We set sail from Ramsgate harbour in the south-east of England early one rainy December morning. Once at sea, the yacht bounced, full sail, across the waves. The wind whisked my hair off my face, while the spray dusted my stinging cheeks. Tethered to the boat and wearing a vivid orange life jacket, I prayed for safe passage.
We worked as a team; my crewmate scrambled over the deck, securing ropes while I sat at the helm, turning the wheel, trimming the sails. My fingers were made thin by the cold – I feared my father’s ring, his last gift to me, would slip off so I put it into my pocket for safekeeping. The yacht listed to its side as it sped through the water. Gulls skimmed so low I could have reached out and touched one. As we headed south towards the Bay of Biscay, two porpoises broke cover, their arched backs visible briefly before they disappeared under the surface again. The colour of gunmetal, they shone darkly in the grey waters and, like outriders, they kept guard for a time. A white cruise liner, like a multi-tiered wedding cake, sounded its horn as it crossed our path and we turned to sail into its waves.
Moon rose and sun set. The storm past and the stars never looked so bright.
Distance and time became entwined; I lost count how many days passed until we sailed into gentler Spanish waters, and there, in the golden light of dawn, we came across a wooden galleon moored idly off the rocky coast. On the prow stood a life-size, painted statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the baby Jesus. I guessed it was ready to play its part in a watery Christmas pageant. We waved as we sailed by and the crew, dressed in raggedy costume, waved back. Then the galleon set sail and followed in our wake towards Oporto and Lisbon.
Moon rose and sun set. One star, a new planet, shone brighter than the rest.
We rounded the southernmost tip of the Iberian peninsula and headed north again into the Mediterranean. Fleets of small fishing boats floated on a sea of winter lapis lazuli. As we sailed by the Balearics, we saw fishermen cast their nets into the water; an underwater chain that stretched around the French Riviera and down the booted leg of Italy. One almond-shaped boat from Portofino abandoned its nets and fell into line after the galleon. We were three now as we sailed passed a mountain near Pompeii that smoked like a giant chimney.
Moon rose and sun set. The waters of the Aegean sparkled like fairy lights under a starry sky. A meteor shower celebrated the birth of the new planet and glitter fell down to the earth like fireworks in reverse. Shoals of silver-backed fish surged through the illuminated water beside us. We sailed on, passed Cyprus, evergreen with fir trees, then began the last leg of our journey towards Syria and finally Israel.
As we neared the coast we saw a group of people dressed in long robes tied at the waist with rope waving us in. We dropped anchor – as did the Spanish galleon and the Italian fishing boat behind us – and first swam, then waded to the beach. Our hosts said they’d been expecting us and had brought spare robes made of fine silks and brocades for one of us from each boat to change into. They said we were going to see a baby who had been born in a village twenty miles inland and they’d brought us fresh camels for the trek.
My crewmate didn’t like camels and made a hasty retreat. I put on my robes and off we went.
Moon rose and sun set. The new planet in the sky hung over a cave outside the village of Bethlehem like a Christmas bauble, and I knew we must have found the place. Our camels knelt, and we dismounted. I followed the others towards the entrance to the cave; they had brought gifts and I had nothing to give. Then I remembered the ring in my pocket and knew that gold was a perfect gift for a new-born king.
The idea for a story about sailing back in time began on holiday a few years ago when we moored somewhere in the Mediterranean by a set of stone steps that led us up to a monastery where nothing had changed for centuries. But I put the idea on the back burner and there it remained until I heard the carol ‘I saw three ships come sailing in’ on the radio. I went away and did some research and found that the ships are sometimes thought to be a metaphor for the three wise men. Finally, I had my story.