July – launch date at last

So far the only boating I’ve done the entire year is rowing my little dinghy to harvest some luscious but otherwise inaccessible early blackberries hanging over the water.

This lovely little lapstrake boat, a Roger Oughtred design called a feather pram, is too fragile to want to knock it about on beaches as a yacht tender, so I keep it safe on our pond.

We have at last been able to book a date to put Spring Fever in the water. Most of the jobs we commissioned have been done, apart from some rigging work and a long-overdue gas service. August 18 is now the target date, the latest by a long way that we have ever launched.

The plan with Spring Fever continues to be to cruise up the east coast and base her at Woolverstone on the River Orwell near Ipswich for 6 weeks, before returning to Cowes in early October. That means relearning the short cuts across the sandbanks of the Thames Estuary, called swatchways, which is always an interesting pilotage exercise.

The Thames sandbanks

Nowadays as well as longstanding routes such as the Wallet Spitway, Ray Sand and the several routes across the Sunk sands, we have to learn to negotiate the way through a windfarm. The standard route back from Harwich to Ramsgate goes by a shallow passage called Foulger’s Gat and nowadays that means passing through a huge windfarm, the London Array – all perfectly legal and agreed, and even if we strayed underneath one we would feel the draft but not the rotor itself. They are a minimum 25 metres up, 10 metres higher than our mast.

We had thought of wintering on the east coast but could not find anywhere remotely as economical as Cowes, where we can stay in Shepards Marina from November to March for about £175 a month compared with £360 a month at Woolverstone and similar rates at other Orwell marinas. To think the East Coast used to be regarded as the cheap place to keep a boat….

We’ve applied to have an annual mooring again on Folly Reach on the Medina, having given ours up in January because of the plan to go to Spain and winter there – that was then.

This east coast cruise will be a bit of a nostalgia trip, because at various times over the years with various boats we have had moorings at Woolverstone, Waldringfield, Titchmarsh, Levington, Shotley and Wrabness on the River Stour, where we paid for our own to be laid. For a long time we owned both the mooring at Wrabness and a caravan in a field by the shore, a great place for children to play on the grass, on the beach and in the woods, and a convenient store for boat gear when we weren’t there.

Meanwhile, a designer is about to start laying out the 6th edition of Pass your Yachtmaster. There are many updates throughout the book, some of which have had to be quite long because of the way technology and rules have moved on, plus a whole extra chapter. We’re waiting to find out how many extra cartoons we can insert in the new material, having found some splendidly appropriate ones for the electronic age, even though much of the late Mike Peyton’s work was done before the era of charts on screens. Mike Peyton still makes me laugh because he catches the dilemmas, idiocies, mistakes and obsessions of amateur sailors so well. There are some copyright issues we hope will be sorted soon.

April – sea fever

It’s the time of year when we recommission Spring Fever, paint the bottom, ready the gear and sails, update the charts and clean and polish the hull. These essential rituals lead up to that perfect moment when we head out from the harbour and the bow first rises to the swell from the sea – a cliché, I know, but it is a spring-time experience always  to savour.

That’s impossible with the boatyard shut and we, the owners – as a slightly-older category of person – banned from leaving home. It’s only when I can’t get on a boat as the summer approaches that I realise quite how much it still means after all these years. Sitting here in Suffolk, 20 miles from the coast, the east wind smells of the sea and, if I’m not careful, I’ll soon be reciting John Masefield.

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Spring on Spring Fever last year in Cowes Yacht Haven, getting ready to launch. No photos so far this year, because we are not allowed near

Planning for the boat’s next cruise is pretty well impossible, with the threat that the epidemic and its aftermath could last for a year. Our Cowes boatyard at Kingston has cut 50% from its storage fees for April and 75% from May onwards, so costs are under control. Thankfully, last year we left Cowes Yacht Haven, which we are told has offered no price concessions despite locking out all its owners and contractors.

At Kingston Rob, the engineer who installed our new Beta engine last year, has just been given permission by the yard to do some repairs for us and for other owners during the lockdown, but with precautions, such as prior notice to the yard of his plans so that no-one else works near him. We have asked him to change three old seacocks and their skin fittings. This has led us into quite a lot of technical reading. Should we go for the super-quality composite materials now available, far better than the plastic seacocks which used to be on offer? It is said that you may never have to replace them again. Should we switch from brass to bronze seacocks and skin fitings, though those are difficult to find?  Or should we stick with the higher grade DZR brass, which has a fair degree of corrosion resistance, and which has lasted us so far?

The latest issue of Yachting Monthly says that current opinion is that DZR brass underwater fittings should be changed every five years, while we last changed a seacock 8 years ago, and the rest have not been changed since we bought the boat in 2009. In the end, price swung it and we are sticking with DZR brass. Composites are so much more expensive that we would not be much out of pocket over 10 years if we replaced the three deep underwater seacocks again in five years time with the same grade brass.  We have five other seacocks, all on or just above the waterline, which are less critical, but three – heads inlet and outlet and engine cooling water intake – are all well under and are critical.

We have also asked Rob to see if he can find the leak in one of our water tanks and repair it, a job we would have done if we had been allowed. Hope it doesn’t need replacing because it is 125 litres and moulded to the shape of the hull. It only leaks on one tack while at sea, and our other tank seems fine. Two other jobs we have commissioned from other specialists are rigging alterations and a gas system inspection, which haven’t been done yet. 

It is now a serious possibility that Spring Fever will have to stay ashore for a whole year. We are still hoping, but not confident at all, that we can launch by September and bring her round to Suffolk for the winter, where it will be easy to maintain her because we will be able to drive straight to the boat with a degree of self isolation, which is a lot more difficult when we have to take a ferry to an island.

Meanwhile, I can sit by our pond sewing canvas and playing at being an old salt retired (or maybe washed up) on the shore. There really is canvas to sew: I bought two large pieces, one to make a new cover for the dinghy and the other a sunshade for the big hatch over the forward cabin. Wish me happy stitching!

This month I subscribed to the Marine Quarterly, a regular collection of longer articles that gets away from the constant diet of maintenance and new products in the yachting magazines. I’ve also made good progress on my commission to update David Fairhall and Mike Peyton’s Pass Your Yachtmaster for Adlard Coles, the nautical publisher, which is now part of Bloomsbury. An hour a day gets a lot done over a month.

Cowes – love it or loathe it?

The man manoeuvring in the queue for the fuel pontoon at Falmouth took one look at our port of registration on the transom, and let loose a flood of abuse about people like us from Cowes. He was accusing us of queue jumping – we weren’t. Elsewhere, another sailor looked at the town name and added “arrogant bastards” to his complaint about where we were parked on a pontoon.

 I may well be getting paranoid, but since moving our sailing base to Cowes 5 years ago I’ve been wondering whether the mere name sometimes prompts the sailing equivalent of the “posh boy” jibe at David Cameron’s cabinet. In distant parts of the British Isles I’ve caught myself apologising for the name Cowes on the transom. Not any more.

Having spent many seasons based on the East Coast (and quite a few in the West Country and Scotland) I was not expecting to move to Cowes. I’d seen the sailing clubs lined up like a John Cleese sketch along the shore (the Squadron looking down on the Royal Corinthian and Royal London, those two looking down on the Island Sailing Club and all of them looking down on the Cowes Corinthian up the river). There’s also the great weight of tradition, the royal connections, the classic pictures of Edwardian ultra rich racing their J-Class yachts, the monied party atmosphere of Cowes weeks, the boats sponsored by City firms – all of that and much more.

We happened to find and buy our latest boat in Cowes, and organised a temporary mooring there while we thought about where to base her: back to the east coast or somewhere on the south coast for a change. One day we had a friendly call from the harbourmaster asking whether we’d like a permanent pontoon mooring, because the boat and its previous owner were well known to him, they had been there a long time, and we’d be very welcome to stay on. The bigger surprise was in the price: less than we would be paying for a swinging mooring in a bleak and exposed position outside the not very friendly Suffolk Yacht Harbour on the River Orwell, where we’d kept a previous boat. So we stayed.

Cowes, despite its cliché tag as the Mecca of Sailing, is not in fact expensive. This must have much to do with being on an island, which adds to travel costs and time. The Meccas now for most of the year are the Hamble and Lymington. If you don’t do rushed weekend sailing, and mainly cruise away from home, the extra hour each way and the expense of the ferry to Cowes are less important.

Furthermore, we have never been anywhere in the last 30 years with so many excellent marine service businesses available, from stainless steel fabrication to electronics and general shipwright work. My impression is that they are significantly cheaper than the same services on the Orwell. They’re also improving the outer harbour at this moment, with a massive new breakwater for protection from the North-Easterly gales to which Cowes has until now been exposed.

And what about the posh boy jibe? Well, we haven’t tried to join the Royal Yacht Squadron (we’re not admirals, posh or super rich) but the co-owner has joined one of the other clubs and found it pleasant and hospitable. If you don’t want to join a local club or try to get into smart Cowes Week parties, it’s still a great and surprisingly economical place to base a cruising boat.