As I write this, the sun has just set over the Frisian harbour town of Harlingen, in The Netherlands.
I’m staying the night in a delightful hotel in the centre of town, and the view out my window is the one above, gently winking navigation lights on the little entry into the harbour, and sailing ships everywhere. Early tomorrow I will take a supply boat out to the Radio Waddenzee / Radio Seagull ship, Jenni Baynton, anchored 10km off the coast in the centre of the Waddenzee, an area of the North Sea partly protected by a string of islands. I’ll try to blog regularly while on board, but as always this is dependent on mobile signal and everything working well, so it may be patchy.
I’ve had an unusually leisurely trip this time round, giving myself an extra day, which allowed me to fly at a civilised hour, and take the time to enjoy Harlingen before rushing out to sea. And it is a beautiful place, and very thought-provoking.
The first thing that strikes me is how utterly central to the town the sea and boats are. Unlike Ireland, where marinas are generally away from the town, and often semi-private and exclusive, here the waterways are part of the fabric of the town, everywhere you look there are boats old and new, and the people . . they are old and new too.
There are just as many teenagers afloat as adults, and normal families and grizzled old men in beat-up cars rub shoulders with the more well off. The boat, in Harlingen, is classless and timeless.
And it’s so busy.
Looking out to sea as the sun fell boats were dotted along the safe channel out of Harlingen like cars on a motorway, the swing and lift bridges in the centre of town are constantly moving, and groups of people are sitting and socialising in large numbers on many boats.
We’re a strange animal.
We have a unique capacity to get enjoyment from things whose original designed purpose was not enjoyment. Boats were built as a mode of transporting people and goods over water, a simple functional solution to an engineering and logistical problem, yet which one of us does not feel a glow of . . specialness . . when we set foot on a boat?
What is it about being on a floating object that inspires so much passion, and gives so much enjoyment to the human?
I remember once hearing an analysis of a poem written about the beach at Dover that talked about our love of zones of intersection – where the water meets the land, where the sky meets the sea, where the inner meets the outer, where the male meets the female.
I think there is a lot to be said for this, and perhaps the magic of boats and the sea is that you can not only experience the boundary of water and land, but in a way transgress it . . be beyond the limit, beyond the edge of land, on the water, but not in it.
And then there is the horizon, the boundary of sky and earth towards which every explorer has been driven. Nowhere can you better see the horizon, in all its clarity, than at sea.
To stand, at the highest point on the top of a ship’s bridge, or up its mast, is to see the wholly perfect horizon around you in full 360 degrees, with your own self at the perfect centre of it.
Confirmation that you are the centre of the world? Perhaps that is what is so alluring . .
I sail at dawn for my own horizon. We shall talk again!