Thursday, 20 January 2022

Making Ready 7


I turn the radio up, hardly daring to believe that I have heard correctly. This is the news I have been hoping for .  France has relaxed her border restrictions. These have prevented United Kingdom citizens from entering the country, without a 'compelling reason .' Outlawing a cruise under sail.

I finish my lunch with an open lap top propped before me. Logged into the visa application website of the Republique Francaise. The afternoon passes locating or downloading proofs of identity, financial status, medical insurance, covid vaccination and more. By evening I am rewarded with a Registration Receipt. It transpires that I must take this to a London handling centre, along with my various documents, for validation. I book the first available appointment, in early February.

Mercifully, France is one, of only two, Schengen Treaty nations offering beleaguered post-Brexit Brits the opportunity to visit, for longer than the Withdrawal Agreement maximum (of ninety days in any rolling one hundred and eighty day period). Subject to applying for a Visa de Long Sejour Temporaire. A blessing which has been, until now, rendered moot by covid border closures.

A summer cruise, to the sun dappled seas south of the Pointe de Penmarc’h, to celebrate my sixtieth birthday, beckons. My heart lifts, in joyous anticipation. Fond memories, of Stargazer's passage to La Rochelle (Living the Dream), swirl through my mind.

I have double cause to rejoice: A high pressure systems brings crisp clear January days to Kent. Springlike sunshine drives the night-frost from, all but the most shadowed, hollows by midday.

An absence of breeze allows temperatures to climb toward ten degrees, during the afternoons. 

This is an opportunity to be seized. Stargazer's scraped hull (Making Ready 5) can be repainted far sooner than I had dared to hope. The Gelshield epoxy will cure at five degrees or above .  Stargazer's bottom changes colour by the day, as the layers build. Green. . . . .

. . . . .grey, green, grey, green. The colours are alternated for ease of monitoring coverage, as each layer is applied. A coat of grey primer completes the protective barrier. It will eventually tie the antifouling to the epoxy. First though, the epoxy and primer must chemically bond, to the hull and to each other, for a couple of weeks.

I book the crane, for Stargazer's relaunch and mast re-stepping, for the first day of March. Anticipating that there will be a suitable weather window, in which to apply two coats of antifouling (more tolerant of temperature and moisture than epoxy) during the latter part of February. 

Stargazer's new rigging, instruments and mainsail will need to be set up and tested, once back afloat. And, potentially, some final adjustments made. Local sailing, on the Medway during March, should allow this to be achieved. 

Meanwhile, in Stargazer's cabin, the tidetables are out. To plan an April shakedown cruise. Prior to a May departure, for points south. . . . . .

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Saxon Shore 7


The wheel of life is come full circle, for the paddle steamer Medway Queen. Built, between the wars, to entertain London holidaymakers, with river trips. When hostilities broke out, she found herself pressed into service. First as a mine sweeper. Then, in the flotilla of Little Ships, rescuing embattled soldiers from the Normandy beaches.

After the armistice, she returned, like the troops, to an uncertain civilian future. Demobbed, with a full refit, she resumed her former trade. Shuttling tourists between the Medway, Herne Bay and Southend-on-Sea. Inexorably trade dwindled. Customers lured away, by affordable package holidays on the Spanish Costa's. No longer able to pay her way, the Medway Queen found herself ignominiously relegated to the role of floating night club, on the Isle of Wight's Medina river.

Worse was to follow. An eventual  return to the Medway ended calamitously. Derelict, the Medway Queen sank, at her mooring on Chatham's Sun Pier, awaiting renovation.

Refloated, her bilges filled with concrete, in order to waterproof the rust perforated hull plating, she languished on a mud berth, in Damhead Creek, on the Isle of Grain. Volunteers, from the Medway Queen Preservation society, devoted their weekends to staunching her wounds. But the sheer scale of the task overwhelmed their enthusiastic endeavours.

A  Heritage Lottery Fund grant saved the day. Funding a full, five year, hull rebuild, in Bristol.
 Following which, the Medway Queen returned to her home river and, supported by a European Union (EU) grant, opened to the public from a berth on Gillingham Pier. The ticket proceeds funding further works, completed over the past year, by the specialist steel boat shipwrights of Ramsgate harbour.

In the second week of January, the Medway Queen is relaunched. Leaving Ramsgate under tow by tugs Christine and Nipashore. One ahead. One astern. The seas are calm. The tide fair. A shaft of symbolic winter sun breaks through the grey cloud, lending her fresh paintwork an ethereal lustre.

The three ship convoy winds its way, around North Foreland, and into the lower reaches of the Medway.

Up past the church spire at Hoo, to Gillingham Pier. Full circle. Almost. Back home, sound in wind and limb, but unable to carry sightseers on river excursions.

The extent of her Bristol hull rebuild means that the Medway Queen is classed, by the Department of Transport (DoT), as a new vessel. A high bar on which her Passenger Licence application has foundered. The single skin, riveted plate, construction cannot meet modern safety regulations. As her sinking at Sun Pier demonstrated, a failed rivet, or sprung plate, may lead to the loss of the ship. Her maximum legal compliment is therefore capped at twelve, passengers and crew.

 Denied a DoT Passenger Licence. Cut off from EU financing. The Medway Queen must find a new role in life. The indefatigable volunteers of the Preservation Society battle on with her restoration. Their most pressing task, to replace interior and deck fittings taken ashore, for renovation, last summer.

What does the future hold for the Medway Queen, if she may no longer treat trippers to the delights of a day on the water? 
Rumours abound, of a more prominent, higher footfall, berth. Perhaps as the floating centre piece for a housing development, proposed once Gillingham Docks close in 2025. Or in Dockyard Basin Number 2, at the heart of the existing St Mary's Island residential area, alongside the Watersports Academy. Or as an exhibit within Chatham’s Historic Naval Dockyard.


Picture Credits

5. Aerial photograph of Medway Queen on Ramsgate slip.     Andy Gutsell
6. Painting of Medway Queen leaving Ramsgate harbour.      David Stearne
1,2,3,4,7,8,9, 8, 9, 10, 11                                                          Me


Thursday, 6 January 2022

Making Ready 6


With Stargazer's new mainsail on its way (Making Ready 4), it is time to resolve a bugbear with the mainsheet (the 'block and tackle' which controls the boom and mainsail). The power of a 6:1 purchase is required, in order to handle the load generated by the sail. This has triple sheaved blocks mounted to the boom and cockpit sole. Necessarily, its falls (the lengths of rope running between the pulleys) are closely spaced (picture above). To the extent that, at inopportune moments, they can touch, and lock up under load. Preventing adjustment.

This is a known drawback, to high purchase sheeting arrangements. (Their advantage is that, without the use of winches, the sail may be controlled by hand). There are two schools of thought on how to overcome it. 

The first concerns the mounting of the blocks. Some swear by locking them in position, so that no twist is possible; and, in theory at least, the falls are held separate. Others swear by fitting them on swivels, which allow the blocks to take up a position of least resistance, determined by the pull from the falls. I have tried both approaches, as well as a hybrid, with one block fixed and the other swiveling. And found little difference in performance. In the end settling on a swivelling arrangement as ‘least bad.’

The second school of thought concerns the reeving (threading) of the mainsheet through the blocks. At commissioning Stargazer's mainsheet was rove to the Harken pattern (shown above). 

Because of the lock up problems, I had begun to doubt whether Stargazer's original mainsheet reeving was correct. An internet search confirmed that it did exactly match the Harken pattern. It also turned up a different method, on the Barton website (above). Following it alleviated, but did not completely eliminate, the mainsail control issue. Instead I evolved a technique, to free the jam, by grabbing the middle (upbound) fall and pulling it forward, hard. This has always succeeded in freeing a lock up. Not elegant, but it seemed that I had exhausted all of the known cures.

Until, in conversation with Alan, the sailmaker, I learnt of an alternative approach: The EasyMatic system (shown above). This removes the problem, of locking falls, in an elegantly simple manner. Although a 6:1 system, it eschews the problematic triple block. Instead there are double blocks, in a fore and aft plane, with a single block mounted laterally. This separates the falls and eliminates the twisting forces which bring them together. Thus (I hope) eliminating friction lock up at source. It has another trick up its sleeve, too. You may notice that it is double ended (actually an endless loop, spliced together out of shot). Pull both tails (ends) simultaneously and a great deal of sheet is moved very rapidly, at a 3:1 purchase. Useful for light wind gybes. Pull just one tail however and the full 6:1 purchase is engaged.

Vectran mainsail, EasyMatic mainsheet; and a super smooth hull (Making Ready 5). Stargazer is making ready to fly, in 2022.

Picture Credits

1,2,5   Me

3         Harken

4        Barton

5        Force 4 Chandlery

Saturday, 1 January 2022

Saxon Shore 6 : New Year's Day


A sentinel gull perches upon a withy. Basking in the morning sun. Contemplative, in the clear light of the first day of a New Year.

The tide is at its height. Over the straggling shoreside bramble thicket, I look out over the part submerged sedge, to the cranes of Thamesport and the London River beyond.

An ocean wandering steel cutter over winters in the saltings. In the lee of the Nor Marsh. Hoo Island and the town behind her.

Wigeon bustle between the reed beds.

On the Rainham shore, gaunt crow's nested trees reach into a blue sky ; across which gossamer whisps of white cloud swirl, on the stiff south westerly breeze.

In Otterham Creek, the silver fruit frames glint bare amid the orchards. Bushes crouching low to the ground. Conserving their strength. Preparing to clamber skyward once more, in spring.

With the tide fully risen, the fertile feeding grounds of the mudflats lie covered. Gulls wait patiently for the ebb. Balanced, head to wind, on the decaying wooden bones of boats which will sail no more.

On the Chatham dockside, Stargazer has been joined by a throng of fellow craft . Lifted to prepare for a new season of adventure, in the week before Christmas

Today the, unexpectedly mild, air is redolent with the smell of opportunist coats of antifouling being swiftly applied. Coffee mugs stand steaming on improvised, timber baulk, picnic tables. Knots of shirt sleeved, wooly hat wearing (to guard against paint drips in the hair) sailors plan summer cruises. Discuss the likelihood of continuing covid cross border travel restrictions. Share home-waters contingency plans.

Monday, 27 December 2021

Making Ready 5


Across the chill river, dinghies dice. Dueling in the Wilsonian Sailing Club frostbite series.

The hardy fleet rig up ashore. Launching from trolleys with padded cradles, which protect the slippery smooth hulls from shingle scratches. Preserving their racing edge.

For craft which remain continually afloat, the task, of minimising hull drag, does not only depend on a fair hull. It also requires a defense against weed and algal growth . If speed sapping water resistance is to be kept in check.

Over the past twelve years, Stargazer's annual coatings of antifouling have built up. With some areas now beginning to flake. The resulting uneven surface causing turbulence and lending marine organisms a potential toe hold.

In order to restore it, to its sleek former self, the hull must be scraped back, to glassfibre. It is a shoulder aching task. Like eating the proverbial elephant (or Christmas feast), best tackled in bite sized chunks.

A run of cool clear winter days prove ideally suited to scraping stints.

Then comes the sanding. Required to fully remove all accumulations of antifouling and primer.

Beneath, Stargazer's hull proves to be as smooth as a racing dinghy's bottom. No filling or fairing will be required.

However four consecutive days (and nights) above ten degrees centigrade are needed, in order for three coats of International Gelshield epoxy primer to cure, before fresh antifouling can be applied . Unless we are lucky, with a mild spell, this is a job which will have to wait, for the first warming breaths of spring, to complete.

Thursday, 16 December 2021

Saxon Shore 5 : “I Saw Three Ships. . . . .”


"What will become of us?" Snowman titters nervously, hand on chin. Staring up at the sheer stone walls, of Chatham’s Dock Basin Number Two. Borne into the water unceremoniously, from a back garden grotto, by the force of storm Barra.
"We’ll be all right," guffaws Santa, in his booming 'ho-ho-ho' voice. "Let's swim over there ." He gestures firmly, with a raised left arm, as a swirl of current carries them down the dock . "I can see the children on the quayside . They’ve come to carry us home for Christmas.” 

Reassured, that a rescue is safely underway, I climb into the car. Venturing further from home than normal, for my Saxon Shore walk. Two hours later arriving in Suffolk. At Shotley Point, where the cocoa coloured waters of the Orwell and Stour meet. It is still hang-on-to-your-hat windy.

A bluff bowed Fisher Freeward 25 motor sailer, heels to the aftermath of the gale. Butting seaward through the chop. Over on the Felixstowe quayside, two diminutive tugs battle the breeze, to wrestle a world girdling behemoth in, beneath the waiting cranes.

Containers, filled with Christmas gifts from the East, are piled high on her decks. Adding to the windage of her salt stained hull. Deftly, the tugs tuck the giant ship between two others of her, ocean wandering, kind.

Ahead, an Evergreen-line ship, a sister to the ill-fated, Suez-Canal-blocking Ever Given, is already safely alongside. Whilst a gleaming red lightship, freshly repainted, and ready to be towed back to her station, swings at a mid river mooring. Marking the turn of the tide.

On the Harwich shore, Patricia, the Trinity House maintenance vessel, is moored beneath the spire of the cathedral. Distinctive 'lobster claw' derrick poised, above the refurbished yellow spar buoy, which is secured in her waist. Ready to place it precisely, at its charted co ordinates, once back on station.

The winter wind is keen. It funnels up the river Orwell. I think better of my plan to walk along its shore, to Pin Mill. Instead setting out, along a wooded path, on the more sheltered banks of the river Stour. Heading into Constable country.

Gulls ride the buffeting updraughts, at the water’s edge. Soaring and circling. The roar of the wind fills my ears. The tide is falling. Allowing me to drop down onto the foreshore. Following it deep into Edwarton Bay.

I round a corner. Before me, is a mass gathering of wigeon. Some swimming busily in the rills. Others dozing, heads cradled in their wing feathers. Warming in the midday sun. . . .

. . . . . their distinctive pale forehead blazes on display. I settle above the wild duck, seated on the sea wall, in the shelter of the windbreak woodland. Drinking a flask of coffee and eating a fruity wedge of Christmas cake; thickly marzipanned and richly fragrant with brandy.  Listening to the piping of animated avian conversation; and to the carefree, rippling, chuckle of the ebbing river.