The sea road to Rome

Joe Aston describes his voyage from Cork to Rome with his wife Fiona on a retirement pilgrimage

Joe Aston

There is something about being at sea that causes one to consider what life’s really about.  Now, with our nine children all fled the nest and the famous one-way ticket of a pension in our pocket, what better to way to begin an inner journey than with an outer one, by sailing off from our home on Sherkin Island, Co. Cork towards Rome?

I worked as a commercial fisherman off the Irish coast for most of my working life. I’m used to having a few hardy crewmen at hand, but my only crew for this journey is Fiona, the woman who threw her lot in with mine nearly 50 years ago. 

For the first leg of our voyage, we left Sherkin in September aboard the Anna M, our old schooner-rigged wooden sailing boat built in France in 1961.

Letting go the ropes, I could see our cottage perched white on the hill above, where Fiona had run a bed and breakfast for the past few years, while I took tourists sailing. Having retired and shut up shop just the week before, we had to make the run south to winter the boat near La Rochelle, before the autumn gales arrived.

We were thrown around somewhat off Brittany, where the sea is torn between the English Channel and Biscay, but our breeze held and we were off Penmarc’h two days later and soon moored at St Marine. Island-hopping by way of pretty Groix and Yeu, with its thriving fishing industry and workaday air, we came to St Denis d’Oleron. We left the boat there and spent the dark months at home or in England and France, visiting old friends and relatives.

A cold north-easterly was blowing when we returned to the Anna M in spring, after visiting Lourdes. We sailed from St Denis in April, with this chilly fair wind. The early night was delightful with bright fire in the water lighting up the bow-riding dolphins, but as the night wore on the wind freshened and the stars disappeared. 

A grey murk hung over the Spanish coast as we approached next day, with only some lively pilot whales to cheer things up, their chatter reverberating in the cabin. We anchored just inside the entrance to the Ría of Santander, glimpsing snow-covered mountains; it might have been the Clyde! 

Over the next few weeks, we worked our way slowly down the north and west coasts of the Iberian Peninsula. It was a slog at times, mainly on account of the swell that seems to haunt these coasts. 

Fiona remains unimpressed by the fact that I have been messing around on boats for 60 years now without falling off and constantly worries I’ll slip. What she particularly dislikes is sailing at night, so we ended up going into some uneasy harbours.

South of Finisterre the worst was over, and it was time to visit Santiago. We passed a pleasant Sunday there, with Mass in the cathedral and a good lunch in the spring sunshine. We chatted to some young people who had walked for miles to get there and had just been to Mass; they reckoned they enjoyed it but “it didn’t really do anything for them”; they had never been to Mass before and hadn’t understood it at all. I said it might help if they found out what the words meant!

At last we rounded Cape St Vincent and Fiona’s grumbles ceased. We tipped along at six knots in the warm sunshine, with hardly a move in the boat.

I painted the boat in Lagos, and off the island of Culatra we at last had some easy days swimming and lying in the sun.

We had a rollocking sail across the Gulf of Cadiz, and so between the Pillars of Hercules, really looking their part as we left Gibraltar astern. We whistled past the Costa del Sol, spending a couple of nights at anchor, and on to Almerimar.

If you stayed there long enough you would probably meet everyone sailing into the Med. There are some signs of broken dreams about; neglected boats and old men quietly drinking themselves into oblivion. But I can live with that; broken dreams maybe help us to avoid false ones!

For me this sailing lark is an attempt to tune into the divine energy that breathes life into our every moment. The sea may help one to approach the mystery, but then again it may leave one more forlorn than the landsman who never even whiffed it!

It was a relief to reach Ibiza, where we could lie to anchor. We were tired of making passages, and were both happy to settle down to Fiona’s idea of what sailing should be; a swim first thing, maybe three or four hours sailing before anchoring again for lunch, followed by a siesta and more swimming. The Spaniards have a beautiful word for retiring – jubilarse. That’s the trick, enjoying it!

Yet the pilgrimage was still on, in spite of our getting lazy. In keeping with its spirit, we had been keeping up our morning and evening prayers aboard, and getting to Mass on Sundays. This was a delight.

Since we left Sherkin and Carrigaholt, we have celebrated the same mysteries in places as diverse as Lourdes, St Denis, Gijon, Santiago de Campostela, Cartagena and now San Antonio. We had been to Fatima beforehand.

A theme emerged from various sermons – that we Catholics, perhaps feeling rejected by contemporary culture, should not turn in upon ourselves but redouble our efforts to bring the presence of Christ to the wider community. As the young priest in San Antonio put it, “the Kingdom of Heaven does not impose itself, it proposes itself”.

As for ourselves, we were closer to the bread line than ever, but perhaps this is only right, considering that our voyage is after all supposed to be a pilgrimage! This involves learning to trust the unknown.

The fact is that we have been enabled to keep going by one little miracle after another, like the old Frenchman who found a cast-off slightly broken bilge-pump for me, that enabled me to fix the old broken one.

We left Port St Louis with a mistral wind brewing on our tail and promptly spent two nights sheltering in a niche behind the Île Pomègues – a barren rock off Marseille with a glorious view of the city.

Pope Francis

At Villefranche, we nearly came to grief with dragging anchors in a nasty swell. It passed, and we set sail for Corsica, with a light sea-breeze to take us clear of the Côte d’Azure,  prettily bedecked with its necklaces of lights. As we sailed down the Corsican coast, I read some words of Pope Francis, uttered in nearby Sardinia: “Let us come out from our little world and open ourselves to God, so that we might be ever more open to our brothers.”

As we approached Rome’s port at Ostia, I was looking forward to seeing and hearing more of this man.

Appropriately, we made landfall in Italy at the ancient Roman port of Ostia, at the mouth of the Tiber. Over a year after we left Cork, we were but a short train ride from the goal of our pilgrimage.

The Eternal City resonates through history, but our first impressions ashore were of a shabby old place, with chaotic traffic. However, we had arrived, and in fact Rome was soon to have a profound effect on me; but that story will have to wait for another day.

Our sea-borne pilgrimage might seem a strange way to give praise to God, but it is after all joy that He desires for us all! The bad stuff poisons, but good religion – like good wine – is fun!