The news is full of juvenile achievement announcing a feat claimed by the youngest person ever to have swum, sailed or climbed the longest, deepest or highest facility in the world. I wonder how much of this is due to effective education, teaching, innate ability, the appliance of science and technology or perhaps pushy parents. But I also believe an achievement in primary or secondary school can inspire us for the rest of our lives.
Of one concern is the possibility the youngster involved may thereafter struggle to live up to their achievement and spend the rest of their lives failing to improve on the performance and slowly disappear into obscurity like the one hit pop star. Perhaps this is sour grapes, I was never good at sport and defended my ineptitude by disinterest. You are looking at a guy who discovered rugby has serious side effects to your health. If you have the ball it is clearly your turn, why then should some lout take it away. And such aggression! Having been whacked in the head yet again my education on school games day (I use the term loosely) was both a concern to me and an embarrassment to the games teacher. I was banished to the environs of Stretch Poole, an uncannily tall gentlemen who ran the sailing club.
Thereafter I was to enjoy the delights of learning to sail, regrettably in a dinghy called a Cadet. Aptly perhaps named as a training craft it had a large flat decks providing ample comfort for the helmsman but we junior trainees had to serve our time as crew. Stretch Poole also had the opportunity to teach me modern foreign language French in class. A task at which he failed miserably. Promotion to helmsmen in the sailing club being inextricably linked to linguistic achievement meant I was to be come the longest serving crew, and at my age!
Summer came and I was enlisted to playing cricket in school games. This too had repercussions. Again it involved a so called sport that can hurt. Clearly there is no need to bowl the ball quite that hard and having discovered it was made of metal seriously affected my commitment to hit the damn thing. Stretch and I therefore became re acquainted on the boat hard. The thought of spending the summer games on the river had mixed blessing. Magnificent, or mega to use the vernacular of the time, now referred I believe to as banging, it provided the introduction to delights of the sport. Stretch summonsed the sailing fraternity to announce the summer allocations of helms and crews. My legend ability French clearly let me down again thus my love of sailing was tempered only by the thought once again of the crew facilities on the Cadets. This entailed crouching in a contortionist position in the tiny well left in the middle occupied predominately by the centre board or dagger board casing as it was named. When squatting became unbearable, especially on windless days, seating for the crew comprised of of parking ones derrière – not all was wasteland Stretch – on the 2 inch wide casing clearly never conceived to accommodate buttocks. The crew suffered badly in these tiny craft. But my moment of glory was to come.
The wind was blowing steadily, the tide had turned and the waves all conspired to providing that extra dimension of drama. Having just rounded the marker buoy the helm set about the course change to the next buoy and fell overboard. We crew were trained to let go of everything and the craft would nudge up into the wind and effectively stall, going nowhere. This was to allow the helm to swim back and climb aboard. But he was already being rescued by Stretch in the rescue launch. And I thought this is it Owens minor.( my brother and I were at the same school which relied on the use of surname only. Brothers were thus allocated the distinguishing major or minor suffix.) Without a rearward glance I shifted neatly onto the side decking, what bliss, what comfort. A slight change in course, corrections to the mainsail and jib setting, lifting both the rudder plate and jamming the dagger board at 30 degrees to reduce drag, sliding my backside aft to lift the nose out of the water and learning out at full tilt and with the wind and waves combining the little cadet rose up on the plane. The fastest set up for any sailing craft.
Scooting down the river Orwell at full tilt I thought yes this is it! Cheered on by all the sailing club Stretch began chasing in the launch. The nett difference in speed being about 1 knot I calculated I had around 20 minutes of free time before retribution caught up. The torrent of French expletives, well you always learnt these first, emanating from Stretch was phenomenal. I don’t think he repeated any in the non stop diatribe. My parents matrimonial status were doubted; it counted in those those days, my life in French classes were to become hell and my days as a crew were to be limitless. But I deemed not to look back or acknowledge any instruction. My moment of glory had arrived.
The fuming Stretch and the smiling rescue team finally overhauled the cadet and drew alongside. Feigning complete shock that he had been advising me to stop the errant helm was dumped back on board and told in no uncertain terms to take the boat back the club. As we landed I was initially greeted by a mixture of cheers and congratulations, followed after one Stretch’s icy stares to cries of dead man walking.
Crewing on the Cadets suited me well enough I suppose. Mathematical calculations used by half the school thereafter calculated the speed and distance declaring me the youngest “helmsman” in the club to achieved the record speed in a Cadet. The claim met at the time with abject rejection by Stretch as being a completely unauthorised achievement, but has always served me as a reminder to grasp the opportunity, and it has served me well.