'Joan gave a ghastly smile before pushing the helm further'

In this extract from The Art of Coarse Sailing, Michael Green's classic account of a disastrous sailing holiday on the Norfolk Broads, the narrator Mike, crewing the boat Merryweather with his friend Beaver, is monitoring the progress of holiday companions Joan, Dennis and Arthur on another yacht, Quiet Dawn...

We sailed without any startling incident for about an hour in a fair breeze, but about two o'clock signs of disturbance were noticed on board Quiet Dawn. Voices were raised in the well, Joan's being prominent. Beaver sailed as close as possible so we could spy on them and we heard Joan saying: "No, I won't cook you any lunch. I spend all my time kneeling on this wretched floor with Dennis's stinking feet treading all over me while you two have all the fun. You can cook the lunch and I'll sail the boat."

Dennis and Arthur regarded her rather as the beadle must have regarded Oliver Twist when he asked for more.

"Sail the boat?" exclaimed Dennis. "You must be joking, girl. Now get on and put that spaghetti on to boil. We're hungry."

"Ah," added Arthur. "I haven't eaten for two hours."

"No," said Joan firmly. "You put on your own rotten spaghetti and I hope it chokes you."

Dennis tried wheedling. "But, Joan," he said, "you don't know how to sail the boat."

"Then you teach me. And I must say that from what I've seen of Mike I could sail as well as him" (that was most unfair).

The argument went on for about ten minutes, during which their sailing suffered and we drew ahead. However, we were delayed by a gentleman in what appeared to be a floating saloon bar who drove us into the reeds and Quiet Dawn hove into view round the bend. At first I thought she was on fire. A dense cloud of white smoke covered the well and a voice was calling out oaths and curses. I then realised the smoke was steam coming from a pot of boiling water in the cooking locker. Arthur was on the deck tending the pot by abusing it, its contents and its mother in a loud voice. He had apparently burnt himself and had one hand stuck in his jacket like Napoleon.

Joan was steering.

The wind was on the beam so she couldn't really go wrong, and Dennis was holding the sheets and directing her, every so often putting his hand over his eyes as she headed for the bank or another boat.

Beaver slowed our progress so we could enjoy the scene. I'm glad he did so, for I saw a sight that will live long in the memory, even longer than my recollection of the vicar blowing up his church hall while working the effects for an amateur performance of Journey's End. As Quiet Dawn rounded the bend and the wind came from astern, Joan allowed her to gybe and the boom clouted Arthur across the cockpit as he was about to drain the water from the spaghetti.

The boiling water must have gone over Dennis's feet because he rose like a helicopter and hopped about the well. Arthur raised an anguished hand smothered in hot spaghetti and began wringing his hands to get rid of the stuff (a good deal of it flew across Joan's face, giving her an interesting appearance).

Quiet Dawn was approaching a boat moored by the bank in which four Sea Scouts were enjoying a meal. Joan put the helm over to clear them and put it the wrong way. As often happens with a novice, when she found she was pushing instead of pulling she merely pushed all the harder. Quiet Dawn turned neatly and headed for the Sea Scouts' boat with naval accuracy.

"Joan," shouted Harry. "Pull it the other way."

Joan turned and gave him a ghastly, hysterical smile, before pushing the helm even further. Dennis and Arthur were still wrapped up in their injuries and didn't even notice what was happening.

It was an odd sort of collision. Quiet Dawn's bowsprit went neatly through a port-hole on the Scouts' boat, almost as if it had been aimed there. There was a crunch, a tinkle, a chorus of surprised voices, and there she was, swinging gently with her bowsprit in the Scouts' cabin.

At least the collision shut up Dennis and Arthur for a moment. Joan sat in the stern staring at her handiwork and then burst into tears.

'The Art of Coarse Sailing' by Michael Green, illustrated by John Jensen, is published by Robson Press (pounds 6.99)

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