Slash and burn

One year you’ll keep buying gadgets, new stuff to make sailing better, or at least more expensive. This year I’ve bought hardly anything. The secret to true sailing happiness has been keeping it simple, with the three things I can’t be without on a boat, or at least, the three things I miss most when I haven’t got them.

A lighter. Sourced from the pound shop at five for £1, any old lighter will do, especially since I haven’t had my brass Zippo since three decades ago when some Norf Lahndahn tyke decided to put my car window in as he needed a light. He also put fifteen other car windows in in that street, that night. Nobody was ever arrested. Hey ho and lackaday, but you’ll need a lighter to seal rope ends, which I’ve obsessed about before.

Marlow tape. It could be any kind really, and Gaffa tape will do in a pinch, but putting this over a rope or line where you want to cut it makes a world of difference if you do it FIRST, not after you’ve cut it.

The knife. OK, I do get a bit obsessive about sailing knives, mainly because I’ve wanted a Myerchin since I first saw one twenty years ago. But. This one is my current favourite. It’s a Wichard, it’s stainless steel, it has just the one semi-serrated blade for when you can’t be arsed to sharpen it and a shackle key cum bottle opener which doesn’t need sharpening. Wichards are French and it shows in the particular shade of bleu for the handle and something about the simplicity of the design. I like it anyway, not least as I got it covered in oil and toolbox grime for £2 at a boot sale. White spirit on kitchen towel sorted that out. The fey little Occitan touch about the prayer bead/retainer wrist-loop was all my own.

They’re simple things but they make a huge difference, especially when an old line needs replacing or you suddenly think ‘mmmm, maybe if I just shortened this, or ran this line over here but it’s too long… oh, wait….’

You can bodge it. You can even get away with not having the knife and the tape if you’ve got a lighter, some time and a place out of the wind. But this unholy trinity makes life and working with lines a lot easier.

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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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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 two 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.

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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First coat

I don’t think I’m very good with painting. Not galleries; I’m fine wandering around a gallery, Covid-allowing. One of the first things I’m doing when I’m allowed to is going to Eastbourne, to see the wondrous Eric Ravilious exhibition at the Towner Gallery. I missed it when it was in Dulwich because the queue was so long, six years back and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. There are some of his paintings at the Imperial War Museum and pathetically, just one at the British Museum, and an atypical one at that.

Aldeburgh, by Eric Ravilious. The bathing machines have gone.

Today was boat paint day, the first time it’s been warm enough or dry enough to even attempt to make the Drascombe look decent. The thing that happens with boat painting has happened: it looks ten times worse than it did when I started. They always do.

I got the first coat on. It’s run. It’s blotchy. I can’t get another coat of paint on today without dragging paint off that I’ve already put on. I couldn’t see the bits I’d missed until I’d put all the paint away because I thought it was going to rain, which it hasn’t yet but look as if it’s going to a lot tonight.

I’m not really worried about the paint coming off in the rain, because it’s boat paint, obviously. It’s not just that it’s supposed to resist water, but more the fact that a lot of boat people paint their boats on a slipway at low tide. There are two tides every day, 12 hours apart. That means paint would have to dry enough to stay on in about three to four hours. So that’ll be ok.

It’s just it looks terrible. It’ll be ok. It’ll certainly be ok by the time I’m allowed to go to the boatyard again, which looks like 12th April, just over a month away. But I mean, just look it it now.

White over black anti-foul. The way boats should be.

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Glossing over it

I’ve talked about it before, but it’s time to open the can again. Tonkinoise oil.

Just so you know, I hate yacht varnish. Oh, for all sorts of reasons. It being rubbish, for example. For a start, it flakes off. It gets water underneath it and makes a lighter-coloured bubble. Which will flake off. It gets degraded by the sun, as who doesn’t? But when yacht varnish is broken down by age, what happens is…. oh. You guessed it. It flakes off.

What usually happens of course is that only some of it flakes off. Then you have to get the sander out and discover, in the course of things, that what you’d happily thought was wood is in fact plywood. And you’ve just gouged stripes in it of the kind the Beast of Bodmin would have been pretty proud of. Or Black Shuck, in these parts.

So Tonkinoise. The French Navy used to use it. One coat just makes the wood underneath look deep and rich and luscious. Five coats makes them shine like a Kennedy’s yacht at Hyannis. You don’t have to de-grease the wood, the way you have to with yacht varnish, otherwise…… Got it yet? It’ll flake off.

The bumpkin on the Drascombe I got just before Christmas looked a bit tired, so I sanded it down a few weeks ago, because, practising to be an imaginary parent, it wasn’t going out looking like that, whether its friends do or not. The bumpkin, or bookin, or bumpkin, depending on your tastes for those unlucky enough not to have a Drascombe Lugger, is the thin stick that pokes out the back as we salty sailor boys call it. It keeps the sail on the mizzen mast out, since you ask. And it was looking old and tired. Just sanding it made it look better.

Not remotely flakey

One of the biggest deals about Tonkinoise is it soak into the wood instead of making a layer on top of it, which means it can’t flake off. And I don’t understand why most boat people in the UK have never even heard of it.

This is just one thin coat of it. You can see the difference immediately. I like it shiny, but if you want a hard-working matte finish juts add some white spirit. That’s the only thing to watch out for – if you’ve just cleaned your brush with white spirit it’s not going to go on shiny.

But there’s another difference too, a big one. It’s made of crushed nuts or something similar, not something stewed up in a chemical factory. It’s environmentally friendly. When the oil wells go dry there will still be Tonkinoise.

And best of all, it doesn’t do weird things to your head when you’re working with it.

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Hopefully useless

What you’re not supposed to do…

The best thing that can happen with any emergency equipment is that it turns out to be a total waste of money. Not because it doesn’t work, but because hopefully you’ll never need it. I’ve always been addicted to the stuff, especially for sailing. I’ve looked longingly at emergency nylon mesh cradles for getting people back on board. You need, you really NEED these if someone goes over the side in the North Sea because as you know from your extensive internet research, the Luftwaffe found more of their pilots survived after a ducking when they were recovered horizontally than if they were dragged out of the water the way you’d do it in a hurry – head up, feet down, along with all their blood, hence the heart attack seconds after they were supposed to be safe onboard. I still haven’t got one of those.

One of the first things I did get however, was a Bell throw-line. That was twenty years ago and it’s been used precisely five times, every one of them in practice. Essentially it’s like a plastic stick grenade except the inside has a coiled line inside instead of explosive, which makes it more acceptable at most yacht clubs. Probably even at Sydney Harbour. The idea is you can throw it further and more accurately than throwing a coil of line, especially into the wind.

But that was then. This year I went slightly higher tech. One of the things that I had instilled into me by my old clients Inmarsat was that mobile phones don’t work offshore. Now, the fact that I don’t go offshore, or in fact out of the treacherous upper reaches of the Deben last year, isn’t the point. I did get marooned, cast-up on an inhospitable shore at the mercy of the elements. It had been a bit of a day.

First, I was late getting out onto the boat. It’s an old, (very) Folkboat, which means it needs 1.3 metres of water underneath it (four foot nine in Brexit money) before you’re going anywhere. In the Deben, this limits your sailing to four hours maximum, or it does from where I’m moored at Martlesham. Still, I thought I had time for a little sail anyway.

I was single-handed, so I motored out to the main channel with the main sail slack and flapping about, then tightened it all up to head downstream. The tide was going out. I just hadn’t appreciated how fast. Off Waldringfield, where you have to stick to the west side of the river, it’s very fast. Too fast to tack through and turn around, but I didn’t know that until I tried.

The plan was put the engine on, tack round, get the main down and motor back while there was still some water. The engine always starts on my boat, so long as the battery is charged. If it turns over, it runs. The only flaw in this plan was that it takes about two minutes to do it. You have to make sure it’s in neutral, kneel down, unlatch the hatch, pull it up, latch it up so it doesn’t fall on your head. I hate things hitting my head. Really hate it.

Next you pull the valve lever up, hold it up while you push the starter button then release the lever, unlatch the hatch, close it and latch it down again. Obviously you can’t steer or do anything else while you’re doing all this. Nor see where you’re going.

Where I was going, or where the five knot current was taking me, wasn’t through the anchorage, it turned out, but into the mooring line of an anchored-up Essex gin palace about five times bigger than my boat. The first time I was really aware of its existence was when I got its bow-sprit in my ear. No matter. We can just push off and drift down with the current. Except we can’t, because the gin palace’s anchor warp (oh, alright, rope then…) was happily wedged between my rudder and the stern of my boat. Because I hadn’t put the bottom rudder plate back on when I replaced the rudder. Because I hadn’t, that’s all.

The Harbour Master came out in a dinghy before I actualised my plan to cut the gin palace’s mooring loose. He tried to pull my boat clear but it wasn’t having any of it until he went back and came out with a boat with a bigger engine. I started-up again, free of the big plastic boat and departed with a cheery wave with which apparently they’re unfamiliar in the nautical parts of Essex.

I hammered back up the Deben to where the creek reaches West to Martlesham and home. And stupidly cut the corner. And stupidly came to a halt, stuck in the mud. I put it in reverse and shifted a little bit backwards. Just enough for my fibreglass dinghy to keep coming forward and drop its tow line around my propellor, which it wound around until the dinghy was dragged under and into the prop. Which happily started chewing it up until it turned over. I reached for my old sailing knife then, convinced idiotically that the dinghy would pull the yacht down with it.

The knife worked very well indeed, I’m pleased to say. The dinghy sank under the Folkboat, in all of by now three feet of water. With the tide running out the Folkboat settled over the dinghy. And cracked it in half as four tons of wood and lead keel did what Mrs Shearn’s Physics O Level lessons predicted it would.

Just static

I thought the best thing to do would be to phone Devoted Partner, except my phone was on the driver’s seat of my car. I had a handheld VHF radio though (obviously…) so I put out a PAN call. No answer. Nothing. I tried to call-up the Coastguard by name, but still nothing. Just static. I was close enough to the river bank, about thirty metres, to shout to a walker. Could he call Devoted Partner whose number was luckily in my notebook which I did have with me, so she’d know I wasn’t lost at sea, just going to be quite late. Like ten hours late, by the time the tide had come back again and floated me off this mudbank.

He did. I didn’t know what was happening now, because he’d walked away on his walk. It was August, but I had some water onboard and some old biscuits in a tin. No Swallows And Amazons pemmican, but you can’t have everything. My biggest concern, apart from no dinghy any more, was I didn’t have a book nor even Radio4, and although we were aground, you can’t walk on Deben mud. You’d drown, very unpleasantly. All I had to do was sit there.

I set an anchor fore and aft, then busied myself recovering one of them and throwing it out as far as I could towards the bank to stop the boat falling over down the slope of the river bank in case it didn’t float when the water came back, just filled up and sank. By now the idea of a final insurance claim seemed quite attractive.

About an hour went by. The boat wasn’t going to fall over. It was warm enough. Just a bit boring. But that all changed when the flourescent jackets turned up on the bank. They obviously, from all the pointing going on, wanted to talk to me, all eight of them, but they were at Kyson’s Point, about 100 metres away and I couldn’t hear them. They got someone to get a rowing boat out of his boathouse and row them out to me. It was the Coastguard Mud Rescue Team.

I pointed out, through our Covid masks, that I had no intention of going in the mud, so I didn’t really need rescuing. They said they had concerns about my emotional health. I didn’t really know what to say about that. There were too many of them in the rowing boat to take me off, so the man whose boat it was rowed them back to the bank, dropped two of them off then had to row back for me. He just lived there. Amazingly, the Coastguard Mud Rescue team doesn’t have a dinghy.

As we walked back to my car and my phone I found out what had happened. The walker had phoned Devoted Partner who being a brick dutifully called the boatyard. Who told her they couldn’t do anything because their boat needed water as well as mine did, and why didn’t she phone the Coastguard? They were joking, but being a very nice, caring woman as well as Devoted Partner and a brick, that’s exactly what she did.

I went home, thanked her and drove back the next day. The boatyard gave me a lift down in their work tug. The Folkboat was fine, floating at anchor. My fibreglass dinghy wasn’t. We managed, somehow, to tow it back the mile up Martlesham Creek but by the time we got to my mooring it was pretty much in two halves. I bought a brand new, much nicer inflatable dinghy the next week, long overdue, but that isn’t the point of this tale.

Attention Seeking

I felt I needed a reliable way of attracting attention in future, preferably without my mental health being called into question. The Coastguard said their transmitter was out, hence no reply. Traditionally, you use flares. Not the velvet ones they used to advertise in New Musical Express, but the pyrotechnic kind, either quite exciting parachute flares, which shoot up into the sky and shine a red light for about 10 seconds, or handheld red flares which are great for blinding you, incinerating your hand and setting fire to your boat. They don’t burn for very long and they have a shelf-life. The end of that is when your problems really start, because it’s completely unclear to me where you can get rid of them safely. You used to drop them off at the Coastguard shed, but that’s stopped years ago.

Groovy flares, man.

But this thing solves both those problems. It’s battery powered. One twist of the switch and it burns not for ten seconds or so, but for 60 hours. Even groovier, it doesn’t use flash, it flashes S-O-S! How cool is that? It never goes out of date. It won’t burn your hand, your boat or your eyeballs out, although if you actually are stupid enough to look directly at it in the yard when you’re testing it one dark night as I obviously am, expect to still see its short-short-short-long-long-long-short-short-short ghost image burned on your retinae for the next ten minutes or so.

Even better, because good kit is never cheap, I got this one from someone who bought it last year and never used it, so half price. Like all the other safety kit I’ve ever bought, I hope it’ll turn out to be a total waste of money.

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Parrall lines

Pretty much all I need.

Boats give you a wonderful opportunity to spend money you didn’t know you had spare. Usually. The oddest thing about the Drascombe Lugger I bought myself last year is (whisper who dares..) it doesn’t really need anything bought for it.

My thoughtful partner insisted on giving me a 4hp Honda outboard for Christmas, whether to avoid rowing or to make sure I spent rather a lot more on her Christmas present than perhaps I’d originally planned, so that expense wasn’t an option. Some rowlocks came from the local Facebook marketplace thing, so that was £1 left on a doorstep.

We got new lifejackets last August and amazing strobe personal lights at a boat jumble just before the first lockdown – every time we go to that it’s absolutely freezing but worth it to pick up Jotun strobes for £10 when the first time I’d bought them 12 years ago they were nearer £50. Like any emergency gear, the best you can hope for is that they’ll prove a total waste of money by never having to use them.

So I was a bit stuck for something to spend money on. Luckily I looked at the parrall. In case you’ve never heard of one (in which case you don’t have a Drascombe) it’s a bit of string with some beads on. Not for your neck. To go around the yard and the mast. It’s not supposed to fix it tight, just to keep it roughly there. And the one that came with my boat was manky.

We have Webb Brothers, a very, very good odds and in this case ends shop in Church Street in Woodbridge, where outside lockdown they sell odd ends of rope in hanks in a basket outside, the way they do in films. That’s where I bought the white line in the picture. The first idea was a new, shiny parrall, but then I thought that might come in handy round the top of the mast, with some epoxy resin on it too, in case it ever looks like splitting. Or just because it looks right. The little metal clips were from EBay, to put a high-tech quick-release on the parrall. As one does.

The red and green line was just too tempting to leave in the basket. On the Drascombe Lugger the main sheet runs through a block on a traveller bar. The block has a habit of smacking into the gunwale, because there’s nothing to stop it. It makes a noise and it’s just not right, so I thought a metre or so of line wrapped around the traveller, green for starboard, port for left (the handy way to remember being either that’s the way you pass the port, or less yah, port and left have the same number of letters. I meant one passes the port, obvs.).

Well under £10 for all of it. As conspicuous consumption goes it’s not very good, is it?

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Starting in neutral

Before and after sanding.
Before and after sanding.

I had two interviews today and got the one I wanted, by Skype, while I made muffins and soup. Verily a man for all seasons. The result is that next Tuesday will see a big change in my life, doing something I’ve thought about doing for two years, admired people who’ve done it for about ten times that and never heard a bad thing about doing it, apart from the wages and that seems to depend a lot on where you are and how you do it.

It’s an odd time of year. It looks sunny and warm but while it definitely is sunny most of the time and the smell of Spring is on the wind, it isn’t really warm out, or at least I’m not. It’s the time of year when everything seems to be starting but at the same time some things are coming to an end. I’ve been trying to write about the end of the war in a village in Germany in 1945 for two years now and this time of year always makes me think of how people still, with what we now know to be less than two weeks of this terrible war left, lots of people still had no idea when it would end, or if they would be around to see it. This time last year I walked through a little forest to Aldeburgh with a friend’s dogs for the first time ever. I’d never found the path before. I doubt I will walk that way again now. Things change.

Except on the water. I went down to the boatyard to think, to sit on my lovely wooden Folkboat. Time seems to stop there. It always has for me, as soon as I get on a boat. I don’t know why it is. It isn’t as if it’s even in the water yet because although it’s now ready to go back in the yard crane has started slipping so badly that nobody wants to use it and I don’t want two and a half tons of my hard work falling off a crane. Apart from destroying the boat it might well destroy me if it did. You wouldn’t be getting up in a hurry, certainly.

Apparently it's an anode.  Probably. It does magic stuff.
Apparently it’s an anode. Probably. It does magic stuff.

I made do with putting the lovely chrome safety rails up, the ones that look great but actually pitched an inch below your kneecap are just high enough to turn a stumble into an Olympic-style double back-flip into the North Sea. But they do look good. Some people have said that counts for too much in my estimation.

I thought as I ate some bread and cheese cut with the same kind of knife sailors used on the Mary Rose, a simple, unserrated, wooden handled blade that just does pretty much everything onboard. Chiefly I thought I’d go for a walk and not paint the coachroof outside, because it looked as if it was going to rain. Naturally, it didn’t, but that can wait for another day.

I thought I’d have a look at the electrics and see if the engine would start. I connected up the battery I’d charged up two weeks ago with no great hopes. There was a red switch in the engine compartment and a green lever on a pipe at the bottom of the engine. There was oil in the sump when I pulled the dipstick to check, so I turned the key. Two quick turns of the engine and it started, quiet and without missing a beat. The bilge pump kicked in and water started pumping out of the boat, just the way it should. The only slight snag was that the engine was going to blow up within the foreseeable future for two reasons I knew and could see immediately. Engines on boats are cooled by water. Boats float in water, so they pump that up and circulate it round and the heat is exchanged into the water and the water is pumped out and everything is lovely. If the boat is in the water. But all I’d wanted to do was see if it started and while I didn’t really think it would it had, beautifully.

It wasn’t the onlhy snag though. The other snag was that I couldn’t turn it off. I turned the key but that didn’t do anything. I turned the red key but it came off, as it was supposed to do and it had the same effect as removing the leads from the battery which I did next, namely nothing at all because it was a diesel and you only need the battery to start it anyway. And apart from that, I didn’t know how to switch off the engine. I turned the lever on the line that I presumed was a fuel line, but there seemed to be loads left in the injectors and north of the fuel valve, if that’s what it was.

I went down the ladder without falling off it this week after nearly busting some ribs the last time I came to the boat and found a friend who luckily knew that there was a little lever to pull. It probably vents the cylinder is my guess, so there’s no compression. Whether or not, the engine stopped at once, before it overheated and siezed.

So I have an almost fully-painted boat with an engine that sounds 100% and starts. All the electrics worked onboard too, with all three cabin lights coming on including the awful ugly flourescent that is coming out when I get around to it. The thing that doesn’t work is the depth guage, which is important here where you can run into 10cm of water a mile out to sea which will do you no good at all.

It isn't warm yet. It's just beautiful instead.
It isn’t warm yet. It’s just beautiful instead.

I removed the corroded thing that had three wires running into the top and a black wire running into the bottom of it and showed it to a man at the engineering shop on the quay on my way back to the car. After the young Irish guy with a van who had sold him a set of knives (“best knoives in tha world sor,’ he said, ‘Swedish steel. But they’re made in China..”) then tried to sell me a generator I don’t have any use for whatsoever, he told me it was an anode. It’s supposed to dissolve. And there are no electronics in it. It does something to the electric field that might corrode and dissolve the copper nails in the boat maybe possibly, so screw it back on and connect all four wires back onto it. Then the depth guage readout might work.

And it might not, but it’s worth a try. And a better day than yesterday.

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Sometimes it hurts

I cycled to Beccles to get some Tonkinoise, a special varnish I like to use on exposed wood on boats because of what it doesn’t do. Chiefly, it doesn’t bubble up if water gets under it and the UV rays from the sun don’t flake it off. Why everyone doesn’t use it I don’t know, but they don’t and I do. I cycled because I needed the exercise, but as often happens around here, the roads don’t go quite where you think they might. The main road does, but I want to cycle on the A12 the way I want to be fourteen again; I don’t.

The way it was.
The way it was.

Without going into too much detail it was without doubt the most rubbish Saturday night I’ve had in at least a year, which was fitting as it was the anniversary of something that doesn’t matter. Still upset on Sunday I messaged a friend who’d just posted the most smokingly sultry picture I have ever seen of her on Facebook. I thought she showed great restraint when she simply typed that her husband could see her screen. Fittingly, after what seemed like weeks of sun, Sunday was a cold, cheerless day.

But the sun was back this morning, along with some surprise visitors and after they’d gone I and I’d done some stuff to try to earn a living I went to almost finish off the boat and put the varnish on. I’d bought a litre, no more, not least as that was over £40 on its own. It was just about enough to do everything I wanted to do and a bit spare. The rails, the toe-rail, the cockpit, the seats, the deck even is now drying out. The deck drank the Tonkinoise up as if it hadn’t been oiled since the boat was built in 1992; I think it probably hadn’t. I had to thin the liquid out with white spirit to get it to flow before the deck timbers just drank it up in one go. And then I fell off the ladder.

If I'd been using this ladder it wouldn't have happened.
If I’d been using this ladder it wouldn’t have happened.

Predictably, I was at deck level, so it was about eight feet to the ground. One unexpected benefit of these past five or so weeks of stretching and climbing and reaching is that I’m much stronger than I was before, so when I grabbed for the rail I’d just painted my arms held and I didn’t fall far. I slammed into the side of the boat instead, as well as the wooden ladder. I scraped a lot of skin off my right ribs and my left arm but I didn’t end-up on paralysed at the bottom of a ladder between two boats in an empty yard. Didn’t even swear. There isn’t really much point.

To cap the day off I’ve just walked into a cold shower thinking it was going to be hot and as I live on my own there isn’t anyone to make me a cup of tea and tell me it’ll be alright. Actually, that’s not true. As a Facebook message said, my friends love me, despite the fact that I ache everywhere above the waist from the fall. But sometimes, when you put some effort into something, it looks good in the end.

Once it's all dry it's going to look great.
Once it’s all dry it’s going to look great.

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On the slips


After another six hours, there’s another coat of white above the waterline. Of all of it, painting the stern and rudder was the hardest part, not because it was particularly big but because the ground slopes away under the boat there on its trailer and there is what I think is called a negative sheer. At least, the line of the stern is at a fairly steep angle up and out from the waterline, giving less hull in the water and more overhang above it. In theory you get less drag and more boat. In practice it’s a pain to paint it left handed hanging on a rope with one foot in a tree and the other on the boat trailer.



But it’s done and I have to say it looks good. It really does. I gave up on the Mickey Mouse hanging off a rope nonsense and went and got my proper folding ladder, hooked that over the rudder and tied it off so it definitely wasn’t going anywhere. That worked brilliantly. This is what I like best about boats, I think, aside from the now suddenly stunning beauty of this one that’s even getting compliments from the guy who runs the yard.


“Beautiful. Black and white. That’s what I would have done.”

Keep it simple. It doesn’t need flash. It does need a cooker though. That and getting it in the water is the next project.

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