I quite often of a darkening eve or midwinter’s Sunday, fire up a marine charts web page and do some virtual cruising. Where I have been, where I would like to go, where others posted pictures from, places of my family folklore. Often this is with a slight yearning, a nostalgia or a frustration that I can’t just pop over to the Auld Country and God’s Own Waters.
However last night I did some peeking at places with the outset of looking for what we had hit the keel on, or could have nearly hit, and how much trust we placed in our or the owner’s navigation to get us safely to our destinations. I suddenly felt incredibly priviledged to have been on these passages and races, and that they fade a little into more distant memory no longer makes my heart yearn, instead I bathe in the experiences and the wisdom they have given me for sailing and life in general.
There was the time we were dismasted on ‘Animula’ when an entire carbon rig and kevlar main booked into Davy Jones’ Locker after we cut it free. Now there was one theory that the boat had lain on an outside berth and having full width spreaders, another boat had knocked a spreader – which is one explanation. However I suddenly remembered what had happened before on the Scottish Series back in about 2001/3 some time. We had been going down I am pretty sure it was Little Cumbrae, sneaking the tide as the wind was light. There are cliffs along the coastline on the isle, but I suddenly remembered that we shouldnt really be in that far because it wasnt as clean as it looked on the charts. I got poo/pooed by some very experienced sailors, and backed down, but within half a minute, BUMP, the keel hit a rock and we rode over it or slid off it. Familiarity does indeed breed contempt and the boat probably drew 2.5 m, half a meter more than the fellas were used to.
We had an amazing nights’ sail after this though, rounding a bouy south of Ayr or as far as Girvan, to then Return to Irvine bay harbour mark IIRC, before heading over to the mouth of ‘Fyne. It was a minor bump and we sailed with abandon a moon rising in the north east, glimmering through the laminate foresail and bathing us in its harvest cream light. To make the sail more remarkable, the wind had turned 180’, and having run at least a day or two from the SW, left a following sea while we were on the beat. Duncan the owner handed me the helm and i had an hour or so surfing the odd wave and nursing the boat to a steady course north. It was one of the most awe inspiring of all passages
Early the next morning though the stick suddenly fell over, one second it was there behind us sitting on the rail, the next it was in the drink fishing for sand eels! I could propose that the bump had sent a nasty shock up the mast, because it was stepped on the hog, the top of the keel area, and it had been converted from deck stepped, IIRC. Small things leading to a catastrophe, perhaps a little knock to the spreader, this bump and then finally the carbon decided to splinter!
What to learn from that? Well the helm and owner have the ultimate responsibility and if you are in doubt, there is no room for democracy and letting a loutish rogues council shout down they whom dare question the wiseness of going so shallow in this case. It should be a direct communication to the dictator on board! Maybe a whisper! Also don’t always believe the chart, and read contour lines with a degree of scepticism unless you know someone has sailed there before. Are circumstances different? Is the draught-deeper or high pressure been dominant? Do we have a transit for safe water, or an idea of boat lengths out to steer?
I have had some hairy times. That rather hard to see light for Irvine harbour is only visible the times I have seen it when you are right close to it, must be a perch for gauno filled cormorants. Against the industry lights of Irvine it is pretty much impossible to see from the western water. That reminded me then of sailind the overnight another time when we had Hamilton channel marker at Lamlash as the first mark of the course for the Scottish Series overnight, when men were men!
My pal Dave was navigating, and we had the kite up on a reach, pretty shy at times, but we held the rhum line all the way past the tip of Bute to Lamlash bay. Or so he thought we did. In fact the tide was setting us down a little perhaps, or he had not properly corrected for deviation, or there was an ICE – individual compass error- of 4 degrees or so. In any case having eaten a warm meal we were hiked out and had the shock of seeing a dirty great bank of seawead, glistening in the moonlight at around midnight, sweep past us within a boat length,. This was Hamilton ledge, what the port channel marker is keeping shipping well clear of! I took to my bunk as the wind fell and we couldnt find that damnable light at Irvine.
We ended up sailing half way to Girvan before they came back, and as I awoke or was called upon to rise, there we were in broad daylight rounding the damn thing. We took off North towards Ardrossan, and there was one of those Jeaneau things from the late 80s with the wrap round cabin windows, marooned on one of the shelves on the rocks there. I think it may have been ‘Looney Tunes’ but could be wrong, same type of boat. Being so behind the fleet from the mistake, we decided some redress from helping other mariners was called for. We helped them heel the boat by taking their main halyard , I think we maybe suceeded, don’t quite recall, or there perhaps was also a motor boat or inshore RNLI turned up. Anyway we got 20 minutes on a three hour later night to be frank it was just a spot of fun and helping fellow losers out!
That then lead me to think….of seeing Ken Grant with his older 35 footer, high and dry on the north bank at Easdale. Here there must have been another ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ because he and his crew knew that sound well! But they had managed I think to get the wrong side of the bank, you take them opposites northward at high water if I remember right, but both to port in less water. Well they slid onto it somehow after a round Shuna party, on a falling tide and werent coming off until evening. There were no replies to our hails as we sailed back to Ballachulish ourselves.
All that got me thinking of what we could have hit all those times, and how good you have to be if you want to dare to sail some sounds or through rocky areas. Last week’s sail in the wee classic boat actually was not without familiarity-breeds-contempt, because the drying shelf is not the only hazard there! There are submersed rocks in the short cut I took beyond it, but I think we are about 1.4m on the run, so with above datum level, we saw nothing and hit nothing. Ooh, I should plan next time! On the sandy east coast of England, boats quite often plan to bump over the bottom as they tack on a beat! It has happened to me a few times, but I am glad to say, beacuase I err on the side of caution, never with me on the helm. But they do say there are two types of sailors in Oban – those who have been on the Skratt, and those who are going to go on it.
What wonderful, beautiful experiences I have had, and to anyone thinking this is some kind of excursion for the rich, I have not owned a keel boat, I have had a racing dinghy, but I have crewed for other folk. I did grow up with a cautious father who was an expert and cautious yachtsman, but learned more from being thrown down with the charts when a skipper became sea sick than I did from him, his untimely departure coming when I was but a boy!
Those sails which stand out most have been passage races in fact. It is rather easy to forget round the cans regattas and even confuse as to which event or race the notable incidents or even race wins happened. But passage sailing either as a race or crusing and of course delivering to and from races, are what seem to stick in my mind and probably many other folk’s too.
From my first overnight to Swine’s hole with dad, our passage to Crinan on Kieta, my delivery with David Eglington to the Faerder Seilas’ events in 2007 and 2008, it is these which I remember most as contingent, robust kind of memories. I think this is because there is a spirit of adventure in all of these, the very sense that land looks different from the sea and more over, changes with the weather and seasons. There is a tranquility and a quality of the light, and just been plain horizontally level all the time which seems to help burn these memories in. Like migrating birds, we pass the landmarks too, some well kent, others we have awaited with anticipation from our chart work and pass with some relief upon their successful recognitiona nd negotiation.
Also I am reminded that there are a few key, vital years when you have the money for a boat, you have the family interested, you can maybe get young able bodies seamen to race with and you have the stregnth and agility to get the most out of your sailing. After that it is all just memories and more gentle sailing perhaps lamenting the family having moved away, or crew having become parents themselves.So savour those years, plan for them as a boat can be more affordable than you think, or get crewing with someone having done say, your competent crew award at an RYA centre. The water will always be there, but your time here is but short. And full of sailing I hope.