Thursday, September 14, 2006

Lisbon to Gibraltar - 4: Sailing Histories

We left Cascais on the 23rd July, heading down the coast of Portugal, heading due south. It was the same day as the tall ships set off from Lisbon to Cadiz for the next leg of their 50th anniversary. Looking around at the classic two and three masters on the horizon we could have been sailing a hundred or more years ago. It felt like sailing into history.

There were other types of histories involved - including the personal. Angelika, Ian and I had last sailed two years ago on a cross-channel cruise around the channel islands, so we were getting re-familiarising with each of our little onboard quirks. Angelika, we remembered, has endless energy and will try every sail combination and we remembered to let her do it - as she enjoys it and we usually learn something from the experience.

And the conditions brought back memories for me: we were sailing under a bright hot sun, with steady 15 - 20 knots of wind nearly directly behind and a steady stream of Atlantic rollers coming in from the starboard quarter. We had that for day after day on the ARC and back on the helm it felt natural to be feeling the power of the wave as it pushes the bow of the boat of course again and again.

Later that night as my arms ached from the weight on the wheel I looked up at the stars and imagined all the other boats and their sailors through the centuries that had sailed those waters. Not just the tall ships and their ancestors, the racing clippers like the Cutty Sark, but the navy of Nelson and explorers like da Gama.

And I imaged further back, the boats of the Phoenicians, sailing in the dawn of history their primitive boats to the edge of the known world. In those days there were no charts or maps, let alone Lonely Planet guides. The stories of the mariners from the ancient world must have sounded no different from the legends of the gods and giants, mixed together where reality and myth become one, where the Straits of Gibraltar became the Pillars of Hercules.

But one thing would connect all of those journeys - the sailors on the ships. For some things will be the same in the 21st Century AD as the 12th BC - such as the camaradarie of being on watch, the stories shared, and the relief at the end to go below to rest.

And with that thought after a long long watch I went below to my bunk to entertain the new watch with my snores and wonder: who was the loudest - Nelson, da Gama or Hercules?

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