A delivery trip from the Solent to the Thames Estuary throws up a list of jobs for Dick Durham to tackle on the dream boat he has bought
Coasting home. A delivery trip from the Solent to the Thames throws up a list of jobs for Dick Durham to tackle on the dream boat he has finally bought
The only thing blacker than the night was the foreboding citadel of Horse Sand Fort which came up moated by the lapping Solent.
‘When we get round that lump, put her on 115°,’ I said to Glum, my crew who had groped my new boat, Betty II, a 25ft gaff cutter, out of Haslar Marina, Gosport, just 30 minutes beforehand. I peered eastward at the slowly lightening sky and willed on dawn – the navigation lights were precariously ‘mounted’ with bungee cord around the mast – and I was keen to unship them as soon as possible. I don’t like bungee cord at the best of times; like Blu Tack, it’s a patented solution for those whose DIY skills are wanting. I should know, I’m from their ranks.
As we curved around the masonry of the beetling fort’s circular side, Betty started to complete the diameter.
‘Where the hell are you going?’ I said as the boat headed back towards Portsmouth.
‘I’m steering round to your course,’ came Glum’s indignant reply.
I nipped below, pulled my handbearing compass from my kitbag and eyed it up towards the south-east. ‘That bloody compass is more than 50° out!’ With my handbearing compass, I found 115° and told Glum to steer for something, anything on the slowly delineating horizon.
As daylight chased away the shadows of perpendiculars, I looked at the ship’s compass sitting in a specially cut hole in the cabin bulkhead. It was to port of the engine, which squatted under a lid in the companionway. Then I recalled how the former owner, the well-known Old Gaffers’ Association sailor Ben Collins, was a dab hand at laptop nav. And although I’m a paper chart man, he’d even shown me how to get the best out of my own tablet which I carry, perversely, not so much as backup, but as a control over my pencil-and-divider scribblings. It suddenly occurred to me that he probably hadn’t looked at anything but his laptop – even the compass – since the engine, a recent addition, had been installed.
Glum unscrewed the compass from its billet in the cabin bulkhead and, emptying the contents, made a makeshift binnacle out of the teabag carton and gaffer-taped it on to the mainhatch. Bingo, the card swung into line with its handbearing sister. By now, a smart west-south-west breeze had come up with the light and we made short work of pulling the Boulder Buoy abreast, but I was a little miffed at realising how fast the flood was running… It had clearly been running for a while, and then I realised I’d forgotten to add an hour for BST. We had missed an hour’s fair tide. The Looe Channel was benign. Only the furrowed waters over the Boulder Bank gave us a hint of what it would be like in wind over tide conditions.
THE SPRING FLOOD
Betty II raced on, and I delighted at her turn of speed, her directional stability and her fondness for letting the helmsman leave the tiller: ‘Go and make a coffee,’ she seemed to say, ‘I’m alright for a spell.’
To starboard, we soon had the spires of the Rampion wind farm, still under construction, in view: a marooned forest which mocked the giant chimney of Shoreham’s gas-fired power station to port. Then all disappeared in fog.
Curiously, this did not prevent the wind rising, and I climbed up on to the deck to roll in some reefs. Impressed with the efficiency of the old brass roller reefing claw, I was soon back below for a check on the chart. It was then I heard a motorboat. I put the chart aside and listened intently, but the pitch did not change. Then it stopped. That was when I realised it was the automatic bilge pump. It was reassuring that Betty was telling me I’d reefed at the right time: the pressure on her keel-stepped mast was opening a seam somewhere: this pesky
I DELIGHTED AT THE BOAT’S FONDNESS FOR LETTING THE HELMSMAN LEAVE THE TILLER
leak had been candidly mentioned to me by the boat’s vendor. In fact, he had abandoned a thrash to the Isles of Scilly because of it, putting into Falmouth then returning home to Keyhaven, where I had picked the boat up.
Automatic bilge pumps are another thing I don’t like. Again they are a stopgap, an ad-hoc measure merely delaying the inevitable. This coming season, I vowed to get to the bottom of the mystery leak.
But for now, we hurtled on through fog until the brownstained white cliffs in which Newhaven nestles emerged through the mist. I could see the tide was almost done.
‘We’d have made Eastbourne if I’d got up an hour earlier,’ I said to Glum, ‘but at least we don’t have to lock in here at Newhaven.’
We opened up the port inside the giant western arm, which has protected the haven from the south-west since the time of paddle-steamer ferries, gybed over and shot in.
The following day, we rounded Beachy Head and espied a gaggle of ramblers in a conga-like line walking down the cliff edge. I was pleased for them that the wind was onshore.
Pleased for us too, as the breeze pushed us up to Dungeness in 4.5 hours. By the time we doubled that shingle peninsular, it was Force 6 and we had a following sea of 5ft breakers. Betty was surfing, dipping her bowsprit in the seas, and her low freeboard put us close to the hissing breakers.
Ben had cut away 3ft of aft deck to make the cockpit longer. As a popular figure on the Solent classic race circuit, he had freely admitted to me that he was a party animal who liked to entertain on board, but the boat’s openness unnerved me. Clearly it had unnerved Ben too, as when it came to sailing her across to Brittany, he had constructed a deal ‘lid’ to fit over the cockpit complete with a coaming attached with wing nuts. I’m afraid I left the contraption in a skip at Gosport as I felt that one good sea would wash it overboard.
Fortunately, her buoyant sections never saw any water come aboard, but reinstating the aft deck was now another thing on my list. Once round Dungeness, the seas eased and the spring flood kept up its good work surging us towards Dover, the western entrance of which we reached at dusk just as the wind was increasing further.
After receiving permission from Dover Harbour Control, we luffed round the sea-buffeted stone pier, a welter of backwash sweeping the boat’s decks, dropped the gaff mainsail, rolled away the jib and motored our way gratefully into Granville Dock.
That night, we dined at the Royal Cinque Ports Yacht Club, a glorious old establishment from another century which sports a reminder of Britain’s proximity to hostile intent in the form of a chart of Dover Harbour published by Germany’s Kriegsmarine. This historic document is hung, with bulldog phlegmatism, in the gents!
That night and all the next day, the first gale of the winter howled through the masts of Dover’s yachts, driving horizontal rain into the white cliffs hanging over us.
The fuss was all over in 24 hours and we departed Dover through the eastern entrance, keeping to the north of the ferry channel as advised by the voice of harbour control and rounding the South Foreland in autumn sunshine under full sail.
Betty II soared up the Downs in flat, sheltered water, the houses of Deal staring at us from the beach, and I set a course for the B2 buoy which takes you inside the Brake Sand for the Ramsgate Channel.
On and on we went, but the buoy I could not see. I trained the binoculars to the north, expecting to see the friendly little conical standing up against the nether regions of Ramsgate. But to no avail. ‘What’s that?’ said Glum pointing west. ‘That’s the buoy, they must have moved it.’ We now had to harden up, but only just managed to get to it without a tack. ‘So is the chart out of date?’ asked Glum innocently. Yes, it was, as we later discovered… But if I’d been using the tablet…!
Ramsgate was empty and forlorn, the pontoons rocking gently on the swell, colonised by huge gulls, which had marked out their territory with communal evacuation of their remarkable digestive tracts.
‘It’s the biggest pub in the UK,’ said the barmaid at the Royal Temple Yacht Club about the recently opened Royal Victoria Pavilion, and so we felt obliged to trudge through the night time streets to the doors of this former edifice of Victorian, and Edwardian seaside distraction.
It is now a magnificent addition to the town: the ale is real, the heartiness provided by excellent food, a place so lovingly and sumptuously restored that even those in mastic-fouled tracksuits are bathed in reflected glory so that they appear as though they are passengers on a great Cunard liner.
We flew up to the North Foreland the following morning with a fresh south-west wind over Betty’s port quarter, but as we rounded the cape into the Thames, we came hard on the wind and had to reef right down, furl the staysail completely and part furl the jib. However, even with the jib rolled away to half its capacity, it was still set too high, so leaving the helm with Glum, I went forward to change it for a small storm jib.
On a narrow foredeck, the furling line was spinning off the Wykeham Martin furler, shackle pins were dropping overboard, the pliers were sliding down to leeward, waves were slopping over me and the bowsprit was slapping the sea – it was a tedious job. When finally I pulled the infernal WM roller back out along the bowsprit, the storm jib unfurled before I had planned: it leapt and jumped like a phantom in chains, whipping the bowsprit like a fishing rod and what’s more, snatching the outhaul off the sheave on the bowsprit end jamming it solidly between sheave and spar before I had managed to get the tack out to the bitter end.
So with a poorly set storm jib just halfway along the bowsprit and the heavily reefed mainsail now so low as to be rubbing on the sprayhood, we crabbed miserably along the north Kent coast, the weather-going tide providing watery hurdles for Betty to jump, staggering her progress until dusk saw us enter the Swale.
It was dark by the time we moored up alongside a Dutch barge at Hollowshore, but we’d saved our tide: it was not quite high water. We negotiated the props of the laid-up boats at Tester’s yard and entered the warmth and calm of the Shipwright’s Arms where the governor apologised that there was no food. All the pasties which his chef made fresh each day had gone, he said, but later, as we sat windblown and dripping over packets of peanuts, he announced he’d ‘found’ two pasties in the fridge. ‘They’re all the way from Cornwall,’ he added. Too hungry to care about the anomaly of homemade pasties coming from Bodmin, or the fact that they were £6.99 each, we fell upon the fare.
In wan sunshine, we sailed through the Swale next day and by nightfall, Betty II was back home, slowly falling over with the retreating ebb tide on the mudflats at Leigh-on-sea.
BY NIGHTFALL, BETTY II WAS ON THE MUDFLATS AT LEIGH-ON-SEA
Below, Betty II shows what she’s got while we get a feel for the old boat
Above, Small and perfectly formed
Betty II heads out of Portsmouth harbour
Above: Home at last on the mud at Leigh