I have done quite a bit of small boat cruising here in the US and in Mexico. In fact, an article that I had once read about a guy that cruised for 250 miles along Baja in a small boat was the inspiration to get me started in sailing in the first place, and I have spent many wonderful weeks and months sailing my little boats hither and yon. For years I have participated in a few online small boat cruising forums, with most of the members residing and sailing in the UK. Sailing the tidal rivers of Great Britain has always held a special fascination for me. None of my sailing, even in Mexico, required much thought to the tides, other than pulling my kayak up above the high tide line of driftwood on the beach to ensure I still had a boat nearby in the morning. When my son moved to London last year with his job, I knew I would soon get the opportunity to sail with the big boys.
As an island nation, England invented sailing, right? Well, I guess if you don’t count the Kuwaitis. Or the Phoenicians. Or the Chinese. Or the Polynesians. But we have to admit, the English did pretty well at it. Building an empire that the sun never set over required a fair bit of sailing expertise. And the blokes fishing out of wee boats in every sort of wild weather have fed the whole nation for a long time. (The whole fish and chips thing requires a boatload of fish.) That small boat passion resides to this day in the hearts of the crazies who sail with groups like the Dinghy Cruising Association (DCA) and the Hostellers Sailing Club.
I booked a 2 week trip to London in late April, 2015, because it was convenient for both me and my son Porter and his wife Erin. I wasn’t sure if that was a good time to go sailing in the UK or not. I knew it didn’t freeze much there, so how bad could it be? Turns out the DCA had a sailing event planned for the weekend I was there! Perfect. The plan was to sail up the Tamar River out of Plymouth Harbor (yes, Plymouth, as in the Mayflower and the Pilgrims) and explore some of the creeks, and pubs, in that area. That was especially cool for me because I had been watching a 12 episode BBC special showing how life was on a farm up the Tamar valley during the period of King Edward (late 1800- early 1900 s). The river with its sailing barges was the main form of transport of goods to and from the cities all over England. Vegetables and flowers went down river to the cities, horse manure from the stables of the cities went back up river to fertilize the fields! It was a well balanced system for a thousand years, but permanently interrupted by the train and truck.
From what I had been reading, I had this probably over-romanticized idea that dinghy cruising in the UK involved sailing with the rising tide up a river through beautiful wooded and fielded countryside to some secluded little moorage, tie up to the bank, and let the flat bottomed boat settle down on to the mud as the tide went out. We would walk up a little cow path to a village and spend the evening in a pub, enjoying the warmth of a fire, drink a pint and eat some bangers and mash, and sing some songs until they kicked us out, then trundle our way back to the boat and sleep on board under a little tent erected over the cockpit. In the morning the tide would be high again and lift us off the mud as we awoke and brewed up a pot of coffee (no tea for these blokes) , then ride the falling tide back on down the river, to repeat again up another creek. Guess what? Turns out it was pretty much just like that! Oh yeah, and did you know it rains a lot in England? Who’d a thunk?
I rode a bus 5 hours across England from London to Plymouth, where I was met at the station by DCA members John and Josephine Perry, who it turns out had been writing many of the sailing stories I had been reading online all these years! They graciously invited me to stay at their home overnight and the next day we drove to the Mountbatten slipway to meet up with the club president Roger Barnes. Roger had invited me to crew with him on Avel Dro, his replica of a 100 year old French fishing dinghy. This a really cool design based on a traditional wooden working boat. The hull is clinker built (overlapping planks), with an open cockpit, no decking anywhere. The mast is a solid wooden log lashed into position with a rope around 2 belaying pins.
The sail is a beautiful deep red tanbark lug rig, with no boom. In the old days in these boats, the guys were too busing fishing to worry about a boom swinging around and conking them on the head. Even today that is a nice feature, as I was to learn. The main sheet is looped onto a cleat (wooden, of course) on each aft corner, and needs to be moved from one side to another each time you come about, and the movement thereof needs to be timed precisely mid-turn while the sheet is slack before the wind fills in on the new tack, or it gets yanked out of your hands and flogs mercilessly. It took me a while to get the hang of that, especially while gybing, and a boom would have been lethal, although if I had lived through it I am sure I would have learned quicker….. We sailed across the bay and up into the St Germains river with the rising tide. We were meeting other folks up there in Forder Lake near John and Jan Lidstone’s home. John was the organizer of this club event, and he was prevented from joining for too much sailing, but he was a fine host for the evening. As it was still early yet, Roger and I sailed up the river a ways further just for fun. We had a bit of a beat back against the tide, but it was starting to slacken so we made it back OK. I learned a bit about running aground in mud so soft you couldn’t feel a thing until you notice you aren’t moving at all, and boat wouldn’t come about. The centerboard was our depth sounder, letting us know when we mudded, and then easily retracted to let us go free.
Really, I was having more fun than this picture might suggest....
Back at John and Jan’s, where we tied up for the night, we met up with the Perrys on their self designed and built dinghy, a beautiful craft, and Alastair Law in his self-built Paradox “Little Jim”. Up the trail to John’s house we went ( we weren’t sure which house was his, but the DCA burgee flying on the porch was a clue…) for tea and toast, then up to the pub for dinner and drinks. Back at the boats, we crawled under the boom tents where even in the constant drizzle it was cozy warm.
Roger had a bit of a drip on his head all night, but I lucked out and was drip free. (Or maybe he had gallantly offered me, the guest, the non-drip side…) In the night we heard a horrible racket of falling hardware and we thought maybe a mast had fallen down or something, but since it was raining we decided we would wait until morning to investigate. Turns out someone driving by on the road above the bay had tossed out and down over the bluff a child car seat (no child attached) and a child’s bike. I guess they were done with kids!
After a breakfast of fried bacon sandwiches and coffee, we casually sailed on back down to a bay and across to Mayflower marina where we had a lunch. There, amidst all the shiny new GRP and chrome yachts, was a huge old wooden trawler that immediately caught my attention. She had been recently restored and looked in good working shape. Talking to the restoration-weary but justifiably proud owner, we learned that she had been involved in the evacuation of Dunkirk! I noticed that she had a tiller for steering, which was refreshing. I have never been a fan of wheels, and am tired of yacht owners that bleat on about how THEIR yacht is so big it couldn’t possibly be steered by a tiller. They need to talk to this guy. This ship is much bigger than any of those goofuses!
We sailed on the rising tide on up the Tamar river. There was a nice wind blowing up river which schooled me on the fine art of smartly moving that main sheet across to the opposite cleat each time we came about. I was still learning as we entered a crowded mooring field and there was no room for error without expensive consequences, so I handed the helm to Roger. We worked our way up the tight U turns of the river, pulling out at Cotehele in a driving rain for a warm-up snack of Cream Tea. The soft mud shore was ankle deep at that landing, but we were so wet from the rain anyway that a complete immersion rinse to the waist didn’t make us any wetter. Cotehele is a historical restored manor house, stone quay, lime kiln, tea shop, and barge landing, with the restored sailing barge Shamrock floating there (although I was told the restoration job was poor, and she is quite incapable of sailing worth a darn...)
On up the river we went, under the beautiful graceful arches of the old bridge soaring 120 feet above us, to the quaint little village of Calstock with a floating dock , which we were informed was off limits to the likes of us, so we tied up to the stone quay wall.
We wandered the town a bit, walking out on the train bridge (against the sign that said not to…) spanning the river far below. It was evening, and there were many finely dressed-up ladies getting on the train, apparently heading into the big city for the evening. Back at the Tamar Inn by the quay, we were shaken down for 5 quid by a local hot shot with fancy hair and black leather jacket who smugly told us we were not allowed to tie up unless we contributed to the local rowing club. Hmmm. So much for the friendly welcoming locals! Maybe that was back in the olden days when people there worked for a living. Now it seemed like a pretty exclusive crowd of rich folks, sort of like Aspen or Zermatt. We had dinner and drinks there again. The group assured me that the DCA did not routinely eat out this much, they usually cooked simple one-pot dishes on board, but since the weather was so nasty , (and perhaps to let me sample as many pubs as possible!) we ate out a lot on this trip. Sort of broke the bank for most of us but it was still great fun.
The dawn brought a thick fog, which my local mates assured me meant that the day would be fair once the fog burned off. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before we were enjoying a clear sunny morning. The wind was calm as we drifted on the ebbing tide downstream, sculling a bit to make a bit better time. It was still early, but looking forward with a navigator’s brain, we needed to get down and thru the Cremyll Narrows before the tide turned at 1:00 or we would spend another night there, so we had to keep moving. It is funny, we didn’t consider ourselves “racers” per se, but in a sense we are always racing the change of the tide. Roger was trying to teach me the fine art of sculling, and I was working at it, trying my best to move us faster than the current, when Alastair drifted by us idly on the current, going faster than me waggling the “stick” back and forth! Hmmm. Sculling is harder than it looks. I sat down and bent to the oars, while Roger manned the helm and guided us back through the crowded mooring field. We were rowing merrily along, with Alastair sculling nearby. Actually, he was using a yuloh, (so I guess he was yulohing merrily along…) a curved shaft bending to a horizontal blade, of Asian design.
He said it made the task almost foolproof, which would have been perfect for l me…. I never did get the hang of sculling with the flat bladed oar, which required a deft twist of the wrist on each stroke. A couple of folks in a motorized inflatable came by, asking us if we were OK, and did we need a tow? As if anyone who was rowing must be in trouble! We cheekily wanted to ask if, since they were motoring, was there something wrong with their oars?
We made it thru the narrows with a bit of time to spare. I was again at the helm, being squeezed by a big boat in the channel on one side and the navy yard Exclusion /“no go” zone on the other. We were supposed to keep 100 meters away from the submarine moored there at the quay, but there were no markers that I could see, and really, who can estimate 100 meters? Not me, apparently. I was slowly headed towards the navy side of the equation, watching for the best time to come about. Suddenly the police boat guarding the nuclear arsenal roared right up on us, and I mean RIGHT up on us, with a man shouting at us to get away. NOW! Roger hollered back (over the sound of their engines) that we would be happy to but they were in our way and would they please back off and give us sea room so that we could come about. The guy yelled back, “No, you back off NOW! Don’t you have an engine?” After realizing that we did not, and that we did indeed need a wee bit of room in order to fulfil the order, they backed off and we came about and moved harmlessly away without further confrontation. I guess even navy guys don’t really understand what small un-motorized boats are all about. (I was later told by a friend who had worked there a while back that there would have been a man with a rifle on shore watching the entire encounter, calculating whether to “get involved “ or not. I am glad he calculated that I was just a bumbling fool and not a dangerous terrorist just trying to look like a bumbling fool…)
The wind picked up and we had a rollicking good sail on across the bay, back to the slipway at Mountbatten. I really loved sailing Avel Dro. She seems like a boat that can really get it done. We were tacking through the mooring field up against the tide, and I got a good lesson in “tide adjusted leeway”, where the direction you are pointed really has very little bearing in where you end up! We arrived at the ramp with the water still too low to pull out the boats so we tied up to a nearby mooring ball and had lunch sitting in the rain for an hour as the tide came back up.
What a fine adventure this has been for this Utah yankee sailing into the court of good King Edward, a fulfillment of a long-time dream, which I hope to repeat repeatedly. Thanks to John L for coordinating the event. Thanks so much to Roger for letting me sail with him and teaching me the ropes of tidal sailing. Thanks to Alastair for being a great neighbor and showing me how sculling really should be done. Thanks to John and Josephine for sharing their home with me before and after the cruise, as well as shuttling me back and forth to the bus station. You all are welcome any time to come sail with me in the colonies.