A Boat on the Side

To Slip, Perchance to Scream

The curious case of the missing testicles.

No matter how well the sailor plans his voyages, no matter how many lists are written, no matter how many items are ticked, there is always the looming, malevolent spectre of Murphy – his black book of Law clutched to his chest. He hovers, ever waiting for the unexpected opportunity, ever ready to put the boot in. Some fifty years ago the callous bastard struck me hard below the belt one freezing January day in the UK.

At Burnham on Crouch, on the East Coast, a yachting race was held every New Year’s Day. It was called, aptly enough, “The Burnham Icicle.” A race pretty much open to all comers. It was a “tradition” of certifiable stupidity, joyfully embraced by scores of brainwashed amateurs, one step away from these madmen who break the ice on Christmas Day in order to go swimming.

As a young lad of thirteen or fourteen and an eager cadet crew, I was proud of my agility and sheet handling prowess. The promise of light airs meant we of slight stature were in demand and there was a chance to crew a competitive boat with a good skipper.

Summer and autumn racing seasons completed – tick.
Wet weather gear, woolies and life jacket – tick.
Non-slip deck shoes – tick.
Ready to win – tick.

So we launched the gleaming 14-footer from the Royal Corinthian’s ramp without touching the water or the ice floes near the shore. My skipper for the day was a fiercely competitive Scotsman who didn’t mince words but did threaten to mince anyone who dared to manhandle his beautiful new boat.

We were both confident but only I was cold – bloody cold – the east wind probed every crevice and every orifice. Rob Roy shrugged it off - “Cold? Nae but a bracing breath o’ breeze.”

The five-minute gun saw us avoiding the pointy bits of the Dragons coming back upriver and then we were off! A good start – starboard tack, seventh or eighth maybe. The boat heeling a touch to leeward, her jib nicely set, “a touch off.”

Cautious and cat-like we tacked with every shift and crept up on the leaders – fifth, fourth, third – a podium! There would be celebratory bagpipes and loud whisky for sure.

Then the fickle breeze faltered, sighed and finally couldn’t be bothered. The pathetic rays of sunlight gave up and went to Spain for the rest of the afternoon. The river mist multiplied, rose up in wraiths and quickly became a fog of freezing misery. The skipper fell silent, all but inaudible Gaelic oaths issuing from beneath tobacco stained teeth.

Suddenly a nudge rapidly followed by a sinister scouring from aft – a moored cruiser had crept up on us from behind and gently but thoroughly scratched our beautifully varnished gunwale with a rusty, once galvanized, bobstay. I looked back aghast as the captain furiously fended off the offending vessel.

Well the new words I learnt that day were the sort that when uttered before our parents as in “What does **** mean Mum?” drew the response “Don’t ever let me hear you say that again!”

We drifted on sullenly for a while then the spell was broken with the immortal words “Fook this for a game ‘o chalks – I’m awa’ in.” So we paddled her back to the ramp, my teenage podium fantasies gone forever but at least I was warmer from the exertion. The ramp, normally acceptable, was now woefully inadequate as scores of shivering sailors came to the same conclusion – this was a mug’s game and the hot toddies in the hot bar were waiting.

We fended off as best we could but few racing dinghies carried fenders, while many carried a reserve of “funny” words. It was nearly dark and below zero before it was our turn. “Hop out and get us a trolley, laddie!” Out I hopped but the ramp was steep and treacherous, I slipped, I fell, I dragged the side down and scraped her beautifully varnished mahogany bottom on the icy concrete. The skipper, hot smoke hissing from his nostrils, fried my ears with a blast of encouragement but to no avail. I got up, I slipped again, betrayed by the non-slip shoes, this time bum first into the iced water.

The shock was truly profound, I may have screamed but the breath was forcibly ejected from my newly numbed body. Somebody laughed and said something like “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”

It didn’t help.

Older, wiser men hauled the 14 back to the pen, leaving me to trudge up to the changing rooms alone, forgotten in the promise of the welcoming arms of the club bar.

I rummaged in the scrum for my kit bag, enduring the elbows and taunts of my fellow cadets “Who’s the only one to fall in then?” I peeled off my sodden gear and ….. “Oh my god, some of my parts are missing!” They had beaten a hasty retreat and slunk away into hiding!

Would they ever return?

Would I ever get to do “it?” – Johnny French already had, apparently.

Was it true about the brass monkeys?

I whimpered as I towelled and changed into the consoling dry trousers.

The bar upstairs was a solid steaming mass of sodden sailors, but it was blessedly warm and even at the entrance I was sent reeling by a thick smoky stew of alcohol fumes and hot air. My father was in there somewhere.

One of my mother’s friends came up - “You look upset Derek, are you alright luv?” What could I say? “It’s OK Mrs. W, they’re back!”

Perhaps not.

I never sailed out of Burnham again.

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