Poem: A Burridge day sailing

My friend, the designer, illustrator and writer, Paul Burridge, has been restoring his Macwester 28 for a couple of years and he took a couple of us on her first voyage under his ownership on 7 July 2014. It was a great day.

A Burridge day sailing

Such a day should have had bunting
tugged and bounced
by the forceful breeze
which seemed to carry a near-gale
under its arm.

Our hearts were bunting-ed
all about,
for this
was Burridge’s day,
the day his Helen Mary
was slung away from sullen blocks
and she shimmied off
her plastic tarps.

The day’s glints and glowers
switched by swift turns,
and darting terns
worked ceaselessly,
and yes there were
dashing scattered flocks
of swallow-tailed
hoovering up
swooping the loop
from the Helen Mary’s berth
and away across the marina,
a circuit toward the stacked RIBs on their shelves
like IKEA boxes
(and yes later we saw the IKEA shed
and those bold yellow letters
full of innocent promise)
and back to us.

Burridge pushed us off
and jumped on
and found little work for his
and mast monkeys
because he had worked so long alone
and remade his Helen Mary,
building her up with marine ply and epoxy
with an eye as agricultural as marine,
he was like a man made taciturn by solitude,
as mythic as Colonel Kurtz
or Orson Welles,
nicely poetic
but built for mud and rain
and now squinting toward the sunny
and steadying himself for the buoyant.

He took us under Itchen Bridge
and we fancied that he scattered
the skinny and the fit
Lycra-ed in their kayaks –
the cat amongst the pigeons –
and all he wondered, aloud,
was what bits of the Solent Pilot book
he’d forgotten or mangled in his mind since last
he plied these waters;
and the Helen Mary could not reply or help,
not after ten wedged years.

The new engine seemed content,
not puttering like a Seagull
but fluttering murmerously
like a well-mannered sewing machine.

And then four coppers atop a catamaran
waved, as we imagined,
a benediction,
from their perch on a flying bridge
like Hemingways after dark sharks,
after terrorists and stowaways;
and – we guessed – after immigrants,
whose ingenuity, we hazarded, almost earned
a visa or a welcome mat,
or a plongeur’s spot in a caff under the radar.
Anyway, we wished the cops well, in our fashion,
since they’d seen no harm or error in us.

We slipped on, more sure in our innocence and decency,
and pretty sure the Helen Mary was looking handsome,
her bow nudged and muscled by something which felt like
a burgeoning 5 gusting a 6.

A banker’s RIB,
a skiffing shard,
arrowed by,
steered by the banker’s son
on exeat
from his good school
– I’m guessing this about this pair –
and this was one of their better Sundays,
watching a little of Southampton,
as we watched them,
on their day of bonding,
forged in the drizzle and dazzle
and lashed together in the Beaufort Scale
when a father
would have liked to shield his boy from the chill,
and the boy shrugged him off
to splash his blue-cheeked bravura.

This sprawling port,
unfussed and unphased,
sees the best and worst,
the scruffiest and smartest,
on every tide.
Toys fresh from the Boat Show
desport amongst refineries,
like Aintree full-on slappers
or Ascot debs and Debbies
wandering in a horse fair.

And everywhere cars are stacked
and shipped,
awaiting drivers of their own,
or shelved for an hour or two
during some retail
or a meal or IMAX blockbuster,
and anywhere might be a building or a boat
and each grows more like the other –
plated, cantilevered,
strong and sturdy
and supple and ready for disassembly –
the sheds anchored for a while to postcodes
and ships pinned by transponders
wherever they go.

Car-carriers are the plainest ships,
and we marvel as we pass,
These are filing cabinets!
Where’s the bridge, even?
And there, the only worker
we see all day,
a high-viz insect,
watches the trickle of cars,
each quite dwarfed,
as they emerge from the anonymous slab
like hundreds and thousands
trickled from a cake tin.

Here and there,
rude as a tramp in a shopping mall
scrapyards assert themselves
as solid as sin
rich with pickings
bits here and there
still shiny and sharp
not lingering long enough to rust
but all heaped up
grubby or beaming
crushed or crumpled,
queueing quayside
to be fired up
as a Maserati
or as a can
for beans with an Arabic label.

Everywhere, as sudden
as a Venice minor palazzo,
little solid waste lands
are garlanded by buddleia,
which heralds and skirts
these paused places,
not bombed-out,
as in my trolley-bus childhood,
but cast aside,
and seeded:
a breathing space,
fenced to landlubbers,
but tempting from the water.

Such spots seem ripe
and the purple and white
come to primp them,
anticipating “for sale” boards
quite hopeful,
or anyway undaunted,
“It’s rosemary for remembrance
And buddleia for possibilities”.

We passed a floating crane
stubby and barge-arsed
with bull’s shoulders for a bow,
it could have raised
small ships from the deep,
with giddy ladders
mounting up
its granite arms
fit for a Scottish rock
serenaded by Mendelssohn
or etched by craggy Ackroyd.

It was the big brother
of one I boarded
reed-banked on the Pripyat River
in a bend near Belarus.
That Soviet hero had done
heavy lifting
for Chernobyl,
and its operators
whiskered but youthful still
took me for a Sunday sunset spin
in their jolly boat
sleek as a Miss Britain lll,
its aluminium sucked in,
and bruised,
here and there
and powered
by a Sputnik of a motor
full of joy and spunk
as we planed the muddy stream
into glamorous spray.

Those old boys
would have liked Southampton Water,
with its memories of bosomy starlets
and sugar daddies and card sharps,
parading on and off liners
the smartest ships ever made
with destinies bound up with
bum-boats, tugs and cranes.

And those men – Ukrainian or Russian –
would have liked to work with Burridge,
as would have Burridge with them.

He took the Helen Mary
out of the port’s commonest estate
that of the project;
those noble hulks
which, crippled themselves,
cripple their owners,
whose dreams
may sometimes turn to voyages,
to farewells and landfalls,
but more often
are beached and wharfed,
holed beneath the waterline,
consuming weekends
and every waking hour.

But the Helen Mary
was Burridged:
lifted up beyond the bodge
brought not to imagined completion
but to readiness,
her prettiness restored
her sturdiness fettled.

Even Alan
the boatyard boss
almost touched
as he tidied up the patch
which had been the Helen Mary’s berth
and he gave,
a fond Burridge
“Fuck off”
for an “au revoir”

Out in Southampton Water,
workshops behind us
and the Solent ahead
we unrolled the Genoa
and let its honed belly fill
and the Helen Mary heeled
and she entered
fully into the estate of yacht.

One of the sisterhood
overtook us
steady as a train:
a catamaran
crossed with a Thamesside penthouse,
its owner or his crew
bolt upright
in crisp white short-sleeves
behind smoky plate glass,
not deigning to cleave the water
but slicing,
not with a bone in her teeth
but the merest curled lip,
under a polyster sail.
more like a blade
or a plastic knife.

As they swanned by
we were a little awed
but hung on to dignity
one hand waving
the other gripping the boat.

Punching back up the Water
toward Veolia’s incinerator,
its Xanadu-dome
catching the light
as might a fire hose spray,
rehearsing a celebration,
perhaps for us,
we reviewed a parade of ships
on their way to the sea
as we had lately been.

First up,
comes the Adventures of the Sea,
tall, of course,
a pilot launch tossing in her wake
fussy and commanding.
She seemed a great pale thing.
But not quite glamorous,
a little too much of the moon and the balloon.

And then
and we are almost too close
here’s the Queen Victoria
not quite dead ahead,
our paths likely to safely cross
and Burridge is inscrutable
as she passes.
I gasp
as the sun
lights up her aft-quarter
and this blue and white Behemoth
the Royal Yacht lurking in her helix
(QE2 had a bit of that)
and passengers
at private balconies
raise a flute toward us.

On another day
I would sing of the Red Funnel ferry
as it brought up the trio’s rear,
but as afternoon became evening
neither gave the other quarter
and we nipped and tucked
across her bow,
and then some,
and I wondered
why our engine wasn’t running
just to keep us clear
of the South Today news
by a better margin.

But that’s the Burridge way:
a Buddha thing, maybe:
the zestful Zen
which comes to vegetarians
who have to watch their crew
eat ham with their watercress,
muttering in the hatch –
making timid commentary
whilst a real man helms.

And now the final stretch
up the Test
where the fly fisherman’s river
hosts the world’s biggest ships
which seem fatter
than the creek they sit in,
and the mind glances off
their immensity,
counted in the only units they know:
containers by the glorious thousand.

Under motor now
we borrowed the container wharves’
deep water,
and basked like the monsters
(they are bound by spider’s strands
to the shore)
in western light.

On the other bank
an oak woodland,
shouldered to the sunset,
made shadows in its breast
and in the cool
I know there are sequestered
heaps of stuff
which even travellers can’t sell.
Happy to relate,
I once found there,
where bluebells surely nod,
long curved veins
of bright clean PVC
of their coppery blood –
and plenty more to offend.

We stayed well away
from that shallow verdant shore,
until it was time to dash across,
in the Eling Channel,
through a guard of honour,
a raucous choir,
of jousting jet skis,
as vivid as Lambretta boys in Tuscany
or diddy coys in trotting carts,
as noble as slave charioteers.

And in their wakes, and waved through,
we passed the Eling Wharf,
where containers go to die,
webbed about by pylons,
hedged by motorway bridges,
and on to Eling Pool.

The Helen Mary made an entrance
worthy of Elsinore or Tintangel,
to a place that needs
no Hamlet or King Arthur
but maybe a Dickens.

It is red-bricked
and reed-fringed
and quaint and stalwart
and starling mobbed
and usefully inconvenient.

Guarded by travellers,
and yachtsmen
and suburbanites,
watched over by takeaways
and the toll hut,
it is for now,
here’s hoping for a long time,
where the Helen Mary
can be Burridged
to his heart’s content.

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Publication date

09 July 2014


RDN's poems