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Whistling symphony fouling English Riviera

"You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together… and blow." Lauren Bacall had something else on her mind when she purred those words to Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not , but her basic idea was sound.
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"You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together… and blow."

Lauren Bacall had something else on her mind when she purred those words to Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not , but her basic idea was sound. Breath, vocal chords, lips, a little practice and you can whistle a tune, hail a cab or cheer on your favourite performer. You can also drive someone crazy as anyone who has ever spent too much time in close proximity to someone who whistles incessantly – generally without any real conscious knowledge they’re doing so – will tell you. Being in close quarters with a soon-to-be ex-friend who whistles seamlessly from show tunes to pop to classical to some torturous, Dadaistic, atonal warble is enough to leave even a pacifist searching for a gaff hook.

The symphony of whistles playing around me 24/7 for the past week has left me a little edgy. Were it not for my well-known even temper, my laissez faire live-and-let-live outlook, my patient, understanding turn-the-other-cheek disposition – and the fact there doesn’t seem to be a gaff hook anywhere on the pirate ship Is there..2 – there’d likely be mayhem in the quaint, touristy, veddy British town of Poole. As it is the Pirate Princess of the Mediterranean is thoroughly perplexed why the tailing ends of all the mooring and fender lines are adorned with little hangman’s nooses. Idle hands….

The leitmotif of the Whistling Symphony is a droning, single note of unvarying pitch. Its loudness increases and decreases with the velocity of the wind and is, in a pinch, a relatively accurate anemometer. For the most part it has been howling its cry of anguish in the 20-25 knot timbre and sounds, on a dark night, like a wounded animal frantically baying for relief. It seems to be coming from everywhere at once and is probably the combined chorus of wind rushing through the multitude of mainmasts surrounding me. The two times during the past week it has disappeared entirely – somewhere south of 12 knots – the relief has been not unlike that felt by a grateful patient when his dentist has finally put down the drill.

The drone is punctuated by an occasional, staccato trill that sounds uncannily like a referee’s whistle. Its origins remain a mystery since it never blows long enough to pinpoint. The first few days I couldn’t help looking around to see if a lifeguard had appeared on the quay or if a Bobby was in flat-footed pursuit of what the locals disparagingly refer to as hoodies, thuggish-looking youths who mill about aimlessly, congregating near automatic bank machines, panhandling on the mean streets of Poole and generally leading layabout lives reminiscent of snowboarders or pandering freelance writers in our own backyard.

There is a cacophony of notes played out by wind generators mounted on the stern of sailboats and anemometer cups spinning atop mainmasts. The largest of the generator propellers produce notes that come in waves, a wah-wah effect. The notes’ pitch seems tied to the size of the props and the speed of rotation. High, shrill sounds, part percussion part banshee wail, are thrown off by the windspeed cups. Those in need of lubrication and mounted on boats tied nose or tail into the wind appear to resonate down the mast, adding a squealing reverberation as the wind deflects the masts fore and aft.

Real percussion is added by myriad halyards and stays clanging against masts, each other, spreaders and bits that have blown free during the frequent, tree-bending gusts. They’re punctuated by the tympanic flapping and whoompfing of canvas biminis, flags, pennants and sail covers. An occasional dramatic burst comes compliments of exploding plastic fenders finally surrendering to unrelenting tonnage squashing them between hull and pontoon. The most violent of these was several nights ago when Cork Malt – a 50’ dual-helm Beneteau sloop laying broadside to the wind, directly off our bow, popped the largest of her fenders, leaving it limp and useless and bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to a giant, used condom. I thought we were being boarded by cannon-firing pirates.

The final note in this symphony is only heard below decks. I’m not certain whether its source is wind, waves, the clash of pontoon and ship or the tortured souls of the deep, lamenting the disturbance of their burial grounds by the unrelenting churning of the sea. It is musical but it’s not music. It is reminiscent of modern, atonal choral pieces without the sopranos, a muddy chorus of moans and wails.

Odysseus filled his crew’s ears with wax before having himself lashed to the mast of his ship as they passed, on their great voyage home, the seductive song and sure doom of the Sirens. I have filled mine with scotch – taken orally – and various potions filched from the first-aid kit. I consider this a medical emergency.

The whole mélange has provided the depressing soundtrack to our delayed departure. "Oh mercy," coo perplexed locals, "We never have weather like this." These feeble attempts at sympathy lead me to believe we are either cursed, and should abandon this odyssey completely, or this corner of England – jokingly, or at least I presume jokingly, referred to as the English Riviera – is filled with more than its usual share of liars. This weather is what I found when I arrived and it has been the only constant in the 10 days since.

The English Channel, as foul a body of water as any, is currently a cauldron of storms stretching half way across the Atlantic. No sooner does one play out then another, spawned southwest of here, follows on its heels. Winds to its mouth are blowing at Force 8 and 9 and seas are running six metres and better. It is, of course, raining. We’re four days beyond our planned departure on this yacht delivery cum pleasure cruise and judging by the images on weather satellite websites we may still be here when my return flight leaves in early July.

In planning this trip it was always transiting the Bay of Biscay – that yawning bite out of the west coast of France and Spain – that gave us cause for concern. Its reputation for foul weather is as storied as the disdain French waiters have for diners they serve. The Bay still may be a challenge but it’ll likely be another week, if we’re lucky, before we get a chance to find out for ourselves.

Waiting, even waiting in the relative luxury and disorienting atmosphere of a new yacht off-gassing various phenols and other hallucination-inducing chemicals, is not one of those things I’m particularly good at.

No wonder the British blew renewed life into the Blues during the ’60s. Now, with any luck, that chandler just down the quay from here has a gaff hook in stock.



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