I was very sorry to hear of the passing of Neil Armstrong this weekend. I was a little behind the times, though – I only heard about it on Sunday (yesterday), by which time everyone else in the world, probably, already knew about it. It made me sad, but also proud that such a man had lived at all, and it set me off thinking about exploration, and the thrill of the new.
This thought process dovetailed neatly with the wonderful trip I took this weekend to the Dublin Tall Ships festival, in the company of my husband and in-laws – it was so enjoyable, and made me feel just like a little girl again. I giggled unashamedly at the 21-gun salute at Poolbeg as the first ship sailed out of Dublin port, and clapped and waved at some of the passing vessels, despite being well aware the sailors on board could neither hear nor see me. Unfortunately the wind was light as the flotilla passed our vantage point, so they were not in full sail, but, even so, something about their grace and majesty, their soft undulations on the sun-dappled water, their sheer size and the craftsmanship required to bring them to life stirred my emotions and made me feel a pure, raw joy that I have not felt in a long time. The sight of them got me thinking about Susan Cooper’s magnificent novel ‘Victory’, which made me weep as I read it due to the poignant descriptions of life on board ship in the early nineteenth century, and how it might have been to have fought alongside Admiral Lord Nelson during his last battle. It also made me think of one of my favourite pieces of poetry (John Masefield’s evocative ‘Sea Fever’): ‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky;/And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…’
I began to wonder what it was about the sight of these proud vessels that touched me in such a profound way, because I am not a sailor and have no experience whatsoever of being on board ship. I have never felt the sting of salt spray in my face, I have never hauled a sail or scrubbed a deck, and I only have a vague idea of what a boom is. But I don’t think it matters that I don’t know exactly what it’s like to make a ship work; I think the feeling of the new, of the exciting, of the thrill of exploration is common to everyone. Neil Armstrong and his crewmates felt it as their vessel sailed into worlds unknown, and anyone who trod the boards during the Golden Age of sail surely felt it. I’m feeling it at the moment, despite the fact that my ‘vessel’ is nothing more exciting than my person, and my undiscovered seas are all inside my mind. No matter, though – I can hear the whipping of the sea-wind through my hair, the screech of seagulls wheeling in the bright air, the crack of the sails above my head, the groaning and creaking of the ropes and the straining timbers, and the sheer joy of chasing the horizon, just as clearly in my imagination as I would do if it were real. And, this way, I also get the unadulterated joy of writing about it.