We leave Douglas the next morning aiming to pass the Calf of Man as the tide turns so that we can catch the north-west flowing current to give us a helping hand across the Irish Sea. It is cold and clammy, with fog hanging low across the island obscuring everything above a few metres. Apparently this is what the Isle of Man is like most of the time. A solitary seal munches its breakfast as we motor slowly out of the harbour and turn southwards.
It is dead calm with no wind, and we have to motor down to Langness Point on the south-east corner of the island. Around the point, the eastwards tide is still running, and we need to battle against the current to make any headway. We tell ourselves that it will be all worth it when we catch the north-westwards current across to Ireland in an hour’s time. Sometimes one has to make sacrifices in the near term so that there are greater benefits later! As if to cheer us up, just at that moment the clouds clear and the sun comes out.
We eventually reach the Calf of Man off the south-west corner. The name of the island conjures up an image in my mind of a newly born calf lying next to its mother, which, as the name derives from the Old Norse kalfr meaning an island lying next to a larger one, is not so far-fetched. Perched on the Calf are two disused lighthouses, now used as a bird observatories. Off to our port side is the Chicken Rock lighthouse built in 1875 warning ships of the dangers of straying too close. The area certainly didn’t do too badly for lighthouses.
A wind picks up from the north-west and we hoist the sails, and skim along on a close reach at a good speed. Before long, the Isle of Man disappears from view and we are alone on the sea. Three gannets fly over, their yellow heads bright in the sunlight. We relax and lapse into our own thoughts.
Suddenly a patrol boat appears on our port side out of nowhere. A blue flag with yellow stars flutters from its stern. It draws alongside, and over a loudspeaker, one of the crew asks us to stop. I am puzzled. This is the third time that we have been intercepted now – the first at Lulworth Firing Range, and the second at Castlemain Firing Range in South Wales. But surely the middle of the Irish Sea can’t be a firing range? We can’t even see land. Perhaps we have blundered into a submarine training area?
We furl the sails and come to a halt. One of the patrol vessel’s crew throws a line across and asks us to tie it to a cleat, and then clambers on board.
“Passports, please”, he says. The accent is Irish. Our passports are below in the cabin. The First Mate goes down to find them. “Where is your destination?”, he asks me. I tell him we are heading for Ardglass in Northern Ireland.
“Do you have anything to declare?”, he asks. “No”, I say, “Just personal items. Laptops, a tablet, phones, that kind of thing.”
“Do you mind if I have a look?”, he says. Before I can answer, he is climbing down the companionway into the saloon area. He pokes around, opening cupboards, looking behind our books, checking our food store. We feel that he is intruding on our private space, but we say nothing. He asks us to lift the floorboards, where we have more tins of food.
“Are these only for your own consumption?”, he asks. I nod.
“There is too much here for just two people”, he says. “I am afraid I am going to have to charge you duty.”
I protest that we are sailing around the UK and that we need a lot of provisions for when we anchor in way out places, but he is adamant. “It’s what you voted for after all”, he says.
I am awoken from my reverie by the First Mate bringing a cup of tea. I had been imagining what it would be like if a new customs border between the European Union and mainland Britain had been created in the middle of the Irish Sea as a result of Brexit. Since an agreement could not be reached, the UK has crashed out of the EU with no deal, and trade is now under WTO rules. Because no-one wants a hard border to be recreated between Eire and Northern Ireland, it has been decided to allow the latter to stay in the customs union with the EU, and to have the customs border in the Irish Sea. Because everything is much cheaper in the UK due to the removal of most labour and environmental regulations, duty is now payable on all goods entering Ireland so as not to undercut EU industries. The Irish Sea is patrolled by fast vessels to prevent smuggling of cheap goods. Fanciful, I know, but no more ludicrous than many of the other contortions brought about by Brexit. The cup of tea cheers me up.
We are suddenly joined by a pod of dolphins swimming alongside us and leaping out of the water in front of us in sheer exuberance. We sit on the foredeck and watch these beautiful creatures showing off their skills to us, almost as if they are trying to impress us. “Don’t worry about borders”, they seem to say, “Look at us – we swim wherever we want. We are free. It is only you humans that want to put up walls and barriers between yourselves. Come with us and learn the true ways of the earth.” Are we really more intelligent than them?, I wonder.
The coast of Ireland appears. To the south we see the Mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea. The rays of the setting sun strike the clouds and light them up with streaks of silver, while the lowlands radiate a soft golden glow. It is beautiful.
We arrive at Ardglass just on low water. In the twilight, we follow the leading lights into the tiny marina where a few other boats are tied up. A cheerful American helps us tie up next to his boat – he and his friend are heading off southwards early the next morning and they promise not to wake us.