Hot summer nights: ‘On the phosphorescent sea, I realised I was just a tiny part of something bigger’

Lifestyle

My dad had a pal called George who had a boat. It was a sailing boat but not a very big one – 25ft long. I don’t think you could call it a yacht; it didn’t seem very … yachty. I’m trying to downplay its yachtiness, and how privileged my childhood was, but it’s hopeless. I was on a bloody yachting holiday, OK?

Anyway, despite his boat’s modest size, George was quite adventurous once aboard. One summer, he invited my dad to help him sail it from the west coast of Scotland (I’m thinking maybe Oban) down to the south coast of England. I was 15 or 16 at the time and my dad took me – grumpily, adolescently – along for the ride.

George and my dad were old and annoying, obviously, but other things were OK. I read, and dreamed, and there might have been a Sony Walkman. We saw puffins and basking sharks, it was sunny, I got a tan (burned), plus I had a bottle of something called Sun In that gradually turned my hair an unpleasant yellow.

Sometimes we sailed through the night and I took a shift, a “watch”, as we say at sea. It was the 1980s and children were put to work; health and safety – like factor 50 sun cream – had yet to be invented.

I remember one particular night. I must have had the middle watch, from midnight to four, because it was dark. I was at the tiller, alone, except for the two old snoring dudes asleep downstairs. But I could forget about them: it felt as if I was in charge. There was a little wind: just enough to be going places, heading south through the Irish Sea. It was a little bit scary but also magical.

Phosphorescence of the sea is a phenomenon that comes from the luminous, sparkly glow emanating from millions of tiny marine organisms. They emit light when the water they are in is disturbed, churned up by a boat passing through, for example. There was phosphorescence in the sea that night, so that we – I – seemed to be sailing along the Milky Way. Then, above us was another sparkling path, the actual Milky Way; stars like you only see at sea, or possibly in the middle of a desert. Shooting stars, too, like fireworks fired down from the heaven, most probably by God.

Whoa! Steady on: let’s not get carried away. But it was definitely a moment: a teenage epiphany that I was just a tiny part of something much bigger, and possibly more important.

I could even add to the firmament myself, by lighting up a sneaky Marlboro. Now I really was a grownup. Actually, I was still learning, but here was a good place to practise because the wind blew the smoke and my spluttering away, and kept my new-found hobby, which I would work hard at for the next 20 years, a secret from my dad.

I have to admit, the idea of spending two weeks of my summer with my dad and George hadn’t exactly filled me with joy. Why couldn’t we go to Spain, like normal people, to the beach, to a waterpark? But you know what? It wasn’t so bad. I didn’t do much sailing for many years. Until recently. Now I have a friend with a boat a bit bigger than George’s. It’s probably a yacht. Sometimes my friend asks me along, sometimes I get to take my family. We’re going next week – to Oban, as it happens.