The light north-east­erly breeze con­tin­ued dur­ing my watch until mid­night, and Juan­ita sailed on through the dark­ness, her jib shim­mer­ing with the phos­phor­es­cence of the lee bow wave, and little Punch, the 8’ dinghy fol­low­ing in our glisten­ing wake, with a ghostly light part­ing at his stem.

The Magic of the Swatch­ways. Maurice Grif­fiths.

Chuck­ling, he might have writ­ten.

Or play­ful.

There is some­thing about a clinker dinghy. Per­haps it is the Swal­lows and Amazons we all have in us. Child­hood memor­ies. Our first boat. Our first sail­ing boat. Catch­ing a crab. Scull­ing.

So simple some­how.

How long did she take to build? Never mind. There comes, at last, the day of the launch. Open the front door, and out on her side, she goes. Var­nish gleam­ing in the sun­light. Down to the slip. Look­ing per­haps a little too per­fect. But time will see to that. The col­ours will soften. The bumps and scrapes. Inev­it­able. Scars of war. To be healed with paint and var­nish.

The sweeps are long. Too long, com­plains Luis. But long sweeps mean long strokes, long delib­er­ate strokes, and yes, she chuckles. Entranced, you take her on her first out­ing. A pic­nic on the beach round the head­land. You could walk of course, but that is not the point. Load aboard the wick­er hamper, a rug, the fish­ing gear, the bail­er, and put your back into it. Not too much, nor do you need to, for she car­ries her way.

Steal up on Mart­let. Take them by sur­prise.

Come aboard.’

Because yes, it is Ribeiro time.

She lies docile, astern.

And she becomes, in a sense, everybody’s prop­erty. ‘May I…’

Yes of course you may. For she is not only fun. She is prac­tic­al. A load car­ri­er. Safe in a chop. Big party to get aboard. Use the dinghy. Luis morn­ing fish­ing. Stand in the dinghy. Need to bring a spar ashore. Use the dinghy.

Off to Fer­rol. Tow the dinghy. Because there is that anchor­age. And ashore, in Mugar­dos, pulpo, again. But keeps him quiet does a plate of pulpo. A wooden plat­ter. Olive oil. A sprink­ling of pimentón, bread to mop up the last of the olive oil. And that is lunch.

Later we will add a rig. But not yet.

We acquire, from where, I can­not remem­ber, a pair of coir fend­ers. Which look the part. Indeed, are the part. For unlike plastic they do not squeak when the dinghy is along­side. And whilst Saunt­ress can­not speak (but of course she does, all the time, for each and every sound is famil­i­ar, tap, tap, tap, ‘you have for­got­ten to frap the hal­yards’, grat­ing sound on the bob­stay, ‘you have for­got­ten to loop the chain over the fair­lead’), she is happy. Dinghy along­side, she preens her­self. Look at us, she says.

Aren’t we just a pic­ture?

And yes. They are.

It also got some­thing out of the sys­tem. A yen to build a boat. To restore, or prop­erly, to refit, a boat is one thing. To build a boat, from scratch, anoth­er. Month after month she lay, wrong side up, at the bot­tom of the stairs, reprov­ing. ‘When are you going to steam the next plank?’ ‘Soon, prom­ise.’ For you remem­ber the gar­board strake. The first strake to fit and by far the most dif­fi­cult. Twice you made it. Twice you split it. And once split, then for all the work, you must start again. As we did.

You turn her over at last. Start on the ribs at last. And then one day, bless me. We have fin­ished.

And to have an eight-foot clinker dinghy as tender to your yacht puts you imme­di­ately in a dif­fer­ent class. Up there with the smacks, the Baw­leys and the Thames Barges. Join­ing the aris­to­cracy. A work­ing aris­to­cracy admit­tedly and all the bet­ter for that. So, Pete built a dinghy as well. Same design. Same reas­on. And same, for I know it, that same sense of pride. As in doing some­thing worth­while. Which with luck will out­live you.

She has all the accoutre­ments. Anchor, bail­er, sponge, rings in the stem and stern-post, paint­er for­ward, paint­er aft, lash the sweeps to the thwarts, and when tow­ing her, a trick. Where it came from I don’t know. But the voice said, watch it in a fol­low­ing sea. Because your docile little dinghy will con­vert in a flash into a fiend. Roar­ing down the face of a wave to brain her­self on the counter. Ah yes. Secure a warp to the aft ring and bring that aboard on the counter. With that you can tame her.


You for­get to secure that warp on the transom, a light lash­ing would have done it. You are reach­ing for home, sheets star­ted, lee rail under, the dinghy, nose in air, astern. Feel­ing smug. In an instant the yacht goes from alive to dead. Glance astern and there is the reas­on. The warp has slipped over.

And you are damn nearly stopped.

So that is what is meant by trail­ing warps, that Heavy Weath­er Sail­ing tech­nique. Amaz­ing. We can­not get it in. Both try­ing. Anoth­er les­son learned.

You row home under a gib­bous moon.

Softly, on dark waters.


From Sail­ing with the Admir­al by Mar­tin O’Scannall