It was something of a surprise to receive an email, late last year, from the organisers of the London Boat Show, inviting me to exhibit Mingming as part of the World Cruising attraction. Mingming at the Boat Show? The idea of her scruffy little hull nestling among the well-polished super-yachts seemed somewhat bizarre, but if that's what they wanted, that's what they would get.
I made two conditions for bringing her: firstly that I would exhibit her exactly as she was when she returned from her last voyage, to Spitsbergen and 80° North, and secondly that I be allowed to sign and sell books. The powers that be were happy with both these stipulations.
It was a revelation to see the Show built up and broken down. I was asked to bring Mingming to Excel well over a week before the Show started. The hall was an almost deserted hangar, half a kilometre long. Just a few of the bigger yachts and power boats had been craned into position. Long trucks from all over Europe were pouring in with their various loads. Traffic management was a military-style operation. It seemed inconceivable that within a few days' time the acres and acres of bare concrete would be chock-a-block with stands and displays.
Mingming was craned off her trailer and lowered carefully onto her pre-marked position, and her mast stepped. The following day I came back to rig her properly, setting her up exactly as she was for the ocean. The cabin too was presented in full cruising mode, complete with log books, charts, food containers and so on.
At ten in the morning of the first Saturday of the Show, Brenda and I waited somewhat apprehensively for the first visitors. We were located not far from a multi-million pound 63 foot Oyster yacht. Surely nobody would give Mingming a second glance. At one minute past ten the first visitors drifted up to the stand and onto Mingming's viewing platform and the fun and hard work started.
It lasted, this fun and hard work, for 78 hours, with scarcely a moment's respite. Having been invited to the Show, it seemed only right that I should be there the whole time, to talk with people and answer questions. The level of interest was extraordinary. Time and again people said they had come especially to see Mingming. Many brought copies of my books for me to sign. Many more purchased books (I signed 450 during the Show). I talked with what seemed like hundreds of people every day. On Monday, Press Day, the journalists arrived too: Dick Durham, Elaine Bunting, Colin Jarman, Peter Poland, Kieran Flatt, David Glenn and so on. Most said how delighted they were to see Mingming there.
Sam Llewellyn turned up and had his photo taken in Mingming's hatchway. It was flattering to have so much attention from the cognoscenti, but the really heart-warming aspect was the number of ordinary cruising yachtsmen who came to say how much they had been inspired by Mingming's voyages. It was very humbling. The universal comment, day after day, was that it was great to see a 'real' yacht on show.
On Wednesday morning I was told that Mingming had been selected as one of the stopping-off points for Princess Anne's visit. She arrived in all her svelte glory, complete with suited entourage, and we got to chatting about the voyages and Mingming. It was fun to lean on the rail side by side with Her Royal Highness, surveying a studiously unpolished Mingming and chewing the fat about the wonders of the junk rig and the principles of simple sailing. From time to time she looked somewhat bemused, but her interest was genuine and her questions intelligent.
We wandered down the steps to look at the display of the routes of Mingming's voyages. She was particularly interested in the abandoned sortie up the Davis Strait to Baffin Island, and confided that on her visits to Canada she had shown a much better grasp of the geography of the north-eastern Canadian seaboard than the average Canadian. I was tempted to really put her to the test by asking her to name a few of the more obscure capes, but, fearing for the well-being of my neck, desisted. With a sudden swish and flourish she was gone. Her allotted four minute stop had lasted, apparently, ten minutes.
By the end of the Show I was ragged with fatigue, but still had to come back the next day to de-rig Mingming , supervise her loading back onto her trailer, and take her through the snow back to Burnham. It is now Friday 25th January and I am still very slowly recovering from an overwhelmingly demanding but deeply satisfying experience.