The boat bug never really bit me. I have always, for as long as I can remember, been in love with boats.
As a kid of, maybe, 10 or 11, my parents bought me a small roundtail Campari inflatable. I loved it. I would lug the bag up to my bedroom and blow it up, sit in it, and imagine…
I blame a TV diet of ‘Flipper’ and Jacques Cousteau’s television series! Could be boats are just in my blood. My grandfather served in the Royal Navy, prior to which he worked Thames Barges around the Kent and Essex coasts. Anyway, the point is, I have always loved the sea and boats.
As a grown up, the first boat I owned was a rotten Mirror dinghy I paid £120 for. With the eager help of my youngest son, we tied it on top of our old Volvo and took it home. After renaming it the Black Pig was taken to the nearest sailing club (Fishers Green Sailing Club) and we proudly demonstrated our skill in sailing it backwards! I remember the Commodore’s wife looking at the two of us rather oddly. Sadly the Black Pig was lost when I put my knee through the bottom and she sunk right in front of the assembled membership of the club just off from the clubhouse.
Next came Kehaar, a Mk1 GRP Wayfarer. A few sailing lessons and we were in business at last. I had a lot of fun sailing Kehaar on at Fishers Green and learned a lot.
It was about this time that a lovely chap invited me to crew in his Wanderer at Marconi Sailing Club on the River Blackwater. Seagulls, waves, miles of open water, I was transfixed. Sailing with Eric was (and is) wonderful. He is a true gentleman and a very skilled and knowledgeable sailor. The only downside was that I could not get the sound of seagulls out of my head. The gravel pit at Fishers Green no longer seemed the same. So Kehaar had to go and the search was on for a replacement. For the life of me I can not remember why or how, but about this time I became the owner of ‘Nutmeg’ , a lovely little ‘clinker’ GRP dinghy. She had wooden center board case, wooden floors and knees, about as near as a GRP boat can get to something traditional. I only ever sailed her once and the rudder pintles fell off, she was a bit rotten in places! But very pretty you have to admit.
I had decided that I wanted a cabin to make overnight passages a possibility, I wanted a cooker and a toilet (heads), so onto the internet and the search begun…
We found Sophie (or she found us) at the yard of Andy Seedhouse in Woodbridge, Suffolk. I honestly did not enter the yard to buy a boat. I only popped in for a quick look around. Andy’s yard is a treasure trove of old boats and boating bits, well worth a visit, but leave your credit card at home.
After clambering around several boats, we climbed aboard Sophie, and that was it, I had to buy her. She came to us fully fitted out with all lines led aft. Lazyjacks and Stackpak as well as roller furling genoa. After a short negotiation (and part exchanging Nutmeg) with Andy, she was ours and included in the deal was craning in and a months free mooring on the Deben.
Sophie was (is) a 1970’s home finished boat built by Sadler. The Seawych class of small 19′ bilge keel trailer sailors were very popular and still have a very active owners association. They are not the fastest boats of their size but are safe, responsive and very roomy below.
So it seemed that we were all set to embark on our sailing adventure, but sadly things do not often turn out as one plans. Exploring the Deben aboard Sophie was not to be.
A very near miss.
In November of 2008 my wife and I visited Woodbridge ‘just to check the boat’, we arrived late on a dark, cold and wet afternoon. Having rowed out in our little tender, had the obligatory cuppa and potter about, we decided to lock her up and return to shore. I climbed down into the tender first and held on to Sophie as my better half boarded the tender. Without any warning the tender (a Walker Bay) flipped over, tipping us both into the Debens’ freezing cold water. Cold shock was instant, and we were both unable to breath, let alone think. I found myself underwater upside down, my sailing wellies were full of air and keeping me that way, it took a real effort to get my legs down an allow the air to escape, eventually I remember I surfaced under the inverted dinghy. After extricating myself, I tried to pull myself back aboard Sophie, the first time getting almost to waist high, the second exhausting attempt got me to chest high, and the final attempt I barely managed to get my chin out of the cold water. I tried climbing up the outboard bracket without success. I could not right the dinghy and could feel my strength ebbing away. My wife gasped that she was going to attempt to swim ashore, this went against all my dinghy training, but there was no one in sight, darkness was falling and there was no help around at all. I honestly thought that my number was up, I felt angry at putting my wife in this position, angry that we were within a few hundred meters of the shore and angry at dying in such a stupid way. Anyway, despite the fast ebbing tide (our few hundred yards turned into several times that distance, we struggled to the shore. My wife was exhausted and I scrambled over the concrete seawall and pulled her out of the water and mud.
We stumbled like a drunken couple, supporting each other, back to the town, and finding the Station Cafe open, went in to drink hot, sweet, tea and eat sugary cake. Our clothes dripping on the floor in front of the roaring fire. We had had a lucky escape. We were both wearing dinghy buoyancy aids, without them I for one would have died without doubt.
Oh, yes, before I forget; I now have a rule, auto inflate life-jackets, with harness built in are to be worn at all times in the dinghy, on deck and in the cockpit. Above F4 or if I feel things are a bit lumpy, clip on if going forward for any reason. If guests can not agree to that, they do not come aboard my boat. Until one has fallen overboard in cold water, one has no idea how hard it is, in winter clothing, to get back onto ones boat. A life-jacket buys you time to think. ‘Useless unless worn’ – too right!
Since that accident, my wife no longer sails, the poor thing has lost all confidence afloat and although happy to visit the boat on the pontoon, does not really enjoy the experience.
So, with out a crew, I decided to move Sophie to waters I knew better, and the following spring, after a short visit to the Norfolk Broads, Sophie was trailed to the Blackwater in Essex. After a summers sailing I decided to get a more seaworthy boat, to explore the East Coast and came across my current boat.
A 1980 Westerly 21 (similar in most ways to a Westerly Warwick) with Yanmar 1GM10 inboard, 4 berths, standing headroom and twin keels. Built like a proverbial brick outside convenience, Alex ‘feels’ like a much bigger boat, she handles the nasty Blackwater chop, off of Bradwell, when wind is against the tide, like a trooper, easily reaches hull speed in anything above a F3 and feels safe and secure at all times. I love her! Alright, she might not be the prettiest boat in the world, but who cares, most of the time I can not see her anyway! More to follow.