Dom Joly: A sailor's life for me – as long as I have a permit


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The Independent Online

I've suddenly found myself thinking more and more about getting a boat. Obviously this is a sign of an impending mid-life crisis, but there seems to be very little that I can do to prevent these feelings. I've tried having long cold showers and not thinking about boats, but they just kept popping up. It's all out of control. Then a friend rang me up out of the blue and asked me to go sailing with him in his new boat. I've never really been into sailing. I love the whole aesthetic but the reality always seems a tad too much like hard work for me. I just want an engine, some sun, a lovely place to anchor up, and I'm happy. I don't want to be washing down decks or frigging in the rigging.

So, it was with some trepidation that I arrived at the marina in Gosport, where his new boat was kept. It is a huge catamaran, and first impressions were good. There was a lot of living space, a fridge dedicated entirely to alcohol, and a nautical type man who seemed to have been employed to do all the technical, sailing things so we could enjoy a leisurely day out on the Solent. We set off past rows and rows of boats with awful names like Don't Tell the Wife or Breaking the Bank and joined a line of multi-sized vessels heading out towards the Isle of Wight.

Once clear of shore, the engines were turned off, and the huge sails unfurled by rather complicated machinery. The silence was wonderful as we whizzed over the calm sea, the reflections of the unexpected sun beaming back on our contented faces. I wondered whether sailing might be the sort of thing you appreciate more as you get older, like wine? We zipped around aimlessly, occasionally "tacking" while trying not to get run over by the monster ferries that ploughed through these narrow waters towards us at frightening speed.

All your worldly cares disappear in a boat – it's a bit like being in the shops after passport control at an airport. You are in a kind of weird limbo and feel very irresponsible. This is probably not the case if you actually own a boat. As a guest on somebody else's however, it was very pleasant. We headed for Chichester Harbour where we were going to anchor off West Wittering and have some lunch. The sun sparkled and we could see people wandering along the golden beaches. It was a very rare autumn scene.

We dropped anchor in the shallow bay and had a very good lunch making full use of the alcohol fridge. Our appetites sated, we all dived into the cool sea attempting to swim against the strong current but having to use a string of buoys attached to the rear to keep us from heading off towards France. I climbed to the top of the cat and did something I've only ever seen in Duran Duran videos – I swung out over the sea on a rope attached to the top of the mast. It was exhilarating, but I quickly found myself swinging back towards the hull at quite some speed, so I let go to avoid both hitting, and sinking, my friend's new pride and joy.

Refreshed, we sat on the deck ruminating on how wonderful it was to get away from it all. Our idyll was soon disturbed however by a noisy rib pulling up alongside us with a couple of harbour masters demanding payment for our having anchored in their bay. Like traffic wardens, they printed out a little permit before motoring off to annoy the next boat. It seems that you're not safe from the claws of money-grasping bureaucracy unless you anchor in international waters with a large cannon attached to your bows. They'll probably start clamping soon.