Tuesday 2 September 2008

It’ll be alright on the night

I worked for a time in theatre where the phrase ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ is frequently used, partly because it happens to be true. Heightened nerves and adrenaline adding gloss to even the most sketchily rehearsed pieces. In small boat cruising, however, according to Frank Dye, who took a Wayfarer dinghy from Scotland to Iceland, there is no place for this attitude. Unfortunately it seems to be ingrained in me.

Dye prepared his cruises meticulously and given that he achieved his goals I felt there was no harm in trying to ape him when I came to prepare my trip. Though worried and awed by the elements, as everyone who sails should be, I am happy to deal with them; it is part of the joy of being alone on the sea. (I know we’re not in the southern ocean here, or even that far off shore, but in a small boat a force four with sufficient fetch can feel like a gale) What concerns me are the million things that can set a train of minor events in motion, be it ants, rats, sun cream in the eye or a tangle of line. The sum of petty coincidences that will land you in a situation that worsens exponentially.

You can’t make allowances for every eventuality and although it sounds obvious and slightly priggish thorough preparation did give me peace of mind. Having already undertaken a cruise I found this one far easier to prepare, knowing that time spent studying the cruising grounds and local weather patterns is as important as gear selection. If I have one reservation about my kit it’s that I didn’t take a spare anchor. I managed without because I have a versatile boat but I won’t be leaving home without one again.

Having taken measures to overcome as many possible problems as my experience allowed me to imagine, and feeling that I was leaving nothing to chance, I was blessed with extraordinary good luck on this cruise.

I wrote the above a few days ago. And this afternoon I have been given a sober reminder of why ‘it will be alright on the night’ just won’t rub. Out sailing OB, for the first time since I returned, I heard a loud crack and the main mast and sail toppled to leeward as if felled by an axe. It was no problem, I simply hauled the rig aboard, furled the sail and stowed it, then rowed the half-mile home. But it could have been a real disaster had it happened on my trip.

I had never been happy about that length of wood and shouldn’t have used it for my main spar. It had too many knots and, at the back of my mind, I knew it. But by laminating it, I reasoned, the weaknesses would even out—it would be alright. However, there was a large knot of deadwood exactly where the mast passes through the deck—the point of utmost stress. And here the mast sheered.

The broken spar reveals the true size of the knot. Probably a quarter of the wood at that critical point on the mast was useless knot. I had no idea it was such a whopper and am surprised the spar lasted as long as it did considering some of the conditions it has seen.

I am elated that it didn’t happen on my trip and delighted to be given the opportunity to make another, better spar. This time I will start by ordering some prime wood.

No comments: