When I first started sailing back in the 1980s, Britain had been part of Europe for only ten years and I remember that there were still procedures to follow when Going Foreign. Sailing across the Channel to France meant that we had to fly a yellow Q flag on approach, and then report with our passports to the local douane (who was usually closed, but we felt we had to try). Coming back into UK waters we had to rehoist the Q flag so that Customs officers could come aboard and give us clearance to go ashore. Sometimes they didn’t but often they did pay us a visit and we’d have to declare how much wine, spirits or cigarettes we’d brought in. In more recent times the Q flag has not been necessary, but I guess it’s been dug out and rehoisted now we’re back to square one.
The Q flag is one of the maritime signal flags whose origins go back several centuries but which are still in use today. There is one flag for each letter of the alphabet but several flags have another layer of meaning; Q is for Quarantine and it originally signalled, when a ship arrived in port, that there may be disease on board. Over time, the meaning of the Q flag changed to its opposite – that the ship was disease free and requesting clearance. (‘My vessel is healthy and I request free pratique’).
40 days and 40 nights
The practice of quarantine is centuries old but the name comes from the Venetian rule of making a ship wait 40 days at anchor before being allowed ashore (the word comes from the Italian ‘quarantina’ meaning 40). That must have been hard on crews who had sailed far and would be desperate for the pleasures of shore, within sight but out of reach.
The choice of 40 days could have been for medical reasons – originally 30 days, it shows a good understanding of the time it takes a disease like the plague to incubate and reveal its presence in the body – or it could have been Biblical. In ancient times the popular phrase ‘40 days and 40 nights’ was just another way of saying ‘a long time’, but it has connotations of being a time of cleansing, renewal or rebirth.
My own quarantine period is only 8 days, not 40, for which I am grateful. The Falklands has no facilities for dealing with a major covid outbreak so there are strict quarantine and testing procedures for all Forces personnel and civilians coming into the islands. A disused RAF base in Yorkshire is my quarantine ship, and my daily exercise is a walk on the old airfield and around the empty base. We are in housed in groups of six, not allowed to mix with other groups, and it took me a day or two to adjust to my new and very unfamiliar military surroundings.
For the first couple of days my brain was a blank and I found it hard to feel remotely creative or interested in anything except hiding under a duvet escaping into the novels I’d brought to read on the plane. I was too lethargic even to tackle all those routine admin tasks lurking in my laptop, including over 70 unanswered emails and messages. But once I had sorted out the basics, got to know my group and our routine, sorted out my wifi, teabags, a bottle of wine (and a polystyrene cup) and a heater for my room, I began to feel better placed to make the most of this unexpected gift of time.
I realise that what makes me unhappy is having nothing going on in my head, staring blankly at a sheet of paper or laptop screen with no projects or ideas fighting for attention. Simple enthusiasm may well be the key to a creative life!
If you can’t find it, make it.
The only way forward is always to begin, so I began, and as familiarity replaces unease, more becomes possible. I’m playing around with watercolours whilst watching youtube clips from British Antarctic Survey, following all kinds of threads on google, and catching up with friends too. ‘Goodness!’ said one, ‘You actually answered your phone!’. My bottle of wine, chilling ineffectively on the window ledge, is being enjoyed with friends each evening via video chat or zoom. After a carb-heavy lunch I’m happy to miss supper and tuck into my supply of peanuts, thoughtfully sent to me by friend Dan wrapped inside the towel that I hadn’t realised I needed to pack.
Eight days with wifi, even on an old air base, is infinitely preferable to 40 days at anchor without it, and thankfully it’s no longer the plague we’re trying to avoid. We have much to be thankful for!