TO WINDWARD

The most intense moments of my life have come from sailing a small boat and from encountering women on a sensual level. It must seem eccentric to compare a casual outing on the water to erotic entanglements with some of the other half of the human race, but I cannot say otherwise.

Sometime in the nineties I built a sixteen foot sailboat, deigned by Phillip Bolger, from a ‘table of offsets.’ This is a set of figures from which the compound curves of the hull can be plotted in three-dimensions. The lines of a well-designed hull are extraordinarily elegant, or so I find them. The Nixie was open (no deck), very light fibreglass, with an old-fashioned spritsail rigging. I had very little experience, had sailed only once or twice as a passenger, but fore-and-aft sailing is hardly an intellectual challenge. The theory is as simple as any other miracle: the angle of a sail to the wind, held to that angle by the keel.

It amused me to call my boat the Nixie, after the water-spirit who lurked in the swamps and bogs of northern Europe in medieval times, luring young men to their doom. It is easy to say this lightly, imagining seductive young wenches beckoning, hard to remember the nixie was witchcraft to country folk of the time, and therefore malevolent. In fact, an engraving of the time shows her as a horrifying hag. I still prefer the long-haired, plump-breasted charmer beckoning to the raw country lads.

Launching day. I pushed off from the wharf in a light wind, tightened the main-sheet until the boat started to fall off downwind and turned the tiller to press the boat to windward and then . . . and then . . . the boat began to move, the water began to tinkle audibly along the hull! When a boat begins to thrust itself to into the wind against all odds, against the logic of common sense, an elation fills the heart, the entire body lifts and tenses in the pleasure of being.

I had one brief summer of sailing before I lost the boat in a fire. But I sailed. I did sail. And even now, when I call to mind the quick nervous backtalk of the tiller in the hand, the plunging of the boat, my heart lifts again. To windward. To windward.

And women: Now what can I say about women that has not been said a thousand times, and by better writers than I? And I am no more a womanizer than I am a poet. I cannot claim to have made love to scores of women in my time. Less than half a score if you must know. But I remember most of them with pleasure, and all of them with respect. Many men will find this strange, I think, but it seems to me still that all of these women somehow honoured me by entrusting their theirness into my hands. This is perhaps a romantic view, and some will smile at my naivety.

And so? Naivety doesn’t bother me. My mind is full of the sheen of womanskin in green light from the window, walking in the park after making love, how wrists touch, the bonheur of not having to say anything, the flow of air under one’s shirt, the clarity of evening light.

I fell into bed with some of these women. One, I am embarrassed to say, was a fifteen-year old. A teen-ager. She was a lovely person. She belonged to a generation of ‘crumpet,’ hanging around English art schools or small rock groups, always ready to let down their golden knickers in a good cause. But other women had to be approached with hope, apprehension, desire, an elevated heart-rate.

We each of us carry around with us a pronounced sense of personal space extending ten or fifteen inches from our face. The edge of this territory is our personal frontier and we become uneasy if someone stands too close. Any driver who has been stopped by a roadblock in the days before Christmas will know what I am talking about. A policeman leans in the window and thrusts his face into our face and sniffs at us. We can’t rear back out of the way because of the headrest. It’s extremely disconcerting: the policeman has violated the sovereignty of our territory.

To encounter a woman sexually, we must breach this same barrier. So what’s the problem? most people would ask. Today men hug men, women caress each other, as they should; to my mind things have changed for the better. And yet, often those hugs and caresses seem as perfunctory as a handshake. I think that most people retain that sense of personal space.

In any case, the simple act of approaching a woman, even if I thought she fancied me, was fraught with such erotic tension that the pulse-rate would go up, my belly would tighten. Am I going to make a fool of myself, I would wonder. So on those occasions when I would break through into this woman-space . . . yes, and . . . mouth to mouth—YES! Then the water would begin to tinkle along the hull . . . .

I hear derisive sniffs from the ladies: “We give this man the gift of our bodies and our hearts and he seems to equate it all with sitting in a wet boat somewhere! And you notice he writes about the boat first and THEN about us. Really!”

What can I say!