Sunday 28 December 2008

Rowing for pain

With arms lax and heavy, back warm and limber, snuggled into a favourite corner of the sofa with a book and a glass of wine it’s all I can do to keep my eyes open. But I’m trying to find references to galley slaves, something to give an idea of the suffering that someone tied to an oar for up to a month at a time must have experienced. I know I read somewhere that conditions were such that a galley could be smelt from many hundreds of yards downwind but I’m damned if I can find the reference. And the truth is that tonight I don’t really care. The post row glow is too pleasurable to be spent dwelling on those souls for whom it was utter misery.

Instead I look at one of my favourite rowing/sailing stories in search of another reference, this time one that sums up the feeling. The story is Un Viatge Frustrat by Josep Pla, literally ‘a frustrated journey’. Josep Pla (1897-1981) wrote brilliantly about the Catalan coast but unfortunately has not yet been translated into English.

Josep Pla on the right and l’Hermós

During the First World War Pla and his friend l’Hermós, an illiterate fisherman, took an engineless 18-foot fishing boat up to France. Pla’s account begins with l’Hermos proclaiming, “We must demonstrate that one can go to France under oars and sail alone. Now everybody has motorboats they have become brave and daring…we will do as we please.” (A phrase, I must admit, that inspired my trip this summer.)

Pla describes every detail as they travel up the coast from cove to cove stopping to eat and drink with a wealth of friends. But their plan to get to France and live it up in Port Vendres is frustrated when they see a distant patrol boat soon after passing the French border at Cape Cerbère. Lacking necessary ‘papers’ they turn back for Spain without having touched French soil. Fluky winds on their return call for hours at the oars and one evening after a long pull Pla, curling up in the boat, writes, “Rowing is a delicious sport; it never tires excessively and leaves the body just ready for rest.” Being ‘just ready for rest’ he finds the boat supremely comfortable and says, “Sleeping in the little boat is like returning, momentarily, to life in the womb; it’s agreeable but takes a bit of getting used to.”

Lines for the sort of boat called a ‘gussi’ that Pla row-sailed to France. The craft would have carried a lateen sailing rig.

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