Devices and desires

The first time I lived afloat was twenty five years ago, on a tiny gaff cutter, a mile upriver from my current mooring. Each summer I set sail with a crew and headed off down Channel to the West Country, the Scillies or Brittany, taking in festivals of sail along the way and trying, not very successfully, to make a living as a marine artist.


‘Pretty Kitty’, a Tamarisk 24 gaff cutter, my first boat and floating home

There were no mobile phones then. No gps. No internet. I had coins for a phone box, not much experience, plenty of nautical charts and faith in my boat and my ability to get from A to B (even if I was aiming at C). No-one at home heard from me until I got back again – no emails, no facebook, no contact except public phone boxes and postcards. The thing is, no-one expected to know where I was, or hear from me every day.

kitty in cornwall

‘Kitty’ in Cornwall, waiting for fresh crew somewhere near Penzance

Now I’m afloat again, in a bigger boat which is full of little black boxes to save me space and make my life easier. Allegedly. I have kindle to save on bookshelf space (it doesn’t – I love real books too much). I have music on MP3 to save space on cds (but still like to buy cds, especially from performers that I’ve been to see and met). I have tablet for music collection and song words. I have smartphone and laptop (the one I’m using to write this, sitting up in bed early in the morning. It perches neatly on a lap table with my mug of tea alongside – bliss). Both my phone and my laptop will tell me what the river is doing; I know without getting out of bed that the tide fell 0.6m lower than predicted the other morning – atmospheric conditions have messed up the tides on most days the past two weeks.

pltdata_tgi (1)

From a rather useful tidal website

A little black box in the wheelhouse smaller than the palm of my hand gives me 10GB of wifi a month. There is an extension lead full of chargers in the saloon with a tangle of black cables trailing, and another boxful of chargers alongside. If my shore power failed, I could light candles to see by, but I’d be lost without those chargers.

little boxes

I’m glad of the technology – I’d certainly not like to go back to sailing without gps. We lived quite happily without the internet before we knew it existed, and although it is an extraordinary tool I do think it’s good to go without it for a while, to remind myself that I can appreciate life without having to take a photo of what I am doing every five minutes and post it online. But I love the fact that I can sit alone in my cabin on a dark winter night and chat to fellow sailors, artists, writers, friends all over the world. I can listen to their songs, read their blogs, admire their work, be invited to events. My son asked ‘How did you know what was going on before the internet or mobiles? How did you know where to meet up?’ ‘I honestly can’t remember’ I told him. But somehow we managed just fine.

I wouldn’t like to go back to the early days, but I do know that this little black box on my knee encroaches too easily on other, precious ways of spending time alone. When I first moved back afloat I didn’t have wifi, so all online faffing around had to be done during the day. During the quiet evenings I wrote songs, read books, talked to other boat dwellers, appreciated the stillness of the river and studied the different types of wading birds.

river sketch

River Deben looking towards Melton on a chilly morning

I wish my sketchbook bleeped when I ignore it for too long, or my notebook buzzed to remind me of a half finished song or story. From now on, I am going to have an internet curfew and give a little more time to the things that make life really fulfilling – the ideas that just need uninterrupted time with a pencil and sketchbook, ideas that need nurturing but get dumped every time the phone buzzes with another message. Or just quiet, unfragmented time with a book, the river, listening to music or just being still after the scramble of a working day. There’s more to be gained from the humble paper and pencil than all the technology in the world – I guess it’s always a question of balance.

little boxes 2

Microchip-free relaxation techniques….

I want to get back to the glorious state when a piece of paper and pencil could absorb me for hours in the same way that the internet now does all to easily. And at least my pencil and sketchbook are never going to run out of battery….

Finally, a song with a tune you will recognise (with apologies to Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger):


Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes made of electronics
Little boxes in your pocket, little boxes in the home
There’s a black one and a black one and a black one and a silver one
And they’re all full of clever microchips
And you won’t go out without your phone

There’s a kindle and a laptop and a tablet and an MP3
And a tomtom in the car to help you find out where to go
And they all have different chargers that get hopelessly tangled
So you can’t find the right one when the battery’s running low

And they all make different noises to get your attention
They bleep and they buzz when a message comes through
So you stop what you are doing with your fork halfway to your mouth
Cos you don’t mind little boxes telling you what to do

I’ve a kindle and a laptop, a mifi and an android phone
And a camera and a bluetooth speaker and a little MP3
But that’s not enough cos I needed a CD drive
To watch films on my laptop and to play the odd CD

And they all have long black cables to link them together
Which are long enough to trip you up when you get off your chair
And they all have different chargers to top up their batteries
But you can’t find the right one and you don’t have a spare

Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes made of electronics
Little boxes in your pocket, little boxes in the home
There’s a black one and a black one and a black one and a silver one
And they’re all full of clever microchips
And you daren’t go out without your phone


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