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River Deben – Writer-insighter
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End of season

It was probably the last day of sailing this year yesterday. Frankly, it can’t happen soon enough. Last year was fantastic sailing; four or sometimes even five days a week, sailing after work, sailing deep into November. Some of those later sailing days weren’t so much fun, to be honest, a combination of not having the main sail downhaul tight enough, the idiotic tendency of the Drascombe Lugger to go backwards and/or turn itself round thanks to the mizzen sail and the absence for the most part of my brilliant crew member, who found she had a load of work on and couldn’t spare the time.

All looking decidedly summer’s end.

High Water was half-twelve at Martlesham, so I was on the water at just after half-past ten. The plan was to go all the way down to Ramsholt or failing that, the Rocks, then back, then boat out and a power wash, then the long slog through the winter of new anti-foul, sorely needed after I tried to get two years out of the winter 2020 application. This winter I want to get everything out of the boat, remove all the interior hull fittings entirely and then repaint the decks. The boat is getting on for fifty years old. It’s very sound, but weed, mud and general being-used has left it looking past its best. But fixable, very fixable if I first have this last sail today.

Except the engine wouldn’t start. Or rather, it started just fine, but it wouldn’t rev and after a minute or so running just above tickover it slowly died. For once the wind was blowing from the west, so I could sail out of the creek. It usually changes enough to get back in two or three hours. Usually. I changed the spark plug for a new one, marvelled that the old one worked at all when I saw the sooty old one but it didn’t make much difference. Whatever it is, it’s not the sparkplug. It still died three quarters of the way through the moorings and the clock was ticking. I untied the jib and pulled the port sheet and we sailed out anyway, centreboard up to go straight across the bends in the creek and save some time. When I finally had time to look at my watch it was 11:20am.

Note to Royal Yachting Association, Sea Scouts or anyone with a boat: Don’t do this. It’s dumb. It’s only safe in fine weather and it takes most of the fun out of sailing.

But I did it anyway, obviously. The plan, such as it was, was get out of the creek, moor to a bouy off Kyson’s Point as usual, sort out the sails, head south down the Deben to the fabled paradise of Ramsholt, failing that the Rocks, failing that go round the island at Waldringfield, all of which looked possible. The wind out in the Deben is usually different to the wind in Martlesham Creek where it was from the West. In the Deben it was blowing from the north. It’s the trees, the hills and the general cussedness of the river, which is why that part is and always has been called Troublesome Reach.

Drascombes don’t sail fast and downwind they sail a lot slower. I saw another boat coming up from Waldringfield; Alex whose grandfather knew Arthur Ransome, in his own modern adaptation, a Deben Lugger, a lug rig and carbon spars. It shifted through the water a lot faster than mine but he was going upsteam, I was going the other way.

The first thing was the main sail wasn’t up, so I lashed the tiller and sorted that, then re-tensioned the downhaul. I’d used some old line I had hanging around. Modern nylon stuff hadn’t worked and now it had been happily absorbing moisture under its cover in October, nor did this stuff. It jammed in the bronze tunnel cleat. It would have to do I thought, but in the end it didn’t. After half an hour the wind had shifted to blow straight up the river from the south, so I was close-hauled into it. And for that you definitely need the downhaul jammed tight. I had to take out to the other side of the river to clear Coprolite Quay, twice. Coprolite, for those who don’t know, is dinosaur poo. When the Victorians discovered it lay in huge quantities under the Suffolk Sandlings it became a huge export industry, sent out by sea, which meant from here. The tide was massive today and I could hardly see the top of the quay. Made of concrete and very, very solid indeed it was something I definitely didn’t want to run into.

I’d changed the mainsheet mid-season because the old one, too thick, kept jamming in the blocks so I swapped that out to use as a mooring warp and substituted some brand-new 8mm slinky braid that slipped through the blocks like a snake. It also slipped through the jamming cleat too, not least because one of them had disintegrated its spring so it didn’t flip closed. I never use the horn cleats Drascombes have because I’ve always thought them an accident looking for somewhere to happen. The only way to use a horn cleat is to loop the line around it, over the end, make a loop, reverse it then drop that over the other end of the horn. It’s neat, with practice it’s quick and it’s tight. It’s also a pain to get undone in a hurry without a knife, which is why on a gusty river with a fickle wind it’s something you don’t even want to think about if you don’t like the idea of being 90 degrees tipped-over. Which I’m too old for.

Because I was pointing too close to the wind progress was slow. We got down into the pool below Coprolite and I looked for a bouy to moor up to so I could sort out the downhaul and generally tidy up. The problem was that every one of them was either a race can or a channel marker. Not one of them had a rope on it, or even a ring to put a rope through. It was time to turn around. I’d planned to go through the New Cut, dug in the 1800s to make the river more manageable for the bigger ships that were coming, with predictable results. The ships kept getting bigger and the New Cut couldn’t make enough of a difference to stop them going somewhere else. I’ve heard all the tales of the old barges carrying grain and everything else down this river to London and how the old boys who sailed them carried on into the 1920s, maybe even the 1950s without engines, but I’ve also thought there’s only one reason anyone would do that; they couldn’t afford an engine.

We turned around and headed up river. Alex was long gone in his carbon StarTrek Lugger and I couldn’t clearly see where the New Cut was in this huge tide. I could see the green hull of Peter Duck, one of Ransome’s boats, clear across where the reedy island usually is and today wasn’t. I didn’t want to get stuck there for twelve hours. A powerboat was coming up behind me and being higher he could see more clearly. He came past to port and I followed him in then turned West towards Peter Duck to pick up one of the mooring buoys there.

Csn you see the problem? Nothing to do with spark plugs.

It all went less than optimal from there. I changed the spark plug because who doesn’t carry a spare? It made zero difference. Started first pull but wouldn’t rev, then what revs there were just died away to nothing. Ok, I’ll sail it back on jib and mizzen, because frankly I couldn’t be arsed to put the main up again and anyway the wind was getting up now, blowing from the south in the Deben and I didn’t want to be overpowered coming-in to the moorings solo. I had to go pretty much all the way to the end of Troublesome to have enough leeway to turn and go straight up Martlesham Creek, where predictably, the wind was blowing from the West again, straight down the creek at me, with the tide going out as well now. I dropped the sails, got the oars out and rowed. It’s only half a mile.

A Lugger happily fantails into the wind when you’re rowing. Add to that that I can’t see behind me and it all took a while to get back. Good exercise, but I was looking for a pleasant sail instead of a workout.

I was out for just over four hours and came away hot, sweaty and not best pleased. I went back today and sorted everything. The engine wouldn’t rev and eventually wouldn’t start because if you look at the picture above, there’s a kink in the fuel line after the fuel filter. Nothing to do with cleaning the filter, blowing through it, dirty petrol, old petrol, bad spark plug, evil spirits, none of that. Just no fuel getting through. A bit of jiggling the line around and it runs fine. While I was there I got rid of the daft German mainsheet arrangement, put a spare block on and attached the other double block directly to the horse. I still need a jammer cleat for the mainsheet, but I know where I can get a nice brass tube cleat that will fit on the tiller arm.

After that pump out the bilge, after that cut some of the nice new red braid line for the downhaul, and that works really well in the brass tube cleat at the base of the mast. Then re-arrange the step fender tied-on at the stern so that if I actually do manage to go overboard singlehanded I stand a chance of being able to get back into the boat.

The last thing was re-tying every line that went around horn cleats, so front and aft mooring warps. I’d watched You Tube and found an absolutely brilliant, quick, safe, fast trick for cleat hitches and horn cleats. The fact I can do it one-handed with my left hand without even thinking and do it much more slowly using my right or both hands is just one of those things. It’s a really seriously good trick.

All in I spent about two and a half hours doing all this today. It was time well-spent. I think I enjoy this stuff more than actually sailing, or certainly sailing on the Deben with its ridiculous wind-shifts. I don’t know if there will be any more sailing this year. The boat’s still in the water if I do but the clocks go back this weekend, the time when I think ‘only six weeks, that’s all you have to cope with, just six weeks and it’ll start getting lighter, you can cope with that.’ And I can. There’ll be another summer on the water. With any luck at all I’ll be there to sail it.

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Caught on a lee shore

Sailing is coming towards its end this year. So far it’s been brilliant in the Drascombe, but one of the last sails – voyages is too strong a word for a potter up the Deben – didn’t go to plan at all.

The wind has been funny in Martlesham Creek lately. I’m used to it changing nearly 180 degrees in two hours. I’m used to knowing why Troublesome Reach is called that and it’s not just because it’s flanked by unlikely shallows and the deep water goes very close to Kyson’s Point, much closer than you’d think. But lately the wind has been blowing straight up the Deben from the south, which has made things awkward. I got rid of my Drascombe Scaffie in 2006 because I couldn’t make it point into the wind. The Lugger I have now does that much better, with a sprightly turn of apparent speed for a Drascombe, but it’s very slow sailing with the wind behind it, which makes no sense to me at all.

That means when you come out of Martlesham Creek before High Water you have a choice – either sail against the tide into the wind or with the tide with the wind behind you. And the last few weeks the wind has been high and more to the point, gusting. I didn’t bring the anemometer with me and it turned out I had more to do than use it, standing on the side of the centreboard casing, but the Met Office forecast said it had been gusting 6 on the Beaufort scale.

Force Six is a windspeed of definitely not that much fun at my age single-handed. With my brilliant crew it would have been different – I could have ordered the mizen mast or the jib furled and after only the briefest ‘Don’t talk to me like that’ it would have got done, crisply and properly, the way my brilliant crew always does things.

Brilliant Crew in better weather.

But Brilliant Crew was at work, far too busy to furl my sails or stow my mizzen for me. I’d gone north, seeking the source of the Deben, up to Whisstocks Bend, as I call it, near the TideMill which you’ll know from any tourist picture of Woodbridge. I toyed with the idea of landing and claiming the town for the Crown, or at least the Principality of Sealand, where I’m a Baron (no, I really am. I paid £5 for that, I think).

It’s ok, I do actually realise I can’t do that, but every time that thought crosses my mind I think how utterly maniacally ridiculous it was that people like Raleigh and Drake and Cook and hundreds of others did exactly that, sailing off to somewhere they knew nothing about, trading with or shooting the people who lived there as the mood took them, then saying that all this land and the people on it belonga Big Queen across the water now, you savvy?

That first time I’d sailed up to Lime Kiln Quay before I turned around to head back, but the wind stopped me. With the mizzen sail up there are conditions where the Lugger will sail backwards. Unfortunately, this was one of them. I couldn’t get the boat to sail the way I wanted at all, dead into the wind. I needed to get the mizzen furled to stop going backwards but couldn’t do that without letting go of the tiller, which was going to mean the boat going backwards, then sideways, then probably over, which is something I’ve managed to avoid. I managed it that time too, until the short line I’d lashed the mizzen with just blew off, as the second one did as well. There’s never time to get the anchor out and to be honest, it’s a matter of stupid pride as well. I just had enough time to get all the sails down so we weren’t blown into the line of house boats moored at the Quay, then engine on all the way back. That was that week. This time, the week before last, was a bit less fun.

It’s not like this all the time, honestly….

I’d really, seriously explored the upper reaches of the Deben, the wild, inhospitable waters off Wilford Bridge. To be honest, the only thing inhospitable about them was the wind, and the irritating fact that you can only see the top of water, with no idea whether there’s an inch or twenty feet of water underneath. I’d followed a huge yacht cheating its way to its mooring under power, bow thrusters and everything, which isn’t an everyday sight in my sailing. They showed me where the channel was so I followed, and passed their mooring. I didn’t want to go all the way up to Wilford Bridge itself because pretty as it is, I could feel there was no space to tack round and come out again with the river not very wide and the wind where it was.

For once I’d timed it so it was High Water. The problem is that that doesn’t really matter when you’re at the edge of the water anyway. It still stops, just like my boat did when the rudder bit into the mud. I guessed that was what had happened when the outboard wouldn’t pull us backwards out of the reed bed we’d been blown into. Rudder up, engine on again, reverse gear and off we go.

I should have just motored all the way home, but the whole point of sailing seems to me to be doing that. At the big bend above the Yacht Harbour I moored-up to a bouy on the second attempt, which was when I decided to buy the magic mooring stick in Andy Seedhouse’s shed. Predictably, there was some windswept Cathy and Heathcliff couple on a bench on the bank about 15 yards away, so I had a good audience for what happened next. Sails all furled on their masts. Good. I don’t like the noise of the engine any more than necessary and the fuel container seems to have blown its seals so I’m never a hundred percent sure exactly how much fuel I have left. I’ll row. Unlike starting the engine to get off a mooring you can’t start rowing and keep doing that while you untie and get rid of the mooring line. Which was another reason I needed Brilliant Crew onboard.

I cast off the bouy and started rowing dead into the wind. But too late. The Drascombe was blown backwards, mizzen sail furled or not, straight towards a group of houseboats. Luckily there was a gap between them. Sort of luckily anyway, because although I managed not to smash straight into them backwards and turn a little we were now stuck nose-in in a tiny harbour about 20 feet wide and 30 feet long, with steel hulls either side of us and ahead. There was a rope across the entrance to this little bay to keep boats out. I can tell whoever put it up that it doesn’t work. Sails were out of the question. I can’t row out of here because there isn’t room to use the ten foot oars. And I can’t put the engine on because of that stupid rope which is going to foul the propeller as soon as I start up and if it doesn’t somehow and I get turned around is going to foul the skeg in front of the prop and stop us getting out anyway. You can only get over that rope with the engine tilted up on its mount. Where the prop isn’t under the water. This wasn’t going well.

I thought it was going to get worse when the lady owner of one of the houseboats came to see what the unexpected noise against her hull was and asked Englishly if everything was alright. I told her it very obviously wasn’t, which didn’t exactly ignite a lasting friendship on the spot. I just about managed after her shoving my bows round with a boathook and me trying to get clear with a ten foot oar much too long to row in this little metal box of a harbour and much too short to scull. I flipped the rope out of the way instead of slashing at it with the boat knife, which would have been much more satisfying and eventually managed to get back to the bouy and moor up where I’d left a quarter hour before.

Stow the oars, engine on, cast off and hope we don’t run out of petrol motoring all the way back. We didn’t.

Not every day on the Deben is like that but even the worst day sailing is better than a day not sailing. It teaches you. Mostly it teaches you that actually, you can cope and however much you’re blushing and annoyed at your own stupidity and the wind and the sails and the tide or anything else you might be, you’ve just got to fix this situation and there is nobody else who can, so best just to get on with it.

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That sinking feeling

I’ve only had it once that wasn’t in a dream. Literally, that sinking feeling, when there’s water coming up past the floorboards inside the boat and despite the fact you know, really you know, that thanks to the mud that makes up a large part of the River Deben, your boat can only possibly sink about two feet at most, given the tide, some primeval part of your brain is screaming much louder than the rational part. And it’s screaming something you don’t want to hear.

“You’re going to die! Very soon! do something!”

I’d had my boat out of the water for several years. I bought it when it had been out for at least two. I worked on it, sanded it, varnished it, painted it, antifouled it, made it look what used to be called all shipshape and Bristol fashion, which doesn’t mean it looked like gigantic breasts because that would be too silly. What I couldn’t do anything about was the fact that it had been out of the water for years and it was a wooden boat. They dry out. The wood shrinks. And the gaps between the planks that make up the hull don’t. In fact, they do the opposite.

I’d told Everson’s boatyard, the one with the crane to put it in the slings on Monday and crane it into the water, leave it on the slip in the slings and I’d come down again on Tuesday to sail it away.

A friend took the day off work to come down on Monday with me to see what was happening. As it turned out, nothing was. The crane driver was off sick. Monday. Nothing to do with a hangover, obviously. It never was when staff went sick on Monday at my company, after all. Ever. Whatever the reason, the boat wasn’t in its sling and the sling wasn’t on the crane. Apparently, their phone had broken as well, as they hadn’t told me not to bother driving down there and wasting my time.

When I came back on Tuesday, without my friend who was going to crew, they hadn’t even bothered to start the crane up. When they eventually did get the boat into the water it leaked. A lot. It’s called ‘taking-up.’ It means the water flows pretty much uninterrupted through the gaps between the planks. This is why you put the boat in the water the day before you want it. Except the yard couldn’t be bothered to do that, or to tell me they hadn’t.

The pump worked. It had to.

It’s only about a mile down the Deben to Kyson’s Point. You turn 90 degrees West there and it’s about another much more winding mile to the mooring. I did it all under engine and everything, on this sunny day, seemed fine. The engine started up, the pump was pumping hard, no wind to speak of, it was just gone High Water and I had a new job starting the next day, teaching at a French summer school on the banks of the Stour, then starting a screenplay for Film Suffolk. Plus I had a lovely boat under me. Life was good.

dav

Life started to get less good when I got to the end of Martlesham Creek to find two things I hadn’t planned. First, the boat that was supposed to be out of my berth on the jetty was very much still in my berth on the jetty, and there wasn’t room for two. Second, and more immediately pressing, was the fact that the pump wasn’t keeping up with the inrush of water, as I saw when I looked down into the cabin and saw the floorboards floating. I did that because the odd noise I’d heard was an automatic lifejacket stowed under the seats had done what it was supposed to do when it was under water.

Don’t panic! Don’t panic!

Except I didn’t know what else to do. I’m in a rapidly drying-out channel, I can’t get onto my berth and the boat I’ve spent months making nice is sinking. It’s actually sinking. And I’m probably going to be drowned.

The fact I had a lifejacket on, the fact it could only sensibly have sunk about three feet at most, the fact that I could have stood on the cabin roof if it did without getting my sailing wellies wet, none of that came into my thoughts at all. The only thing that did was a primeval fear of drowning.

And of course, I didn’t drown. And nor did the boat actually sink, or not much more than it had, anyway. The boatyard owner told me to moor on the end of the jetty. When my voice was somewhere near a normal register I told him what was happening, so he told me to just point the boat at the bank and open the throttle. We’d sort it out later. Over there, between those two boats. I went for the gap, Fern softly stopped, we put some lines out fore and aft and that was pretty much that.

We got a big petrol-driven pump onboard and cleared her, then rigged a float so it would kick in if the water kept on coming in. From the streams of water visible under the cockpit floorboards that looked likely. I had to go to school so I couldn’t see Fern for about ten days after that. I ordered some caulking cotton and Stockholm tar but stopped short of buying proper caulking irons which was just as well, as Fern stopped leaking – sorry, taking-up – on the second day in her new berth, the yard told me. They’d checked. I’ve never caulked anything, then or since and never needed to.

I learned what a good boatyard I’d chosen, totally by accident, tucked away at the end of a forgotten creek in Suffolk. I learned that the tide goes out far and fast there too.

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