Thursday, 4 June 2020

Mersea Quarters

Stargazer sweeps into the River Blackwater. Borne by 22 knots of north east breeze. Under a double reefed main and full jib, she surfs the surging swells of the undulating seascape. Past the Knoll north cardinal, and the Bench Head buoy. Across the submerged shoals, marked by the slender sentinel of the Nass Beacon, and into Mersea Quarters.

We sound our way into the Thorn Fleet . Under the lee of the shellfish shed on Packing Marsh island, the roar of the wind stills . Stargazer picks up a vacant mooring. 

A fishing boat labours past . Working hard, to drag its heavy wire mesh dredge through the glutinous Essex mud, in search of a shellfish supper. Her crew sort the salty harvest on the stern. Boxing it up for landing at our black, tar washed, clapperboard shed.

The gravel spit, on the southern end of the island, is a lunchtime rendezvous for canoeists and paddle boarders.

Swallows and Amazons adventures are planned. Voyages into the enchanted changeling world, of the tidal saltings. Neither land nor water.

Fingers of coarse tussocky marsh grass twine with the smooth flowing salt waters of the Blackwater estuary.

Stealthy sinuous fingers of tide play hide and seek between banks of saline soil and gravel.

As the tide floods, the gabled houses of West Mersea peer over the crest of Packing Marsh island . Nestling contentedly among the trees, they watch the daily duel between land and water:  The land recedes....the waters advance .

The land advances.....the waters silently steal away, seaward.

Stargazer too feels the pull seaward . Our wind is set fair for the Medway. We sail on the ebb.

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Double Celebration

Retirement day has come at last! The morning passes in an emotional welter of farewells and home baked treats. By afternoon I am aboard Stargazer sailing down river, to toast my good fortune in Godwit Creek.

A catamaran has got in first. There's room for us both, but there's still plenty of tide. Enough to explore further up the winding waterway. To seek another deep water pool. We sound our way up and anchor beneath a tall embankment. Soon a large bull seal hauls out and peers over toward us. 

One by one his family join him. The pups frolicking in the shallows, splashing exuberantly with their flippers. I lie in the sun aboard Stargazer. The seals sunbathe ashore. Every now and then we look across at each other. Mostly we doze contentedly through the afternoon. Thinking our own thoughts.

Its an early start for my birthday celebration. The sun rises as we pass the derricks, and a moored oil rig, at Sheerness. 

Our wind clears, as the land falls away. Stargazer beats north east in 20 knots of breeze. On a perfect day.

Spray flies. I'm sitting right forward in the cockpit, sheltered by the windscreen and securely wedged into position, as Stargazer fights her way over the short swell. Steadily gaining ground tack by tack. Past the Maplin Sands, through the Swin Spitway and up the Wallet.

One final tack caries us round the Naze, down the Medusa Channel and into the River Orwell. The container port at Flexistowe stands covid quiet. There are no ocean wandering ships unloading their cargoes.

We sweep on past Harwich. In this wind direction there will be no shelter to be had in the Stour.

We stand on, past wooded shores, into the Orwell proper.

That north east wind funnels and follows us up river. Our normal spot, below the house boats in Butterman's Bay, is strafed by gusts. Whitecaps chasing across wind darkened water. An RS200 dinghy planes past, kite up, crew hollering their delight.

The breeze stills in the lee of Nacton Quay, on the north bank, just above Pin Mill. There is no room for Stargazer to anchor because of a line of vacant moorings. We are soon secured to one . I look over to the Butt and Oyster, dabbling its toes in the water, on the Pin Mill water front. It, like the port, is covid quiet. No Suffolk ale or hearty fare being served for now.

I enjoy my birthday celebration sun downers aboard Stargazer.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Free as a Bird

Stargazer skims down river, free as a bird. A white wake streams astern. Gusts, funneled by the wooded banks, urge us on - faster and faster. Her familiar tiller tugs beneath my hand as Stargazer puts her shoulder down and flies seaward.

It is our first sail of the season. Late coming, but the more prized for that. The breeze steadies as the shoreline flattens to either side. Above the rush of wind and water, the sound of birdsong floats across the marshes.

We wend our way through intricate channels. Withies loll ambiguously atop uncovering shoals, equivocal about where the best water lies. I scan the chimeral, shimmering, shifting textures of the river surface for clues. Eyes flicking from  water, to withy, to depth gauge, to plotter.

In a pool, deep in the marsh, nestling at the foot of the North Downs; we find our corner of timeless peace and solitude. A place to regain perspective and to plot a course through the shoals of these strange times. A wary seal circles the boat once, head just showing, then dives, without a ripple -and melts into the stillness. 

Monday, 11 May 2020

Best Boat 2020

Crowds throng and jostle on the pontoons. Bunting snaps smartly in the autumn breeze. The sun beams benignly from a cobalt blue September sky. I'm in pre-coronavirus Britain, at the 2019 Southampton Boat Show. It is fully ten years since I last attended - and placed my order for Stargazer. I'm here to survey the current state of boat design. Has it moved on, to the benefit of the single handed long term cruiser? Which is the best boat? My mission is to interview builders and fill the gaps in my 'Spec Leveller' spreadsheet. This tots up the cost of boats equipped to my full cruising specification.

Willie Bewes hails me from the cockpit of a Hallberg Rassy 340 and ushers me aboard. We have met only fleetingly over the years since Stargazer was commissioned, there is much to catch up on. The boat is every inch the modern cruiser: high volume hull, beam carried right aft, plumb ends, long waterline and twin rudders to control it all. My first impression is of a large cockpit. On closer examination this proves to have been achieved by squeezing the helm position right aft (leaving the helmsman exposed, beyond shelter of the windscreen) and spacing the side benches widely (so that it is no longer possible to brace across them when heeled at sea). Happily, the tails of the main sheet, traveller and jib sheets are brought neatly back within reach of a lone helmsman. I'm left with a suspicion that this is a cockpit optimised for sociable entertaining, rather than for short handed passage making. 

Down below the layout, and immaculate quality of joinery, mirror Stargazer's. The 340's extra length creates a more spacious forward cabin and allows a larger water tank . Both useful cruising features. The greater beam at the stern creates more aft cabin space too - although this is less useful to me, as I use my aft berth for stowage. The addition of hull ports does create a welcome sea view when down below at anchor. However this is at the expense of saloon locker space. I come away curiously underwhelmed. She is beautifully built but less of a passage maker than I had expected. Her spec levelled price is £315,000. 

Maybe a 'modern classic' Mystery 35 is the antidote? Stephen Jones penned lean lines and graceful overhangs above the water; and slippery modern appendages below. She looks gorgeous and, by reputation, sails like a witch. I seek out Peter Thomas on the Cornish Crabbers berth. His father, David, designed Missee Lee - my first cruising boat . Peter and I sit aboard a Crabber 26. He explains that he last built a Mystery in 2014; and happily discusses ideas for tweaks and improvements for the next hull launched. He will see what he can do to find a friendly owner, who will allow me aboard one.

Below deck there will, inevitably, be a price to pay. The lean, low hull and (by modern standards) short waterline mean limited tankage, reduced living space, a minimalist galley and a tastefully spartan fit out. On reflection, she is more a weekend or fortnight holiday cruise companion than a long term cruiser. Certainly her design suits the single hander; and there is no question of her sailing manners having been sacrificed on the altar of internal volume. Quite the reverse. We are on to something here! Her spec levelled price is £220,000.

What happens if we go up a size, but stay on the ocean-greyhound-of-yesteryear theme? Perhaps a trademark, 1980's, Dick Koopmans design: flush deck, doghouse, overhangs, long fin keel and skeg hung rudder. The Breehorn 37 has a reputation as a no nonsense off shore voyager. Lars van den Berg is still enthusiastically building them to order up in the Friesland - on the north east shores of the Waddenzee. He doesn't attend boat shows, but we have stayed in touch since Stargazer's Frisian Islands cruise last year. The 37's cockpit is well sheltered by her dog house and, with the tiller steering option, the helmsman can snug right up behind it on watch. Side benches are long enough to snooze on and closely spaced enough to brace across. In short, this is a short handed passage making cockpit. Cutter or sloop rigs may be specified.

Below, that clean sweeping (dinghy stowage friendly) flush deck does take a toll on light and headroom in the saloon. The most trafficked areas, chart table and galley, however enjoy a view out and full standing headroom thanks to the doghouse. The increase in waterline length (over the Mystery 35) solves the cabin and stowage space shortage. Tankage is plentiful and, being a low volume build, interior customisation is possible. Her spec levelled price is £290,000.

The Sirius 310, by contrast, is a full custom build. A beaming Torsten Schmidt (yard owner) proudly assures me that any wish can be accommodated - as well, you may say, it should: her spec levelled price is £350,000. This for a 31 foot boat. Her cockpit is deep and well sheltered by the deck saloon. The option of a triple forestay rig (self tacker, genoa, gennaker) is included, as is the choice of wheel or tiller steering. Cockpit benches are beautifully radiused affairs - and long enough to lie down on. There is much to admire for the solo sailor. Looks however are slightly dumpy and the sail area relatively modest. At heart she is perhaps more potterer than passage maker.

The deck saloon comes with panoramic views and the option of an internal helm station - for those long night watches or inclement days. Her fit out is immaculate, her infinite layout options innovative, and interior space cavernous - for her length. The tradeoff is a relatively high centre of gravity and increased windage.  Torsten's yard dares to be delightfully different, and for that they should be heartily applauded. When Arthur Ransome commissioned Peter Duck (his final boat) she was designed, in his words, to be "a minimum of work to sail and yet provide the maximum comfort.......a marine bath-chair." I see the Sirius 310 as her modern counterpart.

An epithet which certainly couldn't be levelled at the X Pure 4.0 (37 feet 9 inches on deck, despite the name). She is built to sail - and has received universal acclaim from reviewers. Her hull incorporates the latest design thinking, but only where it aids sailing enjoyment. To this end, she retains a single rudder - with its benefits for offshore security and marina manoeuvrability. Her mini superyacht looks mean that there's not much shelter to be had on those chic sleek decks though. And she's a big powerful boat to manage solo - even with the self tacking jib option for inshore work. My impression is that she is currently the benchmark cruiser racer.

She's scandi-cool and well finished beneath deck; albeit there is less solid wood, and more veneer, evident than on a Hallberg Rassy. That theme of modern boat design done well, so much on show above deck, continues below. She is perhaps not the ideal single handed cruising machine. Nor, I suspect, did Nils Jeppensen intend her to be when he drew her svelte lines. Wind in the hair frolics are more the remit. Her spec levelled price is £380,000.

The Rustler 37 makes only the barest of nods to modern design trends. Stephen Jones has penned an evolution of tried and tested sea kindly features. Spoon bow, counter stern, encapsulated long fin keel, skeg hung rudder, cutter or sloop rigs. She is a relaxed ocean mile muncher with a turn of speed and a renowned ability to stand up to more weather than her crew. Her cockpit is deep and sheltered with good bracing. An offshore cockpit with everything to hand for the solo sailor. She is a serious passage maker.

Below decks she is exquisitely finished. Adrian (Jones - Director at Rustler Yachts) says "I think you'll be able to stand upright, you know." I had instinctively assumed my 'boat-stoop,' as I descended the hand crafted joinery of her companion way. I straighten, with headroom to spare, and take in a saloon of perfect proportions: large enough to live in comfortably, but compact enough to be secure in at sea. Tankage is generous, engine access exceptional, handholds and stowage abundant. The perfect companion for the short handed passage long as (s)he can afford her spec levelled price of £490,000

Have designs moved on, to the benefit of the single handed long term cruiser? I'm not so sure that they have. More internal volume has certainly been achieved; But at the expense of sailing manners, cockpit shelter, below decks usability under way and (where twin rudders are employed) manoeuvrability in harbour. Boats are getting bigger too. A trait not necessarily advantageous to the solo sailor. Well found cruising designs between 30 and 36 feet, or so, are the exception - but, thankfully, they can still be found.

As to the question of which is the best boat? The answer depends on the job that you want her to do: Port hopping in sunny climes, Entertaining aboard, Off-grid cruising between anchorages, Offshore or inshore, Solo or fully crewed? Marine bath chair, Round the cans rocket or Ocean greyhound? Leaving the carefree teeming pontoons, I reflect that the most difficult part, of match making boat and owner, is fully understanding the owner's sailing needs - my own included.  A maelstrom of possibilities and compromises swirls through my mind. For every pro a con. 

An old sailing adage comes to mind: "The best boat for your voyage is the boat that you own." 
Stargazer has proven her short handed cruising credentials on craggy Atlantic shores and in shoal North Sea waters alike. We are well suited and know each other's ways. May we voyage on together for many years to come. Her spec levelled price? Not for sale.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

End and Beginning

We set out on an adventure, Dad and I. Across the landlocked waters of Lyn Maelog, at Rhosneigr on the isle of Anglesey. Dad at the oars of Trog, our home built pram dinghy. I, agog in the stern sheets. We left the shelter of the reed beds and entered a magical world of wind ruffled open water. The beginning.

Years later, I'm at the helm of Missee Lee. Off to explore the West Country.

Our arrival, beneath Dartmouth's towering green valley sides - with their stacked pastel houses - signals not the end of a voyage but the beginning of an urge to wander. An awakening.

We cross The Channel to linger a while on Alderney. It has proved a long passage - about the limit of a single handed sail, at Missee Lee's cruising speed of 3.5 to 4 knots.

"We need a bigger boat." Missee Lee's 'end' marks Goblin's beginning. And the start of new adventures.

Goblin is commissioned and launched, with due ceremony, from a dusty dockside on the Cattewater in Plymouth . I anchor for the night at Dittisham, on our maiden voyage . Off the dry stone quay which serves Greenway House - Agatha Christie's former home. Birdsong rings out from the wooded shores and the strong Dart tide gurgles musically in the stillness.

Soon we have cruised the length of the North Breton coast, west to L'Aberwrac'h.

It is an enchantingly craggy, wave washed, corner. Gateway to South Brittany. An end and a beginning.

Stargazer, with her long legs and peerless build quality, is launched. She is truly born under a wandering star. We anchor, amid Granite Rose, off La Chambre on the Ile de Brehat...

......before beginning our passage south, through the Raz de Sein, into Biscay. A new chapter of adventures has begun.

We anchor in the bays of Belle Ile. Sheltering off sandy beaches, in coves carved from granite cliffs by mighty Atlantic rollers - travelled from the shores of America. 

We tarry amid the thronged conviviality of Vannes in summer.

And sample the shoal sandy ports of the Ile d'Oleron.

Soon a new voyage begins. Out, across the Celtic Sea, and around the Fastnet. 

To the misty mountains of Glengariff, at the head of Bantry Bay, on Ireland's Atlantic coast.

We sail from the craggy cleft, of the Castletownshend anchorage - all  mauves and greens - to....

....the silver sands and wave smoothed pebbles of The Isles of Scilly. The end of our Irish cruise has become the beginning of a Scillonian idyll.

Now, for five long weeks, coronavirus has roamed our land - unseen and merciless. At last death rates are falling and there is talk that the end of the lockdown could begin. Talk of constructing a New Normal . Of finding a way for us to leave the shelter of our homes. For Stargazer to round the bend in the river, and put to sea again.

My, long planned, early retirement date falls at the end May. The end of one life and the beginning of another - in a world at a turning point. 

End and Beginning.