The Voyage of the Silver Dipper, July 1989
(A rip-roaring tale of the sea recently discovered in a skip near Penge)
Two things happened back in January. The first was that Murphy (inventor, propagator and sole agent of the universal Sod’s LawTM) booked his annual week’s holiday for the beginning of July. Secondly, Kevin Alder, the sailing sweep, came to sweep my chimney, saw my Thames barge paintings and ended up organising a sailing trip for us. How lucky! To book a week off the same week as Murphy. But the nagging doubt remains… what was Murphy up to during the months leading up to the week in question? Why were there no hitches in the planning? Why was there no last minute ‘flu epidemic amongst the crew? Why was a stable weather system allowed to settle over northern Europe during the week before we left? Was Murph losing his grip?
All Things Brighton Beautiful
Six of us on board a yacht called Silver Dipper in Brighton Marina. One fully qualified and vastly experienced Mr Alder, who says he can sail a bit as well. Liz, who has done plenty of off shore sailing before; myself with some dinghy sailing behind me; three total rookies- Ruth, Steve and Sue. Something less than fifty percent competence- the sort of rate that Nelson’s press gangs would have been delighted with.
I suppose marinas can be interesting places, or pretty, or full of character. Brighton Marina is none of these. It is a vast yacht-erama ringing tunelessly to the slap and tinkle of a thousand halliards on a thousand masts. Its architecture is of a tubular modernist style that, from Milton Keynes, we come on holiday to escape. Beneath the chalk cliff sits a marina ‘village’ that seems just as much in place as a hypermarket would in Ambridge. We marvelled at the pub built to look like an east coast weather-boarded granary, but were unimpressed with the motorway service station atmosphere found within.
The sooner we escaped from here the better, though we did have to restrain the skipper from setting off directly for Fécamp on Friday night as we left the pub. Some people fancy fish and chips after the pub; it seems that Kevin’s ideal is a sixteen hour trip in a strange boat across the busiest shipping lane in the world in the dark with a crew of novices. We mutinied.
We finally left at the far more reasonable hour of two in the afternoon on Saturday, having had a practice sail and throw-up in the morning. Moreover, we decided to head not for Fécamp across the Channel, but for Newhaven, a sensible six miles along the coast. Nobody was ill, much, and we enjoyed the sail with what was to become a familiar old friend, a stiff north easterly breeze.
On arriving in Newhaven we discovered a different kind of marina. No ‘village’ here, no security fences, no supermarket trolleys for shifting dunnage, baggage and foodage from hatchback to boat. It was at Newhaven that I had the blinding revelation that a marina has to be engineered so that the pontoons rise and fall with the tide. Of course! It says something about Brighton Marina that I hadn’t been aware of the tide- I could have been on a reservoir in Rutland.
So Newhaven scored for its simplicity. We had a pleasant welcome from the yacht club; Ruth and Liz even managed to talk them into letting us use their showers. We enjoyed a good night’s sleep, lulled by the gentle clanking of the lorries driving over the ramps onto the Dieppe ferries.
We used two other marinas during the week- Gillingham and South Dock, Rotherhithe. Both new, and Gillingham in particular providing first class facilities and peace and quiet. Here we were treated to a spectacular electric storm during the night. I lay in my sleeping bag watching the pyrotechnics through the perspex forehatch above me, and thought, “It’s a good job it’s Murphy’s week off, otherwise we might get flooded out here.”
South Dock was weird. Overlooked on one side by silent, cavernous warehouses, it was all a-whisper with the ghosts of stevedores, bargees and sailors long gone. The mooring pontoons, all clean and new, float uneasily on the oily water of the dock. Tied to them, the play-things of the affluent, a jarring contrast to the streets a short walk beyond the surrounding rash of new dockland town houses. Rotherhithe, with its boozers, late night grocery stores, empty houses, peeling advertising hoardings and the weedbound headquarters of the Bermondsey Labour Party. What do the people of Rotherhithe make of their yachting visitors? I can guess.
Marinas seem to be strange, unnatural places to me. Whilst appreciating the facilities, in particular the showers, I felt far more at home on the mooring we borrowed in the Swale off Queenborough, or in Ramsgate’s bustling, smelly outer harbour. Perhaps this is a result of my extensive canal cruising. On the canals you tie up just about anywhere you want to, which is to say, outside the pub, and if it is not in company with other boats, so much the better.
In Ramsgate we tied onto a raft of boats most of which seemed to be Dutch, and learned the etiquette of crossing other boats to get ashore. Our arrival in Ramsgate, and our departure the next morning were both achieved under sail alone. True, the motor was running, but this was merely to charge the batteries, you understand. One felt less lubberly after this display of yachtsmanship (which consisted largely of skipper Kevin doing everything and us getting in the way). I found myself looking askance at other craft which (let’s face it, sensibly) came in and went out under power.
Anyway, we paid for our overconfidence two nights later at Queenborough trying to pick up a mooring under sail. After the fourth circuit and following the snapping of the plastic boathook, we gave up and motored onto the buoy, having to resort to a member of the crew, lying flat on the sharp end and stretching down to grab the line tied to the buoy. Fortunately, however, nobody witnessed this debacle because it was, of course, Murphy’s week off.
We tried a different method of docking in Rye – we dried out. Deep uncertainty. How would a boat with a delta-wing footed keel such as Silver Dipper settle onto – or into – the mud? How would she refloat? Would she refloat, or would the keel act like the fluke of an anchor and hold us down as the tide rose around us? No. In the end, drying out and refloating was totally uneventful. What pre-occupied us more as the evening passed was the non-reappearance of the sea. We were due to leave for Ramsgate at high tide, supposedly about ten thirty that night, and by nine o’ clock the narrow creek at the Town Quay was still virtually dry. What was going on? Where was the flood? Were the tide tables wrong? Would we ever get out of here? Who had nicked the water ?
If you know Rye you will know the impressive way in which the flood belatedly and hurriedly appears round the last bend up to the quay. “Sorry I’m late,” it appears to puff. “Got held up. Soon have you afloat again, don’t worry. Cor, I dunno, it’s all go, innit?” We sailed out of Rye at eleven o’clock on the Sunday evening for a night passage that was a total novelty to Ruth and myself. It was an experience never to be forgotten- the way the phosphorescence lit the water as I hung over the lee of the cockpit to recycle my spaghetti bolognese.
“What causes it?” asked Kevin Alder.
“Phosphor,” said Ruth.
I was confused. Who put phosphor in my spaghetti bolognese? Was that why I was being sick?
Another enduring memory of that night in the English Channel is of the lights:
Green over white = trawler fishing.
Red to left of green = boat going away from us.
Green to left of red = boat coming towards us.
Red changing to red and amber, then green = Folkestone High Street.
Flashing intermittent white = my faulty torch.
Pulsating ultra-violet =Dungeness power station.
Black shadow blocking out stars to the east = bloody great tanker on collision course.
Blue =language from Kevin having failed to see tanker until last minute.
It was decided that we should operate a watch system as we had a longish way to go. I checked mine- a minute slow, nothing to worry about. Kevin explained what he meant. Some of us should go below now to rest while the others drove, to swap over later in the night. Ruth and Liz decided to take the first watch- and the second, third, fourth etc. since they didn’t fancy the insides of the boat and theprobable effect on their own insides. So like a good lad muggins went down to get some kip. Having dozed for an hour I was woken by strange noises coming from the cockpit. Hang on, I know that sound- it’s Ruth singing. I later found out that the others had asked her to sing. They’ll learn.
It was getting kitted up to go back on deck that made me feel ill. That or the singing. Anyhow, I emerged groggily and proceeded to commune with the limpid waters again, not finding it in my heart to care all that much about nearly being run down by a super-tanker. Later on Ruth waxed lyrical about seeing the dawn at sea. It was a very ordinary dawn as far as I could tell, but she was impressed.
“Before all the colours gradually came back, ” she said, ” everything was a shade of grey.”
“Kev certainly was, “said Liz. At least it was Murphy’s week off.
Sea-sickness, I now know, is a subject about which only those who suffer are qualified to talk. I’d never been ill at sea before, but managed it twice that week. It didn’t spoil things for me because I enjoyed the sailing so much. Liz is the same, consigning herself to a day’s illness at the beginning of each trip and consoling herself with the knowledge that JohnRidgeway is a fellow sufferer. As were Nelson, Hornblower etc, etc.
Unfortunately for Steve and Sue the sailing was no compensation for the discomfort, and so we left them in Rye, blessing dry land. Dry land is something I’ve now got mixed feelings about. Coming home after a week away I find that dry land needs an awful lot of mowing and weeding. What is more, it doesn’t keep still. It is not rock steady, but dips and dives about as much as the sea did. This was so bad I was very nearly landsick.
If I learnt anything during the week, it was that dinghy sailing, canal boating and a regular reading of Arthur Ransome, C.S.Forester and Erskine Childers cannot by themselves prepare you for sea. From what I have now seen, the rest is learnt through the school of hard knocks. Also the school of wet clothes, the school of blistered hands, the school of coffee spilt down your front and the schools of panic and sheer terror.
But I did learn a lot. How to rig a gybe preventer. How to read a chart at thirty degrees to the horizontal. How to annoy the man who operates the Kingsferry Bridge in the Swale. How not to pick up a hat knocked overboard. How to ignore all information provided by the Shipping Forecast. How to break a boat-hook, a winch, a radio hand-set…
Kevin Alder had explained that Silver Dipper was designed so that all the important strings dangle down into the cockpit. I thought this made the whole process appear to be akin to armchair sailing, and I was good at that, after all the Ransome, Forester etc I had consumed. You just sit there and pull different strings at different times, and the boat goes. This is the theory. I suppose it could be so if you took the advice of these questions you used to get in physics exams at school which said ‘assume there is no friction’.
But friction there is. Usually between the helmsman and the rest of the crew who sit in front of the compass, let the jib sheet fly too early or too late, fail to pick up mooring buoys at a distance of fifteen feet, get in the way of the tiller whilst being sick, ditto whilst not being sick, and so on. Sir Francis Chichester had the right idea.
Up a Puddle Without a Creek
Since Ruth and I once lived in Faversham we had to visit the town. It being Murphy’s week off meant that the tide served perfectly to see us in the Shipwright’s Arms for a pint with an old friend at lunch time, before continuing up Faversham Creek to the town to shop for provisions and sticky buns, and leaving before we became mud-bound – and still have change from a fiver.
Ruth likes creeks. Mind you, she likes Prisoner Cell Block H and Paul Daniels, so it isn’t saying much. She likes creeks, she says, because she can see the sides so she has somewhere to aim at. Why she should want to aim at the sides is beyond me. I now know that the true sailor shudders at the thought of all that perilous mud, he hates being tied by the tide; give him sea room any day, and if you could throw in ‘a star to steer her by’, that would be good. Thanks, Murphy!