Cabin Boy and the Old Gaffers

This weekend (back in June last year) has been engraved in the calendar since the previous summer. The Old Gaffer is determined the not so old gaffer will sail to the Old Gaffers Association trad boats and trad tunes festival across the water.  The Old Gaffer himself is an accomplished fiddle player and this weekend his dream crew includes his talented drummer and percussionist younger brother and the Old Gaffer’s scaffold pipe playing, daughter, who his been relieved from the rank of Lady Captain and will be sailing this trip as Cabin Boy.

 

Many stars have to align for such an occasion, a once in a lifetime family outing, across the sea in a boat built by the Old Gaffer himself, this is the only year they will align.  One of these stars is a drum kit – we are going to take a full drum kit over the sea stowed somewhere on a 23ft open boat. Drummer Boy has found what he describes as a “drum kit in a bag”, it’s a wonder of a thing, an entire drum kit that folds up neatly into a bag just bigger than the bass drum.  Except it didn’t actually come with a bag. A huge chunk of the stars aligning now came down to Cabin Boy, who is also a sail maker, to make said bag. The production presented some challenges, the usual last minute approach being most of the challenge. Some help was drafted in and the (hopefully mostly waterproof) bag was completed.  The Old Gaffer, the not so old gaffer, the Drummer Boy and the Cabin Boy shall go to the ball.

 

The Ball starts on Friday evening.  Muster is 06 what o’clock Friday morning.  It is late June so the sun has been up for a while now, hidden somewhere behind layers and layers of thick grey clouds and near monsoon rainfall which is being propelled by a mighty stiff breeze and of course, the sea is rough!  

 

Drummer Boy and Cabin Boy arrive together, little is said between us, we already know our fate even before we get to the harbour.  Sure enough, at the top of the slipway, the Old Gaffer is ready and waiting for us, dressed in his foul weather gear, with the tender ready to go, I wouldn’t mind be we’re not even late!  No questions asked and few words spoken Drummer Boy and Cabin Boy find all available coats and waterproofs, instruments are loaded on to the tender, then the crew, head to the not so old gaffer on her mooring.  

 

It definitely isn’t calm out here, not even moderate… rough would be the only accurate description of today’s sea state.  We rig the boat with a small jib and two reefs in the gaff rigged main. The whole boat looks pretty cool with its miniature sail plan.  

 

I find this boat slightly odd, in the you sit inboard facing the sails like in dinghy, rather than on the rail like on racing yacht.  It is quite hard to find a comfyish position to brace yourself in to stay on the high side, my legs are just about long enough to reach the centreboard case, while the side deck digs in my shoulder blades.  It is going to be a long trip! It is one of those days that looks rough and windy when you look downwind behind the boat, I decide not to look upwind at what we were going to endure for the next ages… I think of Shackleton and Worsley sailing for South Georgia in an open boat of this size.

 

The first tack out is a fairly long one and we’re stuffing tide, there is no choice at this part of the trip, the plan is governed by the tide and our destination.  It takes forever (probably only an hour really!) to reach a place we can tack to clear the headland. Our next challenge is to fight the tide our first tidal race.

 

We have plenty of sail up for sea, but in the lee between the islands we are a bit under powered.  We take a good run in to the race, but it quickly becomes apparent that our speed over ground is at zero… this could take a while!  The Old Gaffer hands the helm to Cabin Boy, who lets the boat slide side to the tide straight back out to where we’ve come from. Meanwhile Old Gaffer is lifting a hatch to produce the outboard, which is quickly mounted and now we go for run number two.  Sails trimmed back in, plenty of revs from the small motor and the Old Gaffer back on the helm. He knows this place well, so well that we can almost touch the rocks as he cheats the tide at its weakest point. All the power we can muster and some push from a surging wave and we are through, we’ve escaped the clutches of this island and we’re now crossing the sea.

 

We’ve a better wind angle now and this trip will be a 30 odd mile fetch, it is still pretty breezy and the waves are plenty big enough.  There’s not much traffic out here today, a ship and a couple of hardy fishing boats, but certainly no other yachts or other idiots in open boats that could barely be described as a yachts.  At least the rain has stopped and the horizon is giving way to some hints of hazy yellow to break up the otherwise grey seascape.

 

The hours pass, bobbing about on the sea, dozing, trying to get more comfy, snooze again, try and get comfy, doze, move, doze, move, it is a long day.  Cabin Boy knew the only contents in the buffet car would be a co-op sandwich, chocolate bar and bottle of water each. So, ahead of the game, Cain Boy had prepared a variety of sandwiches, baps and treats. A “banana surprise” dish of pancakes, bananas, chocolate spread, cream and a slosh of rum brings some cheer into an otherwise grey rolly old day.  Out of the non-existent galley this fine picnic appeared for elevenses, or the second breakfast that these rather soggy hobbits we well ready for.

 

The sight of a lone big trawler indicates that we must be getting closer to the other side, the sea state gradually begins to ease to something more akin to moderate and a darker grey stripe appears on the horizon.  Slowly, features start to show in the stripe, a body of hills and curves starts to rise, edging ever closer, the tower of a lighthouse grows on the cliff top. Soon a ray of sun shines through illuminating the white of cottages sitting between the grassy green of summer in the golden dunes.  

 

We have arrived in good tide and our little craft is swept merrily up the lough toward our intended harbour.  The waves have ceased, the sun is showing more, we’ve been seven hours crossing the sea, things are looking brighter now.  We tie up in the marina, our not quite so old gaffer sitting there with hundreds of years of history around her, all this history being our competitors in the race tomorrow.  We hoist our flags and hang our soggy gear on the boom. Dry clothes and drinks being the order of the day.

 

Now, our open boat is equipped with an accomodation suite that is as non-existent as the galley.  Cabin Boy had assumed that, since the date had been in the calendar for so long, some accommodation might have been arranged for us.  The Old Gaffer can’t be that senile yet to have thought he had fitted any bunks or cabins when he built the boat? Maybe he is… Mr Organised does not, in my experience, usually leave such detail to chance.  The Old Gaffer goes off to find us somewhere to stay, he returns having had some degree of success, he has a 30 odd footer belonging to the Harbour Master, who has taken pity on us, Drummer and Cabin Boys are to be hosted aboard a 30 foot antique, which is being sailed (and stayed on) by a couple of, also quite senior, delightful and hospitable Irish gents.  Drummer Boy is given a berth in the saloon and Cabin Boy is in a berth smaller that you’re average coffin. Opposite me about 4 feet away is the berth of one of the fellas. A scour of the town for hotel space makes this town look like Bethlehem at Christmas, no room at the inn, so the boat it is.

 

Evening entertainment was a live band who put on a fine show.  Then some attempts at sleeping in a box, before the big race, well, when I say race it is more of a parade.  There is a start line and a course set, but with some of these boats moving up tide slower than the frantically paddling gulls, it won’t be the kind of race I’m used to.  Sure enough, we are the only boat on the start line at the go and quickly our little not so old gaffer is picking her way upwind. There are some yachts and classic yachts in the race too, including our “hotel”, we are pretty close to one of them all the way round.  Our Old Gaffer wants not just to win, but line honours too!

 

It is a lovely day, the sun is shining and a nice breeze is blowing.  I’m looking back over our transom at the fleet behind. Now, there’s some breeze on, but I’m looking at our “hotel” it is either in one hell of a gust, or something is not quite right, I’m not sure it’s supposed to sail at that angle of heel.  We learn later than our hotel had elected to fill itself with water via a loose pipe in the bilges. The lads had found and fixed the problem and finished the race, although things were by now a little damp inside.

 

We round a windward mark and hoist our asymmetric spinnaker, which I’m guessing is probably the last thing that the guys aboard our nearest competitor were expecting to see.  A lovely couple of kite reaches, but the final leg is more of a run and there is a big lull between us and the line. The local knowledge and conventional kite on the yacht saw her break ahead for line honours, followed shortly by this racing gaffer.  The other thing our competitors could not have known is that our underwater profile more closely resembles an America’s Cup racing yacht with high aspect ratio bulb keel! The Old Gaffer is just here to have some fun since the not so old gaffer qualifies because with her Old Gaffers Association plate proudly displayed at the stern. Even with handicaps applied our Old Gaffer had won the race, he was pleased.

 

The evening entertainment was provided by the diddling trio from our boat joined by a singer and guitarist, a piper, squeeze box and a bar full of enthusiastic voice.  The drum kit came out of the bag and was a huge hit (if you’ll pardon the pun) and some grand renditions of great tunes were played and enjoyed. We left this pub exactly too late to be let in to the sailing club for last orders.  Some kind of out of hours drinking crackdown or other. We headed back to our bunks. Drummer and Cabin Boys find an empty boat, our shipmates must have made it through the pub door early enough to still be in it. We are just about settled in our bunks, when there is a very distinct sound of water running in the bilges.  We are quickly out of our bunks, we find a torch, lift the floorboards and there it is, the same offending pipe that leaked earlier in the day. I manage to fit the hose back to where it belongs and the problem is solved – for now, it will need a better look in the daylight.

 

Sunday dawns a beautiful day, sunshine and enough wind in yer sails from the right direction to make for a pleasant trip home.  Originally the plan was leave Monday. It has been a nice weekend, but I’m all good to go. The lads from the antique hotel insist that since there is no milk on board for tea, “you’ll have to use rum instead” which was a grand start to the day!  Cabin Boy’s ear prick up when the sounds of a fiddle being played on a boat somewhere close drift through the marina. We track it down and join to play a few more tunes with them on board this lovely traditional boat.

 

Sails up, sun shining and Cabin Boy is working back up the ranks and is now in the driver’s seat.  Out of the lough and it is a lovely blue day on the sea, sea state is slight, home is downwind and the kite is hoisted and set.  The “kids” had clearly used up all their energy over the weekend and quickly both assumed lying down with eyes shut positions for the next few hours.  The outline of the islands appears and the Old Gaffer decides a gybe would be favourable. We put in a quick gybe, the angle is better, the boat speed increases and the Old Gaffer takes a little bow, to boat and crew.  We smile.

 

Once we’re round the first headland the engine goes on to give us a final shove against the tide here.  All tied up, packed up, kit bags, a fiddle, a drum kit all loaded in the tender we head for shore. The Old Gaffer fetches the tender’s trolley, we float the boat on to it and start pulling up the slipway.  It is hard to push and making a strange noise…. One of the wheels has just shattered into pieces under the boat. Boats! There is always something to fix!

 

Shopping and flying, my least favourite things

It is Friday and I need a couple of fundamental things – a rucksack, small enough for hand luggage but big enough to fit a couple of weeks worth of gear in it and a pair of sailing shoes and ideally a new pair of winter boots as I can no longer stand being followed round by the bad smell emitted by my current boots. There is a slight urgency to the requirements as our plane leaves this afternoon.

The first shop I go to is the only one likely to reward me with the sailing shoes. “Closed on Fridays” it says on the front door. “Typical” thinks I. Now to hope I can find some on the way to my course. It is an Instructor course and having sat through plenty of these courses by now, I absolutely know I need to present a good first impression and turn up with the right kit…. I’m failing already. I shouldn’t have left it to the last minute, I should have ordered something from the internet or bought that pair in the sale on Cowes High Street when I was there three weeks ago. But I didn’t.

Now into town for more items on the list. Bikini and shorts – well I can write those two off immediately, it is October after all. There is only me that could actually attempt to shop for these at 54 degrees north at this time of year. More likely to find said items in the actual hot place we are bound for. The rucksack on the other hand, it the difference between me going and not going. The pile of items on my bedroom floor needs to be transported from A to B in a bag.

I had a couple of errands to run for himself, who needed a SIM carrier for a really specific phone. To my amazement, on this little island, I actually find a shop that sells them “what colour phone is it” the guy asks and hey presto, he produces the exact right thing!!

Working back from the phone shop I trawl the shops in town, on the quest for a bag. First up the camping shops, where I am stunned to find that rucksacks cost more than I have paid for the flights and by now I am cursing myself (again) firstly for spilling milk into the perfect bag I have at home, second for not washing that bag, third for wasting my time coming to town when I could have stayed home and made a flipping bag to the perfect dimensions.

After exhausting every shoe shop for both boots and a bag, and walking out of a super expensive shop that did actually sell travel bags, I find myself in the default well known store with designer labels at knockdown prices. I find a lovely winter jumper and a set of brushed cotton pyjamas. I like these things. I try the jumper on, it feels nice, it looks nice. I put it back on the rail, I’ll come back for these once I have found a bag – I only want to queue to pay once. Upstairs to look for bags. It is back to school time, there are plenty of school sized bags, but none quite big enough for my purpose. By now I am losing all patience and hope for the cause, to the point that “I am not going on the flipping holiday”. I walk out of the store, leaving the jumper and pjs hanging on the rail where I left them, telling myself I don’t have time to queue for these non-essential items that in no way help my present predicament. The clock is ticking and I need an effing bag.

Having marched out leaving the nice items at the shop I have last attempt for a bag. The cheap shoe shop and there, there, there in the cheap shoe shop is a bag, the right size and with a pocket on the front that will fit my laptop and it is just £10!!! So we are going on holiday this afternoon.

But I am by now on the verge of a breakdown. I find it so frustrating traipsing in and out of shops that don’t have what I am looking for. I don’t have the patience to look, I don’t feel any enjoyment of the shopping process, I hate sifting through the rails of stuff, so much bloomin’ stuff, the world can’t possibly need all this. I can feel my blood boiling, my heart rate increasing, clammy hands and just rage. I have morphed into some kind of monster, I am rude to shop staff, rude to people, I am angry and, like a child when the tantrum passes I will need to sit down and have a little cry. Shopping is not for me. By now it is midday and the flight is at 4pm.

I head home, feeling very wound up by the whole affair (this is normal for me a shopping, thus I try to avoid it). I still have to go to a phone shop as my flipping phone stopped working this morning, 2 hours to go and the clock is ticking. It didn’t take the guy long to fix it luckily. With one hour to go I am now finally ready to pack.

Our lift to the airport arrives at 2.30 and by 2.45 were are on the road and heading for the airport. We are checked in already and hand luggage only, but we need boarding cards from the desk, that’s fine, we are here in plenty of time.

We get to the check in desk, to find that we really are early… about three hours early! In all of this morning’s angst I hadn’t checked the tickets properly, our 4pm flight is actually not until 6.05pm. FFS!!! We conclude that it is cheaper to go back home than to sit around in the airport all afternoon. So, feeling responsible for the feck-up, I buy us a taxi home.

He calls his sister who had just dropped us at the airport half an hour ago… “Hi, any chance of a lift to the airport at 5?” We laugh at the predicament, it could have been worse, we could have been three hours late!

So, shortly before 5, our lift arrives for attempt number two. At 4.50 we arrive at the check in desk – again…. Literally just as the voice on the tannoy starts “We regret to announce cancellation of the flight due to high winds at Bristol airport”. We look at each other, shake our heads and laugh. Our lift hasn’t quite left airport yet, she waits for us.

We had been filtered into a queue of all the other unlucky travellers whose plans have been disrupted. With the next scheduled flight to Bristol not being until Monday, there were plenty of irate people around. There was only one other flight leaving the island that night, going to Liverpool. A lot of the irate people were trying to get on this flight. I realised we were not getting off the island tonight, so standing in this queue was not necessary, I could get a refund and revise our plans via the internet from the comfort of my living room and would probably have it sorted before we even got to the front of this queue.

So after two attempts we are right back where we started and not seeing our friends in Bristol tonight. Luckily our connecting flight for the planned holiday is not until Monday, so the weekend with our friends was shortened but not abandoned and the holiday still on. After an hour or so of my internet travel agency (google flights) we are now booked to fly to Birmingham at 10am Saturday, with trains booked and paid for from there to Bristol.

So…. Saturday morning and attempt number three at the airport, we are now well practised at the routine. We arrive in good time, check in and the flight is actually going today!!

For a first in my life, we are in the departure lounge an hour and a quarter before the flight leaves. He likes to be there early, a last minute panic is more my usual style. Why pay for a cuppa at the airport when I could have that one at home? It was a bit bumpy coming in to Birmingham, but otherwise uneventful and we landed on time.

Landing on time was essential, as what he (Mr. be there in plenty of time) didn’t know was that I had booked the cheaper train tickets which were only available for specific train journeys, we had to be on the 1212 train from New Street or we were going to pay again (and double what I had already paid). Phew, I had gotten away with making the exact connection times and we made it to the train. I had also joined the modern world and downloaded a trainline app which meant the tickets were on my phone. A slight error of judgement saw him being nearly castrated by the closing of the ticket gate on him as I waved the phone over the scanner and beckoned him to follow me. A lesson in technology… the correct approach was for one of us to go through the gate then pass the phone with the second ticket on back over the barrier. With this method he got through free from any life changing injuries!

The next lesson in train travel is that if you don’t book yourself a seat on the train, you run the very high risk of not getting a seat on the train. We’d found ourselves a couple of seats, only to be moved out of them by passengers getting on with reserved seat numbers. I spent the journey sat on the floor near a exit door.

Fortunately the final part of our journey was on a rail replacement bus, so the final hour of the journey was jolly civilised by comparison with us having the whole back seat of the bus to ourselves. 22 hours later than planned we arrived in Bristol to our friends (who were slightly broken as they had enjoyed the planned Friday evening dinner and drinks without us). So much for a one hour direct flight!

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.