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on the nature of nationhood

We are going to sail Snark around Britain next summer. I have sailed sections of our route before, on state-of-the-art racing yachts; on offshore races, to and from international regattas and participating in the Three Peaks race. There was little time for contemplation, just an endless round of watches, tacks, gybes, sail changes and the occasional broach; always focussed on speed and the optimum tidal and wind strategy. This time we plan to take things at a gentler pace and maybe through our travels find some meaning and hope in the seemingly never-ending spiral of national decline and degradation.

It may appear to be a strange time to be celebrating the United Kingdom, but to us the common historical, cultural and social bonds we share far outweigh the divisions created by the volatile politics of the past decade. And it is of course also the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth, and we will be departing Plymouth on the Jubilee bank holiday weekend, able to enjoy the fireworks but avoid the street parties!

Each leg of our voyage has its own story to tell about the origins of the country and how that was achieved. Some of the stories are heroic, others are oppressive. They can be illustrated by the ruins of numerous castles, forts and other monuments that fringe our coast. Many of these were defensive, built to keep out both real and imagined foes such as the Martello Towers and Shivering Sands gun emplacements, some were the strongholds of conquerors, Caernarfon and Conwy castles, while others where great religious centres of learning such as Lindisfarne and Whitby.

Our voyage will also tell the tale of decline and change; taking us to derelict harbours struggling to reinvent themselves, past modern container ports stacked high with international trade, to the ports of the capital cities of each of the four countries that make up Great Britain. We will lie alongside the remnants of once great fishing fleets still snug in ancient harbours and wonder at the mighty square riggers standing proud but entombed in redundant dry docks around the coast.

Now in place of the open waters they enjoyed, every inlet and river seem choked with white plastic boats of all descriptions, the pride and joy of their absentee owners. Fish farms lie waiting to ensnare the unwary helmsman in once pristine lochs and oh the wind farms, how to react to the wind farms. Those monstrous necessities, slowly encircling our shores in a desperate attempt to save the world from the fires of greed.

Up north, beyond the traditional domain of the Thames barge, we will pass through the home of cobles and keels, billy boys and sloops to the realm of zulus, scaffies and gabberts. Then down to the seas once plied by jigger flats, nobbys and trows before returning to our familiar world of gaffers and cutters, luggers and punts. Of all these wonderful traditional craft, a bare few survive, now the tireless passion of a seemingly endless pool of greying volunteers. In Snark, a modern interpretation of a spritsail barge, they see both continuity and sacrilege. We are one of the few traditional sailing vessels still able and willing to undertake such a voyage. Decay, shipwreck, regulation and maritime museums slowly take their toll on the remaining fleet. With the attrition rate of recent years, it feels as if she could soon be alone in her endeavour. But if what survives is a caricature of the original, is there merit in that?

So full circle back to our theme. Whether this is a swan song of a nation or the celebration of new beginnings only time will tell but it is certainly an interesting time to contemplate the nature of nationhood. And the same question can be asked of a nation; if what survives is a caricature of the original, is there merit in that?

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