Sun: Run: Sun

Muskateer.jpg

On this rain soaked morning, fifteen minutes after finishing my Starbucks of Henley cappuccino and I'd settled back into a nice rhythm on my bicycle, a bucket of cold, coffee-coloured water flew up as a car going in the other direction crashed through a gigantic puddle. The extremely wet douche of water broadsided me, and even though I instinctively ducked, it nonetheless broke over me, in my right ear, down my neck and I could feel fine grit washing around my teeth.

Lovely.

Last time this happened on so-called dry land, I was commuting to work on my VFR800 a few years ago. I’d just been repatriated to England from the US and was temporarily carless, but my VFR had been parked up at my parents from where I rode each day to Langley, Berks.

The A22 was awash and a yacht may well have been a more appropriate form of transport; a large truck on the Northbound carriageway sent up a plume of water that again landed on top of me, this time when doing about 60mph. At least the fully enclosed helmet and hermetically sealed waterproofs prevented me from getting soaked, but for a few seconds I was unable to see as the visor cleared of watery mud.

The occupants of cars behind me must have had a good laugh...

Waves on land. Waves on the sea. A few years ago as I was packing the nautical miles in for my Yachtmaster certificate, we were off to French France. We’d left Shamrock Quay and were on a Sigma 36 that belonged to Britannia Sailing. I forget now exactly who the skipper was, or who the crew were, but it was a glorious day, wall to wall blue sky, sunshine, a stiff breeze - perfecto sailing weather.

I believe I may have been helming as we rounded the Needles and headed due south, 180 degrees, for Cherbourg. One of the crew members had been wrestling with the lighting of a cigarette. This is a tricky operation at the best of times on a yacht at sea, but with a steady F5 blowing, all but impossible.

Now in case you don’t know, smoking below decks is just not on - antisocial, and potentially dangerous. So the option of going below was ruled out. This chap squirmed and twisted and turned himself into veritable knots, worthy of being included in the Almanac, yet still the wind found a way to extinguish his lighter at the critical moment, and Bach’s Air on a G string had to wait.

However, finally, with three quarters of him down the companionway (the steps leading below decks) and with his head hidden inside his oilies, he finally managed to fill his lungs with smoke, his nicotine-starvation was sated, and a benign smile of satisfaction spread across his now visible face.

Unfortunately, the wind and tide conditions meant that the sea state was best described as “lumpy” and unpredictable. As that first deep and satisfying breath was drawn in, the boat fell into a hole, gave a lurch and staggered as it hit a rogue wave and a towering wall of water fell onto the boat.

We all ducked, apart from the smug smoker who was about to take another draw and who had his back to the starboard side over which this watery avalanche was boarding at rapid speed. I was expecting the deluge but, despite the cacophony as water exploded onto the boat, remained dry. As did everyone else.

Apart from the smoker.

By an incredible act of fate, all the water, the entire solid mass, gallons and gallons which must have weighed in at who-knows-how-many-kilograms, all of it and not a drop less, went straight down the companionway.

Which left our smoking crew member rather damp, as his oilies were still open from where he’d ducked his head and of course his hood was off. His hair was now a matted mop over his head, water dripped from his nose and needless to say the soggy, water logged ciggy drooped as well as dripped and was totally extinguished, the second lung-full never tasted.

He was an absolute picture of comical dismay.

Some years later I decided to have a crack at my Yachtmaster Ocean ticket. This necessitates making an ocean passage and learning Astro-Navigation; using a compass, shooting the sun and so on. All very Captain Aubrey.

My good friend and erstwhile skipper of S130, Kevan Townsend, was just the man needed, especially as at the time he was the proud owner of a former racing yacht, Muskateer of Stutton, a 1963 48ft Nicholson yawl. Or was she a ketch? Either way, she was a delight to sail, even close hauled in light airs, she’d just go.

We planned a passage from Gosport to La Coruna, taking us across the dread Bay of Biscay. Exposed to the prevailing South Westerlies, wind and swell, and with a gigantic Atlantic step that rises from the depths, 4000m or more to about 100m in the space of a few kilometers, this shoreline is covered in wrecks as once the old square riggers became embayed, there was to be no escape.

Even today, when modern sailing boats can point so high into the wind, the conditions within the Bay can strike terror into the heart of the most experienced sailor. And it was wind that was to be our undoing too.

We had contrary winds; that is to say they were coming from where we wanted to go and this would slow us down. So we skirted the South coast of England, westward bound, hoping that the wind would change direction and open the gate, or that our new angle of attack would allow us to go.

We got as far as Plymouth and time was running out, so we went for it. England sunk behind us and we settled into the rhythm of the voyage, watch on watch, keeping the log, enjoying this fine pedigree of a yacht.

But even a yacht such as Muskateer needs wind to go, and the wind was becoming lighter and lighter and sadly, frustratingly, it disappeared all together, leaving us with a clock-calm, astonishing in such a place as the Bay. At least though, when we were still making way, we had a stable platform to shoot the sun morning, noon and night, practising our "sun run sun" technique.

Using a sextant was a delight, a fascinating experience, I’m even more in awe of the early pioneering sailors who set out to explore the great unknown world all those years ago.

Having taken the half a dozen timed sights each time, and worked the numbers through the system of tables and calculations, the process by this time was clear to me and my actions flowed with certainty. The position on the plotting sheet was a mere 7km adrift from GPS, which is rubbish for in-car navigation, but for ocean passages is spot on. Delight all round.

But we ran out of wind. We had neither the time, fuel nor inclination to motor to La Coruna, so decided to put into Lorient, France. A tedious time spent under power, but by way of compensation, we did have a lovely sail into Lorient, with the sun setting behind us and with spinnaker flying, a joy.

The following day saw a dramatic change in the weather, a Force 7, and boys being boys we decided to go for a play. Wind over tide at the entrance caused very lumpy water, I knew I’d get some dramatic shots and the two here illustrate perfectly the conditions.

It was just a matter of time as Musketeer shrugged off most of the waves, she being quite a dry boat, but we hit one of those rogue waves and whilst the rest of the crew ducked, I stayed standing and kept pressing the shutter release...