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 The holdall of course contained a lifejacket, handheld compass, out of date chart, binoculars, a couple of flags, cheese sandwiches, a box of Mr Kipling apple pies, a copy of “The Riddle of the Sands” and a couple of cans of local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 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.
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.
Clive Robertson, sailing all sorts since 1990.
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