Ian McMillan: I tried sailing because my dad loved the sea – but I just felt queasy

When I asked him my dad if he ever got seasick he said, with complete honesty, that he never did in all the years he was afloat

Friday, 14th February 2020, 9:00 am

Updated Friday, 14th February 2020, 9:01 am

Here I am on the deck of a small boat making its unsteady way across a narrow strip of water that could be described, charitably, as unstill. It’s not rough, it’s not turbulent, it’s not even choppy. It’s unstill. It has waves on it like those tiny ones that appear on a cup of tea when you blow on the liquid to cool it down.

I’m holding tightly onto the handrail and I’m gazing with the fixed stare of a statue at the horizon because I’ve been told that if you look at the horizon then you won’t feel sick. I wish those people who had told me that blatant lie were here now, on this ascending and descending vessel, and then I could tell them how ill I feel and they could be employed on bucket-holding duty.

‘It has waves on it like those tiny ones that appear on a cup of tea when you blow on the liquid to cool it down’ (Photo: Getty)

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And yet, who is this figure in a sailor’s uniform standing directly behind me, his expression one of mixed amusement and concern, his hands full of a ham sandwich that he’s eating with gusto? It’s the ghost of my dad, Lieutenant Commander J McMillan RN, and in between taking huge mouthfuls of the sandwich he’s shaking his head at me. At least I think he’s shaking his head because I daren’t look at the apparition for too long in case the side-to-side motion makes me feel even more queasy and bilious.

Yes, the harsh truth is that my dad was a man who sailed the seven seas for two decades and I’m a man who’d rather wander the seven carpets for as long as you like. That’s fitted carpets, of course, not those loose rugs that slide all over the place. You’d think that someone like me who has the sea in his blood would be able to spend half an hour on a ferry without asking if it was possible to get airlifted off, but sadly that’s not the case. I’d rather slice a loaf than splice a mainbrace.

It’s not as though the sea was in my dad’s family, however. He was born just over 100 years ago in a landlocked part of Lanarkshire on a little farm near the village of Carnwath. As a young man, as he tended the animals and stacked the hay, he had a dream of the open ocean and he would spend his pocket money (and later his meagre wages) on atlases where, as he said years later, what really attracted him were the blue bits.

He joined up in 1937 as the modern equivalent of a cabin boy and retired in 1958 as an officer on that epically-proportioned aircraft, The Ark Royal. He then retired from the sea and worked in an office in Sheffield but when he finally finished work for good – and sat for hours in our little porch tying fishing flies – he would recite the names of seas and oceans like they were the language of the psalms, giving the phrase “South China Sea” a Churchillian gravitas and heft. Even after years away from the water, when he walked down the garden to the shed, he would roll from side to side, anticipating the swell of a running tide somewhere off Cape Horn.

When I asked him if he ever got seasick he said, with complete honesty, that he never did in all the years he was afloat. He wasn’t sure why; he thought that maybe he had good balance, or maybe he had a strong constitution, or maybe he had those mysterious, almost mystical, limbs they call Sea Legs.

My legs are Land Legs and my view is that he didn’t allow himself to get seasick because that would have spoiled his beautiful dream; he was a gentle but strong-willed man and to be hammock-bound by nausea would have meant that his life would have remained half-lived and his ambition would have been unfulfilled.

Probably not a ship for Ian. The battleship HMS Victoria (built at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1887) sailing past the Swing Bridge at Newcastle-on-Tyne. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty)

Maybe he sometimes felt a little wobbly in a gale that howled like a frightened dog, but he threw the feeling to the back of his mind like he threw those hay bales to the back of the barn.Well, I’m sorry dad, but I can’t follow in your rolling footsteps. I’ve tried but I’ve failed. Maybe those sea legs don’t just roll, but they skip, and perhaps they skip a generation because my three grown up children don’t get seasick.

You’re not with us any more, dad, but I wish I could have done you proud. I wish we could have stood together on the prow of a ship that leaped and danced across the South China Sea. I wish I could have gone fishing with you on a little rowing boat on a mirror-still loch and not asked if we could go back to the shore after 10 minutes because I remembered I had to make a phone call.

I’ll just stay where I am dad, embracing the rail, staring at the undulating and unforgiving horizon.

This week I have been…

Listening…I’m a big fan of avant garde and improvised jazz; music that I consider sublime and inspiring but which can empty a room very quickly. My current edgy listening fix is a marvellous show called Freeness on BBC Radio 3, presented by Corey Mwamba. It goes out at midnight on Saturday when I’m tucked up in bed but thanks to BBC Sounds, I can listen to it on my early morning stroll and it certainly gives a new depth and nuance to birdsong and the odd passing taxi.

Caffeinating….Barnsley used to be a bit of an espresso desert, which is a shame if, like me, you love those tiny cupsof strong black almost-solid liquid that brim with time and care and fire and possibility.In those days if you went into a café and asked for an espresso they’d look at you with a mixture of pity and contempt and say: “You do know that’s a small black coffee, don’t you?”

Ian McMillan loves an espresso in Barnsley (Photo: Darren McCollester/Getty)

Well these days I’m happy to report that we’re teeming with good espresso outlets but my favourite has to be Citizen Coffee in the bus station; I always call in when I’ve stumbled off the X19.

Reading…Sentences are the building blocks of good prose and it seems to me that Americans can write better sentences than most – and, for me, the king of the American sentence is the late, great fiction writer John Cheever.

Try and get hold of his Collected Short Stories and marvel at the way he plays with language and creates sentences like this: “These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.”

Ian McMillan is a poet, journalist, playwright, and presenter of The Verb on Radio 3

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