Inconstant billows dancing

Catchy title I made-up, no? Well, sadly, no. Shakespeare did, in Henry V. Henry was born in 1386 and became king of England in 1413. In those days the first thing to do if you were king was have a war, preferably with France. Fifty years before he was born Edward III did the same thing, sending an army to Flanders, a long-standing English leader’s hobby. The ships to take them gathered in the Kings Fleet, a quarter of the way up the Deben from Felixstowe Ferry, where it flows into the sea.

Heading Out

I sailed towards that today. My boat lives at the head of Martlesham Creek, which as any chart shows, is very shallow indeed, so much so that I suspect at low water my boat is actually touching the bottom of the river. It’s also a wriggly little river here; coming off my mooring towards the Deben you have to turn hard north at the green pole, up and around the red cans near the north bank keeping tight on the turn to head south near the south bank, left around the green cans and only then can you start heading fairly straight east, at least for another two red cans until you have to turn south again to pass two more green cans then head north to a red can, hard right and aim for the final big green buoy and the two white leading marks on the south bank. When they line up and look like just one white stick you turn north, out into the channel. East of that is where I went aground in the Folkboat, stupidly taking a short cut across the shallows on a falling tide nearly two hours after high water.

High Water today was 13:50 and it wasn’t quite 11:00 yet when I got on the boat. There was a stiff wind blowing from the north, 11 mph according to the Met Office but it felt like a lot more than that. That should have been ideal to get off the mooring with the bow pointing east to start off with, but somehow it didn’t work out like that. After skewing round to face dead north (thanks, mizzen sail) I finally did what I should have done in the first place, pull the line to furl the jib and start the engine. The main was still up, sheeted in, and the rudder was still down, although I had got the centreboard up. It was all a bit hectic by now and we’d only just left the mooring.

I wanted to get down to Ramsholt and back today. It’s just over five nautical miles down the river and the plan was to get there an hour before High Water, turn there and use the last of the flood to make sure I could get back, given the wind was going to be pretty much dead ahead all the way back up the Deben until I turned into Martlesham Creek again, if it held.

What didn’t hold was my course. Somehow, on those southerly green cans we went too wide. It wasn’t ‘somehow’ at all of course. I hadn’t taken the mizen mast down, which would have taken to minutes and with the outboard running the throttle tiller fouls the mast if you’re turning to port, left, if you insist, which with an outboard you do by pulling the tiller to the right. Obviously. It’s boat stuff.

If it isn’t a bit stressy then it’s not proper sailing.

Going too wide around the green cans near the south shore three hours before High Water means you go aground, which isn’t unusual in Martlesham Creek and usually it’s no big deal. Except I’d managed to find the only stretch of shingle in the Deben, from the grinding sound, and I couldn’t steer out of trouble because of the mast. By the time I got the engine in reverse it didn’t make any difference. The rudder was stuck in the mud at the bottom of the river, the bows were being blown into the bank and the only way to get out of this was pull the rudder up. Which wouldn’t come up, because the rudder stock on a Drascombe is a straight piece of metal pipe which was now a bent metal pipe jammed in the rudder housing.

I used the long oar to pole us off the shingle, a bit concerned about the rudder which still worked but obviously wasn’t going to come back up in a hurry or at all. I couldn’t see how it was going to, which was going to be a problem when we moored but I decided that was a problem for the future. We goose-winged down past Coprolite Quay with its friendly Absolutely No Mooring Here sign, listening and feeling for anything odder than usual. The series of dull, flat bangs turned out to be pheasants being shot somewhere I couldn’t quite see. We were overtaken by a small yacht, but Luggers don’t sail fast.

According to my Savvy Navvy app on the phone we were running down the river at one point at 4.2 knots, which is pretty much maximum speed and felt respectably fast. More than respectably; the wind had been blowing down river for hours and with the tide against it, flooding in still, there were waves building up that the Lugger was surfing down until they outran us. Waves aren’t something you see on the Deben a lot. I started to regret sailing single-handed again, but my best and brilliant crew was working flat out, as she said she would be all month. She played a part later although the Savvy Navvy app in time didn’t, because it flattened the battery in my iPhone after two hours with the GPS function running.

We rocketed through the moorings at Waldringfield, past the Maybush pub leaving the island in mid-stream to port, then steering north east again once we were clear of it. A green buoy, then two reds and turn south, down the river. We were past halfway to the lost village of Ramsholt I’d been aiming for. There isn’t much at Ramsholt now, apart from a pub that sells the most expensive pint of Aspalls in the universe, a tiny round-tower church and a concrete quay which still has its own harbour-master with his office in a land-locked boat. Every February there’s a rather touching memorial service to remember the time a B17 with an engine on fire attempted a crash landing in the river. They misjudged the tide, but with a full bomb load they didn’t have much choice with trees both sides of the river. Most of the crew died.

but I’d misjudged the time. If you can only sail at 4 mph then you aren’t going to get somewhere five and a half miles away in an hour. I didn’t want to but with the wind building and still blowing from the north, straight down the river, for once I did the smart thing and turned for home an hour before High Water. At least I’d have the last of the flood tide if the wind was impossible. And the engine, of course. And the oars, if it came to it. Which I hoped it wouldn’t.

We had to tack twice to set the boat up to take the eastern channel around the island, luffing up every time there was a gust to gain as much to windward as we could and it worked. We got clear into the big pool above Waldringfield. The wind gusts a lot there, for reasons that were never made clear as Hunter Thompson used to say. While the reasons weren’t clear, the water that came over the lee rail was, which was something I hadn’t planned for. It drained out the way it was supposed to and when I went to get rid of the rest using the pump later there really wasn’t much there to pump, which surprised me a lot. It wasn’t a great moment; water coming over the side into an open boat often isn’t. For lots of people it’s meant there aren’t going to be many more moments of any kind. Percy Shelley for one.

But it was fine. We got all the way back to Martlesham Creek with just one tack to windward before Coprolite Quay, then luffed and bore away, luffed and bore away all through the moorings above it, then turned west straight running 100 yards south of the red buoys marking Troublesome Reach, which today, for once, wasn’t troublesome at all. Then about 300 yards past Kyson Point, closing on the second red buoy in the Creek, the wind died to nothing. Jib furled, main sheeted in, engine on. Because it was pretty much dead on High Water now I sailed straight up the Creek and cut the engine about 20 yards short of the mooring. Predictably there was wind now, blowing from the East, straight up the Creek, against the ebb tide.

I got the sails tied down and the mooring lines on and tried to call the boatyard about the rudder, but my phone was completely dead by now. I pulled in the inflatable and rowed ashore, found the owner and got him to get the tractor started up while I got the trailer down from the blackberry bushes that had grown up around it since it came here in April.

We got the boat almost onto the trailer on the slipway before the rudder grounded and stuck, with the tide falling. The only solution was to get the other tractor with the shovel hydraulic lift on the front, put a sling around the back of the boat, haul that end out of the water and jiggle the rudder out. The shaft was too bent to pull it upwards the way it normally comes out. By the time we’d finished and got the boat tidily on its trailer, parked up for the winter, the rudder was totally bent out of shape.

Do I make an insurance claim? Or do I find a welder to bend it back the way it was? Or do I go to a metalwork place and get them to fabricate a new one in stainless steel? There’s one just 600 yards away from where I’m sitting, in an old Quonset hut on yet another abandoned USAAF bomber station in Suffolk, where the past never really goes away.

Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies

In motion of no less celerity

Than that of thought. Suppose that you have seen

The well-appointed king at Hampton pier

Embark his royalty, and his brave fleet

With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning.

Play with your fancies and in them behold,

Behold the threaden sails,

Borne with th’ invisible and creeping wind,

Draw the huge bottoms through the furrowed sea,

Breasting the lofty surge. Oh, do but think

You stand upon the rivage and behold

A city on th’ inconstant billows dancing,

For so appears this fleet majestical

Holding due course to Harfleur.

Follow! Follow!

Grapple your minds to steerage of this navy

And leave your England as dead midnight still.

Henry V, Act III

In a touching post-script, as I charged my phone in the car the yard owner’s daughter came over and tapped on the window. She hoped I didn’t think she was being nosey or anything, but they’d had a phone call. My partner. She’d said I was quite safe and just getting things off the boat for the winter now. It was dark as I drove up out of the yard onto the tiny lane leading to Martlesham church. And seven calls from my Best Crew and partner, wondering what had happened to me, trying to see if I was alright.

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