It was JimBob who suggested we go sailing.
JimBob’s not his real name, not exactly. They’re twins, you see, Jim and Bob, identical, so unless they turn up together, we’re never sure which is which, and sometimes not even then. So we just call them both JimBob to be on the safe side. They don’t mind. Or if they do, they don’t say.
‘Sailing?’ replied Fred. ‘How’s that going to happen?’
‘Drive to the coast, get a boat, get in it and take off,’ said JimBob, as if he was explaining it to an idiot. Which he pretty much was with Fred. Now, don’t get me wrong, we like Fred, nice bloke and useful for any heavy lifting, the size of him, but even his mother wouldn’t call him bright. Actually, she frequently calls him thick as pig-muck from her usual position at the end of the bar in the Three Horseshoes. Or the Two Horseshoes, as it had been since Christmas Eve when JimBob, or maybe JimBob, had shinned up the drainpipe to fix the new inflatable Santa to the sign and had knocked off one of the horseshoes. Grumpy John, the landlord, who hadn’t spent a penny on the pub, apart from the booze, for nearly ten years and had no intention of spending any more pennies on it for the next ten, had simply grunted and tossed it on the growing pile of old tat in the corner of the cellar. So the Two Horseshoes it had become and looked likely to stay.
Mind you, Fred had a point about the sailing thing. We were after all in Oxfordshire which, although I’m not a geographical expert, is about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get in this small but not that small sceptred isle. The day we had been discussing how to fill, the four of us, five including JimBob, was tomorrow. And we didn’t have a boat. And none of us had ever been sailing, apart possibly from Mystery Mick, who could have been an astronaut, or indeed and rather more relevantly, a round-the-world yachtsman, for all we knew about his backstory before he’d pitched up in the then Three Horseshoes one Saturday two years ago with an American accent and five quid in his pocket and ended up sleeping on my sofa for the next month.
‘How do we get a boat?’ asked Lilian. Again, I may need to explain that, Lilian being a girl’s name usually, and Lilian not by any stretch of the imagination being a girl. His name is actually Timothy, but Timothy isn’t the sort of moniker any self-respecting bloke should have to put up with, and with Lilian looking the absolute spit of Lilian Thuram, the old French fullback from the late nineties, Lilian he had become. Although come to think of it, Lilian may not be much of an improvement, macho-wise, on Timothy. ‘And where exactly on the coast do you have in mind to go sailing anyway?’ he added.
‘Lymington,’ said JimBob, which suggested he’d given it a bit of thought.
‘Where’s that?’ asked Fred
‘New Forest,’ explained JimBob.
‘Where’s that?’ asked Fred, but we ignored him. It could be very time-consuming answering all Fred’s questions, so we tended to be selective.
‘Plenty of boats there,’ I agreed. ‘It may have legs, this idea of yours, JimBob. Weather’s looking okay too. Do us good to get out of the pub for a change.’
‘What sort of boat?’ chipped in Mystery Mick. ‘You thinking one with sails an’ all?’
‘Why not?’ asked JimBob.
‘Well, have you ever sailed before? I know I haven’t,’ said Mystery Mick, which rather ruined the idea of his having been a round-the-world yachtsman.
‘How hard can it be? You pull a rope, up goes the sail, you point the nose of the boat where you want to go with the rudder and hey presto, you’re sailing.’
‘Don’t you have to know the lingo?’ I asked.
‘Al’s right,’ said Lilian. ‘I don’t think ropes are called ropes, nose doesn’t sound kosher, and I think it may be a tiller, not a rudder.
I should point out here that Al is my name. They think it’s short for Alan. It’s not, I’m really an Albert, but you think I’m going to tell them that? Yeah, right.
‘Doesn’t matter what anything’s called. We’re not taking Captain Bird’s Eye with us. If I want to call a rope a rope, then it’s a bloomin’ rope, all right?’ JimBob could get quite aggressive at times, as could JimBob. Talking of which.
‘Is JimBob coming with us on this sailing trip?’ I asked.
‘Ah, well,‘ said JimBob, ’It was his idea. He’s already there, as it happens, and he’ll start looking for a boat as soon as we give the say so. He’ll have one waiting for us when we get there.’
I had been wondering where JimBob was. We hadn’t seen him for three days, unless we had and it had been JimBob who was missing.
Mystery Mick and I looked at each other. ‘We seem to have a fait accompli on our hands,’ grunted Mystery Mick. Fred looked at his hands, wondering if he should wash it off.
‘Great,’ said JimBob. ‘That’s settled then. We’ll leave at seven in the morning and beat the traffic. I’ll drive.’ The last bit was unnecessary. Either JimBob or JimBob always drove. Mystery Mick only had his bike and my elderly TR6 only had room for one passenger. And whilst Fred had a van, we’d long ago made a mutual decision never to go in it, or we’d have to explain to Fred exactly what an MoT was, and it just wasn’t worth the effort.
So anyway, the next day, bright and sunny, we set off for the Hampshire Coast. For once, no car transporters had decided to fall over on the A34, which was a bonus, and we were in Lymington by just before nine. JimBob had texted JimBob to say he’d sorted the boat, a snip, and to meet him with beer by the harbourmaster’s office. We were ahead of him on the beer front and except for JimBob, who was of course driving, we’d collectively felt we ought to test out the supplies en route to check none of it had gone off. We had to test quite a few cans to be certain, but hey, you know it makes sense.
JimBob parked the car with the disabled badge prominently displayed and after a necessary visit to the toilet, we followed JimBob a hundred yards or so to a jetty sticking woodenly out into the harbour. There were quite a few boats of all shapes and sizes moored alongside it, but I think I wasn’t the only one of us who spotted from quite a distance away the one JimBob had hired.
‘Hey, JimBob,’ muttered Mystery Mick. ‘Please tell me it’s that nice-looking white one with the big outboard and the comfortable cabin.’
He knew it wasn’t and of course JimBob had to admit it was the boat in front of it, the dirty little grey one, with a few planks on the side trying desperately to make a break for it. We could make out the name, just, which seemed to be something like Cockshett, which wasn’t a million miles away from being an accurate description.
‘It’s all I could find, boys,’ said JimBob in a hardly defensive manner at all. ‘For some reason, the boat hire guy wouldn’t accept my card, so I had to offer cash and it’s cleaned me out. I hope you brought the beer,’ he added hopefully. I nodded across at Fred, dutifully bringing up the rear carrying the two crates of lager that we had failed to consume in the car. They were tied to a trolley, and the trolley had wheels but Fred hadn’t understood that that meant he didn’t have to carry them in his arms. The concept of wheels was a little too much for him at that time of the morning and with six cans of lager sloshing about inside him. I returned to the conversation, which was getting louder as our little group gazed down on the small, cabinless boat.
‘Is that the same card the petrol station turned down three days ago?’ asked JimBob, and JimBob had to admit it was but that he’d been hopeful it was just a mistake.
‘It’s called Cockleshell,’ he announced, which admittedly did seem more likely than Cockshett, if less appropriate.
‘What’s that on the back?’ asked JimBob.
‘Where?’ asked JimBob, looking where JimBob was pointing. ‘Oh, that, it’s the engine, the outboard-thingy, you know.’
‘Outboard?’ snorted Mystery Mick. ‘Looks more like my hedge trimmer.’
‘Well, it’s just to get out of the harbour, isn’t it,’ replied JimBob dismissively. ‘After that, it’s sails all the way to the Isle of Wight. Look, they’re red.’ He indicated the furled sails and tried to sound encouraging, but failed.
‘Well, as long as they work all right,’ grunted Mystery Mick, unconvinced about anything other than that red spelt danger.
‘Wait a minute,’ said Lilian, brow deeply furrowed while he squeezed out the question that we had all thought but had left unspoken. ‘You mean the five of us are going to get in this little bath thing and drive it out there?’ And he pointed out to sea, a sea which I couldn’t help noticing was looking a bit whiter and choppier than it had only a few minutes before. As if to emphasise the fact, a sudden gust of wind took the child’s-size Captain’s Cap, bought on the way down and ever since perched daintily on Fred’s massive head, and blew it into the harbour, taking out a seagull as it went.
‘It’s a five-seater,’ said JimBob, and to a certain extent he was right. I could see one seat at the back, next to the previously disparaged outboard motor, and two benches further forward, each with room for two people. Two small people mind, and I looked around at the selection of beer bellies in our group and winced slightly despite my wish to be broadly supportive of JimBob and JimBob’s little excursion.
Mystery Mick was obviously of the same mind. ‘Okay, stop yakking, everyone,’ he announced. ‘Let’s give it a whirl. What’s the worst that can happen? Didn’t I spot a lifeboat station back aways?’
I think we were all a little surprised, possibly even JimBob, when fifteen minutes later we chugged serenely out between the harbour walls into the Solent, the tiny outboard motor having sprung to spritely life at my first tug of the starter cord. We’d all managed to fit into Cockleshell in the end, although Lilian and Fred were each sitting on a crate of beer.
‘How much petrol have we got, JimBob?’ asked Mystery Mick as the first bit of seaspray sloshed into our faces.
The question caught the rest of us by surprise, and disappointingly that included JimBob. ‘Petrol?’ he said. ‘I dunno. Enough, I guess.’ It sounded more like hope than certainty. ‘Still,’ he continued, ‘probably time to up sail, wouldn’t you say? It’s why we’re here, after all.’ The rest of us were more inclined to the opinion that why we were here was to get across the Solent to the Isle of Wight as quickly as possible to enjoy a long and predominantly liquid lunch in the nice little pub in Yarmouth remembered from a few years back, but we had to get there somehow, and the question about the petrol seemed valid enough especially as I could see no spare fuel can anywhere.
No one felt secure enough in the by now alarmingly rocking little vessel to stand up, but Fred’s long arms, under direction from Mystery Mick, managed to reach and loosen the lower two knots holding the sail and I found a boat hook and with a nifty little poke and twist was able to undo the highest one. And lo and behold, out billowed a bright red sail.
A sail with a hole in.
No, let me rephrase that. A hole with tatters of sail around it.
‘Jeez,’ said Mystery Mick in an awed voice.
‘Al,’ called JimBob. ‘Don’t turn that engine off.’
I was of like mind, but the engine itself unfortunately wasn’t, and as if on cue it sputtered briefly and stopped. I pulled the cord firmly but calmly. Nothing happened. I pulled more vigorously. And it broke, leaving barely half an inch protruding from the engine housing. Three pairs of accusing eyes stared at me. The fourth pair, belonging to Fred, were staring into the bottom of the boat and the stream of vomit he’d just deposited there.
‘Fred! Over the side, you numbskull!’ shouted JimBob without necessary forethought, and Fred obediently got up and jumped over the side. ‘I meant be sick over the side,’ added JimBob, clarifying his instruction just a tad too late.
Horrified, I looked around for something to use as an improvised lifebelt but could see nothing apart from the boathook. The two beer crates probably wouldn’t float and I reckoned we might need the beer to stop us dying of thirst later on. So I lobbed the boathook hopefully into the bit of sea where Fred had disappeared.
Mystery Mick took charge amidst the confusion. ‘Right,’ he shouted. ’Who’s got a phone?’ None of us had. I wasn’t the only one who’d decided that leaving mine in the car was preferable to it ending up at the bottom of the Solent. Possibly we hadn’t properly thought that through.
The situation looked hopeless, especially for Fred, until without warning his overlarge head, topped with a crown of green seaweed, rose from the waves followed by the rest of him down to the waist. And there he stayed, miraculously upright, like some modern-day Neptune waving the boathook like a trident, blowing water and other unidentified detritus out of various orifices, but not sinking again.
Finally, he stopped blowing. ‘Hey, guys,‘ he said. ’I’m standing on the ground.’ It made no sense at all. I could just about make out Lymington a good mile away through the haze behind us.
Meanwhile, Mystery Mick had slithered over the side headfirst and almost immediately re-emerged, shaking his head, to announce, ‘Yep, he’s right, it’s a sandbank. Me and Fred’ll hold on to the boat. The rest of you, as we haven’t got a phone between us, get that sail and stick it on top of the mast to act as a distress flag. Someone’ll come. I thought something like this might happen, so I had a quick word with the coastguard while you were having a pee earlier. It’s the old Navy SEAL training coming out, I guess.’
‘Navy SEAL?’ I said. ‘We thought you’d been an astronaut.’
‘No,’ said Ex-Mystery Mick. ‘Don’t be daft. That’s my brother.’