I spent most of last week on a yacht, sailing round the coast. I hadn't been on a yacht before, and what surprised me initially was just how little personal "space" there was, even on a 37-footer. My head is covered in sunburnt lumps as I write this, due to my banging it against the fixtures and fittings whenever remotely possible.

There were six of us: a lady oceanographer, an underwater cameraman, an ornithologist, a science teacher, a journalist (me), and a professional yacht skipper. And there wasn't a moment in the entire trip when we weren't right in each other's faces.

We'd have breakfast sitting shoulder-to-shoulder around the table in the galley. Then we'd all go upstairs, set the sails, and spend the next 10 hours huddled together in the sailing cockpit. The prevailing wind dictated that we sailed the boat tilted over at a 45- degree angle to the sea, so that even a brief solitary stroll on the foredeck was quite out of the question.

Arriving at last at some sheltered cove, we'd furl the sails and drop anchor. Then we'd all go below and huddle round the table again to eat our supper. ("Jeremy, put a fair wind behind the salt, there's a good chap.")

And after supper we'd all go back up on deck, then lower ourselves, one by one, into a small inflatable dinghy. There'd be the six of us, facing inwards, shoulder-to- shoulder, knee-to-knee in this tiny dinghy, like we were a floating prayer meeting. Then we'd motor ashore for a pint in the nearest pub.

In the pub, still in our group, we'd sip our beer and listen to the skipper's anecdotes. He had a lot of eccentric friends apparently. He also had an inexhaustible fund of unusual and arresting similes, which lent colour to his narratives.

After the pub, by the light of a torch, we'd climb back into the dinghy and motor back across the still water to the boat. Getting in and out of the dinghy was always more hilarious coming back from the pub than it was going to it.

Once, though, our dinghy's wake was illuminated by an unearthly green phosphorescence that flashed and sparkled behind us. And as we approached, we saw that the hull of the boat and the anchor chain were also outlined by this ghostly green luminosity. It seemed so utterly fantastic that we became solemn. It is some kind of plankton, apparently.

And then back aboard the yacht again, we'd all go to bed in a cupboard. Everyone had their own cupboard except the science teacher and me, who had to share. Space was so limited that the science teacher, a born-again Christian, had to wake me and ask my permission to visit the heads during the night.

In spite of the terrible lack of privacy, though, we all got along fine. And my shipmates certainly knew their onions. The ornithologist pointed out a passing seagull to me and said: "Arctic Tern."

"Oh yes," I sneered. "And how do you know it's not a Common Tern?"

"Didn't you see those translucent primaries!" he said, shocked at my ignorance.

Late one evening, when the sky was so clear it looked as if the universe had just been created, the skipper took the trouble to identify the Plough for me. No wonder I could never find it before: it's about 10 times bigger than I thought it was. Now, in the middle of my 42nd year, using the Plough as my starting point, I can begin to identify the stars. I feel rich.

The object of our cruise was to find basking sharks and count them. On the second day, just off Land's End, we sailed into a group of about 40. It was Basking Shark Central. They were cruising about with their great, wobbly dorsal fins sticking out of the water. Some of them were breaching.

When we got close, we could see that they were grazing on the great cloud of plankton that was turning the sea from blue to a milky aquamarine. Some of those sharks must have been 30ft long. The skipper greeted these by name. We shot some film, left them alone, and were solemn for a while after that. For the rest of the day we had those 40 basking sharks between us, like an unspoken children's secret, drawing us closer together.

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