Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Cygnet Project (Part 1) - I Name This Little Ship Cygnet And May God Bless All That Sail In Her

This little ship is an example of the diminutive P Class yacht. I bought this one recently at an auction. She is Seven feet long in the old measurement for those who, like me, find that the memories of old, shine warmly like varnished mahogany - a soft warm glow that tugs at the heart - memories are good, they help us to look forwards to the unknown future, they provide a balance and are to be honoured but not pined for. My memories of those sailing years provide a balance and build an historical context for my current sailing endeavours in my 30 foot yacht 'Mariner'.

Many years ago I sailed two of these boats in Christchurch. The first was (Sail Number P8) called 'Panic' an apt emotionally charged little name for a first boat and panic I did on many an occasion. But it didn't take me long to grow strong in the ways of little boats and their famous and notorious adversary the Canterbury weather.

'Panic' was very old, heavy and as waterlogged as - well - a log, and had a very alarming structural fault - the main deck beam was broken. The main mast sits on the main deck beam. When the Canterbury North Westerly winds began to smoke, the forward deck of Panic compressed in an alarming manner, the rigging went slack and if the prudent skipper didn't round up into the wind to take the pressure off the deck, then he risked a dismasting in spectacular fashion. This fault was never satisfactorily fixed and the boat was frightening to sail.

'Elusive' (P195) followed 'Panic'. She was brand new and I had purchased her with 55 NZ pounds withdrawn with shaking anticipatory hands from my Post Office Savings Bank Account. I can still picture the little bank book, it had a little squirrel on it.

'Elusive' and I formed a great relationship. My job was to point her in the right direction, her job was to go fast, and go fast she did. I represented my club the Pleasant Point Yacht Club twice in National Contests - once in Nelson, my placing there forgotten for reasons of ego and shame, and in Wellington in formidable weather where if my memory serves me correctly I finished the weeks contest in 6th place.

The little yacht in the photographs is a restoration project. I have built a neat little frame to sit her on at a height suitable for work and will restore her to her former glory. When I purchased her there was no name painted on the boat, but a faded name was written on the boats gear bag which I don't like so I will rename her - now ship mates, in nautical lore this is tempting fate of course - but I am in the mood to tempt fate, so rename her I will.

I shall rename her 'Cygnet' and I will tell you the story behind the name.
When I was sailing in Christchurch there was a fearless sailor who used to sail her heart out every weekend. She was venturing into what was at the time pretty much a male preserve. But she was an autonomous sort of character, one of those original and independent people quite able to strike out on their own.

One weekend there was a big storm. The fresh Nor' Wester that the yacht race had started in grew to a smoking ferocity. The tops of the waves broke off in long trails of spindrift, little yachts everywhere staggered under the onslaught of the wind. Masts were broken, yachts capsized, club rescue motorboats were overloaded with the work of towing back to the clubhouse the nautical carnage.

The talented and tough skipper of the yacht Cygnet was also overwhelmed by the wind and the waves. Her yacht had been completely up turned and she was exhausted in her attempts to right the little yacht. But as trained she stayed close by her yacht - she had learnt her lessons well - never leave your boat - with your life jacket, you are safe, hang on and help will come.

Soon, with the wind and sea building to a crescendo the club rescue boat drew alongside, her father in attendance. She was instructed to leave her boat and climb aboard the rescue boat - but she refused, she could see that in the conditions it was apparent that only people were being rescued, not boats. Her heart went out to her little boat that she loved and she steadfastly refused let go of it.

Now the official record of this point in the story is that she called out, "If being rescued means I have to leave my darling little boat and it means it will be lost forever I stoutly refuse to leave her" - that is the official record, but there is anecdotal evidence that she in fact said "piss off, if you think I am bloody well leaving my little ship to be lost forever then you are making an enormous frigging mistake" --- or suchlike, the record is not entirely clear and a lot of the words were lost in the wind and time can embellish an anecdotal tale (usually for believable betterment of the tale) - but what is clear is that like every good skipper she was refusing in this titanic struggle between herself and the weather to leave her boat.

In the end, in the midst of chilling cold, the shriek of the wind and with gentle encouragement from her father she gave up her hold and left Cygnet to her fate.

That night at home in the warmth and comfort, with her little boat lost, she shed bitter tears and mourned for her loyal little craft that had taught her so much and carried her so safely.

Days later the little yacht Cygnet was found, upside down under the bridge close to the yacht club. The tide had returned the doughty little craft right back to where it had been launched.

And unlike the Titanic the P class is built with so many watertight bulkheads an iceberg would have a pretty dam hard job sinking it, so it was an impossible task for the mighty Canterbury Nor'wester. The wind could overturn but never sink the little Cygnet.

We can only imagine the scene when this gallant and plucky sailor was reunited with Cygnet. Her heart would have been bursting with pride and she would have had a smile on her face as big as Texas.
And what ever happened to this skipper? - well this experience was an archetypal symbol of lifes struggle for her, of free will, of fate and of chance. She learnt that she could control some things but not all things. The gods will return to our doorsteps those things that the gods want to return, nothing more, nothing less. We cannot control the gods and so our job is one of our own individual human struggle, a struggle that works with, and is linked to fate in a sort of paradox. She had begun the big struggle of life - she went on to be a heroine in all that she did. She didn't win all the time, but the lessons were there for her in the heart of her struggles every day - in the very heart of whatever was placed on her doorstep everyday was where she learnt. These lessons taught her resilience, humanity and she developed a big heart and a very big smile. She became a wonderful human being.

So I shall name my restoration 'The Cygnet Project' and Cygnet shall be the little yachts new name - Autonomous Thinking, Bravery and Courage should always be Honoured.



Katherine said...

Breathes happy sigh. What a lovely story well told.

Alden said...

Yes and it's a true story. It really happened, a long time ago. Boats are great as builders of confidence in children. The pity these days is they don't get to do as much of it just by themselves, face the dangers alone. Far too much of what I have seen has adults following the children around in powerboats and inflatable dinghies shouting at them through megaphones - bah humbug - give me the old ways any day.

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...

I enjoyed your story. I so agree: too much adult interference in youth activities. How old are the children you teach?

Alden said...

I am the Deputy Principal of a primary school here in New Zealand. I am in charge of the junior school and I have been teaching our new entrant children this year. Next year 2009 I will be teaching a few grades higher but still overseeing the junior school. I love this age, they are honest (out of the mouths of babes as they say) creative and entirely spontaneous. I think it keeps me young, but sometimes contributes to me being a bit child like myself - but at 57 I don't really care.

Roy Stewart said...

Thanks for the great story. I owned P's 7,85 and 499 as well as an early gunter and carvel one with cotton sails whose number I can't remember. I think P 7 was a newer boat i.e. recycled sail number.

Alden Smith said...

Roy - A carvel! Gunter rigged P class with a cotton sail? - yes I sailed one of those too (except for the gunter rig) - oh how technology has changed things - thanks for your comment