It's all about
finding the calm
in the chaos
Image "Vashti at dawn"
summer 2010, aged 25 and a half.
After stepping onto the platform at Woodbridge station I caught a glance of myself in the reflection of the train as it pulled away and wondered, for how many years this sight must have been seen in this particular town.
One man with a hefty waxed canvas holdall wearing musto trousers and a coat, in brown leather boots and a brown leather wide brimmed hat. The holdall of course contained a lifejacket, handheld compass, out of date chart, binoculars, a couple of flags, cheese sandwiches, a box of Mr Kipling apple pies, a copy of “The Riddle of the Sands” and a couple of cans of local beer.
I stomped my way over the footbridge, bag swinging in hand and wandered past the cafe known locally as the caravan before sitting on a bench that overlooks the river. In view, I could see the Tide Mill next to a a row of small red brick terraced cottages. Houseboats all around me with log burning stoves sending smoke straight up into the air. They appear tied up to the quayside with mooring warps and chains crossing over in a way that was disturbing my natural need for tidiness. These mooring lines were an unnecessary mess.
To my right I was looking down the River Deben towards Waldringfield in the distance. Small yachts were moored, scattered all over the river between Woodbridge and Waldringfield and while the river looked quite straight to the eye at this state of high tide, I was aware the deep water channel below meandered.
Visualising where the underwater hazards may lay, I faintly heard my name being called from somewhere behind me. I looked around, “Mate, this is us!”. Nick and Ed stood on the small area of sand that doesn’t really constitute the word beach and pointed to a very small tender. Nick, being around the 6ft tall mark and Ed being around the 6ft wide mark were about to accompany me in this very small tender to set off and find Nick’s newly purchased vessel. We clambered in and I, the smallest, sat up the bluff bow on a rotting thwart with my bag carefully balancing on my lap. Nick took the oars and Ed sat in the stern which at this point had around 2 inches of freeboard. This was the type of dinghy that was originally purely functional. A squared off bow, rusty rollocks permanently attached and very basic oars with a painter about 3 feet long and a pointless thin line hanging off an eye on the transom that was set to one side. To this day, I don’t understand the purpose of such 9 inch long stern lines…
Nick explained that Andy Seedhouse had lent him the tender that we currently found ourselves in and he had been instructed to leave it on the mooring that his beloved new yacht lay on. As we came alongside Sula, we immediately realised that we weren’t out of the woods yet, having made it this far in the tender, we had to devise an exit strategy or go for a swim. Nick was the first aboard, followed by Ed and finally me, having made off the small painter to the dirty mooring buoy.
We stood in the cockpit of Sula which looked remarkably clean and tidy for such a muddy, creeky area. Nick had spent quite a lot of time making her look nice before asking the yard to launch her. During that time, in the weeks before launch, I witnessed him servicing the Blakes sea cocks while they were accessible and dry, or so he thought…As Nick inspected the outside of the seacocks from underneath the bilge keels, something somehow freed itself off inside the heads and out of nowhere, the outlet hose empty its contents directly into Nick’s face. Presumably an air lock had created a vacuum in the pipe and when that air lock was somehow broken, the lumpy liquid was released. The only way to view this was initially with some amusement before checking the poor old boy was ok. He was in fact fine and had forever been baptised by his boat.
I chuckled to myself as this daydream came back to me on this cold, damp morning. My daydream was broken by the sound of a two stroke engine screaming it’s nuts off and it turned out that was ours. Ed had got thing started and shook the fuel can to find we should be in good stead to get back to Holbrook from Woodbridge. I chucked my bag in one of the cosy quarter berths and rummaged around in the focsle to find a bag of sails and a bundle of ropes. I suggested we get underway so I could figure out the knitting on the way down the river. I cast off and we motored away from Woodbridge towards more tranquil looking water. This tranquility was disturbed by our engine now seemingly maxing itself out as we made little headway. I remember thinking, is that thing alright, it doesn’t seem alright. The revs seemed to massively outweigh the boat speed.
I faffed around on the foredeck for 20 minutes setting up a jib in one of those roller reefing foils. Halyard in one hand, guiding the sail into the track with the other, I eventually got it all the way up and had a lot of excess line to deal with on the downhaul for the sail. Feeling like this was probably an error on my part, I just made up a vast amount of half hitches around the forestay under the jib to deal with the situation rather than cutting it off. This remained the case for the remaining years of life for this little boat.
With some flogging around the jib was set and in a force 3 from behind us we were getting a bit more of a shift on and comfortably slipped past The Maybush pub at Waldringfield. Next, onto the main, this was much easier as it was already bent on to the boom, so we just had to whip up the sail with the halyard and heave on the Cunningham to straighten things out a bit. Goose winged, we canned the engine and were running down the river past The Ramsholt Arms and towards Felixstowe Ferry.
Several gybes kept us on our toes as the river meandered and we used a chart from the 1980’s to guide us around the shallow areas, along with the luxury of an on board echo sounder of the Nasamarine Stingray variety.
Soon we found ourselves heading out of the river and across the notorious Deben Bar. I picked up a handout from a local chandlery the week before to give us a rough idea of where to go and we picked out the buoys that we needed. As we passed Felixstowe and Bawdsey and left the mouth of the river a jetski hurtled past us out to sea. The tide having now turned was giving both us and the jetski a turbocharge into the deep water. We gybed the main with a more forceful bang and in a moment the jetski rider had misjudged getting around the Woodbridge haven buoy and hit it square on, there were bits of plastic floating everywhere and a man in a buoyancy aid bobbing around.
Without any discussion Ed pulled the cord on the engine which burst back into life and shouted “dump that mainsail” as he pushed the helm across and changed our course directly for the rider, now swimming. Nick, down below stuck his head out of the main hatch to try and understand what was going on. I dropped the mainsail and reached into the focsle to find a decent sized rope. Progress was slow, we got near to the rider and out of nowhere a RIB appeared at full speed. We stood off for 5 minutes, stemming the tide, the rider clambered in the rib, they got a rope on the remains of the jetski and began to tow it ashore. Without so much of a thumbs up they were gone. I was astounded how quickly this all came and went and we now found ourselves bobbing around underpowered at the Woodbridge Haven buoy. We set the mainsail once again and bore away onto a nice beam reach, motor sailing to start with.
Sula heeled nicely and rode up the waves and back down again. With the outboard engine on the port side of the boat the propeller was deep in the water and pushing us along well with the sail pressure. We had quite a long way to go to get home and a two hour window to get into Holbrook creek so we agreed to crack along as much as possible going past Felixstowe seafront. Nick discovered an FM radio on board and after 15 minutes of screaming two stroke engine, our plan changed. Kill the engine, let’s just sail back and see how far we get.
With Nick on the helm and Ed trimming sails when needed, I decided to take a bit of a break. Down a small step into a tiny cabin, I sat on a saloon berth with my feet up into the quarter berth which was small but cosy and comfortable. With my back against a bulkhead, up against 1970’s style cushions, the radio was above my head with a speaker either side of the cabin. I tuned in Classic FM, grabbed my book and got comfortable. The boat heeled to port, then to starboard in a nice regular motion. Together the galley tea towel swung, the cabin curtains and a lantern in the middle of the saloon hanging from the coachroof. It felt natural and relaxing despite the wind having increased to a 4 gusting 5. She felt like a safe, comfortable little boat and seemed surprisingly dry down below.
Some time later I realised I had remained in my place of comfort, off shift so to speak all the way to Felixstowe Docks. Sandwiches consumed, I checked the time, looked out of the companionway and saw the cranes of Felixstowe towering into view. There were now white horses on the river and we had to make a decision about what to do facing a force 5 on the nose, blowing out of Harwich Harbour with a big flood tide running in against it. Harwich Harbour can be choppy on a perfectly calm day with three rivers converging from different directions. Today was no exception with a strong wind over a strong tide.
So we passed the big green Beach end buoy and the swell began to build, we pointed Sula as high as possible and motor sailed, beating into the weather. She came up one wave and smash, hit the next one stopping almost dead. Built up momentum again, over a few lumpy ones and bang, stopped dead in her tracks chucking spray metres either side of the bow. The foredeck was awash, the mast swinging around like a drunk man. Progress was very slow.
We all sat in the cockpit huddled behind the coachroof, hoods up and lifejackets on, in the knowledge there was nothing really we could do, other than press on. In perfect synchrony we all looked around at the engine as the tone of revs changed very slightly and I knew we all had the same thought. “Why did that happen…”
A top tip, if ever you want to get the attention of your skipper quickly, just randomly change the engine revs very slightly. Every sailor soon becomes perfectly tuned into this and the idea that the dreaded donkey is about to fail, at a critical moment seizes their attention sharp.
It happens again, and a few minutes later the engine stops. Now nodding up and down we are being blown out of harwich harbour but drifting in on the tide, we have to bear away to try and maintain some flow of water over the rudder blade and that means sailing far into the shipping lane at the UK’s busiest container port…with no engine. Ironically, for safety, this is our only option at the risk of stalling in the water and getting in the way.
Somehow, this scenario seems synonymous with low budget sailing. Things are great, in fact, they’re wonderful then all of a sudden, they’re not! I suppose in a strange way, this is a good experience for the mind, to have to overcome such sudden changes. We close in on the moored container ships and tack across towards the town of Harwich. The water is beginning to flatten off further in the harbour and while we are still being battered we appear to be travelling forwards at least. The tide sweeps us sideways into the harbour and helps to carry us upwind, suddenly we can see the River Stour and in the distance, Erwarton point, just before Holbrook Bay and our final port of call. Sadly though, all of the combined events mean the tide is beginning to turn and while Holbrook Creek is now a flat calm full of water, by the time we might get there, it would be 6 inches of water in a muddy channel. The option is to spend the night on a mooring at Wrabness or in Shotley marina.
After a very short discussion we decide to give Shotley marina a go and pull the cord on the engine to find that it starts! The mainsail comes down and with a small jib and an engine, we pinch close to the wind to find the channel into the lock at Shotley Marina. Once inside, we furl the jib and keep the engine running before the outer lock gates close and the water finally falls to a flat calm. I feel a sense of relief that we’ve made it somewhere we regularly go. We motor into the marina and find the berth we’ve been allocated. Moored up with a random collection of ropes, we get the mainsail cover on and head down into the small cabin for a de-brief.
Ed takes up the entire focsle with Nick and I sat either side, we each open a beer and spend 45 minutes chatting about what on earth happened between getting out of bed and sitting here right now. It’s laughs and jokes as the sun goes down and we wander over to the shipwreck for a pub dinner and a few more beers. Nothing really tastes better at this moment than a battered cod and chips in a spacious warm pub with mushy peas and a pint of Adnams Broadside.
For me, it’s the end of the road. 7 minutes in a car takes me to my home and my brother heads out to come and pick me up. Nick and Ed stay on board and when I see them the next day, I’m stood on the jetty in Holbrook creek ready to take Sula’s lines. She looks at home in Holbrook creek, a welcome addition to such a lovely picturesque setting.
SUMMER 2017, Aged 32 and a bit
As I sit in the luxurious confines of one of Britain's most prestigious yacht clubs, on the southern banks of the River Orwell, I reflect upon a mornings racing.
Of course it's not often that I find myself in any kind of "establishment" but on this occasion the opportunity appealed more than the venue or after party. Therefore I find myself at the Royal Harwich Yacht Club having been drafted in for race crew on the Sunday of their annual regatta, on a very special classic yacht that I've spent over 20 years learning to drive.
I arrive on deck and without words needing to be exchanged, through the companionway I swap wet weather gear for a stiff fresh coffee, black with no sugar and with a quarter of a cup of freeboard. This is a Vashti brew straight from the skipper. It's 0830 and this 1958 Alan Buchannan racing yacht has a start time of 0930 down the river at Pin Mill.
Vashti, famed for being the prototype to her class and one of the first masthead sloops in the UK was competitive in her day, however in the year 2018 carbon fibre plays a strong hand to a 37ft yacht built wholly out of Burmese Teak. I first sailed Vashti aged 11 and at the time remember her distinctive dinghy like feel and the smell of baked varnish. 22 years later she smells the same and feels even smaller and more handy.
With Paul at the helm I go forward of the mast and in a heartbeat the mainsail is set and trimmed. With six minutes to the start I'm back in the cockpit endlessly rolling out the oversized Genoa and Vashti's turbo kicks in. The race clock ticks on, we head south across the river and tack onto starboard, Vashti is on a beam reach and the wind is 15knots and squally. A slight luff up and bear away and we're making our final run at -02:45. We cross the start line at 7.6 knots boatspeed, 10 seconds late. Acceptable for a club race!
Our main competition is a lightweight racing boat around 24ft in length with carbon fibre sails and 7 persons on board, while they grapple with an out of control spinnaker and slide downwind we hold up on the south bank driving Vashti hard. As we round collimer I do my best to haul up Vashti's mainsail before grinding the 3 speed size 75 bronze winch on the leeward side, until the boat sounds like she's had enough. Going fully upwind we're at 60 degrees heel and pointing nowhere near our windward turning mark, the illusive Pye End.
A continuous beat out of Harwich harbour ensues and with the wind building to a shade over 20 knots, we're pinching against a flood tide to make the long tracks as long as possible, at the cost of boatspeed, instead of reefing the never ending headsail. The usual bedlam makes itself known in Vashti's long slender cabin space and the cabin sole becomes the last port of call for mugs, jumpers, bedding, pants, cushions, a pair of binoculars and a small item of clothing that I'm unfamiliar with. These items happily tack themselves across the cabin floor safe in the knowledge that if they've survived the journey this far, they've got no further south to travel.
Eventually we spot our windward mark and round pye end for a bear away, it's a dead run back into the harbour and the usual death roll flirts with us as we run goose winged with no preventers or pole. It's a comfortable motion past what we call "Cape Horn" and into the harbour. As the asymmetric spinnaker was destroyed a few weeks previous, it's Genoa versus main and a stable predictable roll.
Heading downwind towards Felixstowe it's time to come up to Shotley, and a big "bang!" heard from Harwich, Felixstowe and Shotley alerts everyone that we've just gybed Vashti's mainsail fully powered up. Now, grinding in the sails to come up onto the reach we're dabbling between 7 and 8 knots of hull speed throughout the localised squalls. Vashti is singing, I'm trimming the Genoa to the tell tails every few seconds on one of the big winches and we maintain a steady 7.5 knots all the way to Collimer which arrives and leaves at an alarming pace.
A perpetual moment continues between men and yacht, while Paul happily tweaks his helm, focused on the prize, I am fixated on driving the rig through minor adjustments like a PlayStation controller in a young kids hand. I feel myself at one with Vashti, like horse and rider at the highest level. For a while we're working as one team of three, boat and two men, but in our own individual worlds, I wonder in hindsight how many years it takes for this harmony to naturally form amongst a crew and such a highly tuned boat.
To add insult to the gods, the wind is building and around collimer we're coming upwind into Vashti's most favourable point of sail. The winch handle comes out again and as Paul drops the helm, I wind her up to a close reach and Vashti's bow wave spray is clearly visible from the cockpit. Pushing 8 knots and more at times we're driving hard and every boat in the river passes close by for a photo of this teak classic racer doing we she does best. Paul and I look at each other and with no words required we both maintain the "8 knot grin".
As we cross the finish line there's a blast and a cheer from shore and happy in the knowledge that we've broken nothing, we drift under poles up the orwell before heading in to the royal harwich yacht club. Corrected time gives us an honourable second place and I take a moment to think of all those people relaxing at home on a Sunday afternoon. As healthy as this may be for ones wellbeing on the spiritual day of the week, for me nothing beats a Sunday's racing on a boat like Vashti. The boat that taught me to race and will always hold a place in my soul.
Winter 2016. Aged 31 and a half.
With barely enough wind to move the device at Lillibullero's mast head we had to use some diesel power to safely slip away from her mooring and into the channel of the River Orwell before a bear away to port and run up the river towards Ipswich.
Lazily a full mainsail was hanging from the gaff and the jib we call "the biggun" was swaying in front as if being hung out to dry. Floating along with wind and tide we were surprisingly making around 3 knots over the ground occasionally overtaking the apparent wind. This effect forced the gigantic gaff mainsail to slowly weather-cock and creek over to the centreline of the boat threatening a fateful end to the ensign staff astern.
As we came past the Royal Harwich Yacht Club and closer up to what little wind there was Lillibullero began to reach and it was time for the staysail to get off its backside and do some work. With Deer Park Lodge to our North the unmistakable Freston Tower poking up through the mist over the bow and the Orwell Bridge in the distance we were making good speed over the ground in this very light breeze.
The tide still had 45 minutes to flood and we still had tuna sandwiches and beer to consume so we picked up the last mooring before the Orwell Bridge and gave ourselves a break for lunch. Furling the biggun and dumping the staysail Lillibullero sat happily with the mainsail rigged laying to wind and tide.
I made myself comfortable on the side deck, in the lee of the cool breeze blowing over the coachroof. The sunshine was penetrating Lillibullero's dark afromosia deck and I could feel the heat from this beaming sun on my face as I laid back and nodded off for a few minutes. The sound of the cars heading along the road to Shotley Peninsula was actually quite relaxing.
With the tide approaching somewhere around slack water after a brief snooze, I set and sheeted the staysail and the biggun and let Lillibullero's mainsail run free. The freshening light air took her bow away from the mooring and off the wind before I began to heave in that big mainsail once again and sail close up to the wind. For the next 20 minutes we were still fighting a flood tide in a very light wind but only drawing 1.5 metres meant we used the full width of the river to our advantage and put in long and short tacks through the moorings both sides of the river hoping someday to reach Woolverstone.
Backing both headsails a little we tacked as efficiently as we could in such light airs and the only ripple on the water was the wake from our small but meaningful bow wave, this was truly rewarding sailing. We managed to lay Deer Park lodge an hour or so later and the tide had slackened off in one tack and turned in another. Now on every tack between the moorings I had to pick the other side of the gap between boats or risk being washed down onto someone's beloved moored boat.
Once at No6 it was time to start stowing all the gear it takes to sail Lillibullero and the engine was used to bring us up to the mooring at Pin Mill. As the sun began to set behind the trees to our south the mist started to lift and the air became very cold. This very localised but delightful sail had taken us quite a few hours but who wants to be in a hurry sailing a gaffer like this on a sunny, fresh, winters day...
Spring 2016. AgeD exactly 31!
Standing in the carpark at Tollesbury Sailing Club I was praying for a less complicated race course than the previous year and as our officer of the day talked us through the triangular course on the chalk board I hoped that Nick and I had a chance of remembering at least two of the three turning marks between us.
I quick look skyward revealed an upwind / downwind course so it wouldn't be Awol's day today. I had replaced both the rudder blade and the boom only a few days before to try and get some weight out of her transom and a flatter sail to windward but my efforts weren't going to last long, as I would later find out.
A swarm of smacks boats and gp14's were frantically darting around behind the start line with the odd winkle brig, mirror dinghy and merlin rocket scattered in between. To the innocent bystander we must have looked a mess. As it was my birthday I was suitably embarrassed with a sparkly banner at the masthead and Nick and I had a party on the race track with a superb picnic and selection of "fluid ballast".
The fleet would start to windward against a strong flood tide with a favourable port tack, with 10 minutes to go we lined up the possibility of a starboard start but with the flood tide and a skewed line it wasn't possible for Awol to lay the line on starboard. At the 5 minute gun we put Awol in the perfect starting position and with 90 seconds to go decided to begin our final approach with what appeared to be a perfect distance from the line in a steady 12 knots of wind. At that moment a mirror dinghy from nowhere luffed me up and half stalled underneath me, I was stuck in irons unable to tack away or bear down, until the semi-stalled mirror dinghy dropped the hammer and bore away for the start. This infuriated me, how did I not see him coming? We started 90 seconds late and bore off a touch for extra boat speed towards what looked like the windier side of the race track.
Ahead I could see Rory having already made his first cross and starting to come back over on starboard, Pete and Clare also on the starboard tack sailing away to the shallows and the far north of the river. Pete and Sarah were on a similar course with Judy between us and them. My total screw up at the start meant we had some work to do but Awol was sailing fast having been freed off a little. We went far into the shallows on the starboard tack, almost driving her up the beach before putting her over to try and lay our first mark. The mark was quite far to leeward but a strong flood placed us underneath it, we would have to sail this leg well and somehow claw to windward to lay the mark. Lift after lift we were climbing our way up and after half a mile of careful helming and darting through chop we slipped over the top and jibed around the mark one tack ahead of Judy. As is customary on the windward mark, beers were opened for the run back down, to be finished by the downwind turning mark.
We managed to close the gap on Pete and Sarah running downwind with an inch of rudder blade for steerage, all people and things on the foredeck and no centre plate at all. The fleet were bunched up in the creek where our downwind second mark was and we momentarily celebrated as it looked like they had been stuffed while we ran down. As soon as we rounded the downwind mark we realised the tidal flow into this creek was phenomenal and we hadn't caught anyone up. While the gp's were rounding the mark and sailing out in two tacks a collection of smacks boats beat their way back up the mark they had just attempted to go around, having been washed down by a torrent of tide. It took us three tacks to get back around the mark and a further 5 or 6 just to start getting out of the creek. 30 minutes later I was standing on the foredeck sounding by eye, while Nick helmed us across a very shallow marshland of Essex reefs that formed a shortcut we were advised to avoid. We ran aground a few times and scraped our way thorough.
It soon became apparent that we had missed the third mark because we were having too much fun and I put us about to go back around. At this point Judy and Pete & Sarah both passed us again, I should've known we couldn't be trusted to remember 3 whole marks on our own. We beat through the start line and up to our windward mark once again only this time Judy was ahead and Pete & Sarah had left us behind after adjusting their rig in the creek. After we rounded for the jibe the second time around, just behind Judy I employed some dirty tactics that don't really help anyone and carefully covered Judy on the run. Slowly we drew nearer, quicker and quicker. Judy tried to shake us away with some sharp manoeuvres but for a time I managed to stay upwind of every one until Karma came along. My lightweight plywood rudder blade that I failed to treat in any way had finally taken on too much water and softened to bend sideways.
Fighting with the helm and what felt like a floppy tabloid for a rudder, I managed to just about keep Awol on the run and luckily Pete the Knife had lent us a pair of oars on the way out, and I brought the galvanised blade for ballast up the bows. A literally "running" pit stop ensued which involved Nick swapping me an oar for a floppy rudder, I just about steered Awol with an oar in the notch, while Nick changed the blades in record time and swapped back over moments before the downwind mark. Sadly this left no time for beer on the downwind leg and we would be continually burdened with now tacking a boat and cans, either side of the centre plate housing. The chase was on once again but Awol was dragging her heels to windward with a few extra kilograms hanging off the back and we couldn't close the gap in time. Not a big points scoring day for Awol but a lot of messing about in boats and really that's what we all love best.
P.S - I highly recommend the fluid ballast branded "IPA Gold" it disappears quickly when required, essential for racing.
Summer 2015. Aged 30 and a half.
It was a Friday afternoon and I had managed to base myself in the Norwich office for the day with 2 car parking spaces reserved. One for my car and one for my boat. This was a welcome break from the usual commute to London however, after a day of work I arrived on site to find a few tents and camper vans already set up and immediately felt out of place stepping out of the car in my work shoes, trousers and shirt.
Getting changed beside my car into my £10 wooly jumper and 20 year "sawn off" Levi's, I pitched my tent and at once felt relaxed and ready to be on the water again. After a relaxing nights sleep and a hot brew in the morning I man-handled AWOL into the Norfolk Broads for the first time ever and cast us both away. Living around an hour from this inland water haven I had never in my life tried sailing here before. I soon found the wind does some very strange things and there surprisingly is some tidal flow to contend with.
There are lots of signs on the Norfolk broads standing to attention, addressing all sorts of possible situations - directions and speed limits which come in quite useful at times...however as soon as I set AWOL's sail and saw a sign saying "no sailing" I immediately felt confused.
Apparently no-one is allowed to sail in and out of the "staithe" we had set off from, which prompts the question, how do you get out? With only 2 feet of water sculling wasn't really possible and the narrow width of the staithe didn't easily allow for rowing out without clattering moored boats either side, so as the sail was already up, I set myself free.
We were hunkered down behind reeds 10ft tall either side with AWOL's lug rig set as high as possible. Soon this little boat started a beat up the first broad. It was peaceful heavenly sailing but progress was quite slow with little wind and a foul tide.
As a bend in the waterway started to appear the wind changed direction slightly and suddenly we lifted onto a single close hauled tack. I made the most of this period sailing on one tack before I soon realised once around the slight bend it was a beat once again. The broad was affecting the wind direction as it blew from a relative prevailing area.
On we sailed beating slowly and soon a very clean orange buoy made itself known in the middle of the broad. I looked ahead a little confused wondering who goes there, on such a small section of water. I soon concluded this buoy carried all the characteristics of a posh racing mark and a glance over my shoulder confirmed a fleet of 30ft+ broads yachts powering towards us under full sail.
These boats were a truly magnificent sight, intricate and quaint they all looked very slightly different and were presented in immaculate condition. The varnish and bronze work stood out like nothing I had seen before, but standing out the most was the immense rig on these beautiful machines, towering sheets of pure white glistening in the sun.
They all appeared to be gaff rigged carrying a topsail on a jackyard, with the sail permanently laced to the main gaff. Therefore they seemed to have no peak halyard only a mainsail throat halyard and a topsail halyard. I wondered if this could be classed as a battened gunter rig sail with the batten being the gaff? The sail area was huge and with the best wind in the broads being aloft this allowed them to steam through us at quite an amazing speed.
For a moment I thought about how much experience was needed to handle a boat of this size in a space this small. Some of the broads were only 40ft wide and taking a yacht of similar length through these spaces at full power must take a lot of skill, or stupidity. They all seemed to nail the mark perfectly and brush the reeds with their bow and transom as they came about, so I guess it's the former.
After much sailing and only a few miles covered I was forced to pull the cord on the retched outboard motor and thus brings the end to this blog.
Summer 2015, Aged 30 and a little bit
Still half asleep and trying my very best not to leave my sleeping bag, I unzipped the tent door and was presented with a scene of the sun rising over the lowlands of Suffolk and the town of Southwold in the distance. The crisp, clean, countryside air poured onto my face and it was like breathing in detox. Nick awoke to the sound of a boiling kettle, and we both revelled in the opportunity for a hot drink to accompany the scene. The grass that Southwold Sailing club lend us each year is a fantastic, comfortable, and sheltered place to pitch a tent - even this close to the sea.
After much deliberation, some breakfast, and some more deliberation, we had packed our gear away. It was at this time that Nick and I started a new tradition and each sent a postcard home...some 20 miles away. Soon we were clambering into Awol for a second days sailing, this time going with a fleet to Blythburgh for lunch, so at least we had someone to lead the way.
Once again we shot under the footbridge heading inland from Southwold Harbour, but this time once we were through, we managed to rig Awol underway. The wind had come through 180 degrees in the night and with a rig set, we bore away and began to sail, leaving the industrial redundant windmill to our starboard side.
Before heading into the shallow mussel beds that we found the previous day, our fleet turned to port through a small gap and the river opened out to a broad waterway. The wind at this time started to follow the course of the river a little more, and a good force 3 was dead on the nose. We beat for a mile or two before the water started meandering and winding, forcing a sailing course of every angle, when eventually we saw a few scattered withies and a small shingle beach next to what I believed to be the A12. I stamped the anchor in the sand and we dashed across this road to the welcome sight of a very large warm pub. We had of course made it to Blythburgh.
After a serious lunch and a great tasting pint in the garden of this beautiful pub, we wandered back down to the river to find all of our smacks boats were still there! Will Thomas joined us for the journey back and with the mainsail reefed we ran downwind with the now favourable tide, making a passage of a few miles in a lot less than an hour. The speed over ground that we were carrying was astounding and there was some discussion about a scientific explanation based on momentum being increased by the amount of liquid ballast we had on board. This particular brand of ballast was brewed only a few miles down the road in Southwold itself. To reduce the speed for safety purposes we thought it best to consume as much of the ballast as possible, slowing our momentum and with three postgraduates in the boat, we all managed to overlook the fact that moving the liquid from a tin can to a stomach doesn't actually take it out of the boat. Our alarming boat speed continued but at least we were somewhat more relaxed about the rollercoaster ride that ensued!
This time as we approached our de-rigging mark before the very low footbridge, I wondered how much entertainment that windmill had seen over the years...I bet he's got some stories to tell! Maybe of salty old boys sailing into the bridge! We'd better not add to this list of victims, as this was also the maiden weekend for a brand new mast I made for Awol only two weeks previous.
As we approached the footbridge running downwind with a strong tide in our favour the three of us dropped the sail and then mast with around 50 yards to spare and shot under the bridge with a sculling oar for some kind of guidance. With no particular way of stopping the quarter ton boat at this time, we were heading for the North Sea at an alarming pace, being cheered on by both wind and tide! A few sweeps on Awol's 12ft sculling oar slewed us across the harbour towards the pontoon we had cast away from, and as I started to scull as hard as I could into the fresh wind and strong tide, Will grabbed something solid and was temporarily a human mooring warp before having made up some lines in a split second. All that was left to do was heave Awol onto her trailer and retire to the sailing club to reflect on our achievements.
Summer 2015. Aged 30 and a half
Sitting on a wooden structure that resembled something like a sunbathing platform with our feet dangling over the mud, Nick and I noted yet again how fast the tide runs into the harbour at Southwold. There was brief talk of a poo-sticks game from the harbour masters office to the low footbridge that crosses the river further up but in the end we decided if anything should be riding the tide up the river it should be us. Although we were so far the only boat to have arrived at Southwold by trailer we were soon pushing 225kgs of Smacks Boat off a trailer and into the fast flowing River Blyth with all our strength.
A few minutes later we cast ourselves adrift with sail, engine, sculling oar, and Southwold's finset bitter. We were taking no risks against this much tide and our options were to either make it back against wind and tide or have enough supplies to sit it out. We had approximately 18 seconds from the moment we became a "Vessel Not Under Command" to decide whether or not AWOL's standing mast would fit under the footbridge and with every yard we drew closer it was clear that the answer was no. So the 225kg poo stick with crew shot under the bridge making what felt like 45 knots over the ground.
As soon as we were clear under Nick tied a warp to AWOL's foredeck and swung the anchor far to port. The easterly wind, a steady force 4, carried away my words "well done old chap" as I realised Nick's thought process in chucking the weight so far away and AWOL drew a wide semi-circle through 180 degrees and performed a handbrake turn to lay to the anchor without snubbing and sit perfectly still head to wind. We both mumbled for a few minutes about just how good those tiny little anchors are before rigging the mast and lug sail.
Nick heaved in the little anchor while simultaneously kedging the bow to starboard and as AWOL slewed around with the wind and tide behind her we jibed the mainsail for a broad reach up this meandering river where neither of us had sailed before. Making quite fast speed over the ground there wasn't a whole lot of time for navigation, added to the lack of any chart at all we really hadn't a clue where we were going. We agreed to stick to one side of a channel and use the sounding device that is AWOL's 1/4 inch steel centreplate. At the first sign of a knock and a slack up-haul Nick heaves it up, I drop the helm and we come up to the supposed channel.
The banks of the River Blyth are so clearly defined it's as though the powers of nature have run a woodworking router through the marshland of Southwold. This to me felt like sailing on the Broads or the inland waters of Zeeland in The Netherlands, as a result it was difficult to find a defined channel.
The sounding technique worked quite well until we found ourselves having made a wrong turn and drove into the mud in some sort of fishery creek. This was the perfect oppurtunity for a sandwich and a swig so Nick threw the anchor once more and while the tide spent 15 minutes making...we observed the countryside and wildlife around us before floating off and beating back down the river.
As we passed a large derelict windmill on our port side, the footbridge at Southwold Harbour presented itself around the bend and soon followed the game of "When to drop the mast before the bridge". We played the game reservedly on this particular day and by the time the sail and mast were down AWOL had lost all her weigh and it took quite a few long sweeps on the 12ft sculling oar to get her under the bridge and home.
By the time we got back to our sunbathing platform and tied up AWOL as safely as possible, friends were arriving with their boats without the knowledge that we had already done a little inadvertent dredging. It was time for a refreshing drink in the Southwold Sailing Club, while avoiding any kind of "running aground trophy".
Summer 2014. Aged 29 and a bit.
It was a sunny day and the wind was light from the west. Having launched and rigged Amber the week previous, I had been spending most of that week trying to remember which of the hundreds of halyards, sheets and other ropes did what. This 16ft open gaff cutter sets two headsails, a gaff mainsail, topsail, and lug mizzen at any one time.
I sat in the large open cockpit enjoying the sunshine, a can of Southwold's best and the tranquility that surrounds anyone waiting for the tide to set them free from a mooring in Holbrook Creek. Our destination would be Ipswich Dock to meet up with the OGA, a fleet of gaff rigged boats and while the mud of the creek held us in it's grasp I could see two gaff cutters no less than mile away making their way down the river from Wrabness.
I could clearly identify one of these boats as a fishing smack, the other however I could not pin point. The only smack I know of that resides up the Stour is Daisy Bell at Mistley but this one was bigger and from this distance I couldn't make out either the fishing number, or colour. I later learnt this was CK365 Transcur, with Temagami following behind, both very close friends. We wouldn't see them again until we were berthed in Ipswich Dock.
This was the furthest mooring out of the creek borrowed from Nick for the week. This meant that Amber with her plate up floated in a bilge keel shaped pond just a few feet bigger than her hull before the mud of Holbrook creek came up to kiss the surface of the water a little further out. This was a tantalisingly frustrating scene to witness. The channel to escape was a mere 9 ft away but between us and that attractive blue water was a miniature mountain range of mud.
After what seemed like an age but in reality was only 20 minutes I threw away the muddy mooring warps and took a run at getting out under engine. At the edge of our pond Amber slowed a little and we began to leave our mark in the mud but a few more revs finished the job and Holbrook Creek released it's grip on us a few seconds later. Now we were free with over a metre under the keel and our next port of call was a mooring buoy in Holbrook Bay labelled "No Mooring".
I let go of the helm and over quite a high bow I picked up this weedy buoy with a lovely shiny warp from the focsle. Although this messy mooring buoy leaves his muddy mark on everything he is my friend, my last port of call when arriving home too early and my first port of call for the sea room needed to rig a boat and sail away. The next 20 minutes were spent trying to figure out what halyard did what and whether or not to set a topsail in a flukey wind. After a few attempts at where to lash the halyard on the topsail yard I was happy with the rig and reached across to our well known partner, the Holbrook Beacon before a jibe and run down to Shotley.
Amber felt well balanced and comfortable riding down wind in the Stour and while keeping an eye on the jibe this course allowed me to relax a little, switch on the DAB radio and indulge in another local beer. Over the starboard quarter through the mist towards Wrabness a bright pink topsail made itself known and I soon realised we were engaged in a race with Pete and Sarah "The Knife's" on their Itchen Ferry "Reverie" also bound for Ipswich Dock. We wouldn't see them again until we were berthed in Ipswich Dock.
As we rounded the Shotley horse and plugged past the mammoth ships at Felixstowe docks our existence on this piece of water seemed insignificant. A glance out to sea makes all yachts of all sizes appear the same in contrast to the giant steel logs that just float in and out of Harwich harbour packed with thousands of tiny match boxes that are actually the size of articulated lorries.
We came up to windward and were pointing for Suffolk Yacht Harbour, "Lets not dredge off Shotley" I mumbled to myself while I trimmed her sails for as much power as possible in this light air. Now plugging the tide we were trying to creep in the shallows up the River Orwell but I knew very well how much water isn't available on the west side of the channel just off Shotley and I didn't intend on exploring that part of the river bed today. The short stretch between the end of felixstowe docks and Shotley marina presents very little water outside of the shipping lane.
So we tucked up tight close on the wind, partly held up by an ebbing tide down the lee side of the bow and when the time came to round our trusty old friend the Collimer buoy and point for Pin Mill a slow arduous beat to windward began. At this point a strong ebb tide in full flow against us wasn't helping 8 knots of wind to take us where we wanted to go and with full canvas sheeted, a fully lifted outboard and the whole centre plate down, Amber was struggling to make ground towards Pin Mill. I sailed as far to the "sports boat" area off Levington as I dare before coming back over to that solitary withie that marks the spit on the south side of the river. Then two tacks later found ourselves 5 yards ahead. If only the wind would pick up a little or we could find a little less tide somewhere. This was painfully slow progress.
I stared at the sky towards Felixstowe and out to sea behind me for a few minutes in the hope of a sea breeze at this time of the day. I wasn't really sure what I was looking for but a 180 degree wind shift wasn't to be. I poured over a chart for a time to try and ascertain where the least tide would run and how far I could "push it" before finding the putty but it wasn't a risk worth taking on such a strong ebb tide. The wind was ever decreasing and Amber couldn't muster up the strength to push on.
It was a depressing moment, a time when I felt truly defeated, to lower Amber's engine and pull the cord. I motored the rest of the way up to Ipswich stowing sails and tidying up the cockpit on the way, unable to have any reasonable thoughts over the incessant din of a 4 stroke engine. Another trip up the Orwell and another little nod to my local "The Butt & Oyster" as we passed close in shore but this time I felt a little embarrassed at my failings. Maybe next time, I'll take a long set of oars.
Autumn 2013. Aged 28 and three quarters.
Motoring out of Holbrook Creek I was equipped with a fishing rod & reel, 3 lures, a compass, a watch, many layers of clothing, a can of southwold bitter and an additional 2 litres of engine fuel. There was not a single drop of wind so today I would be fishing under engine.
The fog had cleared slightly during the day and I could see the next 2 withies marking the channel to the creek quite clearly. It was now approaching 1430 and while the sun started to fade away on this autumn afternoon the fog began to thicken once again
I passed the rigging buoy only yards to my port side and he soon disappeared in the smoky air as if to say "you're on your own now son". While taking a back bearing of my track every few minutes I managed to keep a mental note of roughly where I was on this mile wide stretch of the River Stour.
Plodding along at engine idle speed there didn't seem to be much weed to foul my fishing gear towards Harkstead but I would've preferred to be somewhere near Stutton in the shallower water. So I turned to starboard 90 degrees and started heading south for a few minutes before switching off the engine and drifting on the west running tide to the north of the shipping channel.
There was an exciting, eerie sense about what was going on around me. Surrounded by a small circle of water and a thick bank of fog I could hear voices in the distance but no engine noise at all. I was surely the only person out here and the voices would be those on Holbrook beach three quarters of a mile to my North. How strange it felt to potentially be lost on such a small piece of water which suddenly felt so vast.
My thoughts were broken as I glanced at my watch and I had been drifting for 20 minutes. With a tide running at a guess up to 3 knots dead reckoning put me one nautical mile up the river from where I started. Setting a course due North would give me an estimated position around halfway between Holbrook and Stutton with the tidal flow still carrying us up the river. So I put the helm over and started the engine on this small boat due north for my native side of the river, Suffolk.
A few tantalising moments on the fishing line turned out to be weed induced and having let out what felt like 4 miles of fishing line it was quite a laborious task to wind this all in to no avail. As we drew closer to the shallows the weed increased and I decided to head back towards Holbrook essentially having drawn a big square in the middle of the river with only this side left to fill in.
Reeling in for a final time I could hear a lot of bird noise over my shoulder and as I turned to look forward I found myself metres off a recognisable small island halfway between Holbrook and Stutton. I turned hard to starboard and set a course due east however a little worried at how far inshore I had brought myself.
At this point I believed I would be approaching the remains of a Saxon fish trap that make up a long line of wooden stakes protruding from the water. I momentarily questioned myself as two very big trees made their outline known through the fog on the shoreline masquerading as those on Holbrook and Harkstead beach, but I was sure I hadn't landed this far to the east? While I questioned myself the end of the fish trap faded into view 50 yards off the port bow and confirmed a satisfying fix on my position.
I spent 5 more minutes packing the fishing gear away and finishing my drink before consulting the compass and evaluating where we might be by now. Then out of nowhere, our good friend the rigging buoy made himself known and as the tide washed past him still flooding at this point he nodded towards Holbrook creek guiding me home. I knew I should head just west of north to pick up the channel that leads me home and the first withie seemed to walk towards me through the fog as if to shake my hand at finding him. I was now home and dry.
Summer 2013. Aged 28 and a quarter.
I was looking in the chart table for one last time to check that all three of us had our passports, while the groaning sound of the outer lock gates opening at Shotley Marina signified the start of our North Sea crossing. It was just after midday, and as our thick black heavy mooring warps slipped through the cleats of the lock, and fell back aboard Lillibullero all three of us turned for one last time to wave to my mother, Nick's parents, and the lock keeper at Shotley who would see us return in 10 days time.As I shoved down the throttle Lillibullero's two cylinder Diesel engine slowly wound up it's heavy flywheel and started pushing the 12 ton smack forwards out of the lock and into the brown lumpy waters of Harwich Harbour. The bow slowly started bobbing up and down as the fishing smack "Transcur" was a welcome, friendly sight waiting for us anchored just inside the River Stour.
We followed Transcur out of the Harbour while the swell was building and though the waves weren't particularly big, they created an uncomfortable chop and a confused mess that I've experienced so many times inside Harwich Harbour. The wind was somewhere in the north and after heaving up a full mainsail, No1 jib, and working staysail, we bore away a few degrees and Lillibullero drove on close hauled, waving a 12ft long bowsprit over the top of the murk. Transcur ahead would occasionally rear up and dive down, with more length at the waterline and more beam than Lillibullero she looked to be having a bit more of a rough ride than us, as we ploughed on and sliced through the worst of it.
The feeling at this point was mixed, a combination of excitement and anxiety. The unknown lay ahead, a fear that rarely torments me but punches hard when it does. So as the usual questions and answers were going through my mind, I was rapidly weighing up various possible outcomes and their probability in an attempt to rationalise my thoughts. Would the sea state be like this all the way? Would the other two crew be ok with the motion? Would the wind ease off in the night, or increase? We did a handbrake turn out of the harbour around Languard point and were currently heading North East for the shipwash and I was hoping a bear away to the East would calm the motion down a little and certainly increase our boat speed, once around the sands. I knew I generally felt more comfortable in open water but a lumpy start, face first into the wind always raises the heart rate.
After a couple of hours sailing through what felt like lumpy mud, the North cardinal "N Shipwash" buoy came into sight and as the compass card swung around to due East, we were pointing for our final destination, the Roompotsluis some 24 hours away. The motion of the boat was more comfortable now, as Lillibullero was sailing free with a powerful rig to push her on, the wind had softened to 15 knots on the beam and this Smack Yacht was in her element. Lillibullero felt happy and at home reaching across the North Sea at full power, driving hard with free sheets on a beam reach as she had been built to do, in 1932. One more look over my shoulder and the big heavy Shipwash buoy gave us a nod goodbye. It's easy to sit back and enjoy the ride at sea and a combination of boat design and laziness meant we didn't keep up with Transcur and after a few hours she slowly faded away over the horizon.
Sailing all afternoon and evening past wind farm after wind farm, the offshore sun was strong and dry, the air cool and salty and the water turquoise blue. The waves had increased in size but also length and we were comfortably sailing up with a slight surf down the back of them, this truly was offshore sailing at its absolute finest. We occasionally used a little engine power at just over idle to boost our speed and glance the other smack for both of our safety. Having lost sight of the UK, our mobile phone and VHF reception home were long gone. For hours on end, all that surrounded us was blue water and blue sky. I now felt relaxed and enjoyed being back at sea with the space and time to think about what needed doing next.
As darkness approached, half a bag of dry rice appeared on the cabin floor, followed by some shouting below and 20 minutes later three plates of warm chicken curry and cooked rice appeared in the cockpit. This was a welcome hot meal just before the sun bid us farewell over the horizon to our stern. In an instant the air fell cold and although we were basking in the sun previously, it was now time for a wooly hat, coat, and gloves - in mid August. At this time of the day the three crew shift pattern would begin and my old mate Dad was the first to go down. We try to keep noise on deck to a minimum while crew lay in a cosy warm sleeping bag below, in a cabin dimly lit by the screen of a radar, telling us Transcur was again 3 nautical miles to our East.
While Nick and I kept ourselves busy updating a paper chart, we began the "where's wally" game of figuring out which vessels were around us and where they were pointing. The wind was slowly building however and two hours or so after heading down, big Mike was awakened by the sound of Nick and myself reefing the mainsail in 20 knots of wind as we crossed the border into Belgium. A rather inhospitable welcome.
At this very early hour in the morning it was my turn to go off-shift and after some acrobatics trying to get out of my wet weather gear I landed in my sleeping bag spent a few minutes finding the right position and the metaphoric lights went out. 3 hours later I was woken up by the cabin lights coming on and a tired looking face peering through the companionway. In what felt like one quick blink my shift below had come and gone. It was Nick's turn off shift and having been up all day and most of the night, he looked like he deserved it in these early hours which by now were somewhere between 2 and 3am.
It's never easy to face getting out of a warm sleeping bag and into a cold cabin, to then get dressed in the salty cold clothes that were thrown on the cabin floor only a few hours ago. A cup of coffee motivates me as I now watch Nick perform the "getting chest high trousers off in a 2 metre swell with no headroom" manoeuvre. While I find this hilarious, I'm so tired that my facial expression is gormless.
When I found myself on deck once more, the red sidelight in Transcur's rigging lay abeam of us, at a distance I struggled to comprehend. However, it was clear that we were travelling through a relatively small channel between two wind farms. An array of lights marking the top of these windmills spread either side of us, as far as the eye could see, miles and miles across with the entire wind farm flashing on, and off, at the same time. This sight was both disorientating and in a strange way re-assuring at the same time. Was it really possible to get lost out here?
A short while after we had passed through these particular wind farms the sun that disappeared over the stern a few hours ago began to illuminate the horizon over the bow, and a dull, grey light cast itself across the water around us and I could see the deck planks, the rigging and the burgee once again. The sun was as enthusiastic about getting out of bed as I had been and it took what felt like an hour before we saw it rising. Daylight signified the beginning of a well earned breakfast and this broke Nick from his slumber below. We began to see local yachts and fishing boats, flying Belgian or Dutch ensigns and our accomplishment started to feel real. A couple of hours passed and the wind went very light forcing us to use the engine against a strong south running tide before the coastline of the continent appeared over the horizon. Finally, after sailing all afternoon, all night and all morning, we had drawn a horizontal line across the North Sea and made it somewhere else.
Motoring North along the Dutch coast for an hour or so more, we passed the seaside town of Domburg, before picking out the buoys that guided us in to reaching the harbour walls of the Roompotsluis with hot coffee in hand. It's standard practice at most locks and bridges in The Netherlands to loiter for a green light and along with Transcur we waited for the Dutch authorities to turn this huge lock around for us. Once inside, the sound of the gates groaning to a close behind us signified the end of our North Sea passage.
I touched the concrete wall in the lock and slipped a thick damp mooring warp around the iron post. Something so simple meant such a great deal to me at this time. The childhood memories of stepping into my mirror dinghy at Holbrook Creek in Suffolk, sailing one mile across the River Stour and then stepping onto the beach at Wrabness in Essex were coming back to me. This was a similar feeling on a much larger scale, for the first time in my life, along with my father and lifelong friend Nick, I had sailed across the North Sea. The water level rose very little before the inside gates opened and the calm blue water of the Oosterschelde lay ahead of us like an oil painting. The wind wasn't much above a force two from astern and we set all the canvas we had, slowly drifting up this sanctuary of a waterway. The choppy swell of the cold North Sea had become cats paws on a blue inland waterway, the holidays had arrived.
We had a relaxed sail up to Wemeldinge, squeezing under the never ending Zeeland bridge less than a metre abeam Transcur. Gaff rigged masts of all kind were rafted in the marina, poking up behind the harbour walls like a pin cushion and we followed our soon to be Dutch friends Edgar and Else on their large ketch Windbreker into the far end of the marina. British and Dutch friends were scattered ashore and it was a homely feeling to raft alongside "Bonify" a close friend's boat from our home port, Pin Mill. As exhausted as we were, stepping ashore in The Netherlands was a moment of accomplishment and after a dash to the shower facilities, we soon found ourselves enjoying a local beer with old friends and new.
We had now joined the opening party of the Dutch Old Gaffers Association's 10th anniversary and the next 10 days would see us travel across the inland waterways of Holland from South to North, meeting new friends, tasting new food, and seeing new sights. However, before then I slept the best night's sleep of my life in my bunk on Lillibullero.
Summer 2013. Aged 28 and a half.
What little wind there was seemed to be intent on taking me to sea and with a light north easterly breeze AWOL darted out of Holbrook Creek like a cork out of a champagne bottle. In this instance however there was sadly no champagne available.
The previous weekend I stayed well out in Holbrook bay with a similarly light breeze from the south creating a lee-shore to Holbrook which could be tricky to get off in such light winds. However this weekend with the wind in the opposite direction I had an opportunity to sail up the shallow shore of Holbrook and Harkstead, and explore this wonderful, silent, inland coast...a place of tranquility where time is irrelevant owing to a distinct lack of human intervention. This is the very place I grew up messing around in boats, living and going to school only a couple of miles away, yet every time I come here it looks somehow different. As they say, no man steps in the same river twice because the river has changed and so has the man.
AWOL's centre plate was merely an inch or two down, and no doubt a little leeway took us away from the beach while we were slowly and silently reaching towards Harkstead. The waters surface was providing a crystal clear looking glass to the plant life and wildlife that lay beneath, with the water so clear in fact that no sounding is required due to the knowledge that you can see the bottom well before you touch it.
Reaching steadily all the way to Harkstead the wind dropped off to nothing at my imaginary turning mark, my furthest point from home and AWOL's mainsheet fell slowly and lazily down, to shatter the surface of the water. My crystal clear looking glass was no more.
Carrying no engine onboard I momentarily accepted that I was in for a long scull home against the tide before my thoughts drifted away to take in the view we had been presented with, the River Stour like glass as far as the eye could see. There are some moments that come and go so quickly that it's best to see them with your eyes rather than through the lens of a camera and this was indeed one of those moments. What the camera would have seen though was a white 12ft swallows and amazons style smacks boat, with a single lug rigged sail hanging from varnished wooden spars and a man sat down all alone but with the best of company- a tranquil river all to himself.
For a minute or two I just sat there enjoying the peace of the whole river on this crisp Autumn Sunday afternoon until the silence was broken with the sound of lapping water at AWOL's clinker stem. As her boom slowly lifted the mainsheet clear of the water we were sailing once again on a starboard reach for Holbrook creek with imaginary cats dancing across the water all around us.
At the Holbrook end of this foreshore a young family were enjoying a Sunday afternoon BBQ and as I passed through a very dense and defined stream of cooking burger smell I felt it time to head home for something to eat. Sailing past, four children shouted with excitement at the anticipation of a pirate raid invading their party, in response to "Who goes there!?" a sturdy wave and reply of "friend, not foe!" was enough to keep the small savages at bay.
Summer 2008. Aged 23 and a quarter.
At this early hour there was no human activity to be seen, only the distant sounds of wildlife were travelling across the River Stour and into Holbrook Creek. Without words needing to be exchanged Nick slipped the forward mooring and I let go astern. In barely a puff of wind Spindrift's Genoa slowly rolled out of bed and we silently crept out of Holbrook Creek in the darkness.
With daylight starting to show towards Harwich we picked up a sturdy looking mooring buoy at Wrabness and each slipped into a warm sleeping bag for a few hours. We had managed to escape Holbrook Creek for the day and that was our primary objective.
What felt like 10 minutes later, I woke to the whistle of the kettle and sunlight streaming through the companionway gently warming my face. It was around 9am and in a few moments I was passed a hot cup of coffee. A glance out of my port side bunk brought Wrabness into view and confirmed Spindrift laying to a strong ebb tide as a southerly breeze gently rocked her in the lee of Wrabness cliffs.
Still in my pijamas I dropped the mooring warp off the bow and walked back to the cockpit to untie the roller reefing line. The wind had increased a little with the daylight and in a swift thud the Genoa was set and blew our bow away to Holbrook while the tide carried us bodily eastwards. Nick lay in his bunk below so engrossed in his book and coffee that I don't think he even realised we were under way.
A line lashed Spindrift's tiller while I spent a few minutes untying the mainsail cover and sail ties, and sent them into the small cabin for stowing. While setting the mainsail Spindrift rounded up and just before losing all her boat speed the Genoa was sheeted once again and brought her bow away, back on course.
We passed the oil pipes that lay floating on the south side of the river like sleeping giants and crossed to the northern side for a close quarters drive by on the beacon at Erwarton point. The order of the day was a lazy Sunday sail and between Erwarton and Shotley I eventually mustered up the desire to get dressed and make breakfast.
The gas hob stood to attention for boiling a kettle once again but when it comes to a toasting set piece he's out of his depth. I appeared to burn 16 slices of toast for every single good slice and to rub salt in the wound this ratio was compounded by an unopened loaf of bread floating past us at Parkestone. I like to think of the possibilities of how this item finds itself in the river? Is someone else out here also having a frustrating time cooking their breakfast? At that moment in time a small fire broke out in the galley fuelled by another two slices of burnt toast. Perhaps I was responsible instead of the stove, for not paying enough attention.
As we passed ha'penny pier at Harwich and began to beat south out of the harbour we still had a favourable tide underneath us. Just around the corner the Walton Backwaters lay to our starboard side, safely guarded at the entrance by the Pye End buoy.
Where we were going neither of us knew but we just fancied a lazy sail out to sea and therefore on we sailed. In a moderately light breeze and on a sunny day there seemed to be no-one else sailing on the water. The usual regular movement of ships in and out of Felixstowe was once again like clockwork and for that reason we stood clear of the shipping channel.
Heading into nothingness the sky was blue and the water changing from brown to blue as we sailed on, at the horizon the two were joined by a soft haze presenting us with a real life watercolour painting. After a time a dark object appeared over the bow as far as the eye could see. Taking a hand bearing Nick soon came to the conclusion this was the "Stone Banks" buoy, with a course set and a tiller lashed it was Sunday lunchtime and time for beer and cards.
It didn't take long before the lonely old chap called Stone Bank was passing us by, he surely doesn't see many Holbrook Creek souls out here, so far south of the shipping channel. We would give him a second visit on the way home at least.
Once again pointing for nowhere in particular we held our course and a bit like the road signs that simply direct you to either "The North" or "The South" we were headed to "The Open Sea". The next buoy to make itself known to us was "Medusa". Far in the distance we picked her up in the binoculars and again adjusted our course accordingly.
I started to wonder if this was the furthest from home Spindrift had been. On the chart it doesn't seem far, but on the open water it felt like we were on a real adventure. This little 22ft boat was built in Lowestoft for coastal cruising and although she's very seaworthy I don't think many would want to go too far out for long, I certainly had never taken her this far from home.
The wind picked up a little, Spindrift was sailing close hauled quite fast and it was surprising how quickly we found ourselves within throwing distance of our mark. I had only seen the Medusa buoy once before and that was on a similar day trip with my dad some 15 years before sailing a 42ft fast Bermudan yacht called "Layla".
As we came past the big green Medusa buoy it clearly made the other half of the Stone Bank. I thought of these two as some kind of tragic love story...out here on their own having a lonely existence they make a pair of navigation marks so far apart they only just see one another. It's the makings of a romantic advert that starts going through my mind before I realise I'm thinking about work at sea.
A check on the time revealed late-afternoon and it was our time to head for home. We noted our position and put the helm down on Spindrift. Looking out to sea one last time I recalled the adventures of John, Susan, Titty and Roger, and wondered how much further we could have made it...another adventure for another day
Clive Robertson, sailing all sorts since 1990.
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