The Pilgrims return

It feels pretty lonely catching up with the OGA Round Britain Challenge fleet after a week ‘back at work’ in the ‘big smoke’ of London. Ben Collins reflects on his return to Holyhead, to cross the Irish Sea to Belfast, after a week back in the ‘real world’ of work. His update is illustrated with more digital brushwork of the fleet enjoying the sunshine, moored alongside the magnificent Titanic Belfast.

Arriving on the London train in Holyhead, a week after the rest of the fleet had moved on, can leave one feeling a bit lonely. Are we still a part of it? Will we be re-accepted into the fold when we catch up with the action in Belfast?

Going to sea takes some adjustment. The wind, the tide and currents, high water Dover, UTC and the weather forecast move centre stage, shunting aside and trivialising yesterday’s concerns about meetings, agendas, telephone calls, emails and timetables.

Perhaps you have to be out of it for a bit to know what it is, this Old Gaffers Round Britain Challenge. We cluster together in harbours, have a long winding route to follow and are keen to keep moving on. Our boats travel sometimes together, sometimes alone, as we all make our own tracks through the coastal waters. There are challenges a-plenty when you have milestones to reach, headlands to conquer, lighthouses to pass with harbours to find and towns to meet up in.

Days of headwinds speckled with gales hold us all back as we all hunker down under lashings of rain, tied to swaying pontoons on creaking warps. Then the winds moderate and some make a dash for it, in the cold chill of night through the spewing waves while others stay in a pub, merry enough, wisely waiting for a better tomorrow.

Motors to fix, rigging to trim, wood to fasten and clothes to wash, life goes on in the travelling Old Gaffers ‘village’. Then the winds are gone and the June sun is aflame as we travel the glassy Irish Sea, watching dolphins and basking sharks wallow in our wake.

It’s all to do with living with the elements. Pilgrimage it surely is, only without the tattered sack-cloth and worn leather sandals. Our garb is red and blue, with bright yellow hoods and salt-stained boots. Didn’t pilgrims carry pitchforks for support and safety, pushing up hills and fending off demons, marking their way and planting their flags at hilltop camps?

Well, we have our pitchfork too, as the OGA pennant flies aloft in a show of collective pride. Our travelling speed is the same as the pilgrims. We travel a whimsical world where nothing happens if you plan too much, the best things come when you don’ t seek them, and people enjoy each others’ company for just being human, sitting together, pulling together, eating together, drinking and singing together.

But enough of the nonsense! We’ve cast off now. Back in it, we leave Holyhead for Belfast as the sun rises over the Skerries, 04.50 am. We’re looking forward to meeting up again with ‘Windflower’, ‘Moon River’ and ‘Bonify’ as well as the rest of the fleet.

The wind is up and we sail all day and into the night to cover the distance. With the blue mountains of Ireland 40 miles abeam, its slow progress, this catching up, but its doing things slowly that helps you ‘get it’, along with guillemots, gannets and dolphin to entertain us en route.