style and we were soon happily settled for the night. We rowed the dinghy over to the little restaurant ashore and were very pleased when the barman commented on our professional entrance. (You have to know that watching people muck up their mooring is an enormously gratifying part of sailing — a real spectator sport.)
It never occurred to us that the reason the barman gave us a free drink to celebrate our stylish arrival was because two women had managed it. Full of the joys of a new place, we tucked into a really great meal of fish, caught just that day by the restaurant owner. After a giggly trip back to the boat (rowing the dinghy in the dark proved to be excessively amusing), silence and slumber soon reigned.
The silence didn’t last long though. In the night, the wind got up. It’s a famous local wind from the northeast, called the "bora". It swoops down the Velebit Mountains and smacks into the sea, creating a maelstrom of waves and spray. It’s a dangerous wind. The boat was yawing about, creaking and complaining.
Time and again, I was compelled to get up to check the mooring and to worry whether the buoy was dragging, whether we were closer to the rocky shore, whether we were closer to the boat on the buoy behind ours, whether the dinghy was lashed down tightly enough, whether the mooring ropes were secure or whether I could stop the halyards making that dreadful slapping noise. I noticed that more boats had crept in to shelter from the wind. I checked the windspeed on the anemometer — it was well over 40 knots, and we were in a sheltered bay, huddled under the windbreak of a hill top. Out at sea, it must have been in excess of 50 knots. Sleep was sporadic and fretful.
In the morning, it had abated somewhat, but we spent a happy hour in the weak sunshine, huddled up under the dodger, watching the spume driving down the channel outside our bay. As the wind dropped a bit more, we decided to risk another trip ashore on the dinghy.
As we landed, somebody from another boat came up to us and asked whether it was true that there were only two women on our boat — to which the answer was of course, "Yes, it is true." Funny question we thought!
I decided we’d be better moored on the jetty that night. We would sleep a bit better as the wind was forecast to rise again in the night. It’s a bit tricky doing that when it’s really windy so, since there were only the two of us and our boat was heavy, I asked the restaurant owner for help. He was lovely and sprang to our aid. I reversed stern to and he heaved on the mooring lines so that we were firmly attached. Yes, much better — I knew we’d get a good night’s sleep.
Whilst I was tidying up the mooring ropes ashore and fixing the passerelle (the gang plank), another chap came up to me and solemnly told me that he was a yachtmaster and that he’d sailed across the Atlantic. "Great," I replied. He’d sailed lots of other places too. Every year he sailed somewhere different. After a few more questions about where I’d sailed, he took off, seemingly satisfied that he’d sailed more than I had. Just why had he been compelled to turn a bit of sailing into a game of oneupmanship? "Whatever makes you happy," I thought as I coiled the mooring lines out of the way.
We set off to retrieve our dinghy and my sister-in-law rowed it back to our boat whilst I took photos of her. I was accosted in a variety of languages as I dodged between the mooring lines trying to get my photos.
"Are you from that boat with only women on board?" "Yes, I am." "Why don’t you have a skipper?" "We do." "Who?" "Me." "How many of you are there? Only two? How do two women manage?" (I had to restrain myself from replying — "the same as two men would.")
More boats came in. Everyone wanted to be out of the wind for the night so the mooring was quite crowded. After a good meal on board, we decided to wander up to the restaurant for a drink. After all, we were two women on a bit of an adventure.
First, we were interrogated by a group from a Finnish business school, who had come on a week’s adventure and team building course. "Was it true that we were just two women on that big boat?" "Yes, it was true." "Amazing. Very impressive" — they had seven or eight on each of their boats. Oh, time for dinner.
We sat down with our drinks and a group of 12 men on the next table asked us if we were the women from the American boat, but we told them that we were British. "We heard you just came across the Atlantic — is that true?" "Sort of, my husband and I had sailed it with some crew from Canada to Croatia a few years before — the boat was built in Canada." "And is it true that there are only two of you on board?" "Yes, it’s true." "How do you manage with just two women?" Hmmm — this was getting a bit repetitive. They even took our photo!
They were old school friends from near Cologne in Germany who had made up a Sunday afternoon football team. Their coach was teaching them sailing too. Once they had got over their amazement at two older women on a boat, they were great fun. They were having a whale of a time on the high seas, bonding themselves into a better football team.
The next day, the wind had dropped, the sun was out and we set off nice and early to get back to our home port. It was a lovely day, lazing in the sun and drifting along at an easy pace. Idyllic.
Home at last, there was a reception committee. A group of charter boats had come in next to our usual berth. So I had to reverse the boat under the watchful eyes of about eight silent Polish men standing with arms folded on the quay. Was I going to pass the test? Phew, for once I didn’t fluff it — always a risk of getting it wrong!
Safely tied up, we met a hail of questions. "Where were the rest of the crew? So how did you do it, all on your own? Where was the boat from? How did it get here?" There was general amazement that two older women could sail a boat by themselves.
We were very touched though, when about two hours later, we were called upon by the women from the Polish party. They said they’d heard that it was just us two women on the boat and wanted to find out for themselves. How did we get the men to let us sail the boat? I had to laugh, as on our boat, I’m the qualified sailor and my long-suffering husband wouldn’t have been a husband if he hadn’t taken to sailing. He’s my best mate!
They told us that they were a family group split over 3 boats, grandma and grandpa, brothers and sisters and their spouses and the teenage grandkids. It was nice for them to do something fun altogether as a family. The women, ranging in age from teenage to an older pensioner, had been gainfully occupied doing the washing and cooking the dinner as we arrived so they had not seen us come in. They wanted to see us for themselves.
None of them had been allowed to sail the charter boats, they told us. The conversation was a serious one about how they could insist on knowing how to sail and maneuver the boat, not only for safety reasons but also as a role model for the younger members of the family and for their own self-confidence. It was enlightening and endearing. They were so prolific in their thanks and told us that we were an inspiration. And later, one of them popped back with a dish of traditional Polish stew for us.
My sister-in-law and I were amazed at the reactions that we had provoked over our short three-day trip. It reminded me that some 30 years ago, after she had finished her school exams, my daughter and I did a little trip from Ramsgate to Dover in a different boat. As we were setting off, some workers came over to cadge some milk for tea. They exclaimed in astonishment when they saw that we were leaving. “Are you going on your own?” they asked, to which I replied, “No, I’m going with her,” pointing to my daughter.
It is rather sad to think that in 30 years, times haven’t changed that much. It was a real eye-opener that in this day and age two women in a boat should provoke such striking reactions: a mixture of competition, disbelief, amazement and inspiration.
I think I need to go on trips with my women friends more often: just to set an example.