The view from my office window across Falmouth roads reflects the seasons. On fine summer days it’s a bustling place, boats everywhere, alive with sails, vibrant with activity. In winter the mooring fields empty, and only the occasional fishing boat or ferry catches the eye, lending an air of desolation to the harbour. So, as you can imagine, all of us lucky enough to live here warmly anticipate the arrival of spring as the time when, once again, the town will come alive.
The sunny weather over the last fortnight that warmed our skins told us that winter is over, but the evidence we can see out on the water tells us a very different story. The mooring fields are all but empty and no sails criss-cross the harbour—no great surprise because, along with the rest of the country, Covid-19 has cast its shadow over Falmouth.
That Was Then
In a normal year, the last few weeks would have seen a frenzy of activity in the boatyards. Travel hoists would have been working full time dropping newly antifouled hulls into the water. By this time, at least half the moorings would be occupied, ready for the long Easter weekend and the start of the season proper. But everything is in lockdown, so the travel hoists remain silent and the boatyards are still full to capacity with stored boats.
Falmouth largely revolves around sailing and other related maritime activities. There can be few places around Britain with a greater density of boat owners, or with a local economy that is so indivisibly linked to sailing. Literally hundreds of jobs depend on this narrow but economically important sector. So the current collapse of business cannot help but have a devastating effect on the town.
This is Now
Boatyards, chandleries, marinas, riggers, engineers, electricians, sailmakers and many other associated businesses are all suffering, just when they should be at their busiest.
Only a few months ago, no-one was predicting any more than a possible slowdown in business activity, with time to allow businesses to prepare strategies to mitigate that impact. The reality has instead been a sudden and almost total halt to spending that has left the men and women working in the marine industry shell-shocked and worried for their long-term future.
No-one knows when the yards will be working once again, or whether even then many owners may elect not to launch their boats, at least while there remains the possibility that personal lockdowns may have to be reintroduced in the event of a second wave of infection. Why would you, when it’s cheaper to keep the boat on the hard, and when, in any case, you have no idea when you may be in a position to use it?
The general lockdown of business across the country means that almost all households are watching their finances very carefully indeed and ‘discretionary spending’ on leisure activities such as sailing must surely be near the top of the list of items to restrict.
Staying at home or self-distancing means that few out-of-town boat owners will be down here for some time, and even if they did turn up they might not be welcomed with open arms:
- Some marinas are reported to have informed berth holders that they are not permitted to use their boats as a second home in which to self-isolate until the lockdown is lifted.
- In scenic but sparsely populated regions all around the country, visitors in general, especially from the cities the epidemic is currently centred in, are being actively advised to stay away.
This might seem self-defeating in regions that rely on visitors as the backbone of the local economy, but there are good reasons for this advice. Not only are possible carriers of the virus best advised to stay home and not help to spread it anywhere, but many of their favourite areas are remote with limited medical facilities. Unless we can get a grip on this pandemic, our inadequate services may soon be overwhelmed by the needs of the winter population, let alone an influx of extra patients from outside the area.
Into The Unknown
Currently we have no idea when things will return to some semblance of normality (whatever that may turn out to be). None of us have seen anything like this in our lifetimes. So for now, the sailing season for 2020 is very definitely on hold, and we can only hope for some magic bullet that will alleviate the collective suffering of the people and businesses here in this sailing hub, so badly affected by this awful turn for the worse, and soon.
This Season Will Be Different
So spare a thought for the people working in the ‘yachting industry’, the men and women who have built businesses and careers running the likes of sailing schools and charter yachts right up to trans-Atlantic and polar craft.
Here in the northern hemisphere, the final preparations for the season would be just about complete, all of the hard cold winter’s graft servicing and re-fitting the boat behind them at last.
When the boat finally splashes it’s a big morale boost for the crews, psyching them up to deal with the inevitable last-minute issues great and small. Anticipation of good times, fine people, and wonderful experiences runs at an all-time high at this time. Which is just as well, because most of the people involved do it for the love of the way of life, not the money, for there’s not a lot of money in it, let me assure you.
So seeing some of the well-known names of the fleet still tied up, the gear lying idle on deck, is saddening indeed. Not only because some of the crews are friends of ours, but also because I was in their shoes for so many years, as a working charter skipper, which is a far more emotionally charged job than you might at first imagine.
The skipper and crew have to run the daily gamut of chores and worries, all the while hoping to share some transcendent experiences with the eager adventurers in our care, some vivid memory to guide them through until next year. Not least because many of them will be friends from previous voyages, who return for their annual fix of adrenaline and wild places in our company.
So, beyond the financial worries that now confront the charter companies and their owners, I can hardly bear to imagine what it must have been like telling the charterers the bad news, those people who have been living for their two weeks afloat with you. As Yeats said, tread carefully, for ‘you tread on my dreams’—and in this case, your own, too.
The Few Remaining Craftspeople
I have always held people with real mechanical skills in the highest regard and tried my own cack-handed best to emulate them. I’ve also counted myself very lucky to have known and been on good terms with some of the most able and unsung of these heroes, not least my old friend Martin Taylor of TRG Engineering in Falmouth.
For all the years I have lived and sailed from here, Martin has been my ‘go-to’ guy, and his endless good will and engineering genius has saved my bacon on many an occasion. Like the time I arrived in his workshop with the mangled windlass stripper arm off a brand new Boréal on delivery to Ireland. Without this insignificant but vital item we weren’t going anywhere, but within ten minutes Martin had made the horribly twisted item better than new and we were once more ready to go.
On other occasions I have arrived with no more than a sketch and a few vague ideas, which Martin has translated into something approaching perfect form, better than I could ever have hoped for, which to me is nothing less than alchemy.
But there’s a twist. Martin is now seventy years old, and after a lifetime of hard work simply wants to retire. When he does, there is currently no-one local with anything like the breadth of his skills, range of machinery, and treasure trove of engineering lore.
Give the younger generations of engineers a CNC lathe and an order for 100 items to an exact specification and they can do a great job. But ask them to ‘imagineer’ and fabricate an item from scratch, pick the optimal material, machine it, weld it and then make it presentable, and they are lost. And engineering shops generally don’t want one-off, tricky jobs these days, because it’s almost impossible to charge a fair rate and make money, removing yet another incentive to develop a wider skill set.
When I visited him the other day (while that was still permitted!) Martin showed me a 100-year-old capstan-type windlass that he had just completely restored for the owner of a Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter. Typical of his meticulous craftsmanship, the internals are as solid as the exterior is spotless and it will add function as well as form to the foredeck of what will eventually be a magnificently restored historic craft.
Martin organised and carried out the whole job himself. I don’t know of anyone else who could have turned out such a fine piece of work. What we will do when he finally is as good as his word and retires, I do not know.
There’s still a Martin in most working ports, capable, helpful and skilful, beloved of all the locals who rely upon him. Maybe you know one. What worries me is that the current downturn may be the final blow that forces those final few to shut up shop for good. Maybe if we respected these old-school heroes more and accepted that their time was worth paying for—properly and on time—that might help.
Otherwise, the next time we need someone to fabricate some ‘no longer listed’ part, or make some ingenious one-off item in unobtanium, there will be no-one to turn to. And that will undoubtedly leave us all the poorer.
The People Who Rely On Us
Long-distance cruisers are largely freed from the tyranny of timetables. It’s a huge privilege that (amongst other things) allows us an opportunity to become short-term members of island communities.
We might be ocean nomads, but we generally like to engage with local people and get a real feel for a place. Yet sometimes I wonder whether we recognise just how much we have become ‘part of the furniture’ in many parts of the world, and just how much that relationship is symbiotic, socially and economically. Which begs the question of whether, or how much, we will be missed if we don’t turn up in the usual haunts this season.
In some places such as the Caribbean, there would certainly be a noticeable economic downturn as a result. This would not only be felt in the marinas, restaurants and supermarkets of the more developed islands like Antigua, but even (maybe more so) in the chicken shacks and rum shops of the more rustic islands like Carriacou, right down to the laundry launch and boat-based fruit sellers. When your daily income is measured in small numbers of dollars, the loss of even a few will have a major impact.
The People We Won’t Meet
In other less-frequented places, where cruisers still remain something of a novelty, there may be a less obvious loss, that of the simple human contact that both parties (cruisers and landsmen) so obviously enjoy and value.
The last place we were in where this was most noticeable was Newfoundland, especially in the isolated outport at Francois, where the warmth and curiosity of the locals was obvious (and very welcome) to the crews of all the boats alongside the tiny pontoon.
Since time immemorial the exchange of ideas and cultural values has spurred people to travel the world, often in the face of bad weather and discomfort. I don’t think that it is fanciful to argue that this atavistic urge is especially true for those of us able to access these wonderful places and people. It’s one of the main reasons why we go cruising, and I don’t think there is any reason to imagine that for the locals that contact is any less important.
So wherever we are wont to sail, if we don’t visit we will be missed.
We’re All In This Together, But…
None of these concerns are existential. There’s a world out there beyond our own with far more urgent realities. Whether we go sailing or not in 2020 is a first-world concern. Some of us will undoubtedly lose loved ones, given the odds on this indiscriminate plague. Nothing compares to that. The priority is to defeat this virus, whatever it takes.
But There Is a Future
But while that is underway and we’re locked up in our dwelling, we have time to reflect on what we’ll miss, and what that in turn will mean to others. And perhaps to dream of new horizons, people and places that we’ll look forward to seeing one day soon. One day this, too, will be behind us and it will be time to turn dreams into reality once more.
People are already talking as if this season is written off. Nobody can say this for sure. Who knows, things may yet take a turn for the better. Let’s fervently hope so. It’s a definite possibility, though, that things may never be the same. Personally, I hope that our community survives, above all.
Which includes us and all of the people mentioned above. Because, whether we realise it or not, we have become a huge, interlinked community, and it is a good one. Let’s do all we can to remember that, support each other through this current difficult time, and keep that flame alive.
For those looking for a distraction from the current situation as well as a reminder of how wonderful voyaging can be, told as only Colin can: