It’s four in the morning, dawn over Lindisfarne Castle, and I’m staring at a huge seal, just two metres from us. Unimpressed, he snorts and dives away. We’re rowing ashore in a rubber dinghy, thoroughly frightened now, from our yacht Pendragon anchored in the bay.
We’re taking part in Northumberland’s unique running and sailing race, the Castles and Islands Challenge. Every June, teams of runners and sailors set out from Alnwick Castle to run to Amble then the sailors take over, heading out to sea as the sun sets, to sail up to Holy Island through the rock-strewn Farne Islands in the dark.
It’s a gruelling all-night test of stamina, with a tight deadline of 24 hours in which to sail 85 miles and run 30 more. Not all crews will make it. Fortunately, as skipper, I don’t have to run. But there’s a lot of rowing and sailing to do.
My main job is to navigate us in and out of four anchorages in the dark, without hitting a rock or losing a crew member. Engines can’t be used, so it’s a tough test of good old-fashioned seamanship. Later that Saturday morning, sailing back to Seahouses for our next running race (to Bamburgh Castle along the beach) we’re surrounded by dolphins. Around the boat they play, diving under the bow and surfing on our bow wave, the morning sun bright on their dorsal fins. It’s a very special moment, the sails are setting well, and the boat is making eight knots with the south-going tide. I’ve had no sleep, but I’m happy.
This is one of the more unusual things we get up to on the family boat Pendragon. She’s a 37ft sailing yacht, built in Sweden and very much part of our family. Other people have caravans or beach huts. We have a fibreglass holiday home that goes up and down, and makes you feel sick. In working life I’m a lawyer, always worrying about clients’ problems, concerned about deadlines, striving for excellence.
At sea, I set my own targets, control my own deadlines, and all the worries disappear. The same focus on excellence is vital. There’s no room for second best when you’re planning a voyage across 350 miles of open ocean to Norway, or working out the height of tide needed to get safely over the shallow bit at the entrance to Whitby Harbour. We’ve always been a sailing family - since my wife’s GP told her a “sea cruise” would be a great experience for an expectant mother. We hired a little sailing yacht in Greece and sailed around Corfu and Ithaca.
Nowadays we keep our family boat in Royal Quays Marina, and try to get over to mainland Europe every summer on holiday. The North Sea isn’t quite the same as the Mediterranean. But sometimes, as the sun rises out of the sea and the boat lifts to the endless waves, we’re a long, long way from the office.
Robert Langley is partner and head of construction and engineering, Muckle LLP