Wisdom and warm socks
When I lived in a house, the contrast between seasons was not particularly stark. On a boat, the difference between summer and winter involves a whole different way of living.
Summer afloat is a glorious, expansive picnic. The entire river is my living space, into which friends ebb and flow with boats, music and wine. Earning a living still means long hours indoors of course, but apart from that there are light evenings, maintenance sessions on the boat, voyages to plan, dinghies to play around with, all sorts of shippy business going on. Above all else in the summer, there is light – abundant, endless, late and early, helpful daylight.
Winters are a different matter altogether; the river belongs now to the oystercatchers and redshanks, and the long hours of darkness shrink my world to a small cabin where the wood stove is master and I develop an obsession with thermal socks and fleecy pyjamas.
Winter afloat has its charms as well as its challenges, so here are my six survival tips for getting through:
A GIRL’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING WINTER AFLOAT
1. Never be without a torch
With the winter comes an obsession with torches. One in my pocket, one in my handbag, two in the wheelhouse and one in the car. It’s dark when I get home from work, and the boatyard is a tight maze of cranes, trailers and laid up boats through which I thread a narrow path to my gangplank. Forgetting a torch means trying to do this in the dark without bumping into something sharp, stepping in a muddy puddle (see no.3) or falling in the river. It’s doable but tricky.
2. Keep your firewood dry
Godwit and dimwit
Like house dwellers, the second obsession is heat; where to buy the cheapest coal, how to lug a 20kg sack of it down a wet or frosty gangplank, how to get a good source of dry firewood, where to store it if you buy in bulk, how to keep the stove burning all night and what kind of chimney doesn’t blow back in a gale. I puzzled for a while about where to keep my firewood dry (stacking it on the quay doesn’t work as it floods at spring tides). Then I looked at the boat and the solution was obvious; there on my deck is a large dinghy with a tarpaulin cover – a perfect log store.
3. Keep your feet dry
Wellies are all very well but you can’t walk to the pub in them (at least, I can’t). I invested in a pair of leather waterproof boots and thermal socks which are as comfy as slippers and stay on my feet from November to March. With warm feet I can stride through puddles in the dark and face anything life throws at me.
4. Make the effort to go out
With the stove going, coal and wood stowed, water tanks topped up, all the outside jobs done, on go the slippers. There’s a gale blowing, rain drumming on the deck and a bottle of wine with my name on it in the fridge. On a summer evening I can walk along the river bank, go for a row, visit friends, chat to strangers or sketch on deck. In winter there’s nobody around; everyone is sensibly tucked up in front of their own fires wriggling warm toes and anticipating the first sip of wine. In winter, you have to make much more effort to socialise. Put the wine back in the fridge, take some smart clothes out of the damp cupboard and warm them by the fire before changing, add unfashionably functional layers of fleecy jackets and waterproofs, grab a torch and head back out into the dark.
Or do it the easy way and invite everyone round so they have to brave the weather and slippery quayside!
The demon rummikub players…..
5. Make the effort to stay in
This year I decided to try and take advantage of the isolating nature of winter and improve the quality of quiet nights in; spend more time in reflection and inner exploration, less time in a state of tired stupor. After all, in the imagination it’s always summer. If I was a better person this would come easily, but I’m working on it. There is a feast of riches to dip into with a bit of effort – reading, writing, listing to music, learning new tunes and songs, meditation, finding small ways to improve my living space, catching up online (current delight is listening to TED talks now I have improved mifi). It’s a struggle as my eyes are always tired after a day in the studio and I have a demented butterfly for a brain, but with a bit of coaxing I can steer a restless evening into a more satisfying one. Quiet times call for quiet deeds and one day I fully intend to find my own company as enjoyable as I find other people’s.
6. Turn your face to the storm
As any good book on mindfulness will tell you, there’s a lot to be said for acceptance. Not the passive, wishy washy kind of acceptance but the positive act of embracing our funny, imperfect life just as it is, even the crappy bits. It took me far too long to realise that if I only choose to engage fully with the nice bits, or wait for it to be perfect (it never will be), that’s an awful lot of life to waste. In winter, acceptance means tilting your face to the wind, rain and darkness and saying ‘this is my life and I want to experience all of it fully, soggy and cold bits as well as sunny and bright bits’.
It’s the kind of acceptance, wet bits and all, that you learn when you go sailing in bad weather – when the storm blows you don’t fight it but go with it, harness its power. Safely tethered to the quayside in these winter gales and frosts, as godwits and oystercatchers squabble on the shoreline and the days creep slowly lighter, I tip my face to the wind, pull my hat down over my ears and feel blessed to have choices about how to live. That’s what I call fortunate!
Sketching on the beach at Shingle Street on Christmas day – too cold for more than a scribble!
That’s enough for now – next month, who knows, there may be some more songwords. After all, there has to be something to show for all these winter nights in!