Land & Nature / Small Adventures – Sailing in the Lakes

Jon Day.

Over the hill, through a gap in the trees, Coniston Water spins itself out into the distance: a blue ribbon of water glinting in the spring sunshine. It isn’t the largest or the deepest of England’s lakes, but it might be the most tragic, and from here it feels like the most mysterious. Brantwood, John Ruskin’s house, stands overlooking the water on its eastern shore. He lived here for years, and is buried in a modest grave in the churchyard in the village of Coniston. The water’s fame is nowadays bound up with that of Donald Campbell, who attempted to break the waterspeed record here in 1967. On the second leg of a record-breaking run he lost control of his boat, Bluebird K7, at 300mph. His body sank to the bottom of the lake, entombed, Viking-like, in Bluebird, and lay there undisturbed until 2001. We think of his long vigil, lying in the depths, gently nuzzled by char. The shops surrounding the lake now trade on this tragedy; selling small models of the boat and potted histories of the record attempt, written by local antiquarians.

Our boat is named Starbird: perhaps an echo of Campbell’s. It’s only a small boat but more than capable. Satisfyingly compact and efficient, like a caravan or Swiss-army knife. Freed from the land-locked lake it could cross oceans, we’re told. But there’s plenty for it to do here.

We learn, quickly, what it feels like out on the water. We’ve found our sea legs.We learn to anticipate: white water ahead and we brace ourselves for Starbird to heel over, slicing through the foam on the tack. The gimballed kettle rolls in the galley, spewing steam and whistling. It’s our second day on the lake. The weather has been dirty: oily rain and howling winds, but now it begins to clear. We can make out an island on the horizon. We aren’t sure if it was there before.

We’re told it’s a famous island, immortalised as Wild Cat Island in the 1973 film version of Swallows and Amazons. But that film played with the geography of the lake, and as we make our own journey across the water we correct this imaginary cartography. We form a landing party, and tumble into our ship’s tender. Round the back of the island we stumble on a secret bay, sheltered from the wind, that opens to the lee of the land. Two spits of rock jut out like two long arms to embrace us, guiding us in. Pike, three inches long, perfect, stalk the shallows, flitting out from the shadows cast by our oars. They harry perch in the reed beds. They’re underrated eating fish, and we catch a few of the bigger ones on a lure made from an old milk-bottle top and make a French stew of them. Night creeps up on us. No camping on the island. We retreat to the protection of our boat, sit on deck and listen to the water slapping on the hull, like the hand of an old friend slapping us
on the back.

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