Roger the cabin boy on the Chesapeake Bay

If there’s one thing I can do, it’s swat flies. At least, that’s what I told myself as we bobbed on a warm, muggy afternoon on Chesapeake Bay.

Somewhere on the salty horizon was the coast of Virginia, and somewhere on the other horizon was Maryland with its crab cakes and cold beer. I was on a boat with my friend Jacques and his father Jacques, and with each passing hour I was becoming more and more aware that I’m not a sailor.

It’s not just the seasickness. I can live with seasickness. Many fellows who’ve spent a good deal of their lives at sea have been seasick – Charles Darwin, Captain Cook, Admiral Nelson, Mr Smee from Peter Pan – but all of them managed some basic level of competence in their day-to-day duties. Not me.

The two Jacques spent a great deal of time patiently trying to teach me to tie a simple knot, or batten down a hatch, or tie a simpler knot, or simply latch a door. I would nod and seem like I was listening but inside my head it was all flashing lights and panic. When a storm came rushing across the oyster-coloured sea toward us like a CGI special effect, my job was to close the windows so that everyone’s bedding wouldn’t get wet.

‘Have you got it, Darrel?’ called one of the Jacques from the bow, where he was single-handedly weighing anchor and belaying things.

‘Yes!’ I called back. Of course I did. Who can’t close a window? It’s insulting even to think that I might not be able to close a … Then the storm struck and the windows all popped open and the rain came flooding in as though from five different fire hoses.

After that, they no longer trusted me with shipboard duties. They scuttled about tying things up, keelhauling other things, splicing the main brace or whatever, and I would just stand there like a barrel of salted pork.

Being so useless and superfluous doesn’t do swell things for a man’s self-esteem, so when we were attacked by the swarm of bitey horseflies, I finally saw the chance to be useful. I grabbed the solitary on-board fly swatter – a magnificent thing, perfect for its task – and went to work.

One fly dead. Two dead. Four! Two in one swat! This was great! They wouldn’t be sorry they’d brought me, no, they’d be grateful. They’d be sipping their grog in a wharfside dive in years to come, saying, ‘Arrghh, thank goodness we had Darrel as our shipmate when the flies attacked!’

I started describing ever more elegant swatting motions, exaggerating my follow-through, holding my form like John McEnroe at the net. I felt useful. I felt valuable. And then, I don’t know, there was a fly hovering above me, insultingly near, and I went for an overhead smash and the tip of the swatter must have just caught the roof because there was a snap and a whoosh and a plop and a glug as the head of the swatter broke clean off and flew through the air and landed in the sea and sank.

I stood there staring at a fistful of useless handle. The horseflies slowly realised we were unarmed and rallied themselves to return. The Jacques glared at me like a pair of Poseidons.

‘Man overboard,’ I said, and threw myself into the sea.

Getaway, March 2017