Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Short Sea

‘Ah, the sea is as smooth as velvet with just a ripple or two tapping at the freeboard’… ‘It’s kicking up a fair old chop today’.. ‘We rode the swells like a fairground ride’. Perhaps the main priority for many recreational boaters is the sea-state and what is going on immediately at eye’s view around them.
 There are salts that have gone to sea for many decades but have they in all honesty wondered what lies beneath them? He or she is well versed in making sure there is enough water under the keel but what of the seabed and how it lies?  
  If we take a look at a fisherman who trawls nets and iron dredges we see that among the oysters, cod and sea bream of his prey he has to consider the present sea-state. But he knows his limits account for him to be out in most weathers for he also has the hat-in-extended-hand just the other side of the quay. Even more vital to him is how the seabed lays and the nature of it. In this endeavor fish-finders and echo sounders are a godsend for him as a seabed that is rocky could do expensive damage to his dredge.
  For the average cruiser-sailor that stays well clear of the short seas by using charts with well defined contour depths marked and an echo sounder a reasonable picture can be painted of what is (or isn't) going on below and how this effects his safe sailing.
The concerns I have short-sea cruising in my pocket camper Shoal Waters are not unlike that of the fisherman then and quite the opposite of deep sea sailing. Common fare while making an advance up a forgotten backwater is to find one obstacle after another to negotiate. Rusting poles that protrude upwards from the seabed but still hide a few inches below the waterline. Bladder-wrack covered rocks that somehow have arrived in the middle of what is an otherwise baron plain of soft mud? And, let’s not forget the wide shelves of glue-nails, stick everything that floats, mud where a cane-sounded depth can decrease from blue ocean-like five feet to barely 15 inches of float-able paste. And, as there are in the short sea, when penetrating inland there are bits of iron, old bikes – and in the canal? Anything is possible... The lead sinker and the sounding pole are the tools to work a way through these game waters. The cane gives a satisfactory feel and an audible sound of the hard sand I find off the corner of Shoebury right up to Orford too.  If you stick very firmly to dry land, or steer clear of the short sea intentionally, and have not felt or heard this special audible whisper and would like to experience it, take a piece of bamboo and jab it in a builders bag of sharp sand and ballast. The sound is as distinct as a whistling kettle is to the tea drinker!  A decision to navigate in two feet of sea, or to ground on this stuff, could be terminal therefore, just as the deep sea cruiser reels in alarm whenever his echo sounder bleeps at his decreasing depth, this distinct sound has to become second nature to the short-sea seafarer.
Two recent episodes of the underlying seabed playing melodies on board were at the recent East Coast Race. One of the marks, no5,  was very close to the Bradwell shore and at near low water when every conceivable form of canvas-driven vessel converged upon it in a melly that could nearly be described as mud wrestling with boats - or, at the very least, shingle throwing... Most of these boats would, perhaps, otherwise never dream of venturing so close to the short sea but there they were. The other was the day after when I left Brightlingsea Creek pontoons on a very fresh and sunny  morning for Goldhanger in an F6 on the nose (I had a plane to catch) with a deeply reefed main and setting a small staysail, only to ground on hard sand lower down in the creek. Everything fell against me at once, a lee shore being one of them.. Again nearing low water. Fortunately I am very adept at this type of scenario so could pull my dear little ‘Shoal’ clear with the sheer brutality of her fisherman anchor, which I read again recently somewhere is useless for cruising particularly near mud (you know the facts: 50 years - 76000+ miles - thousands of mud and sand anchorages with nights spent at anchor all with trusty old Cold Nose the 17lb fisherman type anchor), and was no sooner rounding the Mersea Flats, flirting so dangerously with flying spume near to the wreck of Molliett, before more thrashing through more wild, eye stinging Blackwater chop to hear on 1310 weather report that the present gale is now ceased! For a sunny Sunday I may have seen two other boats sailing? One of those were lashed to a yellow buoy near Tollesbury Creek entrance. SB Pudge was out though, and we crossed wakes a couple of times heading upriver. Her skipper skillfully tacking her to and throw with short boards parting seahorse-crested waves as if she were a mere dinghy.

I was at Brightlingsea to take part in the OGA 50 years celebrations. Shoal Waters was built in 1963 and launched in time fore the first East Coast Race so it was a privilege to be able to come out of the creeks and take her 50 years on to compete again. 

East Coast Race 2013 Results  Not mentioned on this list is she came first in the Passage Race held the day before. 9hrs from Goldhanger to Brightlingsea - under sail only of course.

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