Gwyneth Lewis: Crashing the yacht is so easy. The hard thing is not pushing your man overboard

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The Independent Online

Hannah Gutteridge, who was at the helm when her boyfriend's new £250,000 yacht hit a rock and sank, says that he's forgiven her. I don't know what the atmosphere is like this weekend in their house, but I'm not surprised to hear that Gutteridge isn't sure if she'll ever sail again.

I've done a good deal of sulking on boats since my husband, Leighton, and I started sailing a few years ago. When we left the UK in our Nicholson 35 yacht, my stepson warned me that we would never be more than 35 feet away from each other. I had visions of one of us being towed behind the boat in a dinghy, a nautical way of sending the other to Coventry. As it turned out, I discovered that the best pouting spot is in front of the mast, where you can look at the horizon and wonder why on earth you wanted to sail in the first place.

The idea of going to sea in a small boat with your husband seems attractive from dry land. But even a short passage can cure you of the fantasy. It's no doubt true that, in a crisis at sea, the skipper needs to know that his orders will be followed. This is basic safety. Early on in our sailing career, we were approaching a dock and Leighton yelled at me to throw a certain rope to him. "I don't think I care for your tone," I responded. The scene after the inevitable crash was ugly.

But something else happens to men on boats. Normally genial husbands turn into screaming tyrants who demand instant obedience. The voice takes on a cat- o'-nine-tails quality. In sailing psychology, this is known as "Captain Bligh syndrome" and is a reaction to fear and stress. Whenever Leighton looked at me as if I were a mutinous rabble, I began to call him Captain Bastard.

A boat may look like an ideal recreational vehicle but it puts unique and specific pressures on those who sail in them. Take an even moderately rough passage. The boat may well be heeled over, so you have to negotiate the world at an angle. If the sea is really rough, everything not stowed away safely will be jumping around and trying to hit you. You can't get food into your mouth and there may be no way to boil a kettle.

If you're at all prone to sea sickness, you'll be feeling like death. Going below is out of the question, so you have to freeze on deck. Toilet matters become delicate (peeing over the side of a moving boat is dangerous for both sexes, but especially for women. I know, I've tried it.)

Personal space is tight and privacy non-existent. On long voyages, sleep deprivation takes its toll and other people's personal habits become infuriating. If you're really tired you begin to hallucinate. One single-handed sailor in the Mini Transat transatlantic race had long conversations with a nun on deck. You start to hear things. Leighton swore, when we crossed the Bay of Biscay, that the scuppers (the gurgling drains, to landlubbers) said "Simon" to him and I began to hear Radio 4 voices, even though the set was turned off.

As more people buy boats as recreational toys, incidents of "boat rage" are increasingly common. Handling a boat is nothing like driving on a road. It's more like being embedded in a motorway while the tide and the wind have their way with you. Boats don't have brakes, so it's like driving on ice. The only way you have of stopping is putting the engine astern (in reverse) and that changes the way of steering.

A boat brings out all the flaws that you can normally keep hidden in a relationship ashore. Both the best and the worst thing about a boat is that you can't get off, especially if you're 200 miles from land and there's a weather front coming in.

I once found myself so angry with Leighton that I had to force myself to put down the winch handle in my hand before I hit him over the head. Crashing a boat is one thing, but I wouldn't want to be done for murder at sea. Aside from that, I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Gwyneth Lewis is the National Poet of Wales. Her book 'Two in a Boat: A Marital Voyage' is published by Harper Perennial

Alan Watkins has been unwell and will return shortly

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