September – the in and out cruise

In we go, gently does it…
…in..
….in….
….and out…
….out….
….out….
…to back where we started

All geared up to ride a spring tide up channel in the much improved weather expected later this week, we ended up dining on board in the yard. The cruise is off for the moment.

A trickle of salt water was running down just forward of where the rudder stock goes through the hull.

It was unclear in semi darkness, after wriggling through a hatch with a torch, where exactly the water was coming from, but best guess was a small crack in the rudder stock housing.

We did the sensible thing, and hauled the boat out again for further investigation. The leak is in an area that sees lots of stress from the rudder, so we need to have a good look inside and out to find out whether it is a symptom of something serious. We have booked a fibreglass specialist to come and investigate.

This has happened once before with Spring Fever, when we launched at Ardoran near Oban in the west of Scotland in 2012. Then it was a corroded and jammed heads outlet seacock,which had to be replaced.

Always an embarrassing and rather expensive thing to happen. In Ardoran we should have checked the seacock more carefully before launch, but this time there was no way of knowing until the boat was afloat. We noticed a tiny trickle of a few litres a month last year, could not locate the source and assumed it was something like a slightly worn rudder bearing. The boat flexes when set ashore on its keel and that could have opened up whatever small leak was there before.

August – still waiting, but planning

For multiple reasons, this year’s launch has had to be put back again to 1 September. We haven’t missed much because of the delay, since the weather has been awful.

Essex and Suffolk are still the objectives, and the delay has given some time for preparations, including buying the latest edition of East Coast Pilot. With its predecessor East Coast Rivers, I have editions going back to 1981.

The current pilot comes with a free download of all Imray’s North Sea charts, from the Dover Strait to Shetland and southern Denmark to Calais. The Pilot’s own website has free downloads of useful updated chartlets and advice, especially important on the rivers around the Thames Estuary, because some of the entrances can change in a single storm.

There are also links to downloads from another website (and book), Crossing the Thames Estuary, so we’ve loaded what we need on to a tablet and printed the most useful chartlets. The printouts include the short cut through the Thames Array wind farm.

The final bit of online preparation at home is to download and print the predictions from Admiralty Easy Tide for various points out in the Thames Estuary, essential for the short cuts (or swatchways) across the sandbanks.

That’s all we can do this month, apart from watching how the long-term weather forecast changes day by day.

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.

June – tide turning

It looks as if we’ll be free to go cruising on Spring Fever from 4 July, the day the renewed easing of Covid-19 controls starts. While we will not be ready for early July, at least we can now plan a sail, possibly to the Essex and Suffolk rivers.

Pin Mill, near Woolverstone, Suffolk

Following the end of the ban on overnight stays on boats, Cowes, where we are at the moment, has reopened to visiting boats that book a berth in advance.

Weymouth will have a booking system for visiting yachts two weeks ahead with no refunds or cancellations because of weather. Normally, in good summer weather, Weymouth visitors raft out up to 6 deep from the town quay but rafting will be banned to make social distancing easier and reduce visitor numbers. Cowes has adopted the same policy. Further afield, St Mary’s in the Scillies, which we visited last year, has just emailed urging us to visit again, so harbours and marinas seem keen to make up for lost revenue.

In case we go east this year, I checked Ramsgate, where we usually stop, and it is not requiring advance bookings. There are no restrictions other than closing half the showers so users are further apart. Ramsgate usually has plenty of room for visitors , especially if continental yachts on passage cannot show up because of quarantine. Our likeliest destination will be Woolverstone on the River Orwell in Suffolk, where the marina has confirmed that Spring Fever can have a visitor mooring.

There is still work to be done on the boat: three new seacocks have been commissioned and are yet to be finished; we will break the custom of a lifetime and pay someone to antifoul the boat to cut back on our travel to Cowes; and there’s a large amount of gear including sails to get there. Time, however, to think about booking a launch date.

We will still have to be exceptionally careful, because of extra vulnerability at our – umh – rather older than average age. We have even discussed paying someone to bring the boat over to a mainland harbour to avoid having to go on the Isle of Wight ferry in the summer. We can, however, stay in the car when crossing to load the gear, though that’s not much help when leaving for a cruise, because we cannot go by car unless we leave it there for weeks. These are problems we will solve.

At home, the new text for Pass Your Yachtmaster has been delivered to Adlard Coles. Researching it, I am more than ever convinced that it is a mistake to rely completely on electronics for navigation, and that having a portfolio of traditional and modern techniques will always be the sensible approach. I am now reading The Ultimate Navigation Manual by Lyle Brotherton, about land-based techniques, and he makes exactly the same point. The traditional skills involved are far more interesting and sophisticated than I had realised – he teaches desert and mountain navigation to the military among other roles – and he urges people not to over-rely on their GNSS at the expense of their knowledge of other methods.

May – a narrow escape in Venice

Sad news from Venice, where the historic Trabaccolo trading vessel I went to write about for Classic Boat a few years ago has been swamped and damaged by a bad leak. The vessel was saved by the pumps of firefighters who came alongside Il Nuovo Trionfo where she was berthed near the Salute, at the entrance to the Grand Canal. Apparently the boat’s own pumps had failed, though the reasons for the leak in the first place are not clear. The water flooded the engine, and videos show it swilling around at the level of the saloon table top, submerging much equipment.Firefighters alongside with pumps, St Marks Square in the distance

Il Nuovo Trionfo has now been pumped out and towed to a yard for repairs ashore, where she is now. The engine is being stripped down and parts of it soaked in fresh water in the hope that it can be repaired, and the damage is being assessed, according to Il Nuovo Trionfo’s Facebook group. I have lifted these photographs from Facebook, but there’s much more there, including videos (and Facebook translated the texts quite effectively into English).20200526_131307.jpg                                                                  Ashore safely
A Trabaccolo is a sail trading boat which evolved for the northern Adriatic with a flat bottom that can take the ground in the low tides of the lagoons, rather like a Thames barge. Il Nuovo Trionfo had been bought and restored by local enthusiasts, safeguarding a rare nautical treasure, one of very few left. An indication of the design’s seaworthiness is that one has been found in New Caledonia in the Pacific, to which it was sailed after conversion to a yacht, but abandoned after the owner had a heart attack.

The plan for Classic Boat was to write about the Trabaccolo project alongside another in the UK to revive the construction of Thames barges, and to compare and contrast the types of shallow-water trading boat. 

I withdrew from the writing commission in the end because yet another huge problem was found with the Nuovo Trionfo – the tree-sized timber keelson running along inside the boat above the full length external keel was found to have a hidden rotten section, which put her out of action again and required another long round of expensive repairs.

The piece for the magazine would have ended up comparing a successful barge project (at the time) with a sad litany of setbacks on the Venetian restoration, making it seem an odd choice for comparison – perhaps rather negative and upsetting for the Venetians, who had gone to a lot of trouble to show me their project and whose successive misfortunes would be starkly obvious because of the inappropriate juxtaposition.

There were other good reasons for visiting Venice, anyway, so it was far from a wasted journey, especially since I met so many interesting Venetian boat enthusiasts and craftspeople. Like all restorations, the Nuovo Trionfo club was continually  short of money from members and well wishers, and was having trouble raising finance from the Venice local government, which at the time was much more interested in building a replica of a 17th century fast postal galley, at great expense. I wish Il Nuovo Trionfo well.

In easier times, I’d now be packing for this year’s Transadriatica race from Venice to Novigrad and back, on Spiuma, Martin’s boat. At least Easyjet has offered me a refund on my  ticket, having just formally cancelled the flight out next week.


Meanwhile, back home this month Cowes Harbour has given permission for yards to launch boats, but an owner is still not allowed to stay on board overnight. There is at least a day’s work to prepare for launching and another day sorting things out afterwards, so with hotels and AirB&Bs closed, the logistics are difficult. We won’t be doing anything for the moment, but will work out a plan.

The government seems to be hinting at another easing of lockdown soon which could make it simpler. The antics of the Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings in breaking lockdown and not apologising do anyway encorage everyone to think that it is fine to make your own judgments on what’s best to do in grey areas. The ‘don’t stay away from home’ rule does not mention boats, so we could, if we were feeling bloody minded, use the Cummings defence that it’s not specifically banned. (I may be wrong about that, since the RYA and most harbourmasters think it is banned, but there you go….).

However, the real issue is that we want to continue to isolate ourselves, since we are of a certain age and are therefore at greater risk, and that’s what’s holding us back from fitting out and launching for the moment.The other factor is that most ports are still closed to visiting pleasure craft, so  we could not easily carry out our plan to go to the east coast for the rest of the year. For the moment Spring Fever stays where she is.

Meanwhile, the closest I’m coming to sailing is finishing the updates and new material for Pass Your Yachtmaster. I also need to paint the bottom of the little wooden dinghy we row on the pond, the one I built from a kit 6 years ago. I suppose I could also rig a sail with a sheet and a broom handle, though it would take a well cut bedsheet and some nifty short tacking to make ground to windward!Afloat on the pond, at least

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.

20190111_144825.jpg
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.

March – Spring and fever

Our plans are changing rapidly, just like everybody else’s in all walks of life in Europe. Sailing now has to be a peripheral concern, but we still have to work out what to do with the boat, and indeed whether we can sail it at all this year.

No sooner had we decided to go to southern Brittany rather than our original destination of Spain than the fight against the Covid 19 virus made that new plan difficult and probably impossible. It is only a couple of weeks since we applied for a 12 month mooring for Spring Fever at Arzal on the lovely River Vilaine: not surprising we haven’t heard back, because southern Brittany has a local concentration of infection, and the marina is now preoccupied with far more urgent matters. It has announced a strict plan to protect its staff and customers.

In any case, the outlook now is for a continuation of virus defensive measures right through the summer and into autumn. Even if there is a relaxation after the first three months of restrictions, current official projections suggest that there is a high likelihood that it will be temporary, with a further set of measures later. There is a strong probability that the emergency will last a year.

So even if we were welcome in France – which we certainly would not be during this next three month phase of the virus – we could never be sure of getting back to the boat from England after we left it there.

Pin Mill, on the River Orwell near Ipswich, the Butt and Oyster pub on the left

One fall back plan is to have a nostalgic sail up the channel and round to Essex and Suffolk, and keep the boat there for a while, if conditions ease.

A sail up channel is enjoyable (you scoot along, riding the flood tide, for a full 11 hours from Beachy Head if you time it right) so fingers crossed that we can at least go sailing at some point. It will be quite a while before we’ll know whether that is achievable.

In the meantime, there is no point in rushing this spring’s work programme, and some of it could wait till next winter.

Footnotes

(1) An email 24 March from Cowes Harbour Commission saying our boatyard, Cowes Marine Services, is closed indefinitely to customers and contractors. So are Shepherds marina and Cowes Yacht Haven, which made the announcement earlier. Terrible news for the people earning a living from working on our boats, but expected.

(2) One reason for wintering on the continent was to keep our EU status at the end of the transition period on 31 December. Will Boris Johnson’s government stick to its pledge not to ask for an extension, given everything else that is happening? If they give in and ask, we’ll have more time to get to France – next year.

Relearning old navigation lessons

Two letters in the latest issue of the excellent Cruising Association magazine* claim it is now safe to rely entirely on electronic charts because backups to the boat’s main chartplotter are so cheaply available. You can leave your old paper charts abandoned in the bottom of a locker somewhere, the argument goes.

However, while researching updates for the yachtmaster book I mentioned last month, I’ve been re-reading intensively about old fashioned navigation techniques I learnt a long time ago, some of which were beginning to fade from memory. It has reinforced for me how important it is to avoid total reliance on electronics and have a portfolio of navigation skills including the old ones.

Traditional chart table at the end of a sail home from Scotland, and the bottle we brought back to celebrate our return .

So I think discussion of electronic charts needs to be a lot more nuanced than some of their more enthusiastic users suggest. Yes, on Spring Fever we have also relied heavily on electronics for many years, but my worry is how easy it is for phone, tablet and laptop software as well as hardware to fail, which can take a long time for the less than totally expert to sort out on passage.

It is certainly true that most well equipped offshore boats will have one or more extra chartplotters loaded on tablets, phones and laptops. Some are backups in case the main plotter system run from the boats batteries fails – that only takes a bust alternator or an engine that refuses to start. I also hear that an increasing number of people are dispensing with dedicated marine chartplotters altogether and relying on tablets etc.

Two examples of what can go wrong: my tablet’s GPS receiver failed last year. After a great deal of googling back home I found out why – I had not updated it for the GPS clock change that took place last year (little noticed, but the navigation equivalent of the millennium bug in 2000). Updated this winter using wifi at home, the GPS started working again, ready for this season. Hands up all those who knew about this and fixed it in advance. My problem was an older tablet. Recent ones would have updated for it automatically.

This was specifically a US GPS problem, and I don’t think it affected the wider GNSS, which includes the Russian, European and Chinese satellites processed by newer receivers than the one in my tablet.

More seriously, my laptop had earlier ground almost to a halt because of some unknown and untraceable software issue picked up I know not where – probably not a virus, or at least not one my Norton protection could find. I abandoned it for navigational backup and planning in favour of the tablet, well before that too showed it could let us down.

This winter, having bought a new laptop, I did a factory reset on the old one, wiping everything except the Windows 7 operating system. Miraculously, it now works like new. So I have loaded the charts, GPS driver and related software again and it is going back on the boat and staying there. I will keep it bug free by not connecting to the internet.

The laptop will be used for planning, with the cockpit chartplotter still our main instrument. But the laptop is old and has a hard disk drive rather than a solid state one, so can mechanically wear out. We may add a further backup in the shape of a small, cheap 7 inch tablet from visitmyharbour.com that’s tough and cockpit proof. (£170 loaded with 2020 raster charts for the UK, France and Atlantic Spain and Portugal).

Computer hotshots might have done fault-finding at sea or in a marina but it took me a whole day at my desk to figure out the laptop solution and sort it, using a high speed internet connection. The software fault had even disabled the DVD drive, which is now working again.

This is not the end of the list of issues. Tablet and phone navigation relies on apps and they do sometimes misbehave. Often the solution is to uninstall and download again – not an option for us at sea. That problem cropped up last year not with a chartplotter app but with one of the best tide prediction apps, though it could easily have been one of the chart apps. This all tells me – a reasonably capable but far from expert user – that the issue of electronics reliability, even with multiple backups, is complicated.

And that is without more basic questions, the first of which, GNSS reliability, I have covered in two previous posts. (On that subject, I have just read a report that GPS spoofing equipment can now be bought for only $100, and how to use it is widely discussed on line).

There is of course the more widely considered question of what happens to your backup tablets, phones and laptops in a knock down, a partial flooding of the saloon, a fire that you may put out but which causes damage or – a nightmare – a lightning strike.

I’ve had a strike on a previous boat, while it was moored on a river – I was ashore – and it destroyed all the electronics and made for a large insurance claim. High voltages nearby can induce large currents in equipment even if it is not wired into the boat’s own circuits. The advice I hear to stick your laptop, tablet and phone in the oven to shield them if lightning is near I find the complete opposite of reassuring!

So we don’t plan to chuck the paper charts, dividers, almanac and ruler in the bottom of a locker somewhere – they’ll always stay ready in the chart table, and we’ll use them from time to time so as not to forget how.

By way of contrast: now reading this 1987 book, which makes even our traditional navigation seem hi-tech. It’s about the last island outposts of Pacific Ocean navigation skills going back thousands of years, which use only knowledge of stars, waves and birds, and no instruments, achieving remarkable accuracy.

* Cruising, Spring issue.