Let’s get one thing straight…the lovely people at Isle of Scilly Travel advised us not to travel on the Scillonian that fateful morning. They told us we might be sick and we most definitely were. The Isles of Scilly are beautiful and I would recommend that they are well worth a visit…but if you’re going by ferry (known locally as The Sick Bucket)…choose your day wisely. The following poem is about two people who didn’t heed their warning.
THE RAFT OF MEDUSA by Theodore GERICAULT (Louvre Museum, Paris)
The RMV Scillonian III is colloquially known by the Penzance locals as ‘The Sickbucket’ (or The Big White Stomach Pump) for the following reasons. Due to the shallow nature of the two harbours that host the service (Penzance and Hugh Town on the island of St Mary’s), the boat is more or less flat-bottomed. The upshot of this is that rather than cutting through the waves it skims across them like a stone; which can be quite an endurance as the ship passes Lands End, where a number of tidal currents meet. The passenger ferry to The Isles of Scilly is not the only way to visit the islands that lie about twenty-odd miles off the Cornish mainland…you can also fly from Lands End airport in a small aircraft. Up to a couple of years ago you could fly over in a Sikorski helicopter but the heliport is now a giant Sainsburys and the service no longer exists. Having lived in the Penzance area for almost ten years now, our failure to visit the islands seemed somewhat of an oversight. It was decided we would travel on a particular day and the IOS Travel people did their best to talk us (and other people) out of going on a day trip; which seeing this is the raison d’etre of their business…gave me cause to think perhaps we shouldn’t go today…we can go anyday…but, filled with the maritime spirit of our ancestors we went that day!
At the Isles of Scilly Travel shop,
We were given a bit of a shock;
When their folk advised us not go –
We told them, “We’re from maritime stock.”
“It’s gonna get rough out there”, they said.
“Before it’s better, it’ll get worse.”
So we’ve only got ourselves to blame
Or were they psyching us in reverse?
Those first few miles didn’t seem so bad.
‘Course we’re still in the calm of the Bay.
But our meeting with the Atlantic
Caused a sea change to darken our day.
The clues were all there – easy wipe seats,
Sickbags displayed like flowers in church.
Tourists place towels on toilet-side chairs;
Foreseeing that first ominous lurch.
At this point I’m calm, but affected.
The recall is my wife’s and not mine;
But I’m smould’ring like Vesuvius
In the year of our lord 79.
As sweat like lava poured out of me,
There’s a mounting concern for my heart.
And my skin took on a greenish hue;
Eau-de-Nil on the Homebase paint chart.
That maritime stock is now laughing.
Yes, I know, just who was I fooling?
The ghost of a great, great, great granddad
Rolled his eyes and sailed back to Newlyn.
Waves of nausea washed over me
Like the waves of no sea from my past.
Not calm like Nelson at Trafalgar;
I’m just fearful to fire the first blast
It may have been my trigger stomach
That was cause of all the upheaval.
It could have been me who urged them to
A more than necessary evil.
Primed to launch that initial broadside,
I did my utmost best to chuck it
Into a pre-prepared Sainsb’rys bag
But I missed on the old Sick Bucket.
So what did I care from that point on
If I’d breached the others’ defences?
I battened down hatches, closed my eyes
Made the most of my other senses.
Nascent fog horns cried out from their nests
As a baby sobbed uncertain tears
At how he felt and the reticence
Of his parents to comfort his fears.
A cacophony of wretches retched;
Their eyes squeezing out of their orbits.
Piteous wails and the gnashing of teeth
On those high-content ginger biscuits.
My mind recreated surroundings;
As people lay abject and fainting
And clung to dear lives in a scene that
Gericault can’t wait to start painting.
Synchronised sickbags persist as if
We are all into this summer’s craze.
You’ll have heaps of fun with Mal de mer!
And just think of the money you’ll save.
For two long hours this torment persists
As I float in and out of my wits.
How can the word ‘sick’ mean ‘great’ these days?
Although Sikorski certainly fits!
The ship now filled with that acrid stench;
That familiar reek of vomit.
The spent force silence endures until
A child’s toy cries out, “Nice cheese, Gromit!
I’m not one for voicing shortcomings
But this time I really must insist –
Had Dante sailed on The Scillonian
A Tenth Circle of Hell would exist.
Arrival at Hugh Town did little
To becalm the churn in my nethers.
As blinking and bleached I made footfall
In my pair of spew-splattered trousers.
A half-hearted meal was partaken
Before we could set off and explore.
Unwinding was out of the question
As we’re back on that vessel at four.
The sun burnt away our misgivings
As the isle bid us stay ever long.
We passed on the lotus leaf pasties
And the CD of her siren song.
Caressed by those palm-waving zephyrs;
Typic’ly sub-tropical really.
So familiar; yet so diff’rent
How could we not love…it’s just Scilly!
The sail home was hot, blue and balmy.
It was more like a cruise on The Med.
Wish myself here…well what’s not to like?
Such a change from wishing myself dead.
So yes, I’ll go back to The Scillies.
By boat? Millpond only…but someday.
I’ll quote Latin to sum up our trip
Sick in transit; glorious Monday.
© gray lightfoot
Hear Gray read the poem…