Letting Go

This was an article I wrote for the Dingy Cruising Association (DCA) many years ago. It is my first experience of sailing in my own boat Sadaf on the Solway Estuary. I include the article here in full. There is also a video of the first sail at the bottom of the page:

“This has been my first winter with my boat Sadaf that has been sitting on the sand and gravel beach off the Cumbrian coast. I am surprised it has survived the winter with the harsh conditions we have had. I lowered the mast in October 2009 just before the autumn gales, but before the gales we had had the rain that flooded the rivers that washed out towns like Keswick and Cockermouth in the Lake District, not far from where I live; the sea levels were not affected at all by the swollen rivers they were absorbed into the estuary as though nothing had happened. Derwentwater in the Lake District, a regular DCA rally, had flooded and entered the ground floor of Nicole End Marine where was my local chandlery, boats that were moored tight to the pontoons were damaged as they could not rise with the heightening lake waters; similar situations were in other lakes such as Windermere. After the rains came the gales and this made its own damage by increasing the tide/wave strength that crashed through the Maryport Marina gates along the Cumbrian coast, a tide surge that destroyed three quarters of the boats that were moored there. This was a remarkable occurrence as not only was the gates solid wood and very think that had stood there for decades but it was at a right angle to the mouth of the harbour so the tide somehow had surged in through the main harbour entrance and turned 45 degrees to mash down the gates to the Marina. I visited the marina weeks later and all the pontoons and yachts that were in the first three quarters of the marina had gone one catamaran was on the side with a big hole in it’s side.

After the rains came the ice and snow and this froze the Marina’s waters causing more damage to the boats that were moored there, this was particularly bad in Whitehaven Marina. The lakes in the Lake District froze too causing more problems for the small boats. Where I was moored the sea froze around the edge of the estuary, I arrived one afternoon to find thick layers of ice heaped upon themselves forming mini icebergs, the ebbing tide had pushed slabs of ice against each other forming mini pyramid type mounds, when I got to Sadaf it was suspended off the ground by a few inches by one of these bergs lodged between its keels, the whole area had a surreal atmosphere and a feeling of Siberia. The next day the bergs had gone but the ice remained for a few days the locals said the last time the sea had frozen was in 1974. I looked around for a heater for the boat to keep me warm in those days as I was visiting it often to check upon it. The “Openboat” web site suggested a paraffin greenhouse heater which I might try in the future but I was ok with my “trangia” stove and endless cups of coffee and my paraffin lamp that gave added heat for a small space when I stayed the night.

I kept on visiting Sadaf regularly to bale her out as she was leaking though the cockpit hatches and to check on her over the winter months, I covered her with a tarpaulin that stopped the leaks into the cabin and this also protected her from the elements, stupid that I never thought of it before. In fact I learned a lot this winter about many things that must be obvious to the seasoned sailor. As spring came I began to plan for the sailing season; I had bought an electric motor which ended a debate in my mind whether to get a motor at all. My compromise was a 54lb thrust Whitesnake electric outboard I got to run it two 80ah 12v car batteries for power and in time I hope to get a solar panel so I can keep them charged for when I do longer journeys. I researched a lot about outboards before I chose to get an electric, Openboat was useful for getting others opinions too. My philosophy is that if it is windy I will use sail, if there is no wind then I have the electric out board to get me home. An electric o/b does not have a lot of power to push through wind and tide so I use it like I would oars, not to fight against a force 5-7 but to silently propel me when I am becalmed or to get me out of a harbour. I can use it to get me to a mooring, and I can motor with the tide or across it, but not against it. If I cannot sail and I am caught out and I have to motor against it, then I will go with the tide, or drop anchor and sit it out until I can. I realise this is not every ones idea of sailing, but for me it is ok. It is relatively light (9kg) and it is quiet this is a bonus as I still have the peace of nature that I love. There are 5 forward thrust setting and I find that on the first and second there is little movement with the size of boat with an ebbing tide, but the third the motor pushes against it for about an hour on one 80ah battery.

During the winter I also experimented with the use of the mainsail I have. I have a Bermudan rig but the sail that came with the boat is too big for the boom, I did manage to rig the boat last year so she sailed in a permanent reef position with the main sail wrapped around the boom but this made her quite heavy aft especially when the sails got wet, and I did not like the idea of having this weight in an accidental jibe. I thought this year I could do better and looked around to change the rig but using the same sails. I thought at first to get rid of the boom altogether and to have a spar where the boom would go. This was suggested to me in articles I saw on the internet with lug sails boats in the USA. My idea was to have the full mainsail unfurled but connected to the mainsheet without the boom, having it so it would spill wind making it less ‘effective’ but safer in a blow, the spar would be to give it some form of shape but not rigid and still have it connected to the mast. I later changed this idea when I saw the lateen rig of the Dhows on the Persian Gulf; it looks basically like a Bermudan rig at a 45 degree angle with no boom! I tried it when there were high winds and I think it would have worked ok but the end of the clew was flapping around too violently to make it safe. Having it rigged so made it like I had two genoas, after putting this question on Openboat I went back to the original reefed rig as I was not sure if it would work.

As I was preparing the boat one day I chatted with a man from the North East who once had a small sail boat but who had to give it up due to marina costs. He was telling me how lucky I was to have my boat still berthed on the sands without any trouble, he related how the fishermen with small boats who berthed them on the sands north of Newcastle had them vandalised or burned by joy riders, they had to either give up the fishing, mooring them out at sea or trailer them home. A few weeks later I had my tarpaulin stolen by a few joy riders from a neighbouring town. This theft even very minor shook me up and I started to look for an alternative mooring, the mooring I had was not secure in other ways. I have had problems with it on many occasions due to it being a lee shore when the wind blows from the north and the tide ebbs from the west, Sadaf and myself can get quite shaken up on these occasions and when she dries out she bangs and bumps along the hardened gravel giving shudders throughout the hull, in time I am sure there will be damage to the boat. Over the months such treatment by the wind and tide caused the tiller screw to snap inside the tiller head thus leaving me without the use of the tiller/rudder. In my determination to sail I tried to lash the head of the tiller to the rudder shaft until a permanent repair could be made, I learned that sometimes it is not necessary to repair something rigidly when movement is needed, to fix a screw or a shackle a bolt or a clasp is sometimes useless in the unrelenting sea with the constant movement and abrasion of the tides, to use flexible materials like rope that moves and stretches gives and bends is often a more practical material on movable parts. This lesson I started to apply to other parts of Sadaf. After several tries of lashing the tiller head to the rudder shaft I secured it securely and was waiting for the right moment when to sail for the first time.

I felt Sadaf was ready, I felt I was ready I had done all I could to make this boat ready to sail with my limited knowledge of sailing: the repair on the gooseneck, the leaking hull, the adjusting of the mainsail and genoa to the rig, and now the tiller, and not to wait for the right weather as it is unpredictable; it was time to sail and to enjoy what I had been planning for years. The next step was to let go of the mooring and see it everything held and that all the preparation was sufficient.

Easter came, my sister and a friend helped to step the mast but the winds were icy and we did not leave the mooring, the weeks passed and there was always something going wrong. I became frustrated and tired of all the setbacks. I tested and retested the rig, putting it up in windy conditions, testing the tiller, trying the genoa and my own reefing system, but still the winds were too strong this weather was taking its toll on me. One Sunday I was determined to sail and I went down to the boat and set the boat, but it blew hard from the north and the waves were crashing into the shore causing the sea fishermen to pack up and go home. I huddled into the cockpit and rocked and rolled as Sadaf was shaking by the lee shore and ebbing tide. The next day I went back and prepared to sail but this time there was no wind, not a breath was stirring the water. I made the boat ready and as the tide advanced I was determined today was the day.

There was not going to be a high tide only about 6.5 meters but it would give me a few hours before she ebbed. Sadaf began to float, I had the sails ready to hoist; the anchor warps were in position down the side of the hull secured to the front bollard, the anchors were in the cockpit by the tiller ready to be thrown overboard when I returned to the mooring. I released the mooring chain from the boat and we were now floating only by a length of rope that was fed back to the cockpit and held in a cleat. All I had to do was to release it and I would be alone, a floating away from the mooring for the first time. I hoisted the mainsail like many times before but this time I was different I left nervous. I stood looking at it, I hoisted the genoa and she fluttered in a slight breeze that I could not feel on my face. I looked at the mooring rope attached to the cleat I still could not release it. Had I attached the cables to the electric out board? Had I done the other jobs that I needed to do that I have rehearsed hundreds of times before in similar situations?

I knew I had but I still was nervous to let go. The more I thought about it the more nervous I felt. Would the outboard be enough power? Would my fixings and fastenings hold together? Could I control the boat without wind? What if it blew hard? There is only one way to find out. A breeze swung Sadaf around so she pointed out to sea I thought it would be a good time to let the genoa catch the breeze I undid the cleated rope and it floated off the deck into the water. I was floating away from the buoy being taken out into the middle of the channel by the flood. I took hold of the genoa sheet and it filled with the breeze. Sadaf is very light for a 20ft boat and even the little wind that there was moved her along and I could hear the gentle lapping of the wavelets against the hull. I was pleased there was only a slight wind movement, I collected myself and got used to the sheets and tiller in my hands. Away from the shore the breeze became stronger and I felt a small surge in speed the sound of the hull breaking through the sea, the hum of the rudder, I was sailing and it felt great. On the course I was heading I would reach Scotland in a hour but I did not want to go to Scotland just yet so I had to tack, ideally I should have jibed but I did not want to do that just now so I turned the tiller starboard and tacked into the wind coming round nearly to a full circle and then I was on a new course.

I did this a few times as I headed up the estuary trying to get to the headland about 2 miles away. Sometimes the wind died completely other times it moved us along at a gentile pace, I tried to take videos with my leg controlling the tiller while I held the sheets and the camera. When I got near to the headland I decided I would return to the mooring as the tide was not big and I did not want to go too far in case I dried out in the channel. When I tacked the wind decided to picked up and filled the sails much stronger than before. Sadaf heeled over a slight way and we were off, the wind had freshened from the north and there were a few white tops poking their heads out, the waves were beginning to slap the side of the hull, a lee shore was begin to form. I tacked a few times in that wind and I think I did quite well, of course I have a lot to learn to do it efficiently but I did it without much trouble, once I got into irons but I got myself out of it too and I realised I had to gain speed for to coast through the wind as I tacked.

On reaching the mooring I did not try to grab the mooring chain, I wanted to use the anchors so I turned Sadaf into the wind, up tide of the buoy and let go of the Bruce anchor. My idea was to drop either anchors so that Sadaf would swing around and float backwards on the ebbing tide. I have a grapnel anchor that does not hold too well but I use this as a break, as she slowed up and positioned herself nearer to the buoy I would drop my Bruce anchor to hold her fast. With the direction of the wind I would have to drop the Bruce first. As the warp paid out it would slip off the front bollard and then a second length of warp would be released from the side of the hull, this would stop the warp from tangling. It was working fine until for some reason Sadaf decided not to go with the ebbing tide but to turn the other way leaving the rope underneath the hull. As she floated down to the buoy I let out more warp until I was in touching distance to the mooring. The system worked but because of the sluggish tide it made the process complicated, in the end I jumped out and untangled the warp that was underneath the hull, even with my wet suit on the water was still extremely cold.

The next day I was back for more, the forecast was for stronger winds but the tide height was less than yesterday. I let the mooring warp go without too much thought this time and it felt familiar to sit in the cockpit with the sheets and tiller in my hands. The wind pulled at the genoa stronger and the boat heeled, I righted her by letting out the sheets but later I turned into the wind to corrected herself. I wanted to keep her sailing without heeling too much as I had read this was the fastest way to sail but also the safest. I found by sailing into the wind I was balancing the hull but also losing power until I pulled in the sheets so I was sailing close to the wind, it was a slow process but it was fine for now I was in no race.

I was nearly at the headland again but I was not on the same tack as yesterday the wind was from the west and I had to tack a lot more than yesterday it took me longer to go down and therefore it would take longer to come back to the mooring, the tide was ebbing and it would dry out quicker than yesterday too. I was rushing to get back to the mooring which is not a good thing to do. It seemed to take forever to tack from one side to the other and I was making little progress on one tack compared to the other. Eventually I got to do my last tack that should bring me just before the harbour wall, Sadaf sped towards the shore but then I heard a crunching noise underneath the me, the keels were touching bottom, I released the halyards and jumped overboard, the extra loss in weight gave Sadaf enough buoyancy for me to pull her over the sea bed to the mooring before she became stranded. She might be a 20ft boat but in the water she very light to manoeuvre.

Since those two first attempts I have taken Sadaf on many more outings all of them day trips and each time going farther out and improving my experience. I have sailed at 4am and saw a beautiful sunrise which was a most memorable moment to be alone at sea in a gentle breeze, the light and the bird sounds quite magical. I have been in quite strong winds too and Sadaf handled herself really well against white tops and strong ebbs. My repairs to the hull and rigging have held and work quite well and my choice of motor turned out to be a good choice and saved me on one occasion.

When I was preparing to sail at dawn I left it too late to start on the flood, by the time I departed it was already on strong ebb. There was not much wind but I thought to sail for a few hours as she was already rigged from the previous days sail. I let go of the mooring and she edged forward on a starboard tack but as I was near the shore I had to tack to port and there was not enough propulsion to complete the tack. Sadaf started to go backwards with the ebb, if I continued going to starboard I would ground if I tried to tack I would go backwards towards the harbour wall and down its channel. I decided to try for the tack and hopefully there would be enough wind on the port tack to get me past the harbour wall and channel.

I tacked and the ebb took me towards the harbour channel Sadaf was slowly cutting across the channel but on her tack she would not have enough wind strength to keep her away from the wall. I edged into the wind but she would lost momentum and got ever closer to the wall. I began to worry and to realise she was in a no-win situation, she would either hit the wall or go backwards down the channel without any wind for steerage. Sure enough as I reached the harbour wall the ebb took her and drew her backwards down the channel I was about 2ft away from the hull and propeller blades hitting the wall. I turned on the motor, it started 1st time and slowly Sadaf began to move away from the wall and away from the channel; it was the first time I had ever used the motor and I realised it was not positioned very well being too high up the boat so the blades were sometimes out of the water, but she slowly made progress. I tried to sail but each time I tacked I lost momentum and headed back to the channel. Each time I tacked I was either forced to go to the shore or to risk being pulled beam on down the channel.

In the end I decided to admit defeat and as I was nearing the shore I jumped out and pulled Sadaf up the channel and waited until the ebb was low enough for me to moor her manually. I am sure if I had my 2 stroke motor by the time I had pumped and primed her and tried to start her I would have damaged the hull on the harbour wall; if I had a 4 stroke I might have had more power to motor back to the mooring but I am not sure if I would have had the time to start it as I was latterly seconds away from a crash, the electric motor started instantly I switched it on, it did have enough power to pull me away from the harbour and I think if I had persevered I would have got to the mooring. Electric out boards are not strong enough as petrol but when there is no wind they are just as good as oars.

Now that I have sailed enough to get an idea of the boat, its waters and my own capabilities I feel I am ready to try further down the coast and some longer trips that require sleeping to anchor”.