Sailing through life

Some things can repeat throughout your life, without realising just which experience it will be…

As a child, my parents built a sailing dingy, which they always called a “Mira dinghy.” It wasn’t until just recently that I was informed by my mother that it wasn’t “mira” but “mirror.” That didn’t make much more sense to me until it was explained that it was a “Mirror dinghy”, a dinghy designed and sold by the Mirror newspaper in the UK… how is it I could live almost 45 years not realising that? A newspaper that I’ve never had much respect for shaped my childhood, and continues to do so to this very day.

My parents were characters. I didn’t appreciate how extraordinary some of the things we got up to were… It’s true that when you are young, you accept everything in the world as normal and natural, but in hindsight, this was a deviation from ordinary…

My dad had had a fun time on holiday once, and sailing got into his blood. We’d recently moved to a coastal area, and serendipitously he saw an ad in the paper for a kitset boat, one that was stitched together (sold to my mother as “no nailing”) and affordable. My dad convinced my mother to take the plunge, citing things like how it was compact enough to strap to the roof of a car, but big enough to hold 2 adults and 2 children – which just so happened to coincide with the size of our family unit. This was how a Mirror dinghy sailed into my life.

The decision was made to purchase this kitset from the UK, and have it sent to us in Nova Scotia, Canada. I don’t remember the day the parcel arrived, but I imagine my dad’s excitement at the prospect of assembling a kitset, he did after all, enjoy building models of planes and boats. My mother, eyeing up the project, insisted that the construction be done where it would not disrupt day-to-day family life.

I guess it is worth mentioning that we lived in a top floor apartment of a complex that was only 4 stories high. And we did not have a garage or workshop area. So, the build location selected was my parents’ bedroom. Their bed was pushed to the wall, and non-essential furniture relocated to other rooms. This gave them just barely the space in which to assemble the dinghy.

My father prided himself on his ability to think, and he’d read stories of people building boats in basements and garages only to discover that it was impossible to get the finished boat out of the build location, in some cases necessitating the removal of walls in order to free the completed boat. Being nobody’s fool, he cleverly measured the apartment stairwell, the width of doorways, and declared the bedroom would be agreeable to him – the finished boat should be able to make it out of the building.

And construction began. I still cannot smell fibreglass and epoxy without flashbacks to my childhood. My mother worked tirelessly every day on the boat, and still it took longer than the promised 100 hours. There was a lot of nailing involved too, and clearly this was an issue because over 40 years later, we are still regaled by the story of “told it would be sewn together – no nailing necessary – what a load of codswallop!” With months of sawdust, smell, and salty language, the Mirror dinghy was finally ready to be revealed to the world.

Just after school, and prior to dinner, my parents hoisted their accomplishment out of the apartment and into the stairwell. Excitement thrilled through my brother and me, as we darted around wanting to be part of the action. Down the stairs we began. We successfully and unscathed made it to the landing below us, only to discover there was no way to get the boat turned and heading down the next level. My father forgot to factor in the fact that on the top floor, there were no more stairs leading higher, giving much more room to manoeuvre. Trapped on the second floor, what were we to do???

At that point, our neighbour arrived home from work, and suggested we follow him into his apartment and lower the boat out of his living room window. Relief! A workable solution. My mother recalls this part vividly, because she figures he ought to have consulted with his wife for her agreement to his plan, but instead our good Samaritan opened his door wide, and in we trooped holding a boat aloft. It seems his wife was standing in the kitchen holding a wooden spoon she was using to stir dinner, with mouth agape at the scene unfolding in front of her.

The windows could be removed in those days, so the launch team got to work removing windows and tying ropes, while my brother and I raced down the stairs to take up positions below to help guide the boat so it wouldn’t hit the building as it made its decent. A crowd began to gather. Soon we had quite an audience. The story of being stuck in the stairwell circulated, and there were “ooohs” and “aaahs” as our intrepid little boat made its careful descent to the parking lot.

My mother would have preferred to have done this under the cover of darkness so no one would know what all that hammering was for all those months, but instead, here was their accomplishment, hanging out an apartment window with all the neighbourhood to see.

Not to be outdone with the very public viewing of a dangling dinghy, the roof rack to which it was lovingly strapped was open-ended. This meant that once you accelerated to a certain speed, you sounded not unlike a police siren!

Look honey! We can transport the Mirror dinghy on the roof of the car!

We announced our path all the way to the water’s edge, clearing all traffic before us, and managed to arrive at the moment of truth we’d all be waiting for… the floating test. Will all those days and nights of hard work be rewarded? The Mirror dinghy was gingerly walked to the waters edge, and with a little less aplomb than first hoped, it was put into Halifax harbour. We held our breath as my dad scrambled aboard. The interior remained dry! The boat didn’t sink like a stone to the murky depths of the harbour, and we rejoiced at our accomplishment. Needless to say, my brother and I were taken out more often than we may have cared for, but we continue with inside family jokes to this day about the things we did with that sadly-unnamed Mirror dinghy.

You need to be aware, this was done pre-mobile-phone cameras otherwise I would be able to include a clip of us actually lowering the boat, so instead, here’s an artist’s impression of it.

Artist’s impression of lowering Mirror dinghy to the parking lot

Our Mirror dinghy went unnamed in our family, other than the fact I did indeed believe it was “The Mira” dinghy. When we moved to Ontario, it moved with us, and we didn’t sell her until we were moved to Germany. My brother and I grew up with her in our lives for about 7 years. Being landlocked where we were in Germany meant we found new, different activities, and sailing slowing receded into being just a dinner party story.

I did resurrect a bit of sailing in my life while I lived on the coast of British Columbia and then in New Zealand, but our move to Belgium put paid to that. And again, sailing was all but forgotten for almost 20 years…

Until one lovely summer’s day in 2018, I decided our little family would take a nice bike ride together. I found a route with the aid of the fantastic bicycle network (called “fietsknoppunt” in Flemish) which has set up sign posts along cycle friendly roads and tracks and you can design a trip simply using these markers. It is a brilliantly simple idea.

We set off for a nature reserve that also has a restaurant with a terrace, and it was a delightful trip. What really struck us was the small lake – that offered sailing, wind surfing, kayaking, and stand-up paddling (SUP).

Our sailing domain for 2019

PoorGuy and I looked at each other, and immediately thought how great it would be if TheMinecraftMaster and SweetViolet were able to learn to sail! And what a safe environment for learning. So we signed them in for a week-long, all-day learn-to-sail class. Both loved it. I idly typed in “mirror dinghy” in a popular second-hand website we use here, and much to my surprise, there were 2 results. After a bit of discussion, we decided to make an offer on one…

We are now the proud owners of a wooden Mirror dinghy, built in roughly the same era as our Mira dinghy – one that has had a chequered history since it was completed, which included being used as a decorative planter in Antwerp. The kindly soul we purchased our little gem from had formally christened our new acquisition, not just named her, but had a Greek Orthodox priest properly christen her.

Tabarly II being blessed

And this is how Tabarly II has sailed into our lives. She is a sturdy wee thing, in need of sanding and painting to restore her to her former beauty. This is my new winter project. I shall be documenting our voyage from the backyard to first sail. The aim is to have her on the water on or before 1 July, 2019. I hope you will join me as we embark on this trip together! Strap on your lifevest, just in case we have a bumpy ride, and we shall set our course for the coming months.

Our future goal for Tabarly II

Our motivation is to get the crew of Tabarly II doing this once again. Watch this space!


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