Colne Match and Beyond

After a few days at home, mainly loading and unloading the washing machine or so it felt, it was time to leave the mooring at Heybridge again to get down to Brightlingsea for the Colne Race, the last race of the season. We left in the dark on the early tide, Hilary, Oli and I joined by Rose on leave from Duet which has been turning heads on the south coast. It was very light and took a couple of hours to get to Bradwell at dawn where we found Cambria anchored having found no wind and seeking sleep instead. A few minutes with the outboard alongside was enough to bring the promised southerly. It is one of life’s great axioms that if beset by light airs you so often need only to bring a bigger sail on deck, threaten the outboard motor or uncat the anchor for dropping and up will come the breeze. The other great mystery is how often wind comes or goes at high or low water. Can the wave of the tide really affect such things as it seems to? I used to feel using the outboard an admission of defeat and dispensed with one altogether on the smack suffering from sores after carrying the Seagull Century down the road one time too often. Oars at £100 are a better bet than the greater sum for an outboard and much lighter to carry. On the barge though, the sweeps are mighty items calling for heroic efforts over any length of time and I choose to side sometimes with Chubb Horlock who allowed Commander Martin to take his Johnson outboard in the Vigilant with him in the 1930s and did more freights as a result.


Once anchored in Colne there was time for a kip before returning the cup to Paul Winter and picking up mainsheet Jim Green and stalwarts Lucy Harris and Iain Stubbs. This is a more compact crew than usual and would call for careful husbanding of muscle mass.


The start was early with a nice west southwesterly breeze forecast but in the prestart it had not really settled down. Of course, with this direction the fleet tends to seek the weather berth and compete for being close to East Mersea Stone. This is indeed what happened and a procession commenced fighting for clear air and space. Niagara and Blue Mermaid tried an alternative and at the five minute gun were close to the line. Both were desperate for championship points, the latter more than the former, and there is a point for fastest start. As we headed up river on our last port tack Niagara came down on starboard but was early and came round to look for a space in the procession which she found and used to good effect shortly after. Hoping to tack in clear air ahead and to leeward of the fleet Blue Mermaid found less wind just when she needed it, and instead gybed into a start at the Bateman’s Tower side of the line setting her jib topsail as she did. And it worked, or at least it did as far as winning the start was concerned.


But of course gybing tight round does not result in boatspeed compared to a long reach into a start, and it was soon apparent there were some fast barges bearing down. Repertor particularly made another of her excellent starts with speed and position and was ahead of us as we converged. Similarly, Marjorie was sailing full and fast through the fleet with Niagara hot on her heels. We had to be content with fourth place at the No 8 buoy at which point an overtaking lane opened up to windward and we took the opportunity to sail high and catch up a bit. The order rounding the Colne Bar was the same but sailing high coming into the rounding gave us a tight exit and the inshore berth for the next leg.


It was a dead run, and after considerable debate we decided to point the barge at the next mark or at least where it should be, before we squared away and see which gybe was best. This gave us a starboard pole. The amazing thing was how well the barge ran before squaring away and setting running gear. She seemed to keep up with the others which were smarter at the set. I am convinced time moves at different rates according to all sorts of pressures. And it never runs slower than when a boat is waiting for a hoist. Seconds seem like minutes as they and championship points tick away. The sail had been stowed in the bag knotted. Once the hoist came Blue Mermaid was in a strong leeward position with clear air and every opportunity of sailing higher and faster as she approached the Clacton mark once it could be seen. It turned out to have been laid spot on the coordinates. By this time Blue Mermaid had sailed inshore of Repertor and Marjorie and indeed made up well on Niagara as well in the last few minutes before rounding. But at the buoy Niagara was two lengths ahead and gained the point for the first to the outer mark.


But then everything changed as the fleet started working to windward against the last of the ebb. With almost but not quite a full board under her and her favourite starboard tack where the headstick sits perfectly under the bob, a good bobstay and thrumming backstay, she started to show what she could do and overhauled Niagara which eventually tacked away. But the hot news of the day was how Marjorie was sailing and it was like a witch. Her helm was using every little puff or lift to steadily rise up on Blue Mermaid’s hip. It took every ounce of concentration to ensure she did not do to us what we had done to Niagara, but she did not, and chose to tack away with Niagara towards the shore. Well we thought, that’s interesting. We are on the favoured tack for the Spitway buoy, the next mark, and if lifted would be there first. This consideration meant we committed the cardinal sin of not staying between the competition and the next mark. At first it seemed to be paying off with a handy lift, but the closer to the Wallet Spitway buoy we came the more we were headed, and when they came back to us on starboard tack, both Marjorie and Niagara passed ahead. In truth, the wind was not settled in direction and whereas in some matches this year the shifts had favoured Blue Mermaid, like at the Swale, here the reverse was true.


Marjorie was confortably ahead but Niagara closer and as she tacked to cover us very effectively there followed several short tacks in an attempt to find clear air. At the same time, Repertor had sensibly avoided such shennanigans and stood well into the Spitway to return worryingly close as she approached the buoy. Suspicious of the wind direction we held up with a tight sheet after the buoy. Theoretically there was a fetch to the Bar buoy but the evidence of the last hour was that this could not be relied upon. To start with we were heading for Bradwell, but as we headed north west we were slowly headed and eventually just fetched. Marjorie and Niagara had freed off and had to tack to get to the Bar.


Some honour was retrieved as we passed ahead of Niagara again near the Eagle after some anxious moments, but although closer we did not catch Marjorie which led to the finish. It was a pleasure to cheer her performance as she passed nearby.


So ended the race series. Although winning her class, the overall champion is Niagara by three points, after a consistently strong performance all round.


On Sunday Oli departed to travel to Hayling Island to join a Cruising Instructor course with the Morning Star Trust. Monday evening as Hilary and I returned aboard after errands we found Shiner Wright’s yacht Mave anchored nearby as he was joining us to help with a day sail the next day with the excellent Lexden Springs Special School. We booked the harbour ferry to bring them off to the barge in one go. As they stepped aboard it started raining so much fun was had getting togged up in our fishermens’ waterproofs before helping get underway and steer down to the Knoll. Undaunted by the rain the students worked hard in the short time available, and it was impressive how much one remembered from coming previously. It was great welcoming back the school which hopes to do a residential next year as things return a bit more to normal.


That evening we were joined by Tom Moody to help us on the passage to Sun Pier Chatham for the Chatham Reach Festival. See separate pictures of this fantastic event.


It was an uneventful passage with enough wind not to need the jib topsail except for a short time on the Cant and a fetch most of the way. There was time before dinner anchored in Stangate Creek to steve up the bowsprit and become staysail rigged for the river work on the following day. Thursday brought low water mid afternoon but just enough wind from the west to make over the last of the ebb. It was slow progress though and took five hours to reach Chatham just before the light failed. Maybe there are more moorings than previously but tacking through Cockham Reach under the trees seemed more challenging than I remember. It was very light and Blue Mermaid is very handy, though her lightheadedness did mean dropping both boards all the way and dropping/resetting the foresail six times when tacking to help her round until we cleared the no 32 buoy and things became wider and easier.


Edith May was sailing down to do a scattering of ashes so the pier was clear for us. With a southwesterly, which by then it was, the pier pontoon is pretty much the same direction, so we dropped the topsail as we rounded Chatham Ness, stowed the mizzen and ran back against the weak flood reducing the mainsail as necessary. Then two lovely thing happened in the last rays of the sun before dusk descended. First, the evening concert by the Libertines commenced in Rochester Castle and excellent rock music filled the valley wafted on the gentle breeze so that it came and went in volume. Pete Docherty allowed Simon North to use some of his music on the film he made of us in Cambria some years back, watcheable on Youtube under the name of the charity. So the combination of themes felt quite appropriate this night. And secondly, as we very slowly approached the pier three jetskis came close. I waved one over and asked if he would pop on the pier and take a line. He did more than that, and wrapping a line Tom gave him around his foot proceeded to take it and attach it to a bollard. He then came alongside, asked where we came from and when we told him Maldon asked if we knew Gary Didhams, a local bargeman originally from Kent. We said we did, and thanked him, realising anew what a small world we inhabit and how assumptions about jetskiers can be wrong.


We proceeded to turn round as our orders for the morrow were to be as far downriver on the pier as possible to allow Jacob Marley space to take her passengers. With a short pier and a little bit of flood tide running this took some winding on the crab winch and spring, and was eventually achieved with the help of resetting the mizzen which had a surprisingly big effect.


Once alongside, Edith May joined us and it only remained to retell the details of our passage and otherwise improve the world with her crew in one or two hostelries. This ended with karaoke in the excellent and friendly Ship where I am pleased to report Red Sails in the Sunset was among the options. It was good to find the Ship vibrant and successful. I had not visited for over twenty years when Hilary and I met Alan Pratt there to view the Adieu, then as now for sale and moored behind the pub. We could not raise enough money but she was saved to sail and has been a worthy addition to the fleet since.


The Festival of Chatham Reach was a great success with a constant flow of people afloat on four vessels and ashore at a fine range of activities and stalls with live music. Hopefully it can become a regular event.


Monday morning saw a trimaran of Blue Mermaid and smack Thistle either side of Edith May towing to Stangate via South Yantlet and Sharfleet Creeks. It was fascinating seeing the Medway from a different perspective, possible because the light easterly conditions decided us to not leave for Essex until the next day, giving Oli a day at home before joining at Lower Halstow Tuesday morning. This all went according to plan and, despite a calm at the start, a decent southeasterly made a fetch of the Swin, low water at the Whitaker at dusk and Weymarks by mid-evening. It was also completed as a staysail barge which made for a more relaxing passage. Next day back to Heybridge and some time ashore. Oh and the washing machine.