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.


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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