Thursday 13 September 2007

Learning to surf

Onawind blue and I were beam on to an unusually large green blue wave—just rearing up, when I heard a crack like a gunshot and the starboard oar came away from the boat, the broken thole pin still lashed to the shaft. I dug the port oar in hard and pedalled round like a bird with a broken wing.

The peaking wave caught us on the starboard bow. Onawind blue rose to it but she had little forward momentum and the wave pushed her backwards. Her stern caught and she started to slew to port, but I was in no mood to go over the falls and with three mighty, adrenaline fueled strokes to our single oar I manoeuvered her bows round and the wave passed under us.

I stowed the good oar, grabbed the one that had broken its pin and paddled, Indian style, flat out at the next wave. We climbed over it, her bows nosing at the sky before coming down with a crash.

‘What the hell am I doing?’ I asked myself as I paddled over to a buoy where I could tie on, bale out and take stock of the situation.

The day before I’d had a great sail, my father as crew. We’d sailed for a couple of hours on a deep blue sea in a brisk force three; long close reaches towards the horizon and back, ruefully mulling over the apparently insignificant details that change lives, carving our own mellow groove across the water.
We’d tied up to a buoy while I brailed up the sail, unshipped the centreboard and tidied the boat in preparation for the row in to the shore—the gauntlet that OB and I run every time we come in from sailing in a decent breeze.

Sitting in the forward rowing position with my father on the aft thwart the boat was well trimmed as we came through the waves. I pulled hard on to the face of a small roller and we started to surf. I expected the wave eventually to pass under us but Onawind blue just kept forging on. As the wave began to steepen OB started to broach, I rowed madly, the situation moving so fast I barely knew what I was doing. And then, in the eerie quiet of disaster, we were on our beam-ends and going over. My old man fell out of the boat, along with the centerboard, a lifejacket and a beer can, disappearing with a fat splosh. I followed a second later; an oar loom catching between my legs on the way out but miraculously missing anything vital. I went under thinking that OB was coming down on top of me but the mast impeded her from turning turtle. We righted her in a flash. She came up half full of water and I towed her out to the nearest buoy and tied on. It would have been impossible to drag her up the beach so heavily laden. I climbed in to bale.

She was less stable with so much weight in her and water briefly gushed up through the centerboard case as I hauled myself in. She was steady enough though and stayed head to wind as I sat squarely on the sole and bucketed out the briny. When she was empty I climbed out and we accompanied her in to the beach, one on each side. On the sprint towards the sand I lost the old man again as he stood in a hole and fell beneath the waves but my priorities were such that I couldn’t stop to help him. He clambered up the shore, bedraggled but with a game smile as I pulled OB to safety.

Later that evening we discussed the physics involved in the capsize; water particles in the wave moving up and towards the shore, others moving towards the wave and OB in the middle her stern trying to overtake her bows and the conflicting forces conspiring to turn her sideways.

I felt that with intelligent use of the oars I should be able to control the boat while she surfed. I thought about what an old hand had told me: choose a day with waves and row in and out until you get it right. I agreed—it was an aspect of sailing Onawind blue that was worth getting down pat.

The next day saw very light onshore winds with a swell from the east and, retaining a few misgivings, I decided to give it a shot.

I would go out with no sail, centerboard or rudder. Just the oars, the bucket for baling, a length of rope for towing or tying on to buoys and a towel stuffed into the empty centerboard case. The boat would be light and uncluttered—just as well if I was going to capsize.

Getting out was easy, rowing straight at the waves and slowing as I went over them so as not crash down too heavily on the other side. It was once I was beyond the breakers that I started to worry. I rowed in circles trying to judge the moment to return but every time I started larger waves loomed and I’d lose my bottle and turn back out to sea. I really didn’t want to get mixed up with these rogues. If I were going to practice surfing then I’d do it on something smaller please. I turned back out to sea and then the thole pin snapped.

Everything’s relative and my father’s view from the beach, where he stood with the camera, showed nothing too dramatic; it simply looked as if I was piddling about with the oars. He wondered what I was doing as I dropped a bight of rope over a buoy, baled and began moving the oars to the forward position, where I had two brand new thole pins.

When Onawind blue was shipshape again I forced some saliva down my adrenaline dry throat and headed in. I let a couple of waves pass underneath and then rowed hard to keep well ahead of the next one. As it caught up with me I felt the boat starting to surf and dug the oars in to brake. OB slowed down and the wave passed. I rowed hard again and then, though still a short distance from the land but with a wave threatening to turn us, jumped ship and pulled her in.

It had all gone well, but did I have the cojones to do it again.

I probably wouldn’t have gone for a second run if there hadn’t been a well-disposed soul on the beach with a camera. It seemed worth it to get some footage. This time I also managed to avoid surfing anything too large but caught a little wave which brought me neatly in to the beach before dumping the bows into the sand.

I know that Gavin stipulated in the plans that the light Trow was designed for sheltered waters. Unfortunately my patch of Mediterranean, although sometimes very calm, could not be described as sheltered. But Onawind blue doesn’t seem to mind; actually she seems to have embraced all the conditions that have been thrown at her. It’s me that's been worried sick.

Here are a few short clips of the action, taken with my Nikon coolpix. The first one shows the first run in.

This shows OB tackling some waves head on.

And finally our second run with a little surfing.


Anonymous said...

Great Job from the Start Ben, Thanks for sharing.Thole pins are stronger if Split out of wood instead of sawn out of a plank and turned across the grain as opposed with the grain with split wood.I've used Hickory here in the States.For your next boat check out a site about "Proa's" Thanks again.
Regards Joe

Gaff Horse said...

I bet that's a difficult thing to master, surfing in on a rowing boat. I did some canoe surfing a few times, in south wales and in devon. It can be really hard to stop the boat from turning, although obviously much harder with a rowing boat and oars.
I was thinking of a few days visit - but I'm doing some theatre workshops now, then going to south africa for about a week. Capetown though, a long way from jo'burg.
But maybe I'll come up after October 8th or so - will you still be sailing then? I'd love to come out and crew.

Anonymous said...

Come on up Gaff, we've got nothing planned. I hope to be sailing right through October. The water's still warmish and the breeze generally good.

Joe, thanks for your advice regarding thole pins. I think juniper would be the equivalent local strong wood, so I may try with that.