“Hello there”, a small voice says. “Do you know how this hose connects to the tap?”
I am lying on the foredeck in the sun reading my Dracula book. I turn my head, but can’t see anyone. I am sure I didn’t imagine it, so I sit up. Down on the pontoon is a small boy holding a hose reel. The reel has no connecting hose, something we had discovered earlier ourselves when filling the water tanks.
“You need to use one of the connecting hoses from one of the other reels”, I say. “We had the same problem. Look, there is one further down the pontoon there. You can use that one.”
I jump down and give him a hand. He comes from a boat further along the pontoon, and is with his father. Together they are bringing their newly purchased boat back to their home marina in Lowestoft, but can’t reach it because a lifting bridge blocking the way is broken. It is being mended, but it might take a day or two. He is 12 and is getting fed up with being on one place for too long, but loves sailing with his Dad, who has been letting him drive the boat all by himself. Later we see him take the boat out of the marina, and I am impressed by the confidence in one so young. It obviously pays to start early in life.
We set off from Lowestoft at around midday. Getting out of Lowestoft Harbour requires a bit of care as there are several sandbanks parallel to the coast that it is best to avoid. Even so, I am surprised to suddenly see that the depth under the keel has dropped to only a metre, and realise that the southward current which we had planned to catch is just starting and is carrying us further south sooner than we intended. A frantic bit of back-tracking gets us into deeper water again, and we then motor further out to the Newcombe buoy that marks the entrance to the harbour, before we turn finally south and raise the sails.
The wind is blowing from the north-north-east at around 16 knots and pushes us along at a good speed. Before very long, we are passing the white dome of the Sizewell nuclear power station. A quick Google tells me there are actually two power stations – Sizewell A, which was commissioned in 1966 and closed in 2006, and Sizewell B, which was commissioned in the early 1990s and is still working. It seems that over its 40 year productive lifetime, Sizewell A produced enough energy to last the current UK demand for six months, but that it will take until the 2090s before the site will finally be cleared. It doesn’t seem a huge amount of energy production for such a long time of cleaning up after it, and makes me wonder if it is really worth it.
James Lovelock of Gaia fame certainly seems to think so. I had just read his latest little book, Novacene, over the winter. He is always a stimulating read even if I don’t agree with everything he says. In the book, he sees now the end of the Anthropocene, the brief age when humans and their activities dominated the Earth from about the end of the ice-ages 10,000 years ago until now. We are now entering the Novacene Age, he argues, when machine intelligence is gaining the ascendency, and will eventually take over from us. Current computers process information 10,000 times faster than humans, about the same order of magnitude difference between humans and plants. But we needn’t worry, as the temperature for silicon-based life is almost the same as for organic life – both don’t work very well above 50 °C – so the machines will preserve organic life to ensure that the Earth stays cool and habitable for them too, just in the same way that we (try!) to preserve plants for the same purpose.
Despite all the environmental problems the Anthropocene has caused, he says, we still shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it – it is just as much part of planetary evolution as anything else, and was a necessary phase for life to go through to reach the next stage of machine intelligence. However, that doesn’t mean to say that warming of the globe is good for it, or for both organic and inorganic life, and so we should definitely be looking at ways to bring it under control. For this reason, he can’t understand mankind’s stupidity in not embracing nuclear power as a substitute for fossil fuel energy, which is causing the slow death of the planet. Renewable energies such as wind and power by themselves are just not enough to meet the needs of a modern human society or future machine-based society. Nuclear power is really the only sensible solution.
Agree with him or not, it is thought-provoking stuff. For example, it’s not clear why the machines would want to preserve humans and not just the ecosystems – primarily forests – that already do a good job of regulating the planet’s climate. Why not do away with humans altogether with their dirty habits and polluting activities? I suppose there might be some sort of family allegiance – we did after all give rise to artificial intelligence, and they might feel loyal to us for having done so, in the same way that we do with our parents. But what if they don’t?
“Fancy a cup of tea?”, calls the First Mate, bringing two steaming mugs up the companionway. “What have you been dreaming about this time? Ooh, look! What’s that golfball thingy over there?”, pointing at the Sizewell dome.
She is not that keen on things nuclear, so I thank her for the cup of tea instead.
The wind goes around to directly behind us and drops at the same time. The genoa, now in the shadow of the mainsail, flaps uselessly. Our speed drops to only a couple of knots. We decide to goosewing – I pole out the genoa to one side and sheet out the mainsail to the other, tying a preventer line to the latter to ensure that it doesn’t gybe dangerously from one side to the other if the wind direction changes slightly. We pick up a little bit of speed, but it is still slow. But it is the best we can do. At least we made good time in the first half of the journey, so we have some up our sleeve before it gets dark. We are not too keen on entering a strange marina in blackness.
After some time, we spot the giant loading cranes of Felixstowe in the distance. It isn’t far now. As we approach, I call the Harwich Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) on the VHF and ask them the best way to enter the harbour area and to proceed up the river. There is a deep water channel for the big ships to follow into Harwich and Felixstowe harbours, but small boats such as ourselves need to cross it at right angles so as to spend the least time in it as possible to avoid collisions. But where to cross?
“Ruby Tuesday calling Harwich VTS”, I say.
“Ruby Tuesday, go ahead”, a voice comes back. There is an unmistakeable Suffolk accent.
“Harwich VTS, we are planning to travel up the River Orwell to the Suffolk Yacht Centre for the night. Can you advise on the best route to follow, please?”
“Ruby Tuesday,”, the voice comes back. “You need to aim for the Wadgate Ledge buoy, then on to the Platters buoy, cross the deep-water channel there, then follow the red buoys all the way in but just outside the channel, then once past the Felixstowe docks, continue up the river. Keep a good look out for ships leaving the docks, and stay well clear of them.”
“Many thanks”, I say. “Will do. Out.”
Most of the bigger buoys have names, and act a little like motorway junction signs, so it is an easy matter to find them on the charts and plot a course between them. We reach the Platters buoy, look left, right and left again. There is nothing coming in either direction. Nevertheless, I call Harwich VTS again to ask permission to cross. It always pays to keep in touch with them and let them know what we are doing. They like it, and we feel safer.
At around 2030, we pass Shotley Marina, which is where we set off on our circumnavigation of the UK more than two years ago. Excel tells me it is 803 days, 13 hours and 30 minutes, to be precise, and who am I to argue? Probably not the fastest circumnavigation, but who said it was a race anyway? And we took in the fearsome Cape Wrath and Orkney, which many circumnavigations leave out by taking the route through the Caledonian Canal, as well as contending with pandemics. The setting sun peeks out from behind the clouds edging them in gold as we high-five and give each other a hug – we have a feeling of elation that we have completed it, but also one of slight anti-climax that it is now finished. What next?
We talk about our most memorable parts of the voyage around the UK. For the First Mate, it is the islands on the west coast of Scotland.
“There is just something about island life”, she says. “That time on Canna, for example, where there are only 19 people on the whole island. I just loved talking to people there and finding out all about their problems and difficulties and how they were dealing with them. Don’t you remember the wind-farm they had built and how they all had to take turns in maintaining it to keep it going? And that time in Tinker’s Hole on Mull, where we were the only people there for several days while we sheltered from that storm. I enjoyed that too.”
She is right. They were special places, some of which we probably wouldn’t have seen if it hadn’t been for the boat. There is something unique in arriving at a place by sea that gives a different perspective.
For me, the Isles of Scilly were memorable too. Part of it was the great sail out to them we had had – we had set off from Falmouth in the early morning, and had had perfect winds that had taken us the 70 miles out into the Atlantic out of sight of land for a while. While we were there, we had had beautiful weather, and it was hard to believe that we hadn’t found some tropical paradise that was nevertheless part of Britain, all the more so on hearing from the locals that it was very unusual and that normality was foggy and wet.
But as we cruise slowly up the River Orwell into the fading sun, we realise just how difficult it is to say one place is the most memorable. Almost all of the places we visited are special their own way, more so as they are part of a whole. From painted Roman houses in Dover, TV documentary filming in Fowey, bird reserves on Lundy Island and Rathmore Island, sitting out a gale on the Isle of Man, walking on the Giant’s Causeway, traversing the Crinan Canal, seeing minke whales and dolphins in the Sea of the Hebrides, bike rides in the Outer Hebrides, buried Neolithic villages on Orkney – all these will live in our memories for a long time to come. And, of course, the people we met – sailors and otherwise – some of whom we have kept in touch with, as well as the old friends we managed to meet up with, some of whom came with us on the boat from time to time, all made the voyage special.
We arrive at the Suffolk Marina Harbour on the River Orwell just on darkness, and tie up by the glow from the navigation lights.
The next day Barbara and Roy, old friends from Bedford days, come over to see us and celebrate our circumnavigation. We had last seen them in Skye last year when they came sailing with us around Lock Bracadale. It’s good to see them again and we have a lot to catch up on. Our respective children were at school together, and it is always interesting to hear what the young ones are up to.
After lunch on Ruby Tuesday, we decide to go for a walk along the River Orwell. We end up at The Ship in the small village of Levington and decide to have a drink. I go for a pint of Adnam’s Ghost Ship as it sounds the most nautical. I just hope that Ruby Tuesday doesn’t turn into one.