As I drove from under the shade of tall trees the view across Dublin Bay to Howth was as magnificent as even. With my window open the salty air tickled my nose and all I could do in response was smile. It had happened many times, and the clear blue water that stretched and stretched before becoming one with the distant horizon intensified the good feeling.
I parked my car, turned and took in the view just like the dozen or so onlookers who were seated at the viewing point on the curve at Seapoint. From here you had an uninterrupted view of the expanse of the bay, that on a bright day like today was simply ‘the place to be’. Lost in the far-off blueness yachts were cutting across the water heading back to the marina in Dun Laoghaire, while beyond them a large cruiser made its way leisurely towards Dublin Port. Such liners were a recent feature in the bay, and their gigantic presence always generated plenty of photographs and comments on social media.
I knew the scene in front of me well but I realised, and not for the first time, that I had never sailed across the bay to Howth. It was something that I had always wanted to do, as I would be able to take photographs of the city from a new vantage point. But, not being a member of a sailing club the opportunities were non-existent until last week. As I was putting my photography equipment away after a shoot in an office where the owner, a man named Chris, had two framed photographs of a boat on the water, he asked ‘Do you like boats? I noticed that you seemed quite interested in these pictures.’
I nodded. ‘Firstly, these are fine photographs, and then it seems to me that whoever is on that boat is having fun.’ The boat was leaning to the side and slicing through the water with ease. It was exciting.
Chris smiled. ‘Well, that’s FloatOn, my boat, and she really moves. It’s a Berwick Westerly 31and it’s the best boat that I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a few.’
I looked again at the picture and I could almost feel the spray in my face as Chris talked about being on the water and going across the bay to Howth or down the coast to Greystones.
‘Do you sail?’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘but I like the sense of freedom that it offers. People say that they feel released when sailing, and I think that I can understand that. Skipping across the water is something that I have often thought about…and it’s still on my To Do list.’
Chris smiled again. ‘Well, in that case, I’d like to welcome you aboard FloatOn sometime.’
That was a week ago, and now as I looked out from my car at the endless blue scene in front of me, I was excited because tomorrow I would, finally, be on the water and sailing to Howth. From where I was now the distance didn’t far, and I reminded myself to look up from the boat and take photographs of the where I was now. Then I would have the story from both sides, as it were, and with that thought I started the car and slipped into the traffic, and away from the beautiful vista.
The late-September sky was clear, with a few white clouds high up and barely moving.
Lines of boats bobbed at anchor as sunlight sparkled from their metalwork. It was an image that I liked and I took some photographs, before spotting Chris who was waving from the end of the West Pier. Ship ahoy, I thought, the excitement now undeniable as butterflies, or whatever, buzzed in my stomach.
Chris looked me over, head to toe, and nodded approvingly. ‘Suited and booted, you look fine,’ he said offering a firm handshake.
I quickly glanced at my new clothes and felt as it was a good start. ‘I got them from a friend-of-a-friend who is on holiday this week. He’s a member of the National Yacht Club and, thankfully, we are almost the same height and weight.’
‘You look fine, Joe, and ready for action.’
‘Sure am,’ I replied wondering if that was just a figure of speech or should I be aware of something more serious. I’d had some negative thoughts in the last day or say and I chided myself for them. Why was I thinking like this? I was going sailing with a man who was a seasoned veteran and boat owner, and others, across Dublin Bay on a glorious day. It was what I had always wanted and now I was having dark thoughts that kept coming back like the tide. That was an unfortunate, if accurate, phrase and I tried to let it go and busy myself helping Chris.
The breeze was warm and fresh, and above us seagulls swooped and cawed as they fought over scraps that a sailor on a nearby trawler tossed into the air.
‘Here, put these in the dinghy,’ Chris said as he handed me a box with milk, sugar, coffee, a bag of doughnuts and two packets of biscuits. ‘I have a sweet tooth, several of them in fact, so we’ll have something when we get a little out.’
‘Sounds fine to me,’ I said as we were joined by the third member of our motley crew.
‘And this is, Dave,’ said Chris introducing my new shipmate. ‘He’s a dentist,’ he added ‘and I’m sure that we’ll not be in any need of his skills today.’
Dave shook his head playfully before asking. ‘Chris, I thought there was going to be four of us today?’
Chris shrugged, and shook his head. ‘Kevin, my travel agent friend, got involved in some business in London that dragged on…and he didn’t get back yet. So, it’s just us, The Holy Trinity, who’ll be having lunch in Howth later.’
I looked over to Dave. ‘Are you a sailor?’
‘A few times a year, I guess, as I’m usually found on the golf course. I’ve done this trip maybe a dozen times and it’s always fun. Do you sail, Joe?’
I had thought about that a lot since Chris had invited me onto the water. It was during summer holidays, I think I was fourteen, and I went with a group of local friends to an outdoor, pursuit centre near Courtown in Wexford for a week. We went climbing, horse riding, surfing, orienteering and sailing, by the end of which we were so exhausted that we were happy to go home. It had been a great time and I did remember having a feeling of lightness as the teacher took control of the tiller and the boat picked up speed and moved easily over the shimmering water. I laughed as the salty spray hit my face – oh yeah, that had been fun. ‘Once, and that was a while ago,’ I said ‘but I have been studying up lately.’
‘That’s good to hear,’ said Chris as he stepped aboard the dinghy, and took us to FloatOn.
‘I like the name,’ I said when aboard ‘where did that come from?’
‘Well there’s nothing funny or suggestive to it, if that’s what you mean? I know that’s often the case, but FloatOn is meant to reflect exactly that – Float and On. I think it was a combination of floating and drifting on, both of which are immediately identifiable with the sea.’ He looked over the length of the boat. ‘I like it, and it sounds good, too. That’s important.’
‘Yeah, it’s one of the best that I know,’ added Dave who had just tied his lifejacket on.
Half an hour later after Chris had given me a quick A-Z of the boat we were ready to go. I recognised most of the items he pointed out from the YouTube videos that I had watched, the one titled ‘Sailing for Dummies’ being my favourite. He was impressed, but when I said that the only time I had encountered a halyard was when I did the Irish Times crossword, he stopped the ‘lesson’ and laughed out loud.
‘I must remember that one,’ sniggered Dave making a face.
‘Right, gentlemen, I think that we are ready to move off.’
‘Have you checked the weather, Captain?’ asked Dave.
Chris adjusted his cap and pulled it tighter over his silver hair. He was, I had found out, fifty-seven years old but looked much younger, the years sailing a boat in the fresh air had obviously been a benefit. He was in better shape than most of my contemporaries who were nearly twenty-five years younger. ‘I have, and we might get some rain later. It should pass over quickly and, apart from that, we should be fine.’ He glanced out to sea. ‘It’s a lovely day for a crossing; you’ve picked well, Joe.’
I hadn’t picked anything at all, but I appreciated the inclusivity of his words. And, I hoped that I might in some way contribute to the day’s outing.
So, just as we moved slowly towards the sea the clouds that had drifted across the sun slid away and we bathed in strong, bright light. I took a few photographs, taking my time as I tried to get used to the movement of the boat. Around me salty air was now so much stronger than I had expected and I felt great.
Chris talked about the crossing, something he had been doing for longer than he cared to remember. There were tales of people getting sick, no surprise I thought as a wave lifted the boat momentarily. And he reckoned that FloatOn could probably sail over and back on its own so familiar was it with the journey. He was a font of stories, the old sea dog in the mood and enjoying it. He pointed off to the right. ‘Looks like the good weather has brought out the crews,’ he said as we turned to take in the spectacle of thirty, no maybe forty, yachts racing. The sails billowed as the crews moved about doing whatever was necessary to get more speed. I leaned on the roof of the cabin and took a stack of photographs knowing that I would probably not get this chance again. With the zoom fully extended I knew that I had some good stuff, as the yachts quickly moved away from us and into the open sea.
Beyond them the Kish Lighthouse, its whiteness standing out from the surrounding blue canvas, shone briefly before a passing cloud took its glory.
I took a few shots of where I had been sitting in my car yesterday but I was much further away than I had expected and I knew they would be much good.
The tide was coming in and I could see it breaking against the stones below the Martello Tower. Traffic moved silently along the road, for all I could hear now was the wind rippling the main sail and the sound of waves hitting the boat.
‘How far are we now?’ I asked Chris who was looking closely at the sky.
‘Oh, we’re about half-way now, and you can see straight down the Liffey estuary into the city.’
Being this far out at sea I had to gauge my bearings by finding the twin towers of the Poolbeg Power Station and then looking to the right. Sure enough I could see up the river and the cranes along the quays. The glass and metal from some of the recently erected buildings sparkled like Christmas trees. This was new to me and again I took a load of photographs.
‘Getting in plenty of work, eh,’ said Chris.
‘Yeah, and the sunlight really is such a big help.’
Chris pointed a finger to something over my shoulder. ‘Hey, you’re in luck.’
I had been so lost with taking photos of the river that I hadn’t noticed the cruise liner that had come from behind a line of warehouses and was now heading out to sea.
‘We’ll get a little closer,’ Chris added ‘and then you see just how big these boys are.’
Ten minutes later both Dave and I took photos of the enormous ship as it moved with purpose past North Bull Island, and in no time it was gone.
‘That was great,’ I said, and noted that that Chris was again looking at the sky.
I sat at the back of the boat and watched what Chris was doing. With so much experience he made it all look simple and I decided that I must take some sailing lessons. I would ask him about it later as right now I felt he was concentrating on something I didn’t understand.
‘That wind has certainly picked up,’ said Dave, looking back at Chris and I didn’t miss the concern in his voice.
Chris didn’t reply as he kept looking at the sky.
We were now getting close to the southern side of Howth Head from where the Baily lighthouse kept watch.
In a matter of a few minutes the sky darkened and the breeze rose.
‘Take down the main sail, Dave,’ Chris shouted ‘as I’m going to turn on the engine. This is getting too rough; I don’t like it.’
Dave made his way carefully along the deck and began to take down the flapping sail. He struggled at first but he got it down and managed to tie it to the boom as the boat was knocked about by the rising waves. On his way back he slipped and cried out in pain.
I was already up and moving when Chris shouted ‘Help him, Joe.’
Dave was holding his knee and his face was contorted in pain. ‘I’ve twisted bloody knee,’ he spat. ‘Shit.’
I leaned down, grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him to the back of the boat. He was smaller than me, and with my shoulder under his I managed to get him into the cabin.
‘It’s not broken,’ he said ‘but it hurts like hell.’ He let out a lungful of air. ‘Thanks, Joe, you’d better go and help Chris, I’ll be alright. Go.’
I went back on deck where Chris was working hard at the wheel. ‘How’s, Dave?’
‘He’s twisted his knee, but nothings broken.’
Chris managed a tight grin as he looked ahead at the rising waves. ‘I wasn’t expecting this,’ he said ‘but shit happens.’
‘What’s happening?’ I asked.
Chris gritted his teeth and pulled hard on the wheel. ‘We’ve been hit by a squall that I never saw coming. It’s like it came from behind Howth Head – we’ve been ambushed.’ Once more he strained to keep control as another wave slammed into the side of the boat.
The cliffs below Howth Head were disappearing in the falling mist and I wondered just how bad things were going to get. We left the marina a man short and now one of us was lying injured. That was not good but I consoled myself that I was with a man who knew these waters as well as any sailor. We’d be okay.
Seconds later a big wave hit us hard and FloatOn was knocked sideways. Chris managed to hang onto the wheel but not when the next wave hit. This was bigger and he was tossed past me where he stumbled, fell and banged his head,
‘Oh, God, Chris,’ I shouted ‘are you okay?’
He didn’t answer and then I saw the blood on his forehead. I felt for a pulse and thankfully I found it, although it was slower than it should be.
‘What’s happened,’ cried Dave ‘are you okay?’
I leaned into the cabin. ‘I am, but Chris has been knocked out. What are we going to do?’
Time seemed to stand still before Dave said ‘Drag him down here and I can take care of him, okay?’
I nodded and wiped rain from my face.
‘And then you can sail the boat. I mean we’re not far from Howth marina.’
I couldn’t believe what he said. ‘Me…but..’
‘Just do it, Joe, there’s nothing else we can do.’
The boat was rocking more and more and I knew that he was right even though I was scared stiff. ‘Ok, I’ll get him now.’
It took a mighty effort to drag Chris across the deck but surprisingly the rolling of the boat actually made it easier than I had expected. When I got Chris into the cabin Dave was standing and he had an open a First Aid box on the bench. ‘Do your best, Joe, you’ll make it,’ he said as he began to check the mark on Chris’s head.
I struggled to get back on deck that was now sluicing with water. Around the boat the waves seemed to grown and I knew that I had never felt so nervous. There was another lurch to the left before I got behind the wheel and began to pull it down. We had to get away from the cliffs and the lack of visibility meant I had no time to lose. It was a struggle and the muscles in my arms ached as I held on and headed directly into the waves. Boom, boom rang the sound of crashing waves as I held on and rode the madness. It can’t last, I told myself, it just can’t last. And then, just as the pain in my arms and legs had grown unbearable I spotted sunlight on a side rail. It couldn’t be, I thought, suddenly feeling a new rush of energy surge through my screaming muscles. The waves continued to drench the boat but the worst of the buffeting seemed to have passed. Minutes later the mist that had been my enemy drifted away and I was guiding FloatOn past the northeast corner of Howth Head. The sense of relief was overwhelming and I fell forward onto the wheel.
‘We made it,’ I shouted down to Dave ‘we bloody well made it.’
Dave laughed. ‘I knew you’d do it, Joe. Top man.’
‘And how’s Chris?’
‘He’s still unconscious, but his pulse and breathing have settled.’
‘Tell me, how am I going to park this bloody thing?’ I asked.
‘Don’t worry, Joe, I’ve already alerted the local Life Guard and they’ll come and take us in.’
Phew, that was a relief, I said quietly as I guided FloatOn towards the marina. Ten minutes later a man who knew exactly what to do was in charge and he took us into a berth.
‘That was a close one,’ he said.
‘You’re not joking,’ I agreed. ‘And thanks for the help.’
‘And by the way…you did very well. Very well indeed,’ he added before heading off down the quay.
Getting a compliment from a professional was unexpected, but I would have preferred if he never had reason to say anything.
Chris had mild concussion and he was kept in the local hospital overnight. Dave had his leg strapped up, before a sailor he knew from Howth Yacht Club drove us back to Dun Laoghaire. It was a fine gesture and I made sure to send him a Thank You note a couple of days later. And when I called to see Chris at his home later in the week he still had a bandage above his eye. He looked like a boxer who had gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson, but he was recovering.
‘I owe you a big thanks, Joe,’ he said, giving me a hug.
I shook my head. ‘You owe me nothing, Chris, absolutely nothing.’
Over a cup of coffee I told him what I had done and he sat in silence taking in every word. ‘I spoke with, Dave, and he told me what you did…and just how bad the conditions became.’ He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to remember something, I suspected, or maybe it was to forget what happened. He gently shook his head, opened his eyes, and met my gaze. ‘But then we had you, Joe….we had you.’ He smiled, and it was a crooked one considering the bump to his head. ‘Well done that man.’
I didn’t respond, as we shared a moment that neither of us would ever forget.
Chris sipped his coffee. ‘And, of course, we never got to have lunch. I was so looking forward to that.’
‘I know, but I’m not exactly starving,’ I replied, tapping my belly.
Chris grinned. ‘But we will do, I promise…and I’m paying. Okay?’
That was fine with me. ‘Aye, aye, Captain,’ I said, and we both laughed at that.