The Boatman

The windows were steamed up this morning: single glazing lets the warm, humid air inside the cottage connect with glass cooled by the fresh sea breeze outside. At this touchpoint, this connection, the condensation forms. Fine drops of water coalescing in places to form larger pools that, unsupported by the glass, run down in rivulets, racing down the pane to the sill where they puddle. As they run, they clear thin vertical windows through which i can see the dawn light outside.


The cottage is on the quayside, facing out into the channel. Barely half a mile away the jetty on the mainland: the channel in between treacherous, filled with the racing tides of the harbour mouth.

I’ve sailed here before: it’s not a maelstrom, that word that conjures up whirlpools, whipping winds and shipwreck, but it’s most certainly muddled water. The tides entering the harbour slip over the waters still flowing out, all of it swirled around by the currents running around the island and compounded by the stone built quay itself, interrupting the waves as they run along the foreshore.

As you ride it, the water changes consistency: first fluid, smooth, then racing surf, then finally a kind of treacly mess that drags on the hull, dulling movement and muddling response.

This morning, as the sun nudges above the horizon, the skies are clear, the morning crisp, still. There’s been heavy rain, but now the only trace remaining is the rainbow arcing overhead and setting land behind the cottage. No pot of gold, but rather an idyllic island, isolated yet connected by tenuous routes over the water.

The quay itself is massive: not massive as in huge, but massively built. Hefty stone dressed in local quarries and set in place a hundred years ago. No pebbles on the beach here: this is constructed to withstand storm and tide, weather and impact.

The quayside is a transit space: nothing lives here, nothing is permanent. It’s the transition between island and mainland. Two trolleys stand idly by, the sort they use in the back of lorries to carry foodstuffs and wheel into supermarkets. There are several wooden benches waiting for people to fill them and there’s a tiny tractor, so small it reminds me of those ride on lawnmowers you see in suburban mansions. Bright red, it stands, forlorn, but ready for duty, a trailer lying next to it, bereft of cargo. It’s a symbol of expectation: it has no purpose except to pull, to assist in the transition.

The centre of the quay is empty, but yesterday i saw it variously filled with milling crowds of tourists, a disassembled marquee and the remnants of a band. It’s a space that assumes multiple purposes, a democratised zone ready to be appropriated to the needs of the islanders as time demands.

The edges though, those are different. Purposeful, specialised, functional and off limits. It’s an unwritten rule, but the ropes, hitching posts, chains and pulleys are the purview of the sailors, the dockhands and harbour master. Even in this edgeland, there are edges. When boats come in, there is a ritual: casting the rope, a quick hitch to kill the momentum, then swing the rear end in. Once tethered front and back, the plank is laid across the gap and chains removed to allow the flow to begin. Cargo, people, animals, children. Everything passes through this space.

The posts the boats moor up to are heavy iron affairs, familiar from docks the world over: rusty red yet polished smooth by rope. Bolted to the stone as if anchored to the centre of the earth itself. Often when you see abandoned boatyards, the building reduced to ruin, the dry docks flooded and half collapsed, cranes rusted and leaning, still you see these bollards, standing firm amidst the decay. Bastions of stability, bereft of purpose but stoical and endless.

My boat arrives: the early morning ferry is tiny. It’s white bow nuzzles the quay before bumping alongside. Capacity must only be twelve or so, in two rows of bench seats, half under cover, along each side. The wheelhouse up front is low and open at the back: perched on top a small silver horn and lifebuoy, it’s red circle bright against the grubby white.

The boat bobs crazily and to board we descent the stone steps, crossing the chain link fence and into the domain of the boatman.

Today, our companions are a small girl in her vibrant red school uniform and the postman, setting off for work on the mainland i assume, his red bag hanging by his side.

Red seems to be a theme: the starboard light is red, the lifebuoys are red, the buoys bobbing in the water are red, the boatman’s jacket is red, the postman’s bag is red, the girls uniform is red and the sun coming over the horizon is tinged with red as it rises. So many things demanding my attention: red is the colour of action and threat, purpose and alert.

The boatman is in his element: his element water.

He’s quiet but not surly. Purposeful, but with an eased gait that speaks of experience and composure. He’s steady on his feet whilst i grip the rails and posts with every step, all too aware of the gap between boat and quay and the black water sucking and beckoning below.

I perch on one bench, opposite the schoolgirl, clutching her satchel and staring at me: i guess they don’t get many strangers on this early ferry. With only thirty residents on the island, a stranger is not hard to spot.

Behind me, the cottage looks peaceful as the sun breaks free from the horizon: signs of life are starting to stir on the waterfront. Doors creaking open, a couple of figures scurrying between home and office, gates opening.

The boatman casts off with an easy flick of the wrist, the rope slipping off the bollard and flying high into the air, deftly caught and coiled in one smooth manoeuvre. The idling of the engine is replaced by a roar and churning of the water by the stern, white spray flicked into the air and a sudden sense of motion and intent.

On an island, everything is about perspective: from the shore, the mainland looks distant, huge. From the quayside, the boat looks small. From the boat, the island looks tiny as it slowly starts to recede.

The distance is one thing, the sense of distance another.

I feel the tenuous nature of my residency shift: after four days, the island feels like home, but that link starts to stretch. As we move further into the water, the call of the mainland increases. My perspective shifts: the island ceases to be my world, partitioned by water, enclosed, insular, remote. Instead, it starts to shift into memory: images flicking through my mind as i write, here on the train. My reality is a grey table and red seats (more red, it’s a day of redness), but the images in my minds eye are from the island. The sense of stillness and timelessness. The quiet walking amongst the trees. The sense of energy on the quayside.

Midway across the channel, the islands ceases to dominate my view: suddenly both sides fit within my peripheral vision, i can see it as a whole, not in it’s parts. Suddenly i am outside looking in. A visitor on my way home, no longer resident.

But with this realisation, comes the sense of homecoming, the point i rejoin my life where i left it off before: reunited but enriched. The memories we form only have purpose when we return: travelling is not just about the journey, it’s about the homecoming too. Only when i am home can i add these memories to my own journey, comparing my time on this island with so many i’ve visited before, adding my own perspective and writing my own narrative.

The boatman steers us onwards, now towards the jetty, towards home. I turn my back to the island, my nose to home, the land getting closer now, looming up until, with a jerk and roar we make contact with the pier.

I step ashore, the ceaseless motion of the deck replaced by that solidity of land that, even after such a short trip, is noticeable. At the top of the steps, climbed in a blur, i look back, seeing the island glimpsed over the water, alive with light as the sun climbs higher. From here it looks low, barely reaching out of the water.

Below me, the Boatman casts off: his is the role of gatekeeper. He belongs to neither realm. Forever leaving or joining, his element is the water itself and the solidity of his boat. King of his domain, his ascendancy unchallenged by cargo or passengers, a solitary figure as the boat starts to recede. Perspective again challenges me: the boat that once filled my view now tiny on the water, it’s movement crazily dancing with light as currents buffet it and the sun climbs ever higher until it’s hard for me to pick it out as my eyes find the sharpness too much to bear.

The boatman recedes as i move onwards. Continuing my journey.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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2 Responses to The Boatman

  1. Pingback: The Shadow of Ritual | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  2. Pingback: Microcosm | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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