An Autumn Cruise

(Not an “EOA Boat” but an amusing tale!)

It was to be our last cruise of the season, mid-October. Just a gentle weekend jaunt down to Walton Backwaters before laying up for the winter.

Our faithful old gaffer, all white enamel and varnished mahogany, was on her mooring a couple of cables below the yacht club. The weather forecast was good for the time of the year, wind light to moderate, westerly, with only occasional rain. A broad reach for us, in fact, most of the way. I had calculated that the tide would just serve to get us away down the Deben on the last of the ebb, provided we left Woodbridge not later than 1600 hours, and I was determined to go.

It was a bit of a scramble to wrap up the office work and collect a few perishable food items together, plus our weekend things, shortly after lunchtime on Friday, but we just about made it, and drove the 25 miles across Suffolk on schedule. I had a struggle to disentangle the dinghy painter from underneath six or seven others on the post by the slip, but we soon loaded up and after parking the car at Eversons, dropped quickly downstream and on board the cutter en route for deep water at Waldringfield.

The fact that she was well downstream on the mooring showed that the ebb was fairly running by now, and my wife repeated the pronouncement made as soon as she saw the river, that we were too late.

“Nonsense!” I cried. “Look slippy with that stowage whilst I check the engine.”

Five minutes later the reliable little twin-cylinder Stuart Turner chugged into life, and without uncovering the mainsail, the mooring was dropped and we were under way, heading for the shoal waters of the aptly named Troublesome Reach. Steering was not very good, owing to the run of the ebb and the proximity of the bottom, so I unfurled the jib to steady her, using the Wykeham-Martin gear, from the cockpit. The light was fading and it was increasingly difficult to pick up the withies and occasional (unlit) buoys marking the channel. My mouth began to dry a little.

We were about half-way through Troublesome Reach when the boat came to a gentle stop, and her transom suffered a dunt from the dinghy stemhead. I instinctively put the helm down and sheeted the jib in hard, to make her heel more, with the engine at full revs. Nothing happened, except that a cloud of bottom mud went swirling astern. I put her into reverse and the mud went streaming ahead. My wife sat tight-lipped. I put the engine in neutral and slacked off the jib sheet. Muttering that we must be only slightly out of the channel, I probed all round the boat with the sounding-pole, but all depths seemed equal. The dinghy which had been towing astern was now ahead, on the lee side, so I hauled it back, jumped in, cast off and pulled to windward across the river, sounding with a paddle from time to time until I found slightly deeper water.

When I got back to the boat I could see that an inch or so of boot-topping was beginning to dry also. The mate had moved up to the windward side of the cockpit and was studiously gazing into the middle distance, slowly drumming her fingers on the coming. I asked her to furl the jib and after I had made a rather half-witted attempt to slew the yacht on it’s keel with a dinghy tow, was about to call for the kedge when I noticed that the ebb was now so fast that there were very audible ripples extending all the way across the reach. We were aground at the worst possible place and would undoubtedly be there for at least six hours, though in no danger except from boredom.

My wife, with great forbearance, refrained from actually saying “I told you so”, and fortunately I could not see her expression too clearly as I climbed back aboard on the lee side, saying that either the wind was pushing the ebb down early or the tide tables were wrong(!) or both. The skipper is never wrong, of course, as you know. I streamed the dinghy from the bow, laid a fathom or two of cable on the foredeck and took what bearings I could in the rapidly-fading light, for possible future use. No point in putting up the riding light. If we couldn’t move nothing else could, and in any case the river wasn’t exactly teeming with yachtsmen eager to witness my discomfiture, with their usual course levity.

The boat settled inexorably to her normal angle of repose. She was a typical east-coaster, with plenty of beam and I knew she didn’t list far when dried out. But then, I had never been aboard her at such a time. She once chucked me off at the scrubbing posts when I had failed to put sufficient ballast on the landward side deck, and she suddenly leaned over away from the posts in a gust of wind and about eighteen inches of water. Fortunately no-one was underneath at the time. The scrubbing had to wait for the next day, of course, so I got wet for nothing.

We learned that as little as fifteen or twenty degrees of list becomes very awkward and uncomfortable after the first hour or so. The snug little cabin looked odd, with the brass gimballed paraffin lamp (though putting out it’s usual cheerful glow) stationary at an unusual angle instead of gyrating as was it’s wont. The galley, which I had carefully fitted on the starboard side of the companionway would, I was made to understand, have been much more convenient under these circumstances on the port side; this point being made through clenched teeth. Soup was shortly produced, however, and taken in semi-recumbent postures. I rechecked the tides, confirming that we were not far away from the maximum range of the equinoctial springs. The weather forecast said the wind would slacken and veer slightly, so maybe the night flood might be a little early.

As the conversation was not quite of that scintillating sort from which it is difficult to tear one’s self away, I put on a pair of wellies and slipped over the side into a few inches of black water. There was the thinnest crescent of new moon, the reflection of which, as I got away from the boat, was shimmering in a beautiful column across the ripples. The rush of the ebb had slackened and the only sounds were the soughing of the wind in the cutter’s rigging and the occasional hoot of an owl from the distant westward trees. A night to fill the soul with peaceā€”if only!

If only we were rocking gently in our favourite deep water anchorage at Shottisham Creek, and if only I could keep my foothold more easily in this thin layer of mud overlying the ridges, and if only I had not stubbed a painful toe on that mysterious bit of scrap iron on the edge of the channel now fairly obvious nearby. I hoped that the boat had not voluntarily settled upon a similar piece.

Though there was not so much wind it was definitely colder, so eventually I went back on board, washing the mud off my boots with difficulty. Was it imagination or could I really see that the murky bubbles were drifting slowly upstream?

No sound came from the port bunk, where the muffled figure of the mate was defiantly jammed into the angle of the berth and the panelling, though I was aware that the silence was not of sleep. The hours passed slower and slower, the night got quieter and quieter, and the crew sat colder and colder. I drifted into a fitful reverie about the ebb and flow of the human spirit.

After what seemed an eternity the boat gradually started to right itself upon the creeping flood. I commenced the usual routine of checking everything, including the stern gland, where I was somewhat surprised to see a steady trickle, so a seamanlike decision had to be made. Rather than take any risks, I decided that as soon as navigable we would go back to Woodbridge for more gland packing, rather than pushing downriver, particularly now the moon had disappeared. Even with eyes accustomed to the darkness, navigation would have been tricky.

Reluctant to start the engine, I went forward to let out one fathom of cable. With the wind where it was she would drift up on the flood, and once round the next couple of bends the lights of the town, plus our big torch, would find us our mooring buoy, where we would stay until the chandlers opened. Going aground must have put the propeller shaft slightly out of alignment, I had concluded, for she was an old boat you see, carvel-built of larch on oak frames and though sound, she “worked” a bit in a seaway, as they say.

Well. The dragging anchor acted as a kind of brake and gave me steerage way, though the dinghy made itself a nuisance as usual.

Even my wife could see that there was a bizarre sort of magic about silently drifting upstream stern first, with no stars visible. We were glad to be back on the mooring, which we picked up with ridiculous ease, and with the anchor stowed we snuggled down for an hour or two of sleep, after a last hot drink. I was just nodding off when an outraged squeal from the mate had me up to a sitting position in my sleeping bag so quickly that I banged my head on the carlines, fell off my bunk and sat down hard on the biscuit tin. The noise and the two sharp edges made quite an impression upon my consciousness, and I came-to in time to witness the mate flinging a dripping hot water bottle onto the cabin sole. With great delicacy of feeling but commendable lack of histrionics she explained to my bewildered self that the damn thing had leaked into the foot of her sleeping bag. Knowing from experience that having warm dry feet can make all the difference to the enjoyment of out-of-season cruising, she very wisely had the foresight to bring a hot water bottle on this trip. To have one’s feet on a warm dry hot water bottle is quite a different feeling from putting them into a pool of rapidly-cooling wetness, so her comments were quite easy to follow. What I didn’t understand was the way she connected this occurrence with getting away too late on the ebb, etc., etc., and the way she was so adamant in refusing my own warm dry bunk in exchange; a gambit obviously intended to amplify my guilt.

I put out the cabin light again after she had rearranged her bedding and turned in. I wished I could go for another walk, and stayed intermittently awake, sensitive to every little movement of the mooring cable on the bottom, as we swung between wind and tide, my dazed imagination now turning the sound of each little wavelet into a flood from the leaking stern-tube.

With the dawn however, sanity returned and the glorious smell and taste of bacon and eggs and coffee began to restore the skipper’s self-confidence and the amiability of the mate.

“We could dry out your sleeping bag on Frank Knight’s workshop stove” I said.
“Will he be working on a Saturday morning?”
“‘Course he will, he’s always working.”
“And you’ll get me another hot water bottle?”
“‘Course I will. It won’t take long to fit a new ring of graphited asbestos in the stern-gland, either, then we’ll be away early on the afternoon tide.”

So we motored Sonata up to Ferry Quay, where we found Frank getting his smack ready for his own last sail of the season. Come to think of it, probably his only sail of the season, since he was always busy building and repairing other peoples’ boats and engines. Though friendly as usual, Frank was brief.

“Let’s have a look” he said. Moments later, “Oh Blast! Can’t deal with that now. The shaft is out of alignment on account of that thick aluminium drip-tray being squeezed underneath the engine mounts. Have to lift out the whole lot and fit shims. Take all day and I’ve promised to meet someone at Bawdsey. Sorry about that.”

“O.K., Frank, not to worry, we’ll do the other thing.”

Thus ended our last-of-season cruise, or almost. Sonata always over-wintered in a nice safe mud berth on the Sutton saltings, minus her running rigging, sails, etc., which were kept under cover at the boatyard. So we piled her bunk mattresses, bedding, galley stores, etc., on Ferry Quay and the mate said she would stand guard whilst I took the cutter back to her mooring, paddled ashore in the dinghy and drove the car round to pick up all these items to take home for the winter.

“Only be about 20 minutes,” I said.

But the car, for the only time in it’s loyal life, refused to start. Quite resolute, it was. I sat there mentally checking the possible causes, and concluded that it could only be damp air condensing in the sparking plugs. So I removed them and some skin off my knuckles, and dried them all as best I could, assisted by a squall of wind and rain, which I was sure would not fail to visit Ferry Quay as well. However, my efforts were at last successful in bringing the engine back to life, and one and a half hours later I was back at the Quay loading a damp mass of stores on my own.

On the top of the heap was a cold wet rubber hot water bottle. By inspiration, as Slocum would have said, with considerable calmness and a careful aim, I threw it towards the open top of the big litter bin just under Frank’s office window. I don’t know if you have ever practised throwing empty rubber hot water bottles. They don’t fly as one might expect. This one flipped over and broke the nearest pane of glass it could reach before dropping into oblivion, followed by a muffled curse.

As my wife said later, over coffee, “If you think hot water bottles are cissy, don’t you ever get on the wrong side of one.”

E.F. Free
Former owner of the Cockler “Eider Duck”