The Eventider's News
Issue Six, Spring/Summer 2006
Page No 3
Starry, starry night
Starry, starry night
by Neal Beaumont
Oblivious to the October rains and gales, engines are tenderly winterised, and lavished with antifreeze and fresh oils. Recalcitrant boat covers are erected in largely futile attempts to keep out the frost and damp. Delicate items of electronics are cradled home to hibernate in centrally heated spare bedrooms.
Yes, here we go again: it’s that depressing time of year when most cruising folk set about the annual ritual of the winter lay-up. The time when some of man’s most vital, dynamic creations, artefacts of sublime beauty and unlimited inspirations, are transformed into dull, inanimate, corpses, as cold, as lonely and as bleak as the grave…...
For at least one WQSC boat, however, Autumn 2004 is a season of renewal, optimism and quiet adventure.
For those that have not met her, please, let me introduce you.
The Cause is a lady of immense charm, considerable beauty, and absolutely impeccable pedigree. She is an example of Maurice Griffiths ‘Tidewater’ class. She was built in 1963, by John Tyrell of Arklow (builder of many fine yachts, including Gypsy Moth II for Sir Francis Chichester). His yard has a most enviable reputation for first class workmanship. Some years ago, Joscelyn and I took The Cause on a pilgrimage to visit her birthplace. We were most unreasonably outraged to discover that Tyrell’s yard was long gone, and had been developed into charmless post-modern ‘yuppie’ apartments.
She is built of well-seasoned inch and a quarter iroko planking on sawn oak frames. She has a proper, traditional gaff cutter rig, and measures 30 feet on deck, and 36 feet from cranse iron to the after end of her Baltic style davits. Displacement is a touch under 8 tons, in cruising trim (which includes a 45lb CQR with 270 feet of three eighths of an inch galvanised chain).
We have owned her since 1997, in which time she has carried us in style, comfort, and without drama, to Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Scilly and Wales.
For the last two years, however, I am ashamed to say that she has lain at South Hooe farm, sometimes in a mud-berth, sometimes ashore, with all but her most basic needs disgracefully ignored.
Sporadically, through the summer of 2004, we therefore set about a much needed refit. Gladly, the deterioration was mainly cosmetic (a tribute to the skill of her builder and the quality of the materials he selected): fresh white paint for the decks, gleaming cream gloss for the topsides, a dramatic deep, deep brown for her antifouling and a tidying up of the brightwork.
The solid mast, of pungent Spruce, was opened up for re-gluing, and then given seven coats of International Perfection polyurethane varnish. The gaff and boom spent a couple of weeks suspended at waist height from the dining room ceiling at home, as Joscelyn scraped, sanded and varnished.
Meantime, I whiled away many satisfying evenings splicing, seizing, whipping, serving and parcelling new running rigging, till my fingers were bloody and raw.
Slowly, so very slowly, The Cause began to look less like a forlorn derelict and more like a true classic.
Let’s not give the wrong impression, there is still much work to do in the months ahead, but on Tuesday October 12th, The Cause was released back into her natural element.
She had been selected to be ‘guinea pig’ to test Anthony Palmes’ new crane-free launch, and recovery, system. Just before low water, at mid-day, there was a gathering of scruffy-looking, booted, characters (myself, Anthony, Jim Barnes and Alan Booth). The talk rambled along vaguely mathematical and engineering lines, primarily concerned with the likely gravitational effects as a heavy old wooden boat descends a slope of around 5%, slung from webbing straps fore and aft. The consensus was that she would tend to ‘pendulum’ backwards since the straps would try to remain vertical. Thus, ground clearance at the stern would increase, but there was a possibility that, due to the very full length of keel, she might foul the hoist at the stem.
Such was the theory….
I didn’t want to show my feelings of misapprehension and anxiety about the new system in front of such an august team. Taking Jack Hawkins’ portrayal of Captain Ericson of the Corvette HMS Compass Rose in ‘The Cruel Sea’ as my role model, I thrust most of my chins firmly forward, and spoke gently, slowly, but decisively,
"Dammit, Gentlemen. Enough talk; let’s get this jape started. God help us all."’
The Cause was gently lifted into Anthony’s new hoist, then driven easily along the horizontal lane. As she was reversed down the incline of the slipway, our fears proved unfounded. She sat confidently in the slings throughout with at least a millimetre clearance everywhere.
My heart missed only relatively few beats as Anthony calmly announced that his tractor brakes could not hold the weight down the slope, and that it might be a good idea to put a block behind one of the wheels as a matter of some urgency. He has such a dry sense of humour sometimes, hasn’t he?
The whole process was soon safely over, and The Cause sat firmly chocked up on blocks waiting for the flood tide to float her.
I then had about three hours or so, to ponder my next concern.
The Cause had been ashore for almost seven months. Several doom - sayers had predicted that she would have opened up, and would leak badly on re-launching. Until now, I had been confident of the stability of her planking, and the soundness of her caulking. As the hour of truth approached, however, the evidence of my own eyes was over-ridden as dark doubts started to fuel vivid, nightmarish visions.
As soon as the water level in the dock started to rise, I was aboard, diligently searching under the cabin sole for any traces of leakage. I’d sponged the bilges absolutely dry beforehand. As the level outside rose with inexorable speed, from the bottom of the ballast keel to the garboard strake, and on to the newly painted waterline, I found only the merest hint of a dribble (from beneath the massive knee that ties the stem to the wooden keel, which took up very quickly). A steady trickle from the stern gland was easily solved by a turn on the remote greaser.
With mounting joy, I motored out of the dock in the bright, late afternoon sunshine, bound for my mooring at Hole’s Hole. A light North-westerly breeze barely raised a ripple.
Three times I tried unsuccessfully to get the pickup buoy with the boathook. The strop, unused for six months, had wrapped itself in many turns and several half hitches around the riser chain. Next, I tried ‘lassoing’ the mooring buoy, but as the weight came on the line, the buoy would spin and the lasso roll off.
Eventually, I jumped into the dinghy, leaving The Cause to look after herself, and quickly got a line secured to the strop with a long bowline. Back aboard, a few minutes work with the very agricultural, but totally effective and reliable Simpson Lawrence windlass, soon had the mooring strop untangled, and we were properly secured.
A magnificently huge, orange, sunset sent a rich coppery golden road along the river directly towards us. Flocks of Canadian Geese circled raucously along the Cornish shore, leaving no doubt that we were invading their territory.
I nipped below to fire up the stove – I was staying on board to keep an eye on things for this first night back afloat, and the forecast had promised a calm, but chilly, night. The three cabin lamps were topped up with lamp oil, and their wicks trimmed. The yellow flickering light reflected warmly off the enamelled bulkheads, and cast eerie shadows of the oak deck beams around the saloon.
Soon I had some chicken broth roaring away on the Taylor’s cooker, and I recalled the gleeful words of my then eight year old nephew, Ned, as he stepped into The Cause’s cabin for the first time, some 5 years ago,
"Wow! This is the cosiest place, EVER!"
Having washed up, and stowed away, I pulled on a jacket and hat, and went out into the cockpit for a check round. The last whispers of breeze had died with the Sun. The night was absolutely still. Not a sound disturbed the silence, except for the brief, distant rumbling of a car struggling up the lane from South Hooe (that’ll be Mike Benson heading home having got Dove II ashore for the winter, I decided).
No moon, but in the clearest of skies, Ursa Major rested majestically on the treetops over Hanging Cliff. The Milky Way followed the path of the River North and South. I tried hesitantly to identify some of the stars in the other constellations, that were reflected so perfectly in the mirror-like surface of the river: Polaris….. Vega……Deneb. I wished I knew more about the geography of our cosmic neighbours.
Gable End, Cliff Wilkins’ river-side house, sat on top of its own sharply defined, inverted image.
Which was reality and which mirage?
When ashore, everything appears so precisely defined and certain: fact from fiction, dream from reality, right from wrong, past from present, the possible from the impossible. Out here, though less than a hundred yards away, my world was full of wider questions and infinite answers.
Is there another me, somewhere in the Universe, at this very moment, on his identical boat, trying to identify our own Sun from the millions of others? Is there such a thing as ‘this very moment?’ If he’s made of anti-matter (or is it me that’s anti-matter?), we’d best not shake hands…..
With a jolt, I realised that I had grown cold. I went below into the cocooned warmth of the cabin, and was shocked to see that I had been in the cockpit for well over an hour.
The spring ebb had set in strongly now, and was pulling at the mooring chain, causing it to chuckle. The Cause veered first to port, then, with a gurgle and a splosh, to starboard.
In an 1880 poem, Robert Louis Stevenson described Talisker as, "the king o’ drinks". With due reverence and anticipation, I poured myself a shot of the smokey, peaty, malt, and eased my weary back onto the port saloon berth. I felt sheer contentment and relaxation seeping through my soul.
"Ahh, this is it, this is where I belong", I mused.
My mind drifted aimlessly as I drank a long, deferential toast to sailors, kindred spirits, everywhere. I drank to my parents, Yvette and Rod, who had introduced me to the ways of a sailing boat at sea, aboard their old wooden cutter, The Jan, in the 1960s. I drank to the great heroes who so captured my imagination as a young teenager (Joseph Conrad, Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moittessier, Robin Knox Johnston, Donald Crowhurst). Warming to my theme, I drank to the whole myriad of friends around the world who share this rather pointless obsession with boats (too many to list here, and most would be unknown to you anyway, but I revelled in thinking back over the years, remembering people and incidents with fondness and thanks). There were two special toasts, firstly, to the immortal memory of M.G. (Maurice Griffiths) in thanks for designing this very fine ship, and finally to Joscelyn for being such a perfect shipmate for so many of my nautical adventures over the last twenty years or so. Strange to be here by myself, with her so far away…….
"Enough of this bloody sentimental self-indulgence", I told myself harshly, "you’re meant to be here for a purpose, matey-boy".
Suitably chastened, I lifted the cabin sole once more, and was soon reassured that we still weren’t making any water.
Job done, I decided to take the rest of the day off. Reaching at random into the bookshelf, I pulled out two books: Bertrand Russell’s ‘A history of Western Philosophy’, and M.G’s ‘The first of the tide’. In my present mood, there could only be one winner from that selection, and I settled back to savour the chapter "Nothing quite like a smack", for the umpteenth time.
The luxuriant warmth from the gently hissing stove: the aromatic, tranquillising whiskey: reading by flickering lamp-light in my magical, charmed world….You’ll not be surprised to hear that I was soon in deep, blissful sleep, dreaming of the winter cruising to come.