The road not taken: Frank Cottrell-Boyce on resisting the call of the river

My uncles and my grandads were at sea, but I soon noticed there was an alternative. River pilot.

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My uncles and my grandads were at sea. I always felt the call but liked my family, my city and most of all my own bed too much to want to vanish over the distant horizon. Growing up within ear-blasting distance of the ships’ hooters, though, I soon noticed there was an alternative. River pilot. The Mersey is a difficult river to navigate, so for the past couple of centuries, ships’ captains have been obliged to surrender control of their vessels to a certified river pilot at the harbour bar. The captain goes below to chill while the pilot brings the ship in. Imagine that! You get to take the helm of a Russian timber ship, an Arctic survey vessel, or the Queen Mary and still be home for tea.

Back in the day the pilots slept out in the bay on a kind of dormitory ship called the Edmund Gardner. Nowadays, most mornings I’ll see – always with a stab of envy – a bright red pilot launch bouncing across the waves to its rendezvous. It’s unpredictable, difficult and dangerous work and has its flashy moments. In 2015 three great liners – the Queen Mary 2, the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Victoria – performed an extraordinary half-a-million tonne water ballet in front of the Pier Head, the pilots keeping control of these huge ships as the tide turned. Coping with dangerous weather conditions means they sometimes have to ride that little red launch to Belfast or Angelsey to pick up, or take the departing vessel to Dublin or Madeira. But mostly the pilot clambers up a rope ladder on to the ship’s bridge about 16 miles out of town.

I love the lovely, quiet heroism of a job that is essentially about bringing people safely home. It seems to me that the definition of the human – the risks that have to be taken, the fun that might be had, the beauty that might be created – is all there in the gap between the precision of the GPS and the choices that can only be made by the pilot. Of course, now that I’ve written it all down I can see that the pilot’s life is the perfect metaphor for writing. You reach into the wild for something, bring it home and then go down to put the kettle on. There are mornings, though, when I still wonder why I settled for metaphor instead of wind and spray.

This article is from our “Road not taken” series

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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