ABSOLUTELY NO PROSPECT OF WHITBY
Absolutely No Prospect of Whitby is the first book in the ‘Misadventurer’s Journal‘ series. It is a humorous account of the sailing experiences of the authors; Shaun Favell and Steven Cliffe, who describe themselves to be ‘Misadventurers’. Their tale describes the mishaps they encountered while trying to sail a small yacht from Southampton to Whitby, with very little sailing experience or money. It explores the endearing relationship between two optimistic but misdirected friends.
Preview: Chapter 1 – Eclipse
Nothing quite captures the spirit of wonder like an eclipse. Since the first recorded ‘eclipse of Bur Sagale’ in 763 BC umbraphiles have chased these remarkably frequent events in the hope of spiritual enlightenment, or perhaps to somehow enrich their otherwise dreary lives. For Steve and I we would claim the former but honesty demands we must admit the latter.
For us, the escape from dreary usually began in the pub. If ignorance is the mother of adventure, then for us its father must be beer. How many beers does it take to sire a quest to witness a celestial event? – About six it would seem! The journey through six beers typically starts with peanuts and ends with deep philosophical debate over the birth of creation, the meaning of life, celestial geometry, and the other mystical musings sobriety normally protects us from. On one random, otherwise unimportant night sobriety abandoned us to the mercy of such musings and a plan to witness the first total UK solar eclipse in 70 years was born. A plan requires good planning, and good planning requires research; both of which seemed unduly tedious, so a quick glance at a newspaper article informed us when and where the total eclipse would be. So it began; on a typically cloudy dark august morning in 1999 Steve and I set out on our quest to Falmouth. Well actually I set off – in the name of time management the plan was to pick Steve up from Retford train station where he was due to arrive from his latest spiritual quest in India. True adventure, you see, requires a schedule, and schedules are the most exciting when they’re tight!
It didn’t take a degree in Euclidian geometry to work out just how tight. By our reckoning Falmouth was approximately three hundred and sixty miles away from Retford, and Steve was likely to be through the turnstile and ready to be collected at five in the morning. Given that the Eclipse was due to start at four minutes past eleven we needed to average a speed of sixty miles per hour to leave us an ample safety margin of four minutes for emergencies, toilet stops, and parking, – thus adhering us firmly to the ‘just in time’ principle we had perfected over the years. In keeping with this great principle I pulled into the station car park with a couple of minutes to spare. The success of our trip now rested entirely on the that reliable old traveller’s friend – public transport. That and Steve’s skills in not looking too much like a drug mule while passing through airport security. A rectal examination at this point, no matter how courteously brief, would have put undue pressure on our otherwise perfect plan. It was of course simpler back then. In 1999 one only had to try not to look like a Colombian drug lord, these days the added pressure of not looking like a terrorist can also seriously interfere with the otherwise delightful experience of queuing at UK customs control. Personally, I always found smiling furiously and casually talking nonsense to whoever was stood next to me a successful subterfuge. To be innocent it is important not to look guilty, even when you’re not. Anything less could expand one’s spiritual experience beyond comfortable – at least that was the fear. Nevertheless, despite his best efforts he managed to escape the deeper scrutiny of UK customs control and found himself safely back on official British soil.
Finding his way to the train terminal in good time was not a foregone conclusion either. You see, Steve for as long as I have known him has had a problem with navigation. The reason for this eludes me even today. He is certainly no stranger to maps, compasses, charts, plotters, dividers, GPS navigation systems, and a whole myriad of other tools designed to prevent you from getting lost. Put a compass in his hand and Steve will confidently and competently lead you in completely the wrong direction. The painful realisation of this fact became apparent on our first ever adventure together when he walked us twenty five miles off course during an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable hike over Kinder in the Peak District. My confidence in his ability remained unshaken right up to the point I could see Manchester ahead of us instead of Edale. The immortal words, “it’s just round the next corner Shag” will live with me forever. Steve, I love you dearly mate, but my feet still hurt.
This notwithstanding, and coupled with the curiously timely arrival of the intercity express I was elated to see my old friend shoulder barge through the large heavy train station doors sporting a large ornate wooden elephant grasped in one arm, a plastic shopping bag in the other, and his faithful old rucksack snugly strapped to his back. He was a sight for sore eyes with a familiar boyish grin spreading across his tired face.
“Shag” he nodded in greeting.
“Shag” I replied.
How we got into the habit of calling each other Shag is another story, but we did, and we still do.
Wasting no time he bundled his belongings into the back of the car and jumped into the passenger seat with the same kind of urgency seen by crime fighting super cops. Shouting “Go!”, in keeping with the simile, wouldn’t have seemed out of place, but his forward gaze and his slightly leant forward posture implied the same command, and we were off. Steve didn’t smell quite right, and for now, that wasn’t likely to improve Poverty and our usual poor planning could find no place for the overrated luxury of a warm bath, hot meal, and cozy bed offered by a guest room. We had all the luxuries we required; – boiled sweets, wet wipes, and reclining car seats.
“What’s with the elephant?” I mused openly.
“it’s a present” he replied.
“not for me I hope?”
Steve gave me that “could be” look, and held It just long enough to make me nervous.
“It’s for my daughter”.
“Nice!” I tried to sound enthusiastic “she’ll be thrilled!”
Steve recognised well the sarcasm in my voice and gave me a knowing smile.
“You know you could have won yourself some special love carrying that through customs, it looks like it’s ideal for hiding drugs” I continued.
Steve pondered the consequences of what I was implying and stopped smiling,
The mission required an average of a mile every minute in order to arrive in Falmouth before 11 am. Lost time buzzing through the rural roads would need to be compensated by the time gained on the motorways. Given the reputation of the M1 for roadworks, and the M6 for traffic this wasn’t going to be easy. A typical traffic jam during the morning rush hour would leave us watching only a partial eclipse from Bristol, and as as exciting as this sounds Bristol somehow didn’t quite capture our imagination in the same way. Once onto the M1 the humming of tyres on tarmac worked its hypnotic charm on my jet lagged friend, and his head started to nod. I found childish amusement in the curious snorting sounds he emitted as he repeatedly jerked his head back to its neutral position with each nod.
“No!” he protested.
I wasn’t rewarded with any reaction this time, Steve was exhausted.
Finally his head dropped again but this time it just hung there, swaying slightly with the movement of the car. It didn’t look comfortable, however I did manage to gain a further 30 minutes of amusement by steering the car abruptly in an attempt to bang his head on the car window. After several fails I was rewarded by a successful thump on the glass. Steve opened his eyes, rubbed his head with a confused look, screwed his jacket into a ball, stuffed it forcefully between his head and the window, and surrendered himself to sleep. Discussion about his adventures in India would have to wait until later, for now I had concentrate on eating up the miles in a timely fashion, keeping myself out of the sluggish offside lane, and avoiding slow moving traffic. I looked at the day as it brightened, and the warm sunlight permeated through the windows. Its heat lifted my spirits and chased away the dreary early morning feel.
As the morning progressed I noticed the formation of a few clouds, and until this point I hadn’t considered the possibility that the eclipse might become hidden by them – it was England after all and clouds are what the British weather does best. As the miles started to melt away my optimism of arriving on time increased as we hurtled along the M6. Not a road work was to be seen and the traffic pushed ever onwards seldom slowing below the national speed limit. The weather, however, was not improving and small specs of moisture began to drop onto the windscreen. Turning on the wipers oily grime smeared across my view momentarily before the sweet smelling screen wash cut through to clear my view again. The sun could no longer be seen clearly now for the thick layer of nimbostratus which stretched beyond the horizon ahead.
Traffic on the M5 started to thicken as we approached Exeter and Steve was waking from his well earned sleep. Glad of the company, I listened to the stories of his Indian adventures. He reached into his rucksack and pulled out a chicken bone adorned with an odd looking ring. The ring was gold in colour, unusually ornate, and was sporting a single clasp which held onto a purple square stone. He held the chicken bone up proudly and started to recite a story of how Indian market traders would rob old graves for the precious jewelry their occupants were buried with. I scrutinised the ring as much as I could without letting the car drift into the other traffic. I tried hard to give the ring the attention it deserved by my concentration kept wandering towards the dry white drumstick speared through its centre. My curiosity was transparent and Steve picked up on the cue for an explanation as I turned my gaze towards him.
“It’s a finger bone!” He exclaimed with excited glee.
I could see the wonder in my good friend’s eyes, he was like a child holding up his first toy car on Christmas morning. Some moments require great tact …
“Shag, – it’s a chicken bone!“
Steve was unperturbed, clearly he thought I wasn’t quite getting the depth of what he was telling me. He held the fowl’s femur closer to my face and continued.
“It’s probably worth a fortune.”
Not wanting to shatter my dear friend’s illusions I felt a change of approach would be the kindest.
“Shag, – it’s a chicken bone!”
This time he looked a little hurt, but Steve is nothing if he isn’t tenacious. Giving me his ‘I know what I’m talking about’ expression he tried to press his point further.
“It could be hundreds of years old” His eyes stared at me intensely daring me to disagree with him again.
“Shag,” I began. “I haven’t been to the toilet all the way from Retford, are you actually trying to get me to piss myself? – It’s a chicken bone!”
The argument continued down the A30, and was eventually put aside for another day as the impending end to our journey drew nearer. The final leg was the most anxious, we were clinging to every second of the ‘just in time principle’ and even the shortest of hold ups would have delayed us beyond our deadline. We had envisaged a Mecca type influx of eclipse spotters and were sure traffic would coagulate to a thick sludgy standstill on the way into Falmouth. We were naively surprised that the rest of the country was treating this like any other day and the traffic was no heavier than a normal Wednesday at eleven in the morning. Steve was busy scrutinising a street map of Falmouth, found towards the back of an old road atlas, looking for a suitable vantage point. Somewhere close to the sea seemed appropriate so during the remaining minutes of the eleventh hour of the day we found ourselves searching for a parking space on the coastal road. A long row of parked cars lined themselves along the sea break as far as could be seen. With the sea to our right we drove away from the town centre scanning furiously for an available space. My mind turned to the cloudy skies which concealed the sun, for some reason I had expected better from the Cornish weather.
Steve spotted a place to park and I swung the car into the ample gap with haste, breaking hard. He steadied his deceleration by placing one hand on the dashboard and reached for his jacket with the other. Two seconds later we were out of the car and instinctively made our way to a grassy mound which already had a gathering of people at its summit, waiting in anticipation. I pondered at the logic of believing an extra ten feet in altitude would give us a better view of the sun, as my stiff legs gave way beneath me in protest of being woken suddenly. I stumbled a couple of steps before inevitably seeing the ground rise upwards to meet my equally rapid descent as my body lost its fight with gravity. I doubt anyone could have heard the colourful expletives being fluently recited, due to the loud whoops of joy from my compassionate friend.
“Mind your step Shag” he squeaked with an ecstatic tone that rose to a high pitched squeal towards the end suppressing his delight. Using the momentum of the fall I half rolled across the road and quickly jumped to my feet trying to look as cool as the situation would allow. With two minutes to spare we summited the small hill and stood in excited anticipation of the first total UK eclipse in over seventy years. I brushed down my trousers along with my ego, as I became aware of a tiny detail we had neglected to in our plan. We had not considered the fact the sun might be too bright to look at. I mentioned our oversight to Steve who didn’t look overly concerned. He smiled knowingly and put his hand into his jacket pocket and produced a pair of sunglasses. I contemplated, for a moment, the utter stupidity of trying to look directly at the sun through a pair of Ray Bans, before reaching into my pocket and producing a pair of my own. I smiled back at him approvingly. “Good thinking Shag!”
The day was warming nicely, and the gulls were squawking merrily as they swooped above us. The sun could barely be seen through the clouds which were now starting to break into large fluffy clumps. During the odd moments the sun could be seen clearly we watched as the moon drew closer. At four minutes past eleven the eclipse began as cloud once again robbed us of our spectacle. A faint outline was visible where the cloud was thinnest and we waited patiently for the moment of total totality to arrive. The daylight dulled to dusk and shrill mad cries of confused gulls saturated the air as they wildly darted about the sky unable to comprehend what was happening. Suddenly the birds stopped singing and the air cooled quickly as the moon obscured the warmth of the sunlight. Dusk hung in the air for minutes before the light vanished from the day like a curtain being drawn over the sky. The piercing cries from the gulls had stopped and the silence was deafening. It was twelve minutes past eleven ante meridiem and it was night!
The crowd of on-seers looked up with awe, but Steve and I were looking elsewhere. In synchronicity, and without cue, we had both found ourselves staring out across the bay. Unbeknown to us dozens of yachts had made their way to Falmouth and had anchored in one of the picturesque Cornish bays. As the dark masked the day they had turned on their mast lights illuminating the coastline. Transfixed by the romantic lure of the scene we barely noticed the cloud had now broken in perfect timing as a halo of light briefly ringed the sun in a stunning corona before a bright glare of sunlight broke through producing the ‘diamond ring’ phenomenon I had longed to see. Within minutes the eclipse was over, the day was back, and the birds were singing. In all but a flash our mission had reached its conclusion leaving both Steve and I staring longingly over the bay. The eclipse was over but for Steve and I a new mission was about to begin.
ABSOLUTELY NO PROSPECT OF WHITBY will be available through Amazon later this year