It's all about
finding the calm
in the chaos
Image "Vashti at dawn"
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".
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 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.
Clive Robertson, sailing all sorts since 1990.
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