Wednesday 25 March 2009

Sailing large

The other day after some difficult moments in the waves, I had a sweet, sweet sail. There was just time for the usual six-mile triangle—one long windward beat offshore, then another upwind leg on the opposite tack, and finally a delicious downwind run back to the beach.

I have a new camera that, being waterproof, takes all the worry out of filming aboard. Here’s a one-minute film of Onawind Blue galloping home.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

The stupidest thing

I pulled Onawind Blue across the soft sand to the edge of the sea. A light force three blew from the southwest forming a small cross-sea with the remains of a southeasterly swell. The waves, at one, to one and a half feet, were manageable. Though every now and then a larger set with two to three foot waves washed in I knew that OB had handled more in the past and that leaving the beach should present no problem, even if I did get a bit wet.

Readying the boat on the sand, moving smoothly from one task to the next,
I felt surprisingly in tune with Onawind Blue. I have sailed very little this year but it appeared that my sailing memory was alive and fresh. As all those familiar rigging details snapped into place—the oars attached with loops of rope to their pins and the lines to their blocks—I couldn’t suppress a satisfied smile. With the sails gently flapping and the bows resting on a fender pointing towards the sea I stood back and admired my OB.

Then, with my pride already swollen, a strolling couple stopped and took out a camera. They were waiting for me to launch and wanting to give them some good photo opportunities I rolled Onawind Blue into the water, hopped aboard over the stern and sat at the oars, taking a few long strokes to punch through the first series of waves. I hauled the trailing fender aboard and returned to the oars in time to guide the boat high over the next wave. The bows splashed down and white water frothed aboard. That would have made a good photo, I thought. Beyond the breaking waves I lowered the rudder, then moved automatically to insert the daggerboard.

I remember when my illegally parked car was towed away. I stood for an age gawping at the yawning space where it was supposed to be. Now I gaped at the forward thwart. There is no place to conceal a large daggerboard in OB’s small cockpit but even so I shifted the life jacket to check it wasn’t hidden underneath. In my hurry to launch, puffed up like a strutting bird, I had forgotten that last, all-important gear-check.

Onawind Blue skidded off diagonally across the water. With no daggerboard I wouldn’t be able to regain my launch spot. I had no choice but to return to the shore. I bucketed out the water that had come aboard then turned the boat and headed back.

I decided to row-sail through the waves. With the oars I could slow the boat through the breakers and, more importantly, by back rowing with one oar and forward with other, keep it stern on to the sea. I raised the rudder and began to row. The water was flat but as I neared the beach a largish set of waves loomed up behind. I dug the oars in deep to stop the boat and the first wave, steepening sharply, past underneath. I rapidly manoeuvred the boat to get stern on to the next, larger wave and as I back rowed with the port oar it lifted off its thole pin. I saw the loop of rope sink. The unattached oar felt useless in my hand. I rowed hard with the starboard oar but had little control of the boat. OB was at the mercy of the next wave.

Spring has arrived on the Mediterranean but although the days can be balmy the sea is still cold enough to raise the heartbeat to 180 and give an ice-cream headache. However, I felt no cold whatsoever as the wave capsized Onawind Blue. My only concern was to prevent the mast tip touching the bottom and levering off the foredeck. I somehow managed to right the boat before it turned turtle and hold it flat as the next wave crashed through. I dragged the wallowing OB towards the beach. The boom had detached itself from the mast and it swung about dangerously. Oars, fenders, buckets, my shoes and cushion littered the sea downwind. Transformed in seconds from a clean machine to a wreck I pushed OB to the sea’s edge. But full of water she was too heavy to beach. I left her for a second to gather up armfuls of gear and the sea sucked her back in, loading her to the gunwales with water.

I held OB against the sand, bucketing hard with one hand, but every wave tried to pull her back into the water. I felt like the sea was trying to claim her, wrapping her in cold tendrils, dragging her down, and found myself involved in a serious struggle. There was no one about to beg assistance, I could barely hold her against the beach to bale and was forced to accompany her as every big sea lifted her up and sucked her away from the shore. I’d bring her back to the sand every 10 metres or so and bale furiously. But I couldn’t do this for long—only 50 meters downwind a rocky spit had been uncovered by the recent swell. With visions of OB’s red bottom splintering on the rocks I dug my toes into the sand and wedged my knees under the gunwale. Holding her with my legs I baled with both hands. As she grew lighter and higher in the water I used the sea to move her further onto the beach. When she began to feel safe I undid the drain plugs. I pulled her up the beach as she lightened and relaxed only when she was a good distance from the sea’s chill grasp.

I went home and collected the daggerboard then went for a lovely evening sail. It was only later that I discovered the large welt on my head. And the next morning I felt like I’d been involved in a brawl.

It is just as well to have an early season reminder of the dangers that exist only scant metres offshore.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Cruising lists

I never bothered to study those equipment lists in the back of old sailing books. Appendix A would list technical specifications, B medical supplies and C food. How many pairs of socks the sailors took with them, the number of packets of self-heating soup or the quantity of wax-covered eggs seemed irrelevant. Though I was always mildly curious as to how the eggs got their wax coating and whether it really did make a difference to how long they kept, all I ever gave those exhaustive lists was a brief glance.

Now I find them fascinating, in part for what they convey about the age in which they were written but also for what they reveal about the sailors. The lists at the back of Sir Francis Chichester’s Gipsy Moth Circles the World show a British post-war thrift that was still prevalent in 1966. But Sir Francis at 65 years old had travelled widely and while he carried egg powder, limejuice, ginger nuts, mango chutney and packets of curry he also took Gruyere, garlic and olive oil.

Robin Knox Johnston’s single-handed circumnavigation of 1969 occasionally raises the question not of how he managed in the Southern Ocean but how he survived for 313 days on a diet of institutional stodge. Tins of stewing steak and sausages, Heinz spaghetti and baked beans and Smash instant potato—‘For mash get Smash’. Even RKJ, focused as he was on the task of circling the world in a 32-foot wooden ketch, commented that he would have liked a more varied diet. At least he had plenty of brandy, whisky and lager as well as 3000 cigarettes to aid digestion.

Frank Dye’s diet aboard his 16-foot Wayfarer dinghy, Wanderer, is predictably Spartan. Compressed dates, glucose drinks and energy bars are crammed into lockers alongside lifeboat biscuits and portioned cheese. Rum flavoured fudge, a chicken, Kendal mint cake and a bottle of whisky jostle with three pairs of socks, 12 handkerchiefs and a shore-going golf jacket. How Dye managed to fit all his equipment into a Wayfarer is a feat in its self, even before considering what it must have been like to sail a dinghy from Scotland to Iceland.

The other day I found the envelope bearing my own scrawled lists of last year. With spring arriving it is time to start thinking about a short cruise and I’m wondering if I should change my cruising diet of bacon, fried eggs and red wine to one more in keeping with a healthy 21st century lifestyle. But while I’m happy to munch on muesli and salads ashore one of the things I enjoy about being out in Onawind Blue is the legitimate excuse it gives me to emulate my heroes and tuck into a high-calorie cruising diet. Soon I’ll be loading up with sausages and chocolate, (I wish I could find some rum flavoured fudge out here) biscuits and cake. And plenty of eggs of course, though I don’t think I’ll be giving them a wax coating.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Johanne Regina

Built in Fåborg, Denmark in 1929 the 69-foot ex-Baltic trading vessel Johanne Regina features in the classic sailing book,  A Gypsy Life by Clare Allcard. Clare and her husband Edward Allcard first saw the neglected hulk on a slipway in Antigua in 1974 and fell in love with her fast lines and wineglass transom. But the boat was not for sale. Her Antiguan owners however, spurning nautical lore, changed her name and immediately fell upon hard times. The Allcards seized the opportunity, selling everything they owned to buy the oak and pine gaff-rigged ketch. They immediately set to work re-fastening, re-caulking and re-rigging finally putting Johanne Regina back into service. The Gypsy Life tells the story of the Allcard’s subsequent journey. Educating their young daughter aboard, relentlessly restoring and maintaining the boat, they sailed from the Caribbean via England, Denmark, the Mediterranean and Suez to their residence—a native shack on the Seychelles where they hoped to dive for treasure.

Years later I was lucky enough to have a passing acquaintance with Clare and Edward when they kept Johanne in the local marina at Torredembarra. The couple lived in Andorra and Edward, in his late eighties, would drive down to spend months at a time working on the boat. I cherish the times I spent with him on Johanne, whether helping him re-lay the deck with iroko or poring over his back issues of classic boat or drinking tea in the small galley listening to his adventures; how he spent his school holidays as an unpaid cabin boy aboard a Hull trawler, how Johanne was rammed by a French fishing boat, raided by the Camorra mafia and how the crew were arrested as spies off the coast of Yemen. And about the craft he had owned. Edward had rescued some 18 boats from rot and ruin including a 36-footer called Sea Wanderer originally built in 1911 in which he doubled Cape Horn and made a single-handed circumnavigation. For me these were inspiring afternoons that consolidated my interest in boats and ultimately led to the building of Onawind Blue and my own seaborne adventures.

I never got to sail aboard Johanne; the few opportunities to crew were always stymied by work or the fact that we never exchanged phone numbers. (I’m pretty sure Edward never had a mobile) And as he spent more time in Andorra I lost touch. One day, three years ago, I drove down to the marina after a long absence and even from a distance I could see that those distinctive masts, thick with rigging, were not there. A fixture had disappeared and no amount of blinking and eye rubbing could bring it back.

I heard that he’d sailed north to Barcelona to sell the boat and had since moved back to Andorra, nobody at the marina seemed to know exactly where the boat was and a few internet searches revealed nothing.

Then working in the city of Badalona I borrowed a bicycle during my lunch break and pedalled down to the new marina on the off chance there might be a interesting boat tucked away somewhere. When I saw those masts through the forest of aluminium poles, I couldn’t believe my eyes and with mounting excitement I cycled round to the fuel dock, as near to the boat as the tight security on the pontoons would allow, and gazed over the water. It was her alright, under a different colour scheme but essentially the same old Johanne Regina.

Convincing the harbour master of my interest in the boat he agreed to open the gates and let me take some photos but before we left his office he pointed to a cannonball on his desk and told me that it had been plucked from the ocean floor in the vicinity of the Seychelles. Edward had left it as a parting gift to the marina.

Johanne had been bought by the city council to fill the roll of cultural heritage. And she had undergone an extensive refit. I looked at her decks and there it was, the fifth plank in from the port side, the one I’d helped to caulk and the one that was giving me an overblown sense of ownership. I took the changes that had been made to her personally, particularly the new deckhouse amidships but, given her history, I was more concerned to see that her name had been changed. In half a mind to warn the harbour master of impending doom I took a few photos, if the past history was anything to go by they might be the last. But superstitions aside I was more than happy to see the boat and to find that she continues to survive. And trust Edward and Clare Allcard, a couple who had put over thirty years of their lives into restoring Johanne Regina to find a good home for her. Under the wing of an entity with funding for maintenance her future should be assured for some time to come. Ciutat de Badalona, (City of Badalona) as she is now called, will be used as a training ship and hopefully many young people will learn the joys of the sea aboard her. She certainly played a part in my sea story.