Sailing clubs tend to hold their AGMs in the depth of January when conditions are considered least suitable for sailing. My last club was a dinghy racing club and although they race throughout most of the year including new years day, they accept that there should be a gap between the end of one season and the beginning of another. Members of my current club, being mostly yachtsmen, spend the whole of the winter fettling their boats on the hard.
I consider the occasion of the AGM as an invitation to go adventuring when the water is loneliest and sometimes wildest. The Medway, which in the summer is lined with moored boats which present constant hazards and obstacles, in the winter is mostly clear, and very few non commercial boats are to be seen in motion.
On the 31st January this year I attended the AGM of my East Coast, mud bound yacht club, it was an amicable affair and attendees were spoiled with free beer and fish and chips. I slept soundly but briefly in the clubhouse afterwards.
High Water 04.38hrs
Or thereabouts, I was up at 3.30am and I didn’t record the time I got afloat but I think it took me more than an hour to put my ancient plywood boat together with its aluminium and wood mast and gunter, its stainless steel mast stays, its polyester sheets and halyards, and its polysomethingorother sails. It would have taken me nearly as long to ensnare myself within my plastic drysuit. As I finally retreated from our remote little creek, seriously humouring the idea of a trip around the Isle of Sheppey, and hoping to return on the next tide only twelve hours later, the wind was getting up enough to keep my mind focused on survival, sadly sparing me no attention for the environment around me. I already found the wind a little too full for my usual habit of sailing downwind goose winged, instead I jibed a few times, zigzagging a little to keep the sails on the same side without too much flapping. As I approached Slaughterhouse Point, at the head of Stangate Creek, I began too fear that a jibe could be too fierce so I wore around, and, after a while I started to look for some where to run aground. The probably unnecessary zigzagging did nothing to help my orientation and when I found the mud it was only clear to me that I was acting as subject and not master of the elements.
The sun seemed to pop up almost instantly as I stood on the shore of Chetney Marsh and it dawned on me that I could not go home until the end of the day and yet there was no where else to go. Stangate Creek was to be my lot until the waters turned again home. After checking in with my wife I decided I’d rather be on the windward side of the creek, but the tide was quickly leaving me high and dry, so I would drag the boat some distance to the water, make preparations to sail and then find myself again dry, and start the tired dance again.
I reached Burntwick Island at around 8.30am and had most of the day to pass there. The wind was strengthening as forecasted, but I didn’t expect it to blow with such a sustained strength for so long. I wondered onto the island, nosed around the ruin, noticed that the woodwork of the roof was in place so presumably a metal roof had been removed. I have read that nothing remains of the old farmhouse which dated from before the island calved off from Kent over 250 years ago, so this prominent building that can be seen from all around the lower Medway must have housed soldiers, and in some comfort, for as long as they could sure up the sea wall. Now the fireplace is submerged twice a day without fail and there is no evidence of even birds or animals using it for shelter. I shunned the garrison in favour of an S shaped gun emplacement which seemed at first to offer shelter but after a while watching a single blade of kelp battling against a current of air, when it only wanted to lie down, I realised that the shape of my shelter was distributing the wind very fairly and evenly to every corner. However the sun was shining and I was warm enough, and even happy in my temporary incarceration.
A lazy study of the carpet around me gave me to consider that however much detritus man produces, nature produces far more. I saw very little plastic, a few odd pieces of metal, some wood, but mostly a mix of kelp and straw that looked almost like the manure that I put on my allotment. In short, it seemed very fertile, and were it protected from the sea, I believe one could have made a living here. I had earlier considered a small bit of beach that somehow managed not to be mud, the sand was made up of small pieces of shell in various stages of having been pulverised . It occurred to me that the end of the world must be postponed a while.
Looking out from my concrete shelter I could only just see my boat, and the line between mud and water was hard to distinguish, so I made my way back down to idle in the mud by the boat, and then to sit in the boat feeling ashamed of the mud which was all over my lower half and beginning to find its way onto my sails.
The wind began to strengthen and the flapping of sails and slapping of halyards began to trouble me so I busied myself tying up the sails and tensioning the halyards to keep all sound except for the whistling of the wind suppressed.
I was visited by the river police. They didn’t look friendly with their black suits, baseball caps and machine guns. I guessed that a commercial fishing boat which had motored up Stangate Creek a couple of hours earlier must have radioed the coastguard, and they had asked the harbourmaster who had put out a call, when I didn’t answer a call on the radio they called the cops. The Police launch didn’t distinguish it self, it seemed to lurk awkwardly mid channel, too shy to come near me and my lovely mud, and after a while had to manoeuvre ungracefully to avoid drifting up the creek. The policemen seemed to have forgotten their megaphone as I had mine, so our interview was a little strained. They inquired after my name and its spelling, and then they wanted to know the date I was born, perhaps they were reassured that it wasn’t my destiny to do any mischief or come to any harm as they didn’t trouble themselves to ask where I keep myself. They eventually left me without searching my boat for contraband or migrants. It was the first day of the British Free State and I don’t quite know what to make of this encounter.
After my visitors had left, I was spooked and I decided, perhaps rashly, to push the boat back down to the water and hoist sail. I tied a deep reef into the mainsail, and should have also shortened the jib, (this could have been done easily enough by wrapping it around the forestay). With great trouble I organised my various bits of rope, secured my boom to the kicking strap, that stops it from bouncing around out of control, and got myself underway.
I was now sailing with the wind across the boat, a broad reach, the fastest point of sail, and the boat took off. The jib alone was giving a great deal of power, but shaking itself loose from its cleat. The boat was rising up out of the water on to a plane. I have felt this before but not to this extent, and as the boat was levitated above the water my rudder was barely reaching and was giving very little control. I saw the large fishing boat which had earlier reported me to the authorities anchored in the middle of the channel, and I managed to get past it, and just out of sight of it before the inevitable happened;
It was more a plane crash than a capsize. My boat, when it went over, was right out of the water and it went over like a nine pin. I got it back up quite quickly but I hadn’t released the jib, she rolled straight over again in one smooth movement, and by now we were fetching up on the fabled Lee Shore, a place where no sailor wants to be, but all fetch up when the chips are down. The tip of the mast with its wooden yard were busy burying themselves deeper in the mud and the wind was hammering against the exposed hull, pushing the mast deeper, I managed to wiggle it a bit and then walk the boat round to eventually recover the mast and right the boat.
I was now faced with a sort of self salvage operation. I was safe on the mainland, and could have walked home, I had given up all hope of sailing, and had no hope of rowing into this headwind or alongside a lee shore without being pushed straight back onto it. I had no idea how long it would take, or if I could get home, but my only option was to walk the boat along the coast. I quickly learned that when the wind howled its fiercest my best bet was to go in deeper and pull the front of the boat down out of the wind, I often walked in water up to my elbows, but as long as I had the boat with me I felt quite safe, (I think looking back I should have tied a safety line around my waste, as had I let go of the boat I could have fallen into trouble).
I managed to row across the narrow channel of The Shade during a brief lull in the wind. I was treated to a very lengthy inspection of the marine fly-tip site that forms the edge of Barksore Marshes and at last I was in my home creek. A member of my club, out dog walking took me for a foreigner blown somehow in on the storm and extended to me the warm hospitality of the clubhouse, and even when I told him I am a member, he stayed with me to point out the hole where yachts dig their keels in on the hammerhead of the jetty, just before I fell into it. When I stepped on to our lovely solid concrete slipway it was with complete disbelieve, I had been determined to have an adventure and I had had exactly that!