In raising a toast yesterday to those at sea, some perhaps remembered Robert Louis Stevenson’s poignant poem about a son hauling frozen ropes on Christmas Day, as his folks grow old back home. But at least he had fellow crewmen. Another Briton, Chris Stanmore-Major, instead passed yet another solitary day as the southern oceans thrashed against his 60ft yacht, Spartan, on the second leg of the Velux 5 Oceans, a solo race round the world.
As usual, however, he had approached the experience with fortitude, insight and humour – as evident in a message sent to The Independent On Sunday. “I have one string of tinsel, and a tree,” he said. “I also have some presents to open. The fact that those people thought of me, and put them on board to brighten my day, will have very great significance. I will be about as remote from the senders as it is possible to be. Yet at that moment I will know they all might very well be sitting here with me. I am sure at that point I may need a moment alone – which shouldn’t be a problem…”
In his present hardship, cold and peril, nine days out from Cape Town on his way to Wellington, Stanmore-Major reminded himself how our ancestors came to celebrate the solstice of the northern winter. “It’s obvious, really, that the best way to warm the heart is connecting with those important to us, in light-hearted, shared experiences and a good hot meal,” he said. “Christmas, or at least its trappings, might seem a little out of place in this environment. But perhaps this is their finest backdrop. As I look out right now, I see a turbulent, savage world which cares not for my fate. Towering seas topple over one another, as they chase my little craft along, barely under control as it’s blown hither and thither by these icy winds. I know that if I’m not careful, all this will roll me over and flood into this little, warm cabin and snuff my life-light out.
“How do I keep it at bay? With seamanship, care for my vessel; with fore-thought; and perhaps some technical skills I have picked up along the way. But thats not the biggest threat, is it? The question really is: how do I keep the idea of it at bay? That would seep in here much quicker than the water, twist me up and rot me from the inside out – and leave me much more likely to make the life-threatening mistakes I am trying to avoid.”
And here, Stanmore-Major explains, is where Christmas still promised him meaningful comfort. “I have to grasp every opportunity to have a little fun each day,” he said. “To create, in this small space, a place of safety and light beyond the carbon hull and the LED lighting; a place of comfort and sanctuary and happiness. Perhaps it is only an illusion – but how much better to be enjoying the illusion, should the worst happen, than cowering in the corner with my fears. When you get back to the heart of Christmas, it’s just meant to be a little fun to break up the cold.
“So I’m going to put on a Santa hat, and take pictures of myself getting soaked on the foredeck, and e-mail them home – for no reason other than it might make people laugh. I’m going to yell carols discordantly to myself at the top of my voice, perhaps with all of the extra verses we used to make up at school. I am going to pull a cracker, just to hear it go pop, and enjoy a meal I designate as ‘Christmas Lunch’ – whatever time it ends up being eaten, or whatever it says on the packet. And on this one day I refuse, point blank, to let any thoughts of loneliness or sadness get in.”