Saturday, October 30, 2010

‘Micro’s’ Cruises

No 1 - Burnham/Yokesfleet Creek

"Will you launch her with Champaign?" I had been asked.
"More likely Branston Pickle!" was my reply.

The time came to try her out - in secret. Visions of her being low on her marks, or being down at the bow played on my mind, but all was fine.

‘Micro’ was easy to tow behind my old Ford Sierra. At 50 mph I wouldn’t have known she was behind the car, and even when traversing a bumpy section of the B1012 near South Woodham Ferres, she barely made her presence felt.

I could not find the Harbour Master at the Marina office, so I set up the rigging. As I sorted the various bits of string I took note of the water beyond the entrance and estimated the northeast wind to be a Force 2 - ideal for a trial sail.

Entry into the water was not as well controlled as I would have liked. The slipway was occupied by a 26 ft trailer sailer, but the owner was pleased to move her to one side. Reversing through the narrow gap left between the edge of the slipway and the cruiser proved tricky. Because I did not want the wheel bearings to get wet I didn’t let the trailer down the slipway far enough for Micro to float off. Therefore I had to push her until she slid into the water, but to my surprise she tipped to one side. This was because her pointed stern didn’t have sufficient lateral buoyancy to keep her upright. I took note of the situation, and logged it as lesson number 1: Immerse the trailer far enough into the water for the boat to remain upright. Just make sure the wheel bearings are cool and packed with grease before launching.

Somehow, I had forgotten the Branston Pickle, but I was pleased that only the owner of the cruiser and his wife were there to witness ‘Micro’s’ baptism. This was a time for me and my 'creation'. She was going to test me and I was going to test her.

Test number one. How would she row? After parking the car and trailer I pushed the boat into deeper water to prevent her from grounding when I climbed aboard. I gently nudged her away from the slipway, shipped the oars, and with little effort on my part, I rowed her to a nearby pontoon, where I prepared her for sailing.

How would she sail and how would I manage her? I didn’t know if she would have weather helm, lee helm or neutral helm, and I was diffident about sailing her through the narrow passage between the moored boats, so I carefully rowed her to the open water of the River Crouch. There I found the true strength of the wind was about Force 3. I first hoisted the main, and away she went. I felt quite happy with how she handled. Next, I set the free-standing jib, and I took care not to capsize the boat as I moved forward to browse down on the halyard. By comparison with my Roamer dinghy, ‘Micro’ was far less stable, but she was sufficiently firm for me to sit on her side deck while I tugged the halyard and made it fast.

I was amazed how well she went to windward, and when tacking she came about with ease; only now and again did I use the jib to help her round. Downwind she slipped along leaving just a trace of a wake, save for three trails of bubbles, two for the keels and one for the hull. Feeling more confident, I tacked to the entrance of the River Roach. Sitting on her side decks was not as comfortable as I had hoped, because the pneumatic cushion between my posterior and the coaming was ineffective.

At the Branklet Spit buoy, ‘Micro’ almost got up onto the plane. There were no other boats around, except an anchored SeaWych close to the north bank. Half-an-hour later, the tide was on the ebb and the wind almost faltered, but there was sufficient to make over the ground towards Paglesham. I wanted a quiet night; therefore I steered the boat to port into Yokesfleet Creek.

Protected from what little wind there was by the high muddy banks, ‘Micro’ came to a halt. Having stowed the sails, I rowed her beyond the electric cable marked by yellow and black lozenges either side of the creek. Five seals ensconced on the western bank kept their beady eyes on us. Two were larger than the others and I guessed they were males. The sun gradually sank behind the top of the bank, leaving behind a sunset of painted orange, pink and purple streaks. I needed to erect the improvised tent before the evening dew. To prevent any draught coming in from the front end I rigged an old raincoat under the boom and tied its corners to the chainplates.

My rumbling tummy told me it was time for the evening meal. I poured water into the saucepan and placed it on the gimballed cooker for heating a precooked meal which simply required boiling water added to it. Although not as hot as I would have liked, the chicken curry tasted OK. Yoghurt and Ovaltine completed my repast.

Test number three: Would I be able to sleep aboard when the boat was at anchor?
I never sleep well on the first night of a cruise, and this was no exception. One reason for my lack of sleep was the rude noises made by the seals! Did they fart or did they belch? I couldn’t tell. Of course, I needed to relieve myself in the middle of the night, but that was test number four. Could I use the bucket in the confined space under the tent? Success! - Hurrah! I emptied the bucket, rinsed it and tied it in place on the stern deck. What a wonderful starry night it was.

To keep my head warm I wore an old, but cherished peaked cap that played havoc with my hair by scrunching it up so that I resembled a scarecrow with a head of straw. In the morning my eyes were zombie-like, outlined with black circles, and my chin felt like a wire brush. I was not amused by the dawn antics of the male seals as they chased one another up and down the muddy bank. From the top they would slide down and plunge into the dark water, appear again and repeat the performance. Meanwhile the females remained poised with their noses in the air, as if to say we are above this childish nonsense - silly fools don’t impress us.

Breakfast was next on the agenda, before shaving and ablutions. I needed to catch the last of the ebb.

Because there was little wind, I thought I would have a hard slog rowing all the way to the River Crouch. As I rowed down the Creek, the large seals were curious. Did I have designs on their trio? They followed me, one at each quarter, until I was well clear of their domain. The wind filled in from the northeast and it was sufficient to move the boat at about a knot. At Horshoe Corner I was forced to put in a series of windward legs towards the entrance of the River Roach. The last of the ebb assisted us as far as the Branklet Spit Buoy. The timing was just right, because from there the flood tide began to flow up river to the west.

The air was crystal clear, and apart from the gentle lapping of wavelets from ‘Micro’s’ curved bow, I couldn’t hear another sound. Seated on the floorboard I leant against the aft end of the cockpit with my arm raised so that my fingers rested on the tiller. The experience was sublime. This was my dream turned into reality. A young lady was walking her dog beside the river, and the boatman of the Royal Burnham Yacht Club stood beside his launch. He ignored my wave, and I magnanimously concluded that he was short-sighted or he was too interested in lighting his cigarette.

All of a sudden I felt excruciating pains in both of my legs. I daren’t try standing, as I was afraid I would capsize the boat. Vigorously I massaged my legs to restore the blood supply, and gradually the cramp eased. I had sat motionless for too long and the chilled air had cooled my legs. Thereafter, I determined to move my limbs now and again to keep the blood circulating. I didn’t want to be a victim of deep vein thrombosis!

All the way to Fambridge I had the River to myself, but it was a different story for the return passage to Burnham. Several yachts, most of them using their engines, overtook ‘Micro’. As is often the case when it is a sunny day, the wind increases about 1600, and white cumulus clouds skip across the azure sky. With those conditions ‘Micro’ creamed along.

I shall remember the screeching terns at the River’s edge, a pair of ducks with their chicks in single file, trails high in the sky from planes, and the joy of helming my little boat on her first cruise.

Getting packed for the journey home was time-consuming because of interruptions from spectators who were intrigued with my small, wooden boat – a boat so very different from the usual plastic tubs and gin palaces that frequent marinas.

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