Homecoming of a heroine
After a 15-year restoration, Peter Draper takes his 90-year-old St Ives gig on a West Country pilgrimage to the beach where she was built
A restored Dunkirk Little Ship returns to the beach where she was built
What a feeling when those hours spent dreaming finally come to an end and that summer cruise becomes a reality! Caronia, my 40ft St Ives gig, turned 90 last year, and undertook a voyage many modern vessels would envy.
I’d bought her as a floating liveaboard boat and restored her over 15 years. In recognition of this work, she was awarded the great honour of becoming the National Historic Flagship (NHS) for the Solent and South region. As part of her duties, she would take part in maritime festivals along the South Coast. It was also an opportunity to take her back to Tolcarne beach in Cornwall, where her keel was first laid nine decades ago.
A well-restored and overhauled vessel is no less seaworthy than one a fraction of its age. After repairing the hull and decks, stepping the mast, rewiring, re-engining and fitting fuel tanks, there is no doubt that Caronia was my own. I knew what was under the cabin sole and behind the cabinets and had confidence in my work.
So I was actually ready, I had even selected a small plastic pot into which I intended gathering my little piece of the Newquay beach.
The first leg was from Chichester to the Yarmouth Old Gaffers, where we were to be awarded the NHS broad pennant. The run out through the Solent was by far one of the most pleasant days I have ever had at sea. My tide calculations were spot on and I arrived in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight without incident.
The Old Gaffers festival was fantastic. The town was full of stalls and crowds enjoying the sunshine, and the prizegiving at the yacht club was an emotional event, which required a considerable amount of liquid stores!
With the first event under my belt and the first miles west logged I started planning the next passage. Unfortunately, after the brilliant sunshine came the inevitable wind and rain. My home port is the beautiful and classic setting of Birdham Pool, Chichester, part of the Trans Europe marina partnership. So I headed into the Hamble to find one of the half price moorings this network allows.
The passage is one of the most picturesque but the Hamble is not without hazards. There are hundreds of vessels moored mid-river and all along its shores and several marinas. Very near the top of the reach was my chosen marina where access can be tricky if you don’t have your wits about you.
Despite all my preparations for a single-handed arrival, I made two mistakes: I left it too late to sort out ropes and fenders and I relied on the chartplotter to guide me onto my allocated berth. A moment of confusion could so easily have gone wrong as I manoeuvred into pontoon D odds instead of evens. There was no free berth to nose on to and I had to turn round in limited space with the tide running in strongly.
I was tired after the festival weekend and the rough passage from Yarmouth and made a mental note in future to allow more lay-in time after a party.
While in harbour I got on with some writing and fiddled about with minor jobs on board. I gave the main engine an oil and filter change and watched the weather… for eight long miserable days! It was all I thought about. I was glad I had
my stores on board which saved me having to frequently walk up the long hill to the nearest shop, or spend the all the voyage funds in the bar and café.
Finally the Force 7s and 8s abated and I was off west again. The only problem was that the best day to leave was a Friday. Call me superstitious, but like many sailors I don’t like going to sea on a Friday. So late on the Thursday evening I took off the heavy mooring ropes I’d secured her with for the storm and put on the lighter throwing ropes. In effect, I’d ‘cast off’ on the Thursday. I’m sure half of PBO’s readers will advise me to talk to someone in a white coat, while the other half will nod and sagely understand my respect for the sea. I abide by a number of superstitious rituals – we are talking about the sea after all.
When I reached Weymouth I felt I was truly getting west. It was another perfect day at sea, although with a surprisingly rough patch round Anvil and St Alban’s point; nothing Caronia couldn’t handle.
Marinas have their value but there is nothing like traditional harbours, and Weymouth is one of the finest. The harbour staff were friendly and more than willing to assist with my lines. Moored on the harbour wall, I was just a few steps from the town and I noticed we were in the same spot from which Mark Rylance casts off in the film Dunkirk. The 2017 blockbuster tells the story of Operation Dynamo. Almost a year previously Caronia had been at the Dunkirk beach, one of only 12 original ‘Dunkirk Little Ships’ that took part in the filming to recreate the evacuation of more than 338,000 troops and civilians.
It was Portland Bill and Lyme Bay next. There really is no substitute to seeking advice. Having spoken with the local skippers, I left in the company of another wooden fishing boat and we took the route out round The Shambles and well offshore of the Bill.
Once west of the Bill I pulled up the mizzen and settled in for the long leg across the bay. Sunshine, dolphins, tea and sandwiches, a couple of posts on Facebook to keep the followers updated, and within eight hours I was approaching the entrance to Torquay.
I wanted to visit Torquay as Caronia had fished out of there in the 1950s – although back then there was no sprawling marina or JD Wetherspoon. The facilities were fine but I just didn’t fancy staying in a marina for too long.
After just one night I slipped from my mooring in the very corner of the marina and encountered a problem. I’d come in on the starboard bow, which I favour as I prop-walk to starboard when going astern. However, I now just couldn’t get her off
the pontoon with the fairly stiff westerly on my port bow. There was no option other than to spring off – a technique well worth learning and practising (see panel, below).
I took a line from the starboard bow to the shore cleat aft of amidships, tied a loop, and took the free end back on board. Then, with a couple of extra fenders just on the curve of the bow, I very gently went ahead with the helm hard to starboard. It’s a matter of dynamics and forces; the bow can’t move so the stern has to go to port. It’s possible to achieve a 45-60° angle away from the jetty before gently going astern. As the spring line came slack I used the free end to flick the loop off the cleat. I then powered astern into clear water and steamed away.
I pushed on round the corner to the charms and old world setting of Dartmouth and another Trans Europe marina.
I took a berth on an outer pontoon and walked into town via the upper chain ferry. A few samples of the local hospitality and I was really getting into my westward voyage. Dartmouth was so appealing I planned to get back for the Royal Regatta later in the season.
Perplexed by Plymouth
After refuelling at the barge the next day I continued with my voyage. I was due to attend the Falmouth Classics and needed to make some miles. However, the weather was less than favourable. I was already a day behind due to the late start from the Hamble and the conditions were against me. I’d hoped to make it all the way to Falmouth in one leg, but had to put in to Plymouth and another Trans Europe marina. I’d spent a lot of time in Plymouth over the years so was surprised to find that the quaint but bustling Barbican is now a full on nightspot with every door guarded by a bouncer. It was a pleasant enough stay with helpful marina staff but I was glad to be away in the morning.
As I rounded Rame Head, where I’d once dived as part of my commercial diver training many years ago, I started to believe I would actually complete my
pilgrimage to take Caronia back to where she once worked. But first, I looked forward to attending the Falmouth Classics, where I would proudly fly the NHS broad pennant.
Falmouth was a wonderful spectacle with dozens of classic vessels all flying their dressing overall flags. I met up with the NHS flagship for the south-west and enjoyed a couple of nights out with them. I spent hours each day doing what I love most and talking to an array of visitors about the history and adventures of Caronia. However, having lost that day on the voyage down, I had just two days to enjoy Falmouth before moving on once more. One harbour to go before Newlyn and the beach!
After the festival I moved to the Falmouth Trans Europe marina. A short lay-over and a walk to the nearby supermarket for stores and I was ready for the final leg west. It had been arranged beforehand that Caronia would visit Penzance for the mid-summer festival, so on a fair tide and smooth sea I steamed down the coast to an open harbour gate in the narrow entrance. However, there’d been a breakdown in communication somewhere, and I soon realised the mooring would not be suitable, as I couldn’t get off the boat. Before the gate shut and I was trapped for a tide I quickly made the decision to shove off and run the final mile to Newlyn.
I made a hasty call ahead to the harbourmaster to check for space, then after a slow run across the bay, I tied up among the fishing boats of Newlyn. I walked up the jetty and looked at the bright blue hull of Caronia. She always looks strange and out of place in modern marinas and herds of plastic hulls, but here surrounded by vibrantly coloured boats she looked totally at home. She had, in fact, come home. No one asked ‘what does SS70’ stand for – there were dozens of SS and PZ fishing registrations. All working fishing vessels have to display their home port licence number on the bow. Once you start seeing PZ for Penzance and SS for St Ives you know you are truly in the West. Caronia looked like she should be slipping on the dawn light to once again fill her hold with the silver bounty of Cornish pilchards.
It was, I won’t deny, a very emotional
moment. I’d completed the years of work it had taken to make Caronia a proud and capable sea going vessel once more.
That evening I walked the short distance to Tolcarne beach at the back of the town and filled my little pot with sand from the beach where her keel was laid 90 years earlier. I looked at where men with hand-tools had built Caronia, the boat that changed my life, and the many timbers of derelict hulls now half hidden by the sands. I stood for some time and took in the moment. Then I went to the pub.
How do you plan for a voyage in a 90-year-old wooden boat that weighs 40 tons and has a hull speed of seven knots?
I won’t pretend that helming a vessel like Caronia is easy. She is steered by chains via a complex mechanical steering head, there is no autohelm and even at very low speed her considerable bulk takes some stopping. I can’t turn up at a marina just as it’s getting dark to be directed to a finger pontoon right on the last row down a fairway. When I call ahead to a marina I usually say I’m after a berth for a 12m retired MFV of heavy construction and limited manoeuvrability.
Usually after a bit of discussion a hammerhead is found with an easy sweep in after coming out of the lock. In reality Caronia is so heavy and responds so well to her big 27in four-bladed prop that I can get onto and into most moorings, but I am never embarrassed to ask for a linesman.
Caronia had been built to sit on the sand in St Ives harbour or rub her way down the harbour wall until her keel touched down and then rub her way back up as the tide scraped the large steel D-section rubbing strake on her side against the stone of the harbour wall. Finger pontoons were at least four decades away from that time and a lot are unsuitable for her bulk. For the sake of one phone call you can talk to the berthing marshal at a marina and explain any concerns.
One 5⁄8in rope ashore is worth more than all the horsepower in the world and a light throwing rope at the sharp end and one at the blunt end will ensure a dignified arrival without the need for shouting.
I have the luxury of a large wheelhouse – I built it myself – with plenty of space for paper charts. Despite the addition of a GPS and chartplotter, I will always look at the charts first. It is the only way to plan a voyage. Chartplotters are one of the greatest aids to coastal navigation ever invented, most will even show the layout of a marina and you can track right onto your allocated berth, but don’t forget to look at the paper version and out of the window regularly!
Fenders and ropes
My usual cruising partner was my son – prior to him sailing round the world in the merchant navy – and we’d split the duties from steering to tea-making and preparing ropes and fenders. Now it’s just me I do this as soon as possible after slipping. You can have ropes on every cleat so it doesn’t matter which side is to the jetty, although you should know this after your booking call to your destination. On Caronia I have the deck space to do this and the coiled rope tucks nicely under the gunwale with a loop over the rail and onto the cleat, making it easy for the shoreside linesman to take the rope.
On top of each of the four side fenders I have put a D-shackle. On to the top handrail I clipped a carabiner and I can raise the fenders to clip them up and steam with them outboard looking like a fishing boat laying pot markers. Alternatively, I can flip them over the rail for a tidier appearance. By clipping them to the rail they can’t roll all over deck and get under my feet when I’m on deck setting sails.
When closing on a port I do a circuit of the boat and flip the fenders over the rail before returning to the wheelhouse to check the course. When a bit closer in, I do another circuit and unclip the carabiner, letting the fender drop to do its job of protecting our bright blue paint.
Obviously the greatest risk when single-handed sailing is ending up over the side. While standing within the confines of my wheelhouse the chance of tasting saltwater is very remote and I’ll often dispense with my lifejacket in flat, calm weather. In any form of sea I wear it full-time. Caronia has a decent handrail all-round the main deck, running lower at the bow and stern. It offers a reasonable amount of security and safety, but there is no way I would ever consider going out on deck without a lifejacket on.
I’ve just added some extra grab rails around the wheelhouse, which will now allow me to clip a safety line running forward around the main mast and aft around the mizzen. A short strap and carabiner on my lifejacket means I can clip onto the safety strap but move freely about the deck. In particularly poor weather I wear a flotation suit.
With fuel and water tanks full, engine checks completed and the passage plan calculated allowing for tides and weather I put to sea out through the lock at Birdham. I’ve found I can take the lock lines round the main and mizzen mast and, standing amidships, I hold the ropes one in each hand and keep Caronia steadied to incoming or dropping lock water. It must look strange to onlookers – like something out of world’s strongest man! But it works and means I can take in slack or let out as required to traverse the lock.
Once out of the confines of the marina I set off to sea on my own and I love it! I’ve completed nine- and 10-hour passages without stress or incident and rarely had to deviate from the planned passage. In fact, sometimes I’ve made more distance if the tide and weather has been particularly favourable.
Remember, you know where you’re going, and what time you should arrive, but nobody else does unless you tell them. Alert someone back home to your plan. It seems like you can’t get away from Facebook these days, but it is a great way to keep anyone on shore updated with your progress, as well as sharing photos of the ship’s dog barking at dolphins or lunch rounding the Portland light. The new HM Coastguard and RYA app RYA SafeTrx is a free modern version of a friend ashore and is available for IPhone and Android.
Don’t forget to explain to your contact what to do if you go over the agreed checking-in time, and who to contact with your passage information should they not be able to raise you directly.
Make a note in the ship’s log of any mobile or landline numbers you may need for when you drop your phone in the bilge while doing engine checks!
The old harbour wall at Newlyn, just yards from the beach at Tolcarne where Caronia was built
Caronia returns to the busy harbour of Newlyn, more than 90 years since she left the port
ABOVE The old harbour at Weymouth – a view from Custom House Quay RIGHT Caronia following a fishing boat into the inner harbour at Plymouth
One of the many shanty bands at the Yarmouth Old Gaffers performing on Caronia’s deck
Peter with daughter Natalie and son Lewis at the presentation of the National Historic Flagship Broad Pennant in Yarmouth
Steering is mechanical, by chains from a complex steering head
A haven for yachts – the Dart Estuary
September and the last festival of the season, the birdham Classics, dressed to impress and proudly displaying the National historic Flagship Pennant
The late ship’s dog, Wilson, covered hundreds of miles aboard Caronia