Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

IT’S my 30th wedding anniversary in two weeks.

Fifty is gold, 40 is ruby, 30 is pearl. Quite fitting really, considering I look on marriage as a boat.

Not so much a pearling lugger as one of those full-rigged ships, with a cloud of sail set on every yard, slicing through the ocean on a fair wind, decks scrubbed, brass gleaming, everything ship-shape.

That was before I sailed in one.

Now I have modified my view. I am not cynical about it. Just more realistic. As life unwound (or is that unravelled?) it happened that I sailed a lot of real ships. Big buggers, bristling with masts and more sails than Townsville at New Year.

I began to realise that if you lounge on the deck admiring the cut of your jib and the impression you’re making on people watching from the shore, but you don’t actually do any work, things begin to go wrong.

And we’re not talking anything major here. You don’t need to hit a whale, or Magnetic Island. You just need to ignore the fact the ratlines (those footropes that help you climb up into the rigging) need replacing. So when the storm hits and you need to get aloft to secure the sails and make everything fast, the ratline snaps when you stand on it. You break a leg, the sail blows out, the ship tips over, the mast snaps and you drown – all for the want of five minutes work and a bit of string.

The trouble is there’s never any time for that stuff. There’s always too many other things to do, like searching for buried treasure, or waving to mermaids.

This analogy holds true only to a point, because there were square riggers out there that were the Queens of the Seas. Beautiful ships kept in tip-top condition. But they weren’t crewed by couples. They were crewed by whole orgies of people. I don’t want my marriage to involve other people and orgies.

So we sail on single-handed. That is, single-handed together. And instead of regular maintenance to keep everything in working order, we hammer in a couple of nails as a temporary measure, until we’ve got more time. We grab a length of wire and twist it round the broken bits to hold them till we get into port. When I drop the compass and smash it, I wet my finger and hold it up to the wind instead, and make a rough guess.

This is not so bad. This is how most marriages are sailed. It’s also why the noble vessel we climbed aboard at the beginning ended up looking like a cross between a Newcastle coal barge and a Shanghai junk.

A bit of wire here, some electrical tape there, a plywood patch nailed over the soft bits, the bum of someone’s knickers sewn over the hole in the sail, and the whole thing not so much slicing through the ocean on the sigh of the wind as wallowing on the gasp of exhaustion, with five millimeters of freeboard, no compass, no electronic position-fixing equipment, weevils in the biscuits and rats in the bilges.

Do I need to worry, feeling as I do about the ship of my marriage, with all its creaks and leaks and the continuous sound of the bilge pump running?

Not at all. How many ships do you know that have been sailed round Cape Horn several times in 30 years? How many ships do you know that have steered close to rocks, risked the passage through the shallows, driven into storms, been tossed and rolled, battered and bruised, and have come out the other side with some broken masts and some torn sails, but the crew still on board and still alive, even if totally bemused about where they’re supposed to be heading?