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.
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.
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.