A Beginner’s Tale

I’m completely new to sailing, having windsurfed a while back, and cracked little cats (kittens?) after two hours sailing on holiday. I decided the only way to follow up my interest from the holiday was to get stuck in. I visited the web, Laser and Dee SC, and then committed myself.

First off, I collected my new boat and trailered it home (to Cheshire) no problem. Apart from one of the ropes coming undone and the rest fraying to bits, but that was all sorted after the initial 20 minute check (good advice there Laser).

Once home and desparate to sail the next day, I opened the handbook to suss out what I could rig in advance of taking it up to Dee SC – the issue being the narrow ‘sailing window’ either side of high tide… I understood the pictures, but the terminology had me lost in no time. Common sense took hold and I left everything as it was and just sat on the hulls along with my boys and waited a day. (Thinks, where’s the beginner’s video, English translation for the manual, etc..). So then I set to with the hitch lock, cleverly bought in advance. Won’t fit. Really. Spend 30 minutes taking the hitchlock off the caravan (parked at the other end of the village) and try it on the boat trailer. Won’t fit. Spend another happy 90 minutes driving to the caravan shop and buying several alternatives (some of which are still to be returned), so that I can leave my prescious new possession safely locked up.

Next, I dug my shortie wet suit out of the garage, as some kind of displacement behaviour to make me feel closer to actually sailing. It’s still quite new, having been bought 2 years ago on hols for body boarding – a great tactic if you want sunshine and calm seas thereafter. So, quelle surprise, the darned thing has shrunk serveral inches in no time. I figure “what’s a few inches of gaping zip between friends, when it’s under a bouyancy aid anyway?” and plough on…

Sunday dawned, mother arrived from a 2.5 hour drive to child-mind, (wife in hospital) and I took off with my pride and joy, together with an almost-fitting shortie over to Dee. On the final approach, you get a great view across the estuary. “Brilliant,..” I think “white-caps everywhere!” At this point I was thinking back to wind surfing. Suffice to say that the Dee SC Regatta, scheduled to coincide with my maiden voyage, was eventually abandoned.

Steve Roberts bailed me out big-time here, basically by rigging my boat around me, pointing out figure of eights, bowlines, miles of black waterproof tape and other fancy craft work along the way. He showed me everything I needed to know, and possibly more besides. I was later to discover that being shown and taking it in are two quite different things. It was while we had the cat fully rigged on the lawn that I got a sense of the power at my disposal, and that quite possibly it was a good thing the exercise had lasted long enough to see the tide come and quite comfortably go. I still have a suspiscion that it only takes that long to rig when you’ve got a semi-dressed nutter ready and willing to set out to sea whilst all around are extracting themselves from multiple fleecy layers and dry suits for the comfort of the bar. Never mind, I’d played all day, and I was ready for next week… By the way, have you tried explaining to your travel-weary mum that not only couldn’t she join in the maiden rigging and voyage (someone had to look after the young one), but that you didn’t complete this initiation either?

Alert to the frailty of hardened sailors, I too decided to get a dry suit before the week was out. I had gradually frozen solid despite my wind-proof fleece whilst rigging up on the Sunday. (Tip for mountain bikers – your biking gear works as well as specialist sailing gear once it’s under a dry suit. It does look prety wacky until you get fully encased in waterproof material though). Many thanks to Ravenspring for the assembly and delivery of a made-to-measure suit inside four days. That was excellent service and it’s a great suit. It’s difficult to see how climbing into a dry suit for a test-fitting can be described as ‘working from home’, but I’m working on it.

Saturday came around eventually – what a great day this was to be! Things were looking up when I asked JJ (my son) if he wanted to come with me, for only the 99th time. He senses this is the right thing to do, and concedes… which turns out to be just as well.

We were about 20 minutes from home when I realised that in my zeal not to take a large bunch of keys to sea, I had left the key to the hitch lock at home. As we were travelling along the motorway, an about-turn was out of the question. I used this time to work out that the lack of a key is no reason to be detered. The emergency cable that hangs from the hitch would do very nicely for the short, slow and careful journey from the club car park to the beach, and save 40 minutes of prescious sailing time to boot.

On arrival at the club, I was surprised to see no more than three or four people in the car park in total. And none of them were in sailing gear. Amble over for a chat… they’re just preparing for the Nationals, doing a bit of tinkering, etc. Oh well, what did they reckon to the conditions for a beginner plus son? Answers: (1) perfect – have you got a paddle? (I’d bought a sailing craft and more gear than you could shake a stick at, but had not thought of it as a potential canoe – in fact I intended to sail only when it was windy, so wouldn’t need one). (2) perfect – have you practised your capsize drill? (I’d read this section of the manual many times in the last week, but had not wanted to raise too many negative issues at this delicate stage of my son’s sailing career). Their points had lodged in the small bit of my brain that urges caution. However there was a cat to sail… So I asked where everyone was. Answer: we tend to come on race days (ie Sundays), partly because that’s when the safety boat is out. No safety boat on Saturday then? Doubts mount a bit more. The sensible way forward at this point is obviously to decide to sail within my meagre abilities and save the gung-ho stuff for later and to return before the wind drops – sound reasonable? Please consider that I also think it sensible to ride a bike flat out downhill over boulders and between trees, just occasionally smacking into them. By comparison the Dee is soft and welcoming.

JJ and I turn our backs on fear and face our Dart 16. Questions come to mind like ‘Just how do we get the sails up again?’. I decided to leave the jib off to simplify things for us, and to avoid being overpowered. One of our National entrees advises against this if I want to tack at all. I decided that tacking was probably better than gybing when it looked a bit breezy, so we unrolled the sail, attached the first few clippy bits to the wire at the front and attached the correct rope to haul it up a bit. Planning ahead, I tried to bring it down again. Stuck. Won’t move. Tug, yank, pull but not a hint of downward movement. Our car park colleague showed us how it works just fine if you stand as far away as possible – just as well that’s not how it’s done at sea. Another doubt added to my small pile but we are not easily detered (JJ goes biking too!).

We got the rest of the rigging sorted without problem. The rudders fought us for a while, determined to keep their operation a secret. However our determination was greater and some experimentation found answer.

Now all we had to do was get changed and down to the beach. Getting changed was easy. JJ looked intimidating in my old steamer and his mum’s old (pink) bouyancy aid. I think he was pleased he’d left his mates 40-odd miles away. Any further comment will leave me severely compromised.

Now all we had to do was hitch up and away we go… The hitch went round the tow hook easily enough. JJ was to walk alongside the towbar and shout if anything went awry and I even turned the radio off so I could hear him. All went well to the point of no return (single width track downhill to the beach with small car park at the bottom). At this point JJ shouted out that there was something wrong. Upon inspection I found that the trailer hitch had worked its way under the tow hook and jammed itself between the bar and the road. It had also bent the towbar electrics to an interesting shape not often seen on the rear of cars. The hitch itself looked as though it had melted, with a new droopy style of locking handle. Some mild expletives were uttered at this point, possibly not just by myself, as people were now trying to leave the car park, only to find their way blocked by a couple of swearing, puzzled, rubber-suited incompetents. Our spirit was not to be beaten by such trivia. The solution was obvious: brute force would free the trailer, and even more brute force would get the boat and (road) trailer back up the hill, allowing a quick return to remove the car and free those trapped at the bottom of the hill. We would then redeploy to the launching tolley and use any remaining brute force to slow its descent to the beach. At this point some more doubts surfaced, along the lines of would we have enough energy to sail the darned thing and once exhausted from that to then get it all the way up the hill and back onto the road trailer?

We were never to find out. The more cautious of you will be thinking (hoping?) that a sensible decision was mutually arrived at. This didn’t come until we looked at our Dart 16 on its road trailer afresh and asked ourselves “Just how do we get this off here and onto there?”. You may recall that Steve had showed me everything I needed to know but it hadn’t necessarily all stuck. Well, getting the boat off the trailer fell into that category. We tugged, heaved, shoved and pushed. Then we admitted defeat.

Most surprising of all was that JJ was not just willing but keen to try again the next day. This we did. Whilst I’d bought a new hitch, the mallet proved an effective repair tool for the melted lump of butter that was posing at the front of my trailer. All else went surprisingly well: you know what they say about practice! Not to mention people to remind you how to get the boat off the trailer (I did work it out when settling down to sleep, so saved my pride), people to show you how to get the boat and trolley to the beach, a safety boat – appropriately crewed by Steve on this occassion – and a tractor to pull it all up the hill again!

With this level of determination and commitment, just watch out for us in a year’s time. By then JJ will now longer be in pink and we will be focused on going fast rather than how to reach the water.

Simon Stannard

Coronation Race