Plain Sailing

It’s getting away from it all, while at the same time, being in the centre of everything.

The tide is low. The black and snot-green walls of the riverbanks slide by. Above the riverbanks, the hotels, apartments and businesses of Portugalete and Getxo look down upon us from either side. You would think that all those buildings would generate more noise, but no, they just observe us with a thousand eyes. The only sound is the chug of the boat’s engine.

We are on board the Happy Thought. Aritz, el capitán, is on the roof removing the covers from the sail. Liam is nervously manning the tiller. I’m sipping a beer. It tastes good. Aritz finishes with the sail and ducks into the cabin to fix the toilet.

I smile and wave at the other boats.

‘It’s a bit like I’m the owner and you two are my lackeys,’ I say to Liam.

Liam fails to smile.

‘Here do you wanna, take the… the reins?’

‘Na. You are doing a fine job. And it’s a tiller.’

‘Well you do it then, fucking Brendan the Navigator. I wanna roll a ciggy.’

‘Smoking’s bad for ya.’

This is bad for me…for us. I haven’t a clue what I’m doing.’

‘Aritz would tell you if anything was wrong.’

Liam makes a face.

Once we get closer to the mouth of the Nervion, Aritz cuts the engine. The wind picks up and we pull extra jumpers out of our backpacks. There’s an eerie silence. The engine was like the constant murmur of a reassuring mother, but now it’s gone.

Aritz positions himself next to a crank and starts winding. The sail rises up the pole. The sheet flaps about at first but once he’s done winding it puffs its chest out proudly. The wind pulls the boat to one side. I feel my stomach lift. I clutch onto the rail. The boat is nearly on its side. If I let go I’ll be tipped out. Eventually, the wind subsides and the boat settles.

‘I don’t want to steer this anymore,’ Liam says, ashen faced.

He leaves the tiller go. I look to Aritz. He shrugs. I drain my can and take the tiller. The vessel and the lives within are now in my hands.

Aritz goes back to the toilet. Liam attempts to roll a cigarette with trembling fingers.

‘I have no idea what I’m doing here,’ I say once Aritz resurfaces.

‘You are doing Grrrreat!’

‘I dunno man. I don’t feel safe in a boat that has me in charge.’

‘To go right, push it left. To go left push it right. When wind is straight: 25 degrees either side,’ Aritz instructs and then he ducks into the cabin again.

He makes it sound easy but it’s not like I have the river to myself. There are canoes, trawlers, big sail boats and tiny sail-boats. There’s also the wind and its whims.

Liam stands up, lights his cigarette and takes a long, slow pull. I’m straining on the tiller. Suddenly, the arm of the main sail swings violently. Liam bends backwards to avoid getting his head taken off.

‘Jesus!’ he says, crouching towards the bench.

‘I did say smoking is bad for ya.’

‘Well…’ is all Liam can say. He sits there shaking his head.

‘Some reflexes on ya though. That was like something outta the Matrix.’

It all seems a bit dangerous but every time Aritz resurfaces from the cabin he smiles an ‘Aint life grand’ smile. I decide not to panic unless I see him panicking. I pick a red building on the docks as a yardstick. After twenty minutes, we still haven’t moved passed it. I hope no one else has noticed.

‘This trip is like my relationship; A lot of effort but essentially going nowhere,’ Liam says.

‘This wind is like a girlfriend; one minute she’s your friend, then suddenly, and for no apparent reason, she turns on you,’ I offer.

Liam emits a mirthless chuckle.

Finally Aritz emerges and takes the tiller. I sit down next to Liam.

‘How are things with Emma?’

‘Ah we are fighting a lot. To be honest I-’

Suddenly, Aritz is roaring. I look ahead and see a forty foot sail boat heading our direction. It’s going to hit us. The captain of the forty-footer is moving frantically on deck. But surely it’s too late. I brace myself for the cold water. As the huge sail looms over us I close my eyes.

It hits us on the port side. Miraculously we remain afloat. With both captains pulling the tillers the boats veer away from each other.

We stand. We are staring at the captain of the forty footer. He’s staring right back. A combination of language barrier and shock renders us dumb.

‘All that water and you two are hitting into one another!’ bellows a fisherman on land.

Once we sit back down Liam and I feel the need to recount the story from our own perspectives. We are agreed that the other boat was at fault. A calm descends. Aritz is in charge. Liam and I are just sipping cans and looking about. The boat slowly progresses towards the bay.

‘I guess it’s plain sailing from here on in,’ I say.

‘Yeah,’ Liam agrees, ‘Boring, isn’t it?’


Something Similar? Bilbao Metro 4am

Something Different? Cans on the Bench