The long, long winter had drained the fun from our mission. Even the absurdity of being cooped in the cabin was wearing thin.
Dmitry Orlov says that one useful skill for a future of fuel shortages is acclimatisation to the cold. From what I’ve read about recent changes to the jet stream, the UK and Northern Europe may be experiencing Orlov’s Russian winters more often in future. By the time we arrived in St Vaast I’d already begun this process. On days when the sun shone, I’d stroll to the showers in three layers of tops and an open hoody, past locals huddled in thick down jackets, hats and scarves. By mid-March, our rare visits to the local bar felt like entering a greenhouse. My face would flush bright pink and I’d sweat at the temples within five minutes of sitting down.
We may have been acclimatising but it was hard on the body. Normally healthy, I had successive waves of infections, colds and injuries. One day, three of my fingers and three of my toes swelled and turned red, and didn’t go down for two weeks. Luckily we hadn’t yet tried sawing my wedding ring off.
I had a breast lump scare, and visited the doctor, blood test clinic and chemist- clutching carefully scripted questions culled from Google translate. It turned out to be an infection and disappeared just in time for the sonogram. I was ushered out through a waiting room full of worried middle aged women, feeling silly and carrying copies of the scan pictures. I handed them to Sam: “Here’s some pictures of my boobs!”
He was a bit disappointed with the grainy B&W streaks but I liked to think it was a new perspective on a familiar view.
Initially charmed by St Vaast, we were, by now, very much over it. The familiarity of grey cobbles, festively battered trawlers and often-shut shops was breeding, if not contempt, then a bone-deep weariness. Finally we gave up on the weather conditions giving us a perfect day to dry out and fix the propeller. We booked a lift-out.
It was one of the coldest days yet. Our outboard struggled through the ceaseless gale to the other end of the marina, where the lifting crane loomed like an outsize Tonka toy. We passed under its immense wheeled legs and threw a rope up to the man who leapt from the corner cab. Two dripping blue slings scooped into the water and under the curved hull of our home. We clung to the rigging trying to breathe easy, as Sam, Joker and I rose into the air. Once level with the concrete yard, we hopped off and watched Joker trundled across the yard, lowered onto wooden blocks and metal brackets and trussed in place.
Borrowing a ladder to climb onboard and enter the weirdly still cabin, Sam and I got the parts together. We crawled underneath to replace the broken bits of the propeller. It was fixed within 2 hours, despite the ice particles flying into our faces. We wouldn’t be lifted back in for two days.
Those two days were probably our lowest point since realising we couldn’t live on Lexia. Without the sheltering dip of the marina, our stern was hoisted to face the sea, our door in the teeth of the wind. Chips of ice flew in every time we cracked the hatch to fire up the stove. Joker vibrated harshly on her brackets, and without power all the warmth ebbed out of the hull within an hour. The cold crept inward.
The first day we huddled inside. Laptops clicking, tea brewing, wrapped in sleeping bags. The second day our internet stopped. Orange sent us a chirpy text saying their tariffs had ‘evolved’. Our previous river of free data would now cost 12EUR for every 300 megabytes. I read and dozed, feeling floaty in the head. It was too cold to keep my hands out of the covers for long enough to make jewellery or sew.
Strangely, considering we’d just fixed the boat, we discussed returning home. The winter had sapped the life from us. Every week we’d thought it must end, and every week we’d been wrong. Even now the boat worked, the wind might not let us go. We had never been so much at the mercy of the elements in our lives. It felt like staring at a carved granite head the size of a mountain and willing it to smile at you. I started to understand how prayer and sacrifice could seem like a good idea.
But ultimately it was the sheer irrelevance of our discomfort that sunk in. We could scurry back to the UK, to my Mum’s house or a friend’s sofa and snuggle in the warm, because clearly this was too hard for our pampered little selves. Or we could just accept that it wasn’t going the way we had wanted, and wait to see what would happen next.
The next day we were lifted back in and wrestled Joker back onto Pontoon E. Bobbing merrily on the water, with the heater on, all seemed possible again. The next day, the wind slackened and the sun came out. We checked the weather. In a couple of days we’d be leaving St Vaast.