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!