Monday, May 07, 2007

Light airs suck.

The top person's sailing blog Proper Course has offered up a challenge for any bloggers who have ever set foot (on the middle of the foredeck please) in a boat.

1. Write a post on your blog about the worst mistake or most embarrassing moment you had while sailing. It could be while racing or cruising or day-sailing. It might be funny or disastrous. If you have pictures or video we'd love to see them. The idea is for us to create a collection of our sailing screw-ups that will serve as terrible warnings to fellow sailors, especially beginners. After all, the best way to learn is from other people's mistakes.

It's a beautiful May afternoon, I really should be working but what better than open up the vaults and retrieve one of my most hideously embarrassing sailing moments? I should add that I have plenty of sailing memories that have caused pain; some even caused real physical damage to boat or limb but none perhaps caused such a very public amount of embarrassment.

In the County of Norfolk in the UK there is an annual event hosted by Horning Sailing club. The Three Rivers Race is an endurance event with a 24-hour time limit.

I had entered the race for the second time as a helm (having also completed the race with my dad in the eighties) but had yet to complete the course. My crew (and the motivation behind entering this brutal and most ungentlemanly event) had bailed at the last moment thus forcing me to search for a new one. I happened upon the most marvelous Harris, an old school chum, neighbor and sailor of experience and pluck. He brought enthusiasm, knowledge of the treacherous waters and cheese and pickle sandwiches.

The start of the race is difficult even in perfect conditions. Horning Sailing club generally does a top rate job of staggering the different classes of boats along a stretch of the River Bure so that the faster dinghies can nip off out of the way of the slower boats and sailing cruisers that follow on throughout an hour or two of starts. This particular year the air was rarified. This was all very well during the tacking to and fro prior to the start, slightly uncomfortable during the final moments as the Wayfarers slipped back and forth within the narrow confines of the river. Even in stronger winds it's a bit of a bugger sailing in narrow rivers, I've done most of my sailing on Hickling Broad or out on the wider reaches of the River Thurne where there's plenty of room to make mistakes. I am distinctly uncomfortable on the itsy bitsy bits of the Bure with all its trees and buildings and crowds of onlookers enjoying their pints and pub lunches and the start of the sailing event of the year.

We set ourselves up for the start and the old girl was feeling good, getting a nice windward position wasn't as hard as we'd thought, the race is so long that the immediacy of getting the very best start is somewhat forsaken as everyone would generally rather just get away and over the line, in some ways it's a bit like the start of a marathon, lots of shuffling and most people are just trying not to trip over each other. We get an OK start and slip gently downriver away from the melee behind us and into our adventure.

We must have gone about 6o yards down the river past the start line when we stopped. The reason was fairly simple, we'd lost the wind, become calmed by some trees or slightly large bushes. We drifted gently toward the bank and did what we could to retain any momentum that might possibly just perhaps carry us around the bend into some air. Both of us were and are reasonably experienced Broads sailors so our fate was not yet sealed. Add to this Harris's insatiable enthusiasm that countered my furrowed brow and exhaustive queries about the wind. We were shortly confounded by the arrival up our aft of a fleet of large sailing cruisers. These boats, many of traditional design are in possession of much bigger sail area, taller masts, better-dressed crews and a bigger wine cellar than us mere Wayfarer types. They also take up a lot more of the river and are slightly scary. We were faced with a choice, a very immediate choice that requires some quick thinking and some action right now.

We could either take our chances where we were, get nudged and butted by the oncoming fleet and possibly damaged but hold our course or we could maneuver slightly out of their way and allow them to pass. Their taller rigs would allow them to catch what wind may be drifting over the treetops and push them down river. The Wayfarer is probably closer to 40 years old than I’d care to ask and as with any lady of breeding one doesn't enquire. I just didn’t fancy our chances of getting carved up by bowsprits and the upper middle classes. We rolled gently closer over to the riverbank and decided that for the time being we would just see what would happen, we'd not worry about actively pursuing any wind until the behemoths have passed us by. Shouldn’t take long, the cruisers are always the final couple of starts so in about 20 minutes we should be on our way. The plan worked quite nicely, it was a gorgeous day (no bloody wind but hey?) The cruisers passed and the river cleared and it’s time to pump us off the bank where we had gently nestled and seek glory. We got ready to go, hauled in some mainsheet, rearranged the tiller and we’re off!

Except we’re not.

We were stuck. We were stuck hard and we were stuck fast and we were not going anywhere. Allow me to stress that we were not stuck in reeds or on a mud bank or with rigging in the branches nearby or due to lack of wind or by a stray fishing line or anything that we could possibly fathom but we were stuck. An act of god sprung to mind. The centreboard was raised and lowered, as was the rudder fin. Several times. Nothing. We rocked the hull gently from side to side, from bow to stern. Gently, oh so ever so gently, we weren’t going anywhere. The indoutable Harris even considered getting into the water to investigate what thing it is that is blocking our progress. Nothing.

Of course this is embarrassing. This is the start of the Three Rivers Race. The start of the Three Rivers Race and we were sitting 60 feet from the start line directly across from the back lawn of the Swan inn at Horning which is full of pleasure seekers and sailing spectators.
There is one gentleman who watched carefully from the opposite bank. A gently graying figure with a slight stoop, a veteran of this race who had completed it many times with a variety of able crews and more than once in this very boat. My dad is watching us with a quiet mixture of pity, shame and embarrassment. Later I did ask him what was going through his head but either I’ve blanked it from my memory or he never told me. I would guess it’s along the lines of “But it always seems to happen to you”.

Eventually a couple of nice old gentlemen in a beautiful wooden motor launch (with a case of wine in the back) came over to lend a hand. By this time we had both bailed out of the boat and were moored on the bank looking at the mast, the hull, each other, the viewing public, the little baby Jesus. We were eventually rocked off whatever it was that had us in its grip. The motor launch ever so gently tugged us this way as we pulled in alternate directions. Even with all this technical support and varied expertise it still took half an hour to get us free. And when we are freed? A six foot long log about 8 inches in diameter popped up from under us, covered in sweet smelling river mud and weed. We had somehow managed to become jammed against this kraken, which, once it had us in its grasp simply refused to let us go.

We had of course accepted assistance from outside sources. Unless we sailed back over the start line and start again we faced disqualification from the race. We could have done that, the start line was only 60 yards away, the river was now clear and the race committee accommodating but we retired. The moment had passed and the lure of a cold beer after such a farce was too strong. We have not been beaten by gear failure, by strong winds or by the kind of incompetence sometimes bought on by either or both of those two combined. This was not a high paced embarrassment but a slow inexorable slide into a very sticky submerged log. We had been on full public display and even made a line on the back page of Monday’s Eastern Daily Press. We had been defeated by a gentle summer’s afternoon, zero wind and an uneasy drifting sensation. I say ‘we’ I should say ‘I’. Harris remained and remains to this day one of life's natural enthusiasts

My lessons from this experience? There are a few.

Prevail. Don’t worry about the bigger boats you’ve got every right to be there and it doesn’t really matter if you take a few knocks.

Light airs suck.

If you’re going to get stuck on a submerged log try not to do it in front of a crowded riverside pub.


EVK4 said...

Damn the logging industry for losing that log in the first place. Great story.

weasel said...

I have always enjoyed that story as it illustrates both the perils and the "no harm, no foul" truths it reveals about sailing on the broads. It all makes me nostalgic for a pie and a pint at the Pleasure Boat followed by a quick, half-hearted spin in your family Wayfarer while Cumpstey buggers about in some other sod's Norfolk Punt.

a hick from hickers said...

You jumping out of Slipstream on the race to Potter (instead of leaning out) was funnier. It truly was the work of a man caught in a moment of fear and idiocy.

JP said...

Great story!

Only sailed once on the broads and similar thing happened to me. Went from one of the broads onto the main river and what little wind there was died (and it was a wayfarer weight dinghy).

So I ended up drifting while these motor cruisers go roaring past, feeling bit like a traffic cone on a motorway.

In the end two nonchalant kids turned up in an even smaller boat than mine - but with an outboard motor.

"Want a tow, mate?" one asked.

I did. There are times you just have to accept defeat.

Zen said...

I remember moving ever so slightly out of a lane to let another pass and also went aground. Many passed and waved as the traffic was busy. Only after someone stopped to take our picture with the bikes tied on the stern did we get a tow free.