Coxswain assessment day

The big day finally came, after thirteen years on the boat and something like four or five years working through the coxswain plan, today was the day of my final Coxswain Pass-Out assessment.  We were scheduled for a 3pm launch and with staff in place so I could get away from work everything seemed to be going to plan. Even the weather was on my side. A strong nor-westerly had blown through overnight but today was sunny and the wind had dropped to around 12 knots.

 

I arrived at work around 9.30 that morning and took my usual glace across the bay and harbour.  Something was out of place. “Who has tied my boat up there?” I wondered. Our Wayfarer sailing dinghy had been left tied up on its running mooring last night.  Now it was alongside the harbour wall, high and dry, berthed just behind a fishing boat and a dory. I headed straight for the harbour and upon closer investigation realised that no-one has tied my boat up there.  My boat has parked itself there. The mooring line hard parted company in the strong blow overnight, but she still had her stern line on. The wind and waves had pushed the bow around the corner and by some miracle she had settled as if berthed deliberately, two feet from the wall, two feet from the fishing boat and two feet from the propellor of the dory…. Not a scratch on anything! I feel I may have already used up all of today’s luck in one go.

 

At this point the tide is still ebbing.  I quickly realise that this boat is going to float, conveniently, at 3pm.  Like all big days, there is always a hitch. In many ways this was a blessing, instead of spending the morning fretting about the impending assessment, I am now rigging new mooring lines and fretting about whether I’ll actually get there on time.

 

At 2pm I’m still watching the tide inching closer and closer with every tiny wave, we are now two hours before high water, with only a couple of feet of sand between the sea and the boat.  At around ten past we make our move, grabbing the three lads from the shop to help, we were about to go paddling. The water is round the hull now and we only need a couple of inches to float her in, with the help of inherent buoyancy and us breaking the boat free of the sand’s suction we are away, the boat is back on its proper mooring and I am heading for the lifeboat station.

 

It is 2.45 when I arrive there and already there are plenty of crew assembled in the crew room.  There is a written paper waiting for me, so I make a start. Realising I won’t finish it before 3pm and not wanting to hold the crew up I decide to finish later and get on the with exercise.  The plan is to drop the dead Fred man-overboard dummy off, drive away and go through anchoring and some drills then go back and find Fred on the way home, exercise duration an hour and half.

 

Dropping Fred off was the easy bit, wind and tide calculations for his likely drift were fairly straightforward and we had a good idea of where we expected to find him.  Into a nearby bay, I’m just about to brief the deck crew on anchoring, when all of a sudden we’ve got alarms going off, the mechanic having a minor flap and asking if we stop engines.  Ah! We are having a fire drill… first job is to clear the nav desk and following the emergency instructions card. “Can we stop engines?” asks the mechanic again, “Ask Coxswain’s permission to stop engines” is the next step on the card too.  “Dammit, I’m the Coxswain, make a decision” I’m thinking, I feel the pressure of the whole crew staring at me. The wind is blowing offshore so we are going to drift out. In my mind as a sailor that is a good thing. “Stop engines and drop anchor” was my quick, and probably not so well thought through choice.  Wind offshore, yes… but tide, tide is taking us toward rocks. The likelihood is that it will sweep us past them, but it is a close call and the super slick work of the deck team pretty much saved the day at that point. We are anchored and holding at a safe enough distance from the rocks. Note to self…. Next time the boat is burning, run it up the nearest beach, then stop engines and get off onto land and run away.

 

Drill complete and we are waiting for our glacial speed capstan winch to creep the anchor chain back on board.  I’m on the flybridge when I hear the Coastguard calling us, “We have a tasking for you”. Our mechanic is talking to them in the wheelhouse, so I am only hearing the Coastguard side of the conversation. There is an 18ft powerboat broken down at our harbour, it is drifting out.  The vessel has no VHF “but we have a phone number for him”. Unfortunately, now I am not privy to any direct communication with the casualty, making it difficult for me to ask questions, work out exactly where they are and what is going on.

 

My first thought is that the ILB will be there quicker than we will be, we ask the Coastguard to task our ILB.  Then someone looks around at the crew we have on board. It appears that we have all the likely available ILB helms here, we are going to have to respond.  Clink clink clink the anchor chain is still crawling onto the deck. Fred will be left until later.

 

With the anchor finally stowed we are on our way to the last reported position of the casualty.  Now that we are on a shout, I’m not sure that I’m Coxswain any more. One of our actual Coxswains was on the flybridge with me “Is this your boat now?” I ask him.  “Yes, but I’m just going to stand here” he replied. I’m still a little confused, but I think it is my boat. I’d only done a towing assessment with the same Assessor a couple of days ago, so here we go again.

 

A local dive boat calls us on the VHF.  He has the casualty in tow and wants to hand it over to us.  We find them a fair old way out of the harbour, three people on board.  The dive boat drops the tow and we pick it up. Next up there is a yacht race just started, I suspect they will be heading our way.  I elect to tow our charge around the outside of the race marks, just to be sure.

 

Back in the harbour and we pick up our mooring.  A couple of crew hop into the boarding boat and tow the 18ft boat and put it alongside the wall in the harbour.  Job done and all back aboard our boat. Now we are back to find Fred who had now been at sea for getting on three hours.

 

The small search area is gone, the simple search patterns are out of the window and now we are settling in to a long parallel track search with a big down tide element to it.  I look at the tidal streams and Fred drift start point again. He’s gone that way for one hour, then this way for two hours and he’s going this way more quickly now, this gives me a rough idea of the westing.   I look at the estimated position our navigator has come up with. I’m pretty sure the wind factor has been underestimated. We arrive at our drift start position but I think we need to be further south.

It was really fortunate that exactly at this point a crew member spotted something around half a mile south of us.  Upon closer investigation our “something” was a gannet. But is was a handy gannet, I’m now in the spot where I want to start my search pattern from.  After some discussion with the navigator about the merits of using the human brain over the computer brain, we have a search plan and we are making way, heading west at 20 knots.  We have a pretty large area to cover, even at this speed it is going to take a while. We shave some time off the search shortening the first leg by half and making yet more south on the next leg before heading back east again.  

 

We keep running our track, we have the perfect search conditions, bright sunshine, flat water and able to see a gannet at half a mile!  But there is no sign of Fred. I am pretty sure that we are too far north still, but I’m confident he is in the box we are searching. We just have to sit it out and keep going.  We will catch up with him eventually.

 

Much to the relief of everyone on board, we run a few more legs and the Assessor decides we can switch the DF on, go get Fred and go home.  To avoid the risk and embarrassment of losing Fred we attach a direction finding beacon to him before chucking him over the side. Now all we have to do is tune our direction finding equipment to his channel and follow the light….

 

We tune in and start moving, the DF is taking us south west…. It feels like a very long way south west!  Now I’m wondering if my search area has gone far enough. Ages pass but finally there is a shout, he’s there on the bow.  I look at the chartplotter, we are in my search area, we would have found him had we continued. Man overboard recovery completed and we are heading for home, four hours later!  Phew.

 

I look at where we are, it’s a familiar view from hours spent in the wheelhouse on a scalloper.  I hear that skipper in my head “Christ gal! Aim her over there out here in this tide”. So I did and brought us straight line to the harbour wall, no need for satnav.  We finally get back to our mooring.

 

Now for the debrief of the afternoon’s events.  We were all standing on the aft deck of the lifeboat.  Three of us were being assessed that day and now the announcements were made.  Our Assessor was satisfied that our boat now has a new mechanic, navigator and coxswain.  I stood on the flybridge putting the cover on. For years I helped my Dad, the boat’s full-time Coxswain, to put this cover on at the end of a trip.  He retired from the boat a couple of years ago. I smiled to myself alone in my thoughts of “I am Dad now”. Except of course that I am his daughter and now the first female coxswain on our island and only the fourth in the whole Institution.

 

 

In the Menu

Here we are after work last night, off Bradda Head, in a 10’6 hot pink rowing boat. It is a beautiful evening, mirror calm, warm and sea is full of life, gannets, jellyfish, plankton. It has all the right ingredients for basking sharks. We get a little excited when I spot something, it is moving too fast over the water for a bird…. could it be? Oh my word it is!!! It’s a SHARK. 

We’d been sat at a good distance away from the shark, just drifting, quietly wishing it would come closer for a photo, but at the same time quite happy that the giant is over there. Then we realise we may have drifted in to “the menu” and we are hoping our little pink boat won’t get mistaken for a prawn! Careful what you wish for…. eventually the inquisitive creature did want to find out if we were a prawn.

Mild panic sets in when I realise that I am never going to be able to row us away from the shark at any speed. The only option is to stow the oars in the boat and sit tight. I look at the seagulls around the shark, they aren’t worried by them, I shouldn’t be either. 

But oh my word, this one is big! And swimming straight for us. We are treated to an amazing sight, its head must be the same size as our boat almost, its enormous mouth is wide open. We are 10’6, the shark is easily 3 times us… 30+ feet. 

It is hard to describe the feeling of complete awe at these majestic creatures, the world’s gentle giants, so close you could have touched it (if you were brave enough – we weren’t!). It is a totally humbling experience, you’re in a tiny boat with a massive shark, there is nothing you can do other than trust the shark. I have to trust the shark, it swims under us, inches away giving us a rare display of its whole body through the clear water. Life is blessed.

Saved by the pager

1819 Launch ILB, I was just about to do the dishes, oh well!  Into the car and down to the Station. Given the time of day and that it’s an ILB only page, I don’t anticipate making it on the shout, I live too far away.  

 

There are a good few cars at the boat house already.  I jog in asking “have you got enough” “yes” is the answer.  The shout is to a 30ft yacht which has gone aground on the rocks in the harbour.  The tide is rising, but the wind has her pinned on an unmarked reef on an lee shore.  “You might as well get dressed” the helm said to me, “it’s in the harbour, we can take four, one of us might need to go on aboard”.  Aaaaah, I need this. I’ve had one of those days, a knock down and you lose your sense of direction, kind of days. Putting my drysuit, my thoughts are grounded again.  Our LOM or ALB coxswain, I can’t remember which, did a crew count as we went “Four good strong hands there, good oh”. Sometimes the smallest of sentences make the biggest of differences.

 

We push the ILB down the slipway and off the trailer, there are four helms aboard, so the operation is pretty slick, one is already on the VHF to the coastguard, “jump in and start her” I’m told…. “Ok then… I think…..” Engine down, astern gear in as the lads jump in keeping us off the same lee shore we’re headed for just round the corner.  I am home where I belong.

 

All aboard, I spin her round and we’re away.  Assessing the situation, the general consensus is to hold her off and let the tide rise.  I take us alongside, close to her keel, thinking if she’s sat there then we’re good here, I know the reef is pretty flat.  We spent many a moment as kids in Oppies stuck and wading around that very spot in these conditions.

 

We have a chat with the skipper.  The boat is at present anchored at her bow.  We suggest transferring his anchor into the ILB so we can set it for him upwind and he can kedge himself off as the tide rises.  We’re at around mid range, so the rise is quick enough. He has 30m of chain and then rope. We get all the chain on board before I reverse us out slowly while he makes off the warp on the bow paying out the slack to us.  Gradually some load comes on, we run out of warp and start paying out the chain. All of a sudden “pop” she’s away….

 

And now heading straight for us at full speed.  Now, I am well used to my tows of dinghies overtaking me under their own momentum, or a gust of wind, but not under full power and aiming straight for us.  This yacht has a white hull and red antifoul, it came very close to us. I somehow managed to dodge the yacht and then spin the ILB round so both boats are now pointing the same way and I can pace the yacht.  At this point we still have her anchor and all the chain in the ILB, they have the other end of the warp around a cleat. The experience of the crew meant the warp was quickly untied from the anchor chain in our boat, no discussion or instruction needed, just experience and intuition.  I’m just trying to hold her steady in the sweet spot between the bow and stern waves. We both succeed and our rather unusual “tow” is released.

 

Next, to get them on a mooring.  No visitors moorings in the harbour it would seem. No wonder no one wants to visit!  There is a harbour mooring free, but the buoy has no strops on it, making it impossible to pass a line through the ring without the aid of a dinghy.  Now we are not in the tropics, we are on a lee shore with a choppy force 5 making things tricky. And of course, it is cold, we don’t just hop in a dinghy here, especially one you have to inflate and then row!  They had a couple of attempts at getting the bow close enough to the mooring for us to pass a line through. With an interesting and somewhat unconventional mooring method, where I once again saw too much of that red antifoul, we got a line through the ring and back to the yacht.  He made it fast, I backed us the hell out of there quickly, with some assistance from the wind pushing us out before the line went tight and he made it fast. Phew!

 

We tie up alongside and I am sent on board to help sort the mooring out with him.  We double the lines up, both still rigged to slip as we realise he would otherwise have to leave a line on the mooring.  Not ideal, but it set good on a bridle with and independent back up. The skipper was happy with it.

 

Meanwhile the other lads have realised that the other person on board is still gripping the wheel and not looking too great.  While I’m messing with lines, the knowledge, understanding and people skills of our team come out. They are quickly aware of a potential situation and have in in control and resolved, without any of a word needed between our crew.  It turns out it was a visiting yacht with two people on board, they had just completed a nine and a half hour passage, slogging against the wind, to arrive here and hit the unmarked reef. At a guess they slowed down as they ran aground leaving the wind to do the rest, she was pinned on the lee shore, fortunately on a rising tide.

 

Less than an hour from the pager going we are “Back on Station and ready for service”.  

 

Night in the forest

As a result of the Yachtmaster Ocean adventure I found myself at a rather extreme job interview for a sailing round the world opportunity of a lifetime.  

I’d made it to the second interview stage, which turned out to be a team building weekend, from which my legs are just about recovering. So while the kit list had specified trainers, leggings, boot camp gym gear, it had also stated that “rest assured we are not assessing your personal fitness in any sense”.  Thus I had placed more hope in the second statement and imagined that while some light exercise might be involved, I’d be ok.

 

I arrived early and settled in to our accommodation, noting the piece of paper titled “Sunday Breakfast”, today being Friday I am already beginning to suspect that we will not be waking up here tomorrow morning.  Over the course of the next few hours it transpired that a total of eight girlies had been invited to attend this weekend, all with one thing in common, we are sailors. Needless to say, with everyone being of a like minded ilk, it was easy to settle and feel relaxed in this company.  After a final half hour of general nervous female faff, we were dressed in the prescribed gym gear, equipped with water bottle, torch, watch, warmer layers and ready for role call.

 

We were introduced to our course leaders, which should have given a good inkling of what was to lie ahead.  Leading the course was a former Red Arrows pilot, two former and one current Marines. Introductions over we were stripped of name and given a numbered bib to wear “to make it easy for observers to identify us”, then piled into a mini bus and driven to a short sharp flint shingle beach.  And then the exercise began. I had read the term “boot camp” lightly, it would appear this was a large under estimation on my part. A 15 minute jog for the warm-up, across the shingle beach…. Now back in 2015 I did a lot of running as part of my training regime for the Island Games, since 2015 I think the only running I have done is to the car when the RNLI pager goes off.  I’m not sure if I’m going to survive the warm-up, let alone the rest of the course.

 

However, some kind of exercise familiarity does kick in and I get through the jog and stretches without embarrassing myself too much.  Next up came boot camp. We were split into pairs, one had to run along the shingle to a fence, turn round and run back along grass. While one was running, the other had some kind of circuit type exercise, lunges, sit-ups, press-ups, and various other shock to the system stuff.  I hate running, I’m good at sprinting, but anything more and I am just not built for it. I went for it though, I’d already realised that the only purpose of it all was not to quit, it wasn’t an option. I’d run all the way, even though I wanted to stop, then still find a bit more to sprint the end, but after a few laps the sprint ends were resulting me vomiting in a hedge.  Probably not the best sight by the kids play park on a Friday evening, but hey, I didn’t choose it! But each time I’d pick myself up and get on with the circuit things, finding these a huge relief to the run. In fact the lie down and lift your legs in the air exercise was probably the only thing keeping my body from total state of lactic acid induced shock! After about two hours of this torture it ended and we watched a beautiful big red sunset behind the docks.  

 

Back in the minibus and now we are being driven even further away from our caravan site.  As we pass through the city the penny begins to drop and I suspect we are about to spend the night in the forest.   Sure enough our chariot delivers us to a a car park, just as dusk is falling. “You only need to carry your water bottles, nothing else” were our instructions and thus we began a brisk march through across the moors and through the forest.   

 

It is a clear, still night and the stars start to make themselves known as the twilight sets in.  There is a chill in the air but the walking pace is enough to keep warm. There is plenty of chatter as we begin getting to know each other over the course of the next few hours.  The walk passes quickly, when I looked at my watch it was 2300, it felt like only half an hour had passed. We were lucky in many respects, there had been a long spell with little rain, so the ground was dry underfoot and rivers were just trickling streams small enough to jump over.  It was around midnight that we reached a car and two of the leaders waiting for us. “This is the halfway point” one of them said. None of us girls seemed at all phased by this and were prepared to keep walking. A dry clear night walking round a forest with a group of like minded new friends was an easy stint for any of us.  Worse things happen at sea and all that.

 

They were joking and ushered us through a narrow path to a small campfire.  This is where we would pitch camp. We were split into two teams, each team given a large ground sheet, a topsheet canopy, four lengths of rope and four pegs.  “You’ve got 20 minutes to build your camp. We were quick to come up with adequate shelters for the night. The large ground sheets folded in half, the topsheets over a line between two trees, four pegs in at the corners, some sticks incorporated for additional pegs and voila, two tents.  Again I am counting our blessings that it is not raining, how different this would all be if it was.

 

Next up we are gathered again at the fire for a brain testing puzzle.  We are each given the same puzzle, to work out the best way of getting something from point A to point B.  There are three different route options. In essence it is a mathematical speed, time, distance puzzle but with some additional complications for each different route.  I can feel the tired setting in to my brain and am aware that my thoughts are flowing much more slowly. It is a familiar feeling, problem solving and navigation on the dog watches or the middle of the night lifeboat shouts.  I know how I operate in this state, so I double and triple check my answers.

 

Again split into two teams to discuss the choices we had made.  It was pretty simple in that all on my team had the right answer, the two young ‘uns whose brains were working at a much faster pace than mine (one a junior doctor used to the night shifts!).  Then followed a group discussion with both teams. This might have been a brave move on the part of the leader, inviting eight women to talk. Sure enough he was bombarded with our logic, reasoning and thought processes as to how we had come up with the answer.  We had all come up with the right answer, the leader seemed slightly confused, the poor guy had struggled to keep up with a conversation that us girlies had followed seamlessly all the way through.

 

“Morale is far too high here” he remarked at the end of the exercise as he announced that it was now bedtime, we would be up at 0530, there must be two people on fire watch through the night.  For a group of sailors a rotating watch pattern was the obvious solution and quickly one of the girls had a rota which fairly included everyone. When our team numbers were allocated earlier I had been given number 2, a winner at this point as it gave me the first watch, meaning that the few hours sleep I would get tonight would at least be unbroken.  

 

The two of us on first watch set about gathering enough wood to keep the fire going all night, the long dry spell meaning there was a plentiful supply.  With no kettle available or means of making a hot drink, which in the middle of a cold night is always welcome, I took the lid off my water bottle and put the bottle in the fire, at this point I am very pleased with my choice of metal water bottle.  

 

The rotating watch pattern meant that I sat with one person for 45 minutes and then a different person for the last part of the shift.  This was a really great of getting to know people a little better. I sat in awe of the young lady in front of me as she told me about her time working in Antarctica, spending three months sailing between Ushuaia and the frozen continent.  

 

At 0215 I leave the fire, wake up the next watch and snuggle in to the most comfortable and warmest sleeping bag I have ever been in.  We had been given an army issue roll up mattress and these wonderful sleeping bags. It is cold outside, the air is still, clear and crisp.  We are up at 0530, it will be colder then. I take off most of my layers so that I have layers to put on in the morning. My right leg and hip are hurting, no doubt from the shock of sudden onset exercise earlier.  The mattress is a welcome couple of inches between me and ground, but I can feel the cold getting in to my bones and my joints.

 

At 0520 I wake to a voice announcing the time.  It would appear that I have slept! In fact I slept so deeply that I didn’t even notice the girly next to me getting in after her watch.  It was a beautiful morning to wake up to. The birds are already starting to busy themselves and sing in the trees, there is no wind, the fire is still crackling somewhere, the forest is still and the hazy morning mist makes everywhere look atmospheric.  I smile, these guys are trying to find our breaking points and I’m enjoying this amazing treat. I can’t think of any other circumstances I would find myself here, waking up with the forest on an early summer day.

 

I move to put my layers on.  My right leg and hip hurt a lot now, I hobble out of the tent.  “You’ll only need your water bottles” that phrase again, the phrase that each time implies impending physical exercise.  Sure enough, it is 0530 and we are jogging….. Jogging through a forest, I am beginning to question my sanity! This is without doubt a first for me, ever.  My leg hurts a lot, I am hoping as I warm up the muscles will loosen off. “F**k, ow, f*ck, ow” becomes my mantra with ever step, it really is hurting. I am not as young as I used to be, recovery time is much slower.  I struggle through the jog, but I finish it. Next up it is fleeces off, since the jog was just the warm up, we have some more exercise, more intensive exercise to endure. I’m hurting and I’m hobbling, but I am there, I show up, no complaints, ready to go.  One of the leaders looks at me and just says “No, not you. We are not here to injure you, you need to able to enjoy the rest of the weekend, go and sit by the fire and rest.” “Can I take the tents down and make breakfast?” I ask. “No” was the firm answer.

 

There is another girl who is also stood down from exercise, she is carrying injuries from a car crash a few years ago.  I feel bad that the rest of the team are going through some kind of torture, I also feel some relief that I am not. I enjoy the forest, the trees are soooo tall, the sunlight shines through the spring green of the young leaves and all that life is waking up to the shift in the seasons.

 

At around 7am a chap appears through trees carrying tea and coffee, mugs, milk sugar, the works.  We touch any of it until our team gets back.

 

The runners soon returned and my world was restored with a hot sweet mug of tea, and then another one.  On the menu was oats made with almond milk, which made a fine combination, pain au chocolate and of course more tea.  It was a fairly high carb, but low protein breakfast, I’m more accustomed to getting through a day on a couple of eggs and some bacon!

 

Breakfast over and tents stowed away we were piled back into the mini bus for whatever our next endurance test would be.  It was sunny already and it looked like a hot day ahead. We arrived at an expanse of moorland. Out of the van and straight into a brain testing puzzle.

 

We had a series of pieces and a set of instructions, the idea being a race against time to complete it.  Once again this group of girls figured it out and to came up with a quick solve. After repeating the exercise again, now broken into two teams racing each other, there was a debrief, drink of water and then the next test.

 

Now we are being set a search and rescue exercise, a parachuter and a parachutist have gone down, somewhere in this expanse of moors.  They are in two different locations. We have to find both and have both items back here by a certain time.

 

We were given a map and a compass.  Now, my “map” reading skills are akin to Baldrick’s in Blackadder Goes Forth.  “Chart” is my sphere of navigation and walking around with a “map” head up rather than north up is alien to me. It turns out that we have around 8 or 9km to cover and an hour and ten minutes to do it in.  

 

Our pace is too slow to start with, we do pick it up, but not enough.  We do find the parachute, but it has taken us more than half the time to cover half the distance.  It is a real push for the finish, we are jogging. My legs hurts with every step, but we’ve got to jog, got to move faster.  I keep trying to encourage the team to keep moving, keep calling out the time counting down. The Instructor with us is saying “that is the last hill, you can still do this in time” we keep moving.  

 

I find a boost from somewhere, I feel strong on my legs and I remember those days spent running at the Chasms and Spanish Head, it feels good.  I feel ever better to see that the unfit 37 year old in me can still outrun a 24 year old who has a figure for cross country! “This is the last hill, you can do it if you push”.  Push I did, up the hill, lungs straining, legs weakening, feeling like a knackered old donkey and guessing I look like one too. I get to the top, I can feel the acid building up in my stomach and for the second time this weekend I am vomiting in a hedge.  But I will not quit.

 

My body might be in the process of quitting, but it is not going to quit, my mind is set on getting through the last couple of hundred yards.  On my third near collapse I am told “sit down in that bit of shade, cool down, get your heart rate down, drink water” I don’t argue. I hadn’t realised that my heart rate is actually through the roof, I’m wrapped up in leggings, big socks and trainers, it is a hot day.  I am amazed by what the body will do to keep the mind happy, I hadn’t really noticed any of the physiological signs happening, “nearly there, keep going…”

 

There was some kind of debrief at the end, I got a special well done for not quitting, I didn’t care, I was disappointed at being let down by a lack of fitness (and lack of eggs for breakfast).  I was glad it was over. I didn’t quit.

 

At the end of all that we are back at the start in blazing sunshine.  Shoes and socks are off and we are trying to cool down. Our next challenge is another problem solver.  Four facing four with one space between the two sides. “You can move forward one or round one, but not backwards, you must all swap places ending up on the opposite side, you have one hour to solve it”.  The Marines and the Red Arrows guy sat down to observe how we would tackle this. It took us less than five minutes to solve their puzzle! Apparently they have seen corporate high flyers take the full hour and still not solve it. “How?” I wondered.

 

They weren’t sure if it was because we were women, or because we were sailors, used to working in cooperation with other people, often strangers, or perhaps a combination of both, but everything that was thrown at us thus far we have risen to the challenge and exceeded expectations.

 

Lunch was a welcome break taken sat in the shade, which then became a “tell us about yourself and why you applied for the job” session.  It was interesting to hear everyone’s stories and backgrounds. There were people there who have sailed to places I can only dream of going.

 

All fed and watered, stories shared it was back to the bus and driven whatever fate they had in store for us next.  Which turned out to be an afternoon on a high ropes course. Oh my word, this was good fun. There were helmets and harnesses on the ground, one for each of us and before the instructor had turned round to introduce himself, this crowd of sailor girls had gotten ourselves into the gear, no instruction required.  “This is going to be an easy afternoon then” he said as he took us to what is basically an enormous climbing frame in the forest with the highest parts being up in the canopy.

 

We are led to a pole, not much wider than a telegraph pole with kind of laddery ledges each side of it to climb up.  At the top there is a platform not much bigger than a bread board, we have to get up on to that…. I was in the last pair to go, thus had a good idea what to expect.  While I might not have the aerobic fitness for cross country events, I do have the upper body and core strength for climbing. Getting up the pole was no problem, just climb…..  The bread board platform at the top was a bit trickier, having to negotiate a small overhang and then get your two feet on there and stand up with nothing to grab on to. A bit of teamwork from the girls on the ropes at the bottom and between us we have my weight supported and I bend my legs up and stand up.  Phew! Made it. Now the tricky bit… the bit where I realised that I am now a long way up and it looks a long way down. I see the vertigo in my peripheral vision, simple fix, I stop looking down! I’m in the canopy of the trees, I can see tops of the trees stretching out in front of me, everything is green and dancing in the early summer sun.  It is a beautiful sight, and one I don’t expect I’ll see again. Deep breath and all is good.

 

Climbing up after me is my partner for this task.  She has made it to the platform and is now negotiating herself over the ledge.  “I’m going to grab round your knees, now round your hips…” I do my best to stand still and to keep my sight on the horizon.  It doesn’t take long before the two of us are toe to toe and face to face on this bread board at the top of a forest. Now were are instructed to hold each other’s elbows, now drop out to forearms, lean back, now wrists, lean back more…this is a huge trust exercise!….. “Now hold hands, lean out more, stretch it out to fingertips” we obligingly and successfully follow all the instructions, including one to “swap hands” which took a little coordination, but we weren’t beaten.

 

Last up in that exercise put me first up in the next exercise, basically scale and cross three levels of wire rope each level with a higher degree of difficulty.  The first has three ropes to grab as you cross, each just out of arm’s reach I quickly discover. I’m quick across this one then up a ladder to the next level, a balance beam at a decent height.  “I have to walk across this?” I ask “Yes, they all nod”. Right ho, it is just like the balancing act of walking down the narrow rail of the Suzanna to get to my own boats at home, I can do this. I look straight ahead and put one foot in front of the other… and I make it to the other side.  Up the next ladder and now I’m on a wire with a rope hand hold which is on a diagonal, as is the other on the opposing diagonal, so the ropes cross, but they cross over down near foot height and there is some slack in both. I’m on the wire, facing the rope with it in my hands, I find the balance point by leaning forwards onto the rope.  This is familiar territory, it reminds me of being on the yards in the rigging on a tall ship, I’ve got this. The crossover was tricky, by with a little leap of balance faith I made it across and abseiled back down. What a blast, I loved that!

 

There was some muttering about a raft building exercise, but that seemed to vanish and after the high ropes course that was it, we were taken back to the caravan site, for showers and some well earned rest!  At a barbeque put on for us that evening, it was revealed by the project’s Shore Manager that they did intend to send us to get wet, but she had put her foot down “your not putting them in the minibus soaking wet, I’ve got to take it back to the hire company!” “they can get changed outside” he had said.  “They are women, they are not getting changed outside in the open, this is enough”. Thank goodness for that! We had dealt with everything they had thrown at us in cooperation and good cheer, there was no need for more.

 

And once again thank goodness for that!  There was some talk of a torturous mud run yet to come, and the low water at The River looked like the perfect place.  We were spared that and instead treated to a gentle morning of chat about high performance teams and the Belbin test that we had been asked to complete before the weekend.  The final part was yet another one of those tell us about yourself exercises, “why you should get the job and what your weaknesses are”. I really struggle with all this, I’m a practical, hands on person and the whole group chat thing is not in my comfort zone.  I blurt out some kind of words that seem appropriate, but who knows. Three of the girls each started with “When I heard you were the skipper I applied…. “ three jobs, three girls, the penny should have dropped then.

 

But after a tour of the boat and a few PR shots I got on the train and started the long journey home, exhausted but in a good place.  I felt proud of myself and the grit and determination I had shown, I’d been cheerful, had a laugh, spent a beautiful night in the forest, I’d met a great crowd of people, made some new friends and I really thought I was in with a chance.

First World Problems

#firstworldproblems we say jovially, since there is no other way to cope with the reality of the truth.  To consider the #firstworldproblem we have just identified in any detail is to open a huge can of worms, we disappear down the r*bbit hole.

I do the dishes, look at the washing up liquid and I know I am contributing to a lasting scourge on the earth that will outlive me, the bottle is plastic and the contents “Harmful to aquatic life”. 

I am bombarded by advertising trying to entice me to “buy this” “aspire to this” “be like them” “the perfect lifestyle”, I think I am ignoring it, yet I can name more company logos than I can plants in my garden.  

It is near impossible to buy food which does not come in plastic packaging, hasn’t been grown without chemicals and hasn’t had cancer causing preservatives added.   I pick up “food” in the supermarket, read the ingredients label and see more chemicals listed than foodstuffs, I put it back.  Palm oil is hidden in so many products under so many different names that I cannot avoid it.  Every time I eat I am poisoning myself, I have little choice.   And we wonder why our children suffer mental health problems.

And I am one of the lucky ones, I live on an island where organic veg is easy to find, our diary cows enjoy range of the fields are well tended too, milk doesn’t come much fresher.  We can eat fish, crab and lobster on the same day it was caught.  But all of this comes at a price to the consumer. 

A price I can fully understand, I have seen and worked in the places our food comes from.  I can’t afford to buy the high quality foods all the time, but when I can I try to.  Again I am one of the lucky ones, my partner grows veg for us in the garden, I have friends and family with allotments, from whom I have had the joy of the finest tasting cabbage, peas and cauliflower.  All plastic free, all local and all with a flavour that gets lost in the supermarket.  But I still have to use the supermarkets, whose economies of scale keep us stuck in the trap.  And I am one of the lucky ones.

#firstworldproblems we say.  Take the plunge down the r*bbit hole I say.  If we make a one degree alteration to our course, and then another degree we can steer ourselves slowly and surely toward a new destination.  Right now I’m not too sure where I’m going to start, but I am going to start, that is the helm being turned toward that new destination.

 

 

 

BEEEEEP BEEEEEP BEEEEOOOOEEEEOOOO…..

Was the rude awaking of the RNLI pager going off at 0654 this morning, mostly asleep and slightly confused I stumbled around the bedroom for tracksuit bottoms and as many warm layers as came to hand, boots by the front door, car keys in the usual place and off out into the darkness.  At this point I still had no idea what time it actually was, I had been sound asleep, so it could have been any time between 0200 and 0800, once I’d turned the key in the car ignition the clock showed 0656.   It still looked like the middle of the night, dark, but a clear night with stars, ah lovely, I thought.

 

This hour of the winter morning gave me a clear drive through the village to the boathouse, which was a treat in itself.  I wondered what the shout could be, the scallop grounds are closed, so unlikely to be a scalloper within the 12 mile limit anyway, leisure craft – I immediately dismissed that idea, lobster boat seemed unlikely in the dark too.   I get to the boathouse and am fifth in the door, my second treat of the day, I’ve actually made it on to the shout!  

 

It is a call for the ALB (big boat), the only information we have as we get our gear on and launch the boarding boat, is the call is to a small fishing vessel which has broken down 2 miles east of Langness.  Coxswain asks for the time of high water, I check, 0637, 4.9m.  I am still not awake enough to trust my eyes and judgement, another crewman takes a look, now confirmed with four eyes and two brains we can go.  

 

We launch the boarding boat, climb aboard and head out to the lifeboat, taking care to dodge the string of lobster pots between us and the boat.  All aboard and I’m in the wheelhouse, first job turn the breakers for the nav equipment on, the work front to back, radar, GPS, chartplotter, other GPS.  With our helmsman patiently reading our compass heading (which keeps changing as we swing on the mooring) I get the radar setup with heading, nav input and speed data, then sit down in the nav seat and look at the chartplotter.  RNLI Laserplot looks different today…  We have a new system running, it has been installed while I was away in the Atlantic, yikes!  We do have the same system on the ILB, which I can use fairly competently, but today I sit in the nav seat and my pre cup of tea brain is functioning in its usual way (breathing, moving and basic speech only).  It takes me a couple of minutes to forget my friend Laserplot and meet my new pal SIMMs, with some additional input from most of the crew we get our route on the system.  Fortunately this hasn’t caused us delay, we already know the way to Langness, radar is up and running and there is plenty of visibility to make out the lighthouse there.

 

Once we round the corner at Langness we see one boat well light up and in the right sort of place so we start to head towards it, an update from the coastguard gives our casualty position as being more to the east, so it isn’t the boat we can see.  Our mechanic is talking to the casualty on the VHF, the casualty vessel has a good bright torch which he now flashes for us, and bingo, we are now sure we see him.   The dawn is starting to break now too and it is cold, but with the dawn light our job gets easier.

 

The plan is to get the boat in tow, so our crew are on deck preparing the tow line.  The boat itself is only a very small fibreglass powerboat with Z drive and small wheelhouse with two guys on board, the ILB could have done this job!  Our coxswain brings us alongside the small boat, we want to pass the tow line and make if off to their bow.  They have somehow had an oil spill in their boat too and the decks are like an ice rink.  It is almost impossible for one of them to negotiate the narrow rail round the wheelhouse and on to the bow.  While we have hold of them alongside, our quick thinking and long legged mechanic hops over the rail, onto their bow.  I pass him the tow line, he makes if off on their cleat and hops back over the rail onto the lifeboat.  Job done, vessel in tow and we sit tight, making 3.5 knots through the water, luckily the Irish Sea is pushing past Langess at almost three knots, it is going to take just over an hour to get back to Port St Mary.

 

I didn’t put any thick socks on before I left the house and by now, with just a thin pair in my boots, my feet are freezing and it is making the rest of me cold too.  Later today I will take a pair of welly socks to the boathouse for the future, being out all night like this would be very very unpleasant and being that bit chilly sure slows down your thoughts and movements.

 

On the plus side, the sun rose some time around 0830 and it was a lovely morning.  The white anvil shaped clouds over the island were lit up with pretty pink colour.  It was a treat to watch the dawn at sea, although the last time I saw sunrise at sea I was in the tropics, shorts, t-shirt, sextant!

 

As we were coming back round Langness the waves were starting to pick up as the tide was increasing against the wind, it was pretty rocky in our big boat, so I’d say it would have been fairly uncomfortable in the little thing we were towing.  As we headed further inshore it all settled down again into a comfortable tow and we in the harbour within a hour of picking them up.  

 

Next we needed to get the stranded casualty alongside the harbour wall, the Inner Harbour was going to be the best option for this little boat, so the plan was to stop at our mooring, put a couple of crew in the boarding boat and use that to tow them into the harbour.  In another one of those “make a call quickly” moments it was me that ended up in the boarding boat.  I started her up and went back to the lifeboat to collect another crewman and then off to take the casualty vessel in an alongside tow, while our big boat went to refuel.  It was a nice easy job on a flat calm day.  Leaving our big boat to go a refuel we took the casualty to the harbour and left them alongside a ladder with a phone number for the local boat services.  

 

I don’t know much about angling, but if it means getting up in the dark to go and sit on a cold boat for no pay, I don’t think it is a pastime for me.

 

 

Lady Captain and the Old Gaffer

“Lady captain, lady captain” came the cry from below the harbour wall “You made it back safely.”

The pieces began to fall into place when my very able and dapper looking crewman reminded me of the day’s events.

I’d been tasked to take “Daddys yacht” out in a Parade of Sail that afternoon. By Daddy’s Yacht” please adjust your thoughts to a 23ft gaffer. This is no ordinary gaffer though, she was a former racing hull which Dad had salvaged from a field, removed the deck and topsides and rebuilt as an open dayboat, a gaff rigger with aluminium spars, asymmetric spinnaker and high profile lifting keel complete with Melges 24 bulb on the bottom.

 

Dad being double booked and unable to take part in both the boat building and sailing events simultaneously, meant that daughter was given command of the part gaffer part race machine Genesta II, with instructions to “go and show her off in the Parade of Sail”.

So, I assembled a crew who mostly arrived suitably attired for the occasion. First in the door was our able and dapper crewman, dressed in Dubarry’s, bright red trousers and pin-stripe shirt. Upon seeing this our second crewman reappeared after a quick wardrobe change, now sporting a shirt and full Tweed. Lady Captain herself wearing the sailor’s classic “Number 1s” outfit a short skirt, shirt and blue blazer, the look being completed with a suitably tacky white scarf with blue anchors all over it and a pair of Aviators sunnies.

Son was the final crew member, my little brother was apparently the only one of us who had heard “sailing” in the event title, the rest had clearly just heard “parade”, yes here he was wearing actual waterproofs in the form of the finest Gill sailing gear.

Genesta is tied up on the pontoons, but with just inches of water under her. We get on board and after some head scratching manage to rig the mainsail with its heaven knows how many halyards. The jib was considerably simpler once we’d found the clutch with “Furl” staring at us. Sitting on a gaff rigger repeating the asymmetric “tack on sheet” mantra was an unusual experience. We looked at the lines several times and several times again, looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and hoped for the best.

There is a 5hp outboard on the back for marina manoeuvres, which is fortunate as there is not a huge amount of room in the marina and we’ve got to wait for a bridge swing to get out. We cast off the lines and make our way slowly toward the bridge. We are a few minutes early and there are plenty of other boats also trying to hold station, or more frequently spinning round in circles, waiting for the bridge. Being in what is essentially a 23ft dinghy we saw no harm in “just going alongside that yacht and hanging on to it for a couple of minutes”. So we did and we chatted to the fellas on the yacht as we waited “We’re taking Daddy’s yacht out in the Parade” we announced to them. After a brief and jovial exchange the bridge opened and we were on our way out into the open sea.

 

The Parade of Sail was less of a parade and more of a sail where you can affair. It is a Traditional Boat Festival and there were all manner of antiques bobbing around, slowly. And so we were off, trimmed hard to the wind to gain the upwind advantage, which to be fair we already had, given that we were one of the few boats that could actually sail upwind. With a suitable amount of ground made to weather we bore away and hoisted the kite. And there we were, flying around, scorching past a century’s worth of history, in this modern toy which proudly bears its very own genuine Old Gaffer’s Association stamp. It was a cracking afternoon’s sail, plenty of breeze and some nice rolling waves. Feeling we’d done our bit for Dad, there was a bridge swing and we were thirsty it made sense to head back in, put the boat to bed and open a can.

And so it was, walking down the quay later that day as the cry of “lady captain” came, our dapper crew member pointed out that “those fellas probably thought we were completely clueless with our ‘taking Daddy’s yacht out’ dressed in our ‘yachting gear’ charade.” No wonder they seemed surprised to see us back safe!

 

Exam Day

Wednesday morning I cleaned out my cabin, packed my gear and said goodbye to the boat.  I walked back up to the sailing school arriving at 0900, “Come on in, sit down, here is the exam paper, you have 2 hours” the Examiner said to me cheerfully.  “Wow” I thought, this is the first hint of confirmation from another human being  that I might have actually got my head round this! 

I sat down and all my familiar friends were back around me, Almanac, plotter, dividers, plotting sheet.  I felt very comfortable, until I started to work through the paper.  I realised this was the first time I had worked through the calculation process without a pro-forma to copy from.  There was a brief moment of panic, but it was short lived.  My hand just started writing the figures down in the right order.  Of course!  Having done this repeatedly daily for the last month I really had learned it.  The answers flowed quickly, I’d finished with plenty of time to spare and handed the paper over to the Examiner.  

 

Next was a oral assessment, which was basically questions and answers about the trip.  How had I organised the watches, provisioning, routing, currents, weather patterns, ongoing maintenance, stores, power considerations etc etc.  The way the trip had panned out couldn’t have been better for me in many respects, since I genuinely had done and could prove all of the above.

 

 At the end of it the Examiner shook my hand and gave me a sealed envelope to post to the RYA once I got back to the UK.  I had successfully done it, sat and passed the RYA Yachtmaster Ocean exam!!  It turned out that 30 years ago the Examiner had also set off out into the Atlantic with sextant and instruction books and taught himself, thus he was suitably impressed with my efforts.

I had just enough time for a beer with my shipmates before the taxi arrived to take me to the airport.  Skipper was over the moon for me, having seen me drowning in a world of books and numbers, bordering on insanity for weeks. 

And that was that, airport and a couple of planes later I arrive home to a large bunch of flowers, a lit fire and a newly installed electric blanket!  I felt like I had just taken an exam and then had a really long bus journey home, so I insisted we drank Antigua Rum by the fire in the middle of this Thursday afternoon.

The 3 ton library had made it back home, I put my bags down and my thermals on.  

Holed up in port, or out at sea? I sure know where I’d rather be.

A crazy few days occurred in Antigua.  Friday started with a bit of a rum coma and turned in to a slow day.  Speedophobia was setting in, so keeping my eyes closed most of the day seemed a good option. 

I’d make contact with an Antigua based friend who I had sailed a race with in the BVIs last winter.  He’d invited me for a sail with them on the Saturday.  So Saturday was an adventure to Jolly Harbour on the west side of Antigua.  A lift had been arranged for me from outside a sailing school in Falmouth Harbour, so at 0900 on Saturday I had escaped Nelson’s Dockyard and the confines of the last 30 days.  Aaaaaaah, that’s better.  An enjoyable day full of youth, laughter, sailing, guys with shirts on and of course more rum with Team Liquid was just what was needed.

I woke up on Sunday, two things surprised me.  Waking up was one of them, waking up back on my boat was the second.  There was a hazy golf cart memory floating round my head, an unquenchable thirst in my mouth and I was hungry.  

On Monday things started to get a little hectic and I really wasn’t sure what to do next, but I knew I had already had enough of being holed up in port with no work or purpose.  

I had found a Yachtmaster Ocean examiner at sailing school I passed the other day.  There might be the chance for me to sit the exam here, which would save a trip to the UK for the exam.  There was a boat heading to the BVI and looking for crew to get there, leaving on Tuesday afternoon.  To add to this I had been invited to a meeting which could lead to a really good opportunity for work in Antigua, the meeting was also on Tuesday afternoon. 

 

What to do?  I had no work guaranteed in the BVI, nor a return ticket, so entering by sea could make things tricky for the boat.  The meeting in Antigua sounded more promising. 

There were other things on my mind too, like the three ton of celestial navigation library that I was carrying round and the Speedos… 30 days of them…  The decider was finding a flight home for £126 leaving on Wednesday.  This was too cheap to miss, cheaper than two more days in Antigua, my eyes agreed.  

So Tuesday I donned my best flip flops and went to a meeting at a resort on the east side of the Island.  My taxi driver insisted on giving me a tour out to Devil’s Bridge at no extra cost, he was enjoying a day out.   

Later that day I delivered all of my celestial navigation notes, charts and logbook to a Yachtmaster Ocean Examiner.  I was to return in the morning and would either be sitting the exam, or getting a couple of hours of tuition, depending on whether he could make head nor tail of my “Learn yerself astro nav course”.

 

Day 24. Dolphins at dawn…. Land Ho

My day starts at 0200, I come on deck to find the wind has dropped, we turn the motor on.  It had been raining so it was too wet to sit out on deck and enjoy what is hopefully the last night of stars.  

Skipper is still flapping that we haven’t enough fuel to get there.  I am sure that we have.   There is still more than ¼ of a tank in each (around 250 miles at best estimate) there are only 70 miles to go now.  Ok, so the gauges are up and down because fuel is low and sloshing around, but there is plenty of sloshing and therefore fuel.  All being well we’ll be in later today.  Once we’re a bit closer he should hopefully have the confidence to go with two engines and put the hammers down, my enthusiasm for spending a whole night bobbing around looking at Antigua tomorrow night is nil!

The clock changed again in the night as we passed 060W, which is handy because firstly I got an extra hour in bed and more importantly it buys us another hour to get into Antigua in the daylight.

 

There is a lot of low cloud around and on the horizon I can see the unmistakable loom of lights indicating land. Similar to the haze you see over Liverpool and Belfast way some evenings, no one else had spotted it, I guess it must be an island thing.  

On my starboard bow is one hazy light patch and to port another hazy light patch.  My instinct says I’m looking at Antigua to starboard and Guadeloupe to port.  I get the hand bearing compass out and take, what I know is a very very rough fix.  Sure enough 285 mag to Antigua and 240 mag to Guadeloupe, a quick plot of this fix on the chart makes perfect sense and is within 9 miles of GPS.  For a rough rough fix 70 miles out using just the indicators of land it gives an acceptable confirmation of our position for now.

 

The dawn creeps in beautifully and I get a star fix with all seven stars the Book gives me, plus Polaris too, so after 24 hours with no sun, I have a good fix for our approach.  I estimate around 50 miles to run, having chosen the furthest west position of the cocked hat, giving me worst case scenario from my fix.  Sure enough the line between my two star fixes runs exactly through my hazy land lights fix too – mighty!  

Then the day (which hadn’t really started yet) got even better. Just before the sun rose we were greeted by a welcome party of dolphins!! There must have been about 20 odd of them, common dolphins I think, small and very playful.  They spend about 5 minutes playing around our bow, leaping out of the water and doing tricks.   I told the lads they were there, but by the time they left the “wheelhouse” the dolphins were gone, to so those guys were just for me – wonderful.

 

Burger and chips for tea tonight I hope!!!!!!

 

Well the morning was rather tense, to tense for sleeping.  The skipper was fretting about fuel, thinking we weren’t going to make it in daylight.  At this speed (one engine at 1600rpm and full sail in 8 knots of breeze giving us the usual 4 knots) we are still pushing it to arrive in daylight.  I am running round shaking reefs out, trimming sails and eeking every fraction of a knot I can get out of her (which is not a lot!).   

At 1015 I get to shout “Land Ho!!” as I see Antigua on the horizon, 30 miles off the starboard bow.  I’m just hoping now that we pick up a bit of sea breeze as we get closer, I’d really like to arrive before the customs office closes at 1700.  Finally, now it is in sight we can start to burn the black smoke a bit, 7 knots and we’re going to make it.  I await phone signal next….

Thoughts of land are making me nervous.  I’ve got butterflies in my stomach and I feel uneasy.  Is it the final pilotage or is it the land itself?  I haven’t really missed it.  People yes, but life on land, no.  That shape on the horizon marks the end to this ship board routine that I have become very much accustomed to.  My celestial companions, my clock, our position will all soon cease to matter.

I go into “harbour mode” and start cleaning out the galley, cupboards, storage spaces.  Partly to burn off this nervous energy and partly thinking the more I do now, the more time I can spend on the beach.

We close on Antigua over the next few hours.  Phone signal is my first contact with the outside world for 24 days and apparently “all is well” out there.  

The approach to English Harbour is fairly straightforward and we are anchored by 1530.  Shirts and shoes on, ship’s papers in hand, we drop the James Bond tender platform and head ashore to clear customs, drink rum and eat burgers.

Staring at me on the wall of the Galley Bar at Nelson’s Dockyard was the Three Legs of Man and the names of shipmates from home written next to it.   I drank rum… quite a lot of rum.  Back at the boat and although it is dark all of those stars are gone, just the brightest making themselves known above the lights of the land.  I wonder when I will see them all again.  I shall miss them.