ALL AT SEA
Dominick & Claire on Schooner Gray on the pier at New London CT, USA
This is a true story.
CLAIRE (and her five children) and DOMINICK (with his only son) move in together. They are in their mid-thirties. Dominick becomes anxious when he finds out the size of the boat Claire has just bought. The former owner reassures him: all he needs to do is hire a skipper. On his salary? he thinks, but skippers turn out to be suspiciously cheap.
Claire needs the boat for summer vacations. Taking six children, 12 and under, and two adults to France in her Volkswagen van has now become too difficult. Dominick remains dazzled by her competence and sexiness, and raises no objection to the boating plan. But, 80 feet long was more than he had expected. Claire has done a little sea sailing. He has done none. He directs his entire energies to his job as a personnel executive in the London head office of Reuters News agency.
Summer weekend after summer weekend on the boat go well until the hired skipper falls into a diabetic coma at the start of the summer vacation. (Click here for the story). The Royal Navy takes him off the boat, a Thames sailing barge called GIPPING, and he never returns from hospital. Dominick thinks this is the somewhat welcome end of the boating experiment. Claire tells him to catch the next tide up the river.
That is how Dominick learns to sail.
They find the barging world is a very secure environment in which everything is dictated by precedent and there are absolutely no innovations. Barges often sail in company. It is so simple everyone, including the children, can take part. The second year they seem to be getting the hang of it, and start to go on more adventurous voyages.
The third year, Claire has her first major accident trapping her finger in the gear train of the anchor windlass. The surgeon in the local hospital is about to amputate it but he angrily lets Dominick rush her to a London hospital to be treated with hyperbaric oxygen under the misapprehension that Dominick knows about the procedure. He doesn't; nor does Claire; it is a wild guess to do anything other than amputate. The procedure saves the finger.
Claire had started a beauty clinic business two months before the accident; the following month, Dominick had left his job in Reuters. He fails to find another job and the clinics make losses. Meanwhile, Gipping's age is telling on her.
By the fourth year, Gipping needs so much repair she does no sailing. The clinic losses are mounting up. Dominick learns that Claire has nerves of steel for she takes the losses (of her money, not his) quite calmly while Dominick gets so frantic she takes him away for a late summer vacation to Copenhagen.
Claire has an ulterior purpose: to look for a Baltic Trader in Denmark as a replacement for the barge.(Click here for the story) An autocratic agent sends them off for two nights to inspect the GRAY on an island in the Baltic, and they agree to buy her. She is 90 feet on deck, so heavy (she weighs 160 tons in the palm of the hand) she draws nine feet, or three times as much water as Gipping. She will have three masts, and become 137 feet long with the bowsprit when Dominick has finished converting her from cargo to passenger use. But, that takes many years. Meanwhile, when Dominick returns to Denmark around Christmastime to complete the purchase and sale, he has to overnight alone on Gray, gets cold feet, tries to find a telephone to call Claire for support, but retreats to the warmth of Gray's diesel smelling cabin when the drip on the end of his nose freezes off.
He then tries to refuse Gray when she is hauled out of the water for bottom inspection; but is foiled by a freshly painted hull which shows no blemishes; they are nearly run down by a drunken merchantman in a snowstorm as they drive Gray to Copenhagen; Dominick considers running for it on arrival at the Free Port of Copenhagen; and finally plans to announce his refusal of Gray on arrival at the agent's office for completion of the sale. He doesn't get a chance: the formalities are in Danish, a language he does not know, and in any case no one asks his agreement. His misery is accentuated by flu, constipation and an insufficiency of clothing and paper handkerchiefs.
The former owner takes him and Gray to winter quarters in Jutland and Dominick flees to England to wind up the clinics. He also trains to become a ship's master - just in case.
The next summer, by now qualified as a foreign going master, he feels he must refuse Claire's offer to take Gray to sea on their way back to England with three trees strapped to the deck for eventual masts. They run into some rough weather going down the Elbe and Dominick is dismayed to find Claire, the woman he thought invulnerable, is sea sick. He puts in for shelter, without proper charts, on a German mud bank. When they reach England exhausted and triumphant they make love on deck and realise it is right under the watchful eyes of the lighthouse. Then they find that Gray is so much bigger than Gipping that they are excluded from the old secure life of the barging community. They take Gray to London to start her conversion from cargo ship to yacht.
However, Dominick still cannot adjust to the idea of this huge responsibility, and it is therefore three months before he starts work. His life to date has been protected and privileged. He specialised in logic at Oxford, has never met a pauper or a criminal, has never had to make an ethical choice. In the deserted East End of London, he now engages GEORDIE a homeless jailbird (now going straight) to do the rigging, and finds that all the goods he buys for Gray are stolen property. Geordie concludes that Dominick is a professional fence and considers leaving his employ to preserve his new respectability. He is upgrading his image to Gentleman Rigger in order to marry Madge.
Dominick is relieved when Gray is asked to leave the thieving dock area upon its permanent closure. He starts a period of eighteen months continuously on the move in Gray.
For some years past, Claire and Dominick have intermittently been talking to the children about safety on board, in particular discussing whether it is possible to turn the ship round in bad weather to rescue someone overboard without risking the safety of those left. As Dominick says he has encountered conditions in which he thought Gray would capsize if turned round, the family decides to wear harnesses instead of life jackets. These are working children by now, not just passengers.
The first test of this new policy comes in the next summer vacation. (Click here for the story). The family intends to go down the English Channel to Dominick's old home near the harbour at Newhaven. They run into a storm on the nose and start shipping heavy green seas. Claire is seasick again. Though resilient and courageous, she is small and the weight of the seas on the steering wheel has already flung her across the pilothouse. So, Dominick takes the wheel, alone in the fully enclosed pilothouse, while Claire goes to the Master's cabin immediately below. The children have also left the small pilothouse and gone to ride out the storm separately either in the deckhouse or down forward in the hold. Claire's son TOBY, by this time 16, comes on deck with no harness, polishes his spectacles, gazes around checking things out, methodically relashes a dinghy on deck, sometimes waist deep in water, polishes his spectacles again and goes below. Dominick watches all this from the pilothouse where he is steering, and does nothing. Should he have left the wheel and risked the ship? Could Claire have taken over in her sea sick state without being thrown about the pilothouse again? An accident to Claire on top of losing Toby overboard? Would he have actually carried out the agreed plan of not turning round, if Toby had gone overboard?
They plan to leave Gray for the winter up a sheltered river on the Admiralty buoys they had used on arrival from Denmark. Just before Christmas, the Admiralty orders them off the buoys, and Claire has her second major accident. Her hip is reduced to "rubble" in a car smash. Dominick spends the winter shuffling between Claire in a traction bed and a now homeless Gray. Seven months later she is well enough to be knee deep in water supervising the summer's provisioning of an unready anchored Gray, shaking her crutch angrily at Dominick for not having a date in his mind.
During this dreadful seven months, Dominick is much alone on Gray and starts to look at the land from Gray instead of Gray from the land. He finds fault with clock time, advances it three hours (to treble summertime) and complains when the children, now on vacation, wake him up when the pub closes in what he considers to be the small hours of the morning. The family tries to go to France under sail and has to put back owing to contrary winds. Next time, they motor all the way, beginning to realise that to navigate under sail one needs a good engine. They vacation in a French port near the Normandy beaches, the largest vessel to enter since World War II.
But 18 months is too long to be on the move if the conversion is to take place, so Dominick takes Gray into the Albert Dock (also in London) for the winter - with a leak.
He spends 21 months converting the interior of Gray in the Albert Dock. For three of the winter months he dives sporadically in freezing filthy dock water to cure the leak. He becomes more and more estranged from his family for by this time there has been a complete switch round not only in his relations with Gray, but also with Claire who had originally conceived this boating stuff as a way of looking after young children during the summer vacation. She is increasingly occupied with running the London house for children who are getting older, while Dominick busies himself with arcane evolutions miles away in the East End, of no immediate value to them.
He is particularly surly at the prospect of Christmas, an unwelcome interruption in the work schedule, but his bluff is called and he follows Claire and the children to Wales where he accidentally learns design features which have a big impact on Gray's conversion. The next summer he refuses to take Gray sailing at all to avoid a repetition of the previous summer with Claire angry with him for not having Gray ready for the children.
Finally, he tells Claire to face the facts: they risk becoming strangers if she continues to be so heavily involved in the children.
To his surprise, shortly thereafter she moves on board, the last child having left home for boarding school.