You can’t not be on a boat

Sep 26th, 2013 | By | Category: Personal Columns

As someone who could become sick in a rowing boat on the Serpentine, anything involving vessels crossing water has been nothing more than a necessary evil. Boats, of whatever size they may be, are for the purpose of moving one from Point A to Point B in the minimum possible time; the idea that one would pay to spend day upon day on a boat seems absurd.

Finding myself on a nineteen hour crossing from Cherbourg in northern France to Rosslare in south-east Ireland would be a prospect that would not have been contemplated had it not been for the price. A car with two passengers and a pleasant cabin for less than the price of the air fares from Dublin to Bordeaux was too good an opportunity to miss.

Sailing from France to Ireland means crossing what must be some of the world’s busiest sea lanes, vessels bound for ports in much of Northern Europe passing this way, but we seem to be heading out into a vast emptiness. There are no landmarks visible, just miles and miles of dark water. One could be anywhere.

It is a long time since I read anything by an existentialist writer. (Sartre’s novel set against the background of the fall of France in 1940, and his play where the three characters have died and are sat in an elegant drawing room, are so bleakly depressing that I switched to detective fiction and have never looked back). All that being and nothingness stuff would go down well in the middle of the sea where there is nothing other than emptiness and a sense of one’s own existence.

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ponder death, boats and nothingness.

Rosencrantz: Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no… death is not. Death isn’t. Take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no… what you’ve been is not on boats.

Guildenstern is right, not being and being on a boat do not go together; one is all too aware of one’s being when one is on a boat. The gentle breeze that blew along the waterfront at the port becomes a chill wind at sea; distances that were small spaces on a map become slow and long progresses on water; waves, barely discernible from the harbour wall become high crests and deep troughs. And there is the emptiness, all around just nothing; there’s nothing like nothingness to make you keenly aware of every thought and feeling. You can’t not be on a boat.


Leave Comment