Spring 2009: Constance is just back from her first Old Gaffers event, the annual East Coast Race weekend at Brightlingsea, where she mixed it with craft large and small, and attracted much admiration for both her looks and speed, praise which rightly belongs to her designer Albert Strange and her builder Fabian Bush.
The weekend began with a self-timed passage race for all boats from their home port to the Nass beacon at the mouth of the River Blackwater. Between Constance’s home port of Walton and the Blackwater lies a stretch of sea called the Wallet which (in my limited experience) tends to have the wind along it one way or the other, more often than not. On Friday it was ‘along’ alright, and against us, so the 20 miles (as the fish might swim) beating into it took a gnat’s under 6 hours with the tide.
Our path criss-crossed (before she soon showed me a clean pair of heels) with the boat known to the ASA as “the other” or “Richardson’s” Charm, on passage from the Deben, and I realised that whatever Robert Hill was doing nonchalantly in the cockpit he didn’t seem to be steering the boat. I later learned from him that the hull remodelling performed by her Irish builder Richardson to Strange’s original design Sheila II had corrected S-II’s helm balance to the point where Charm would sail herself by sail trimming with no need to lash the tiller. Whether this works other than with wind forward of the beam I didn’t establish.
On arrival at the beacon we were too late for the seafood lunch laid on for us at Packing Shed Island, so it was about-turn and head back to a harbour berth at Brightlingsea, and the beginning of a convivial and absorbing weekend.
The main event was the East Coast Race, on Saturday, on a course decided on the day according to the weather. Winds were quite light and the one chosen was some way up the Blackwater and back, a round trip of some 18NM. This was my first proper race with Constance, and what began with quaking trepidation ended with a quiet sense of achievement, and greatly boosted confidence. Crossing the start line more or less on time was a good beginning. Being single-handed I made no attempt to work out the complex course for myself, but simply followed others who seemed to know what they were doing. Curiously, virtually every leg of the out and back course proved to be upwind in the conditions which prevailed.
Brightlingsea is home to many converted fishing smacks, fast, well-canvassed and heavily-built craft 30–40ft in length plus a prodigious bowsprit, and their start time was some minutes after the majority of the fleet, giving us a great chance to admire them at close quarters as they overhauled us during the race. Constance held her own very well against anything her own length, and quite a few longer, being occasionally let down only by her skipper’s inexperience in tactics and judging the marks. More than one skipper of a far larger craft was bemused to see little Constance heel-snapping, occasionally even overtaking.
Sunday was a relaxing day. I spent the morning performing a long overdue replacement of the main boom’s bronze gooseneck fitting, as I had bent and cracked the original some weeks before when I overtopped the boom against the mast. It was still giving good service but I was pushing my luck. Being tied up two or three abreast in a Brightlingsea harbour crowded with Old Gaffers generated a great atmosphere, and ensured that the odd tool left at home (spanner and pliers in my case) could be borrowed readily. Getting the job done was a business pleasantly protracted by the much mutual boat admiration and note-comparing that comes with these gatherings.
Sunday afternoon was a Parade of Sail, dozens of us in all shapes & sizes cruised up the River Colne to the Wivenhoe Sailing Club where they had laid on a hog roast and (concurrently, but that didn’t stop anyone) a High Tea, both of superb quality. Many craft motored the final mile or two rather than beat up the narrowing river, but I felt the hosts would appreciate a few boats actually sailing in so that’s what we did, the only tricky part being locating someone to tie up to and getting the main off her smartly when the time came.
The forecast for today, Monday, was ‘stormy’ so I decided to sail Constance back yesterday from Wivenhoe to her mooring on the Twizzle at Walton, a distance of some 20 miles, were it not for the tacking necessitated by a wind just north of east. Starting out at 1700 I knew it would be a long haul. True to form the wind was ‘along’ the Wallet, but this time the other way, so again against us. A four-legged beat at a constant (and in this little boat, stirring as the water fizzed past the lee rail) 3+ knots through the water got us well past the Walton Tower by around 10pm, the ebb tide being with us, a long beat but a thoroughly enjoyable one, where I noticed that for a clear summer evening it seemed remarkably dark. Removal of my sunglasses restored the scene to normality.
Constance‘s prototype, Albert Strange’s Wenda of 1899 (never built at the time) was designed for the ‘short, steep seas of the Thames Estuary’ and only in the last few months have I really put this to much of a test. She is of course limited in hull speed by her 20ft waterline length, but her ample rig, fine entry and slippery shape, plus the stiffness and inertia imparted by her 1/2 ton lead keel, enable her to accelerate rapidly, and not be as easily stopped by a head sea as vessels more amply provided with beam (and, it must be said, accommodation).
We turned north to hit the Pye End buoy on the nose an hour or so later, which I was rather happy about as it is tricky to find by day, and its white flashing light is easily lost at night against the busy backdrop of lights on shore. At this point we steered around 225deg to pick up the succession of buoys marking the channel into the Walton Backwaters, giving us a moderate breeze on the port quarter.
At not long past low water, and with only the next buoy in line readily visible, it pays to keep track of the previous buoy too, to ensure you are still inside the quite narrow and steep-sided channel, even when you draw well under three feet. Perhaps you can now foresee where this yarn is going, and the events which make it worthy of reporting. A couple of buoys in, at around 2330, the Pye Sand made itself overly familiar to Constance‘s keel. On a rising tide I was not too concerned, as it gave me the opportunity to get the sails off her (the main with its complex arrangement of halyard blocks can be awkward to douse at sea) and deploy the motor on its nifty removable quarter bracket.
What followed is not my proudest moment: Having mounted the motor and ensured its propeller was well clear of the sand, I started it and made to rotate it 180deg to pull us back off. At which point it leapt into the sea and died, I having omitted, inexplicably, to tighten its clamping screws, and not noticed this in the darkness. Fortunately the motor was attached to the boat by a safety line, and in 3 seconds flat it was back on board, but out of action pending professional attention. At this instant I knew it would be a long haul home, the wind having all but died.
At first unwilling to deploy the main again as I didn’t relish later getting it down in what might be a tight spot if the wind got up, I tried to ‘jib & mizzen’ my way on a south-easterly course perpendicularly back to the safety of the channel, as this offered the least risk of further grounding. The combination of jib & mizzen is a very handy one, but close-hauled sailing in negligible wind is not its strong point, and so the 12ft sweep played a major part in keeping us orientated and moving in the right direction. After a while it occurred to me that I was actually enjoying being out here on this balmy, starlit night with the moon playing hide-and-seek with a handful of clouds.
But I soon realised that without the main I would be here for a month of Sundays, so up it went and at a more rapid rate (I speak relatively) we buoy-hopped our way into the entrance of the Backwaters, and somehow found the Walton Channel without further grounding. Being now in the lee of the Naze spit we were seriously short of motive power and so steerage way, but with a combination of full sail and the sweep we ghosted our way the two miles up the channel between moored craft (those slumbering aboard blissfully unaware of how close they had come to my air-cooled outboard destroying the silence, now broken only by the dipping and creaking of the sweep and the occasional curlew or oystercatcher).
By far the most useful item my late father gave me is a hand-torch which is charged simply by shaking it. This was to be needed to identify my own mooring buoy, whose painted number I cannot remember but whose top ring I have bound with rope to protect Constance‘s topsides when wind against tide make her ride over it. Unfortunately in the earlier activites I dropped the torch somewhere in the stern and in the pitch black down there could not find it. This necessitated sailing right up to each candidate buoy in turn, tracking it with peripheral vision only, as in the dark it was invisible to forward vision, and physically feeling its ring from the cockpit. Four or five such tests located the right one, and we were finally home safe and sound.
The time? 0230. By the time I had stowed the sails and resolved the rat’s nest of lines in the cockpit a further hour had passed and the eastern sky was lightening. I turned in reflecting on my most adventurous solo expedition yet with Constance, one in which 90% of the sailing was upwind, and one in which I had enjoyed every single minute, barring just the one.
[This article is not in the book below — We just thought you might like it]