Water Water Everywhere
A Wet & Windy Classic Channel Regatta Week Messing About in Classic Boats
Susie Harris, July 2007
Is this really the end of June – all week and much of the week before the weather sweeping up the Channel had been reminiscent of the equinox with gales and more gales forecast as low after low passed over the UK and France. Thursday evening found four of Clarionet’s crew, owner and skipper Paul March, along with myself, Kevin and Alastair, ready to do business with a delivery trip to Dartmouth for the Classic Channel Regatta that was due to start on Saturday 30th June. Our fifth crew member, Jim would join us in Dartmouth from Heathrow Airport on Friday evening or early Saturday. It was around 10pm when we’d finished our curry in Southsea Marina’s Bombay Bay and set off into the Solent.
After an earlier debate on destinations for the first leg of the trip we’d decided that for tonight Yarmouth seemed sufficient, not wanting to attempt the Needles Channel in a SW gale and the dark against an incoming tide. In fact after almost three hours motoring to windward, there was a unanimous vote to head into the welcome, relative calm of Cowes – the rain was hard and the wind made the Solent chop vicious. The next morning we reviewed the options… press on to Dartmouth, retire now and spend the week in Cowes, go back to work… again the decision was unanimous and Clarionet once more headed out. After 90 minutes or so we’d scarcely made it past Gurnard village, it was raining hard, visibility was poor and the wind closer to a gale than the forecast SW 5 or 6. Where next? – Yarmouth (closer to our destination) or back to Cowes (more places to drink, dry out and eat). On the basis that Cowes was better connected than Yarmouth for Jim to join us that evening or the following morning we reluctantly turned round and called him. A table was booked in Murray’s and we toured the yacht clubs keeping an anxious eye on the weather forecasts as they were posted on the internet via a mobile phone. Suffice to say that when Jim arrived early Saturday morning and asked “Well are we still going lads?” The answer was a chirpy “Yes”.
It has to be noted that Alastair, the newest member of Clarionet’s crew had not been present at our previous “heavy weather” exercise, the Round Ireland race in June/July 2004 when after 5 days at sea in torrential rain and gale after gale during which we’d blown out at least one kite, Clarionet finally said enough was enough and allowed her original wooden mast to gently disintegrate. On that occasion we’d turned down an offer of assistance from the lifeboat and made our own way into Dun Laoghaire Marina to celebrate my birthday with champagne at 2am. So at least four of the crew knew what might lie ahead.
It was wet, wet and more wet – Clarionet developed new and previously unknown leaks that meant even the navigator needed to remain in full oilies. The tidal atlas and almanac were so soggy it was difficult to turn the pages. And that was just the rain! We motor-sailed to windward down the Solent on Saturday morning – resigned to the fact that this was still the delivery trip and not the first race we’d been so eagerly anticipating. Portland Bill was given a wide berth to windward somewhere in the late afternoon. The diesel tank was refilled, Paul, the Skipper, managing to tip fuel into the wide funnel with little spillage whilst heaved-to in bucking seas. Everyone had to take their turn on the helm except the autopilot which couldn’t cope – it was a great way to warm up for a few minutes but after 30 or 40 more your arms felt they’d been wrenched from their sockets – a form of medieval torture.
Around 8pm I provided Jim with a pile of tins from the ships stores from which he produced a gourmet supper of stew and new potatoes. It warmed me through and then was fed to the fishes. Even Kevin, the longest serving member of Clarionet’s crew who reputedly has an iron stomach was eventually seasick in rough seas where no two waves seemed to come from the same direction – this was only the second time in recorded history and he was very upset. Down below sitting on the engine box to remove or don oilies didn’t really help steady things and it often took ten minutes or more to get off or on watch in the bucking wooden box that Clarionet had become. I dozed in full oilies propped up alongside the nav table not being able to manage to squirm round into the quarter berth properly without risk of being flung on to the stove on the other side of the boat.
On deck Clarionet has no provision for more than one in the cockpit at sea – the tiller and the helm occupy most of the available space. Those not helming or not in one of the two sea berths down below, jammed themselves in across the stern, clipped for safety. The horseshoe life ring made a reasonable cushion, hood pulled up and fastened high across the face kept most of the weather out and that far back few waves reached you. The helm wasn’t so lucky both arms fully occupied desperately trying to second guess the waves in a sea that had no rhythm the unlucky victim was frequently more under water than above as sea after sea came tumbling across Clarionets decks. The stinging rain made it almost impossible to look forwards at times.
Then the loom of the Start Light, the only illumination we’d seen beyond a few fishing boats, appeared on the horizon. Our spirits rose – we were nearly there. That last fifteen or so miles seemed to go on for ever. The rain eased, the sea grew calmer and eventually so did the wind as we came under the lea of the land. We eagerly hunted down the lights – The Mew Stone’s cardinals, Red channel markers, Castle Leading lights. Clarionet roared through the entrance into the calm of Dartmouth Harbour – everywhere sound asleep at 2am. As usual the boat got all our attentions first – safe berth in the marina, sails folded, covers on. Then we emptied the sail store in the forepeak onto the deck creating two more berths and after a quick night cap retired to bed.
The next morning it was dry but gloomy and judging by the wind in the harbour still blowing something of a gale at sea. Would there be a race today? The skipper headed up to the yacht club – no racing today but there would be a picnic… listen to Channel 72 for instructions. Around 11am a group of classic boats headed up river to Dittisham where we picked up moorings in ones and twos. We admired Mabel’s deck cargo – a barrel of beer strapped to the life raft. For a more convivial atmosphere the crews went ashore where we could chat and get to know one another more easily. Oh … and purchase a few lunchtime beers at the Ferry Inn.
Later, as the tide started to come in, Clarionet carried on up the river until we could see the spire of Totnes Church before returning to Dartmouth in time to change for the prize giving and supper. Warming Pusser’s rum for the winners of Saturdays racing, it was rather odd to not have been part of the race itself. With French and English speaking participants the proceedings were bilingual with translations provided by Charles De Brosses to ensure everyone was included. News was provided of Callidus’s progress along the South East coast – her crew calling in regularly with updates which Bruce Thorogood, the regatta organiser, announced each time everyone got together. Over the weekend various additional boats had arrived and now around 30 were gathered in Dartmouth, mostly from points south and west of there. It was sad that the weather had meant so many boats had not been able to join us – Paul had sold the event to us by recounting tales of the previous regatta in 2005 when there appeared to have been parties interrupted by sailing in wall to wall sunshine.
The rain just about held off for the trip across the Dart from the yacht club to supper in the market place. Fortunately this fantastic little market had been covered over so whatever happened we’d be dry. Crews mixed together – at our table two English crews and one French deliberately didn’t sit with our crew mates – the tots of rum provided as an aperitif ensuring there was no shyness. Soon everyone was talking, the food was great and the wine flowed but I’m sure that the musician didn’t anticipate what might happen when he invited anyone to join him to entertain us. Shamus O’Hooligan (aka Jim) didn’t really need asking – two spoons were all he needed and it wasn’t much longer before it seemed everyone was tapping themselves with a pair of pieces of cutlery in time to the music. What a night (and apologies to the Royal Dart if some of their cutlery is not what it was).
What would Monday bring? It was a very special day in the author’s life and she was very much looking forward to holding her 50th birthday celebrations in St Malo. For several weeks large hints had been dropped to the rest of the crew about suitable restaurants so although all of the 30 or so boats that had managed to make it Dartmouth wanted to get across the Channel, none more so than Clarionet. It was with relief at the briefing that morning that it was announced that the race would start as planned. A quick trip to the supermarket to replenish the stores – sandwiches were made and wrapped in clingfilm so they hopefully wouldn’t be too soggy by lunchtime and in light of the forecast for yet more heavy weather (SW F5-6) supper was cooked and the saucepan lid tied tightly down to prevent spillage.
Despite our best efforts with the fan heater the tidal atlas was still so damp that you couldn’t rub out the pencilled in previous dates and times. Looking through the charts it also became apparent that we didn’t have onboard a sufficiently detailed one of St Malo approaches to clearly identify the finish but hopefully all would become clearer later. Clarionet is not just a classic yacht in terms of her build, her instruments could probably also be classified as vintage too, although the switch marked “Decca” now turns on the electric bilge pump. It takes around half an hour to enter a route into the B&G Nav from pre-defined waypoints – the boys took the boat out whilst I finished this off and double checked everything. The passage plan was also written into the smart red logbook that sports Clarionet’s name on the outside in gold… possibly the only luxury item on board.
Out at the start we counted the boats – 20 starters in all – some of the rest of the fleet had decided the forecast weather window still was sufficiently unpleasant to entice them to sea and made plans to possibly head directly to Guernsey. Paul & Kevin discussed start tactics – down the line on Starboard and tack at the gun. Number two or number three? Number three and second reef. Ten Five, One go… out to the windward mark off the beach – boats headed from the start line in all directions. We reached the buoy with Cervantes close inside us on a different tack – shouts from both crews but in the end both boats were safely round. Now we should be cracked off slightly if the forecast was right but it wasn’t to be… Clarionet’s hunkered down for another long, long beat in conditions not much different from the delivery trip – except this time we would be racing and the crew would sit on the rail experiencing the full force of wind and waves.
We saw Mabel hesitate sails flapping half a mile or so away – had she lost someone overboard? No – she’d developed a leak and owner Bruce decided to head back to Dartmouth. Unusually for an offshore race the fleet stayed fairly close together during the early daylight hours. It was only when darkness fell that we started to loose touch with everyone – darkness and rain which could only be described as sideways, definitely not “falling” as the wind rose and the seas roughened. Once more it was like living in a washing machine – wet and bumpy. Why do we do this? We can’t deny that its horrid but like a bunch of drug addicts we keep coming back for more and we still smile though it. Down below on Clarionet the damp increases the oily smell of diesel that always pervades everything that is on board her for even just a few minute.
The one good thing about this race is that we have new mugs purchased Dartmouth whilst waiting for the rain to stop on the way back from the showers – no more diesel-soup tasting hot drinks for a while. Supper turns out to be a hit – lamb & apricots with a packet of Moroccan sauce mix – hot and tasty and it stayed down. Soon afterwards though Les Hanois Light loomed just slightly to starboard of the bow… definitely not where we wanted it – we’d been watching the situation for some time but now it was clear the spring tides were sweeping us up between Guernsey and Alderney – time to tack. An hour or two later and we tacked back staying hard on the wind to ensure we made it through the gate at SW Minquiers. A few other lights were glimpsed of other yachts inshore of us as we swept down towards the Minquiers.
Once round SW Minquiers we were able to bear away a little towards the finish as dawn broke (I won’t say sun rise as we didn’t see any) and as the wind went round even put up the spinnaker for a short period. Soon we were among the grey rocks and grey sea under greyer skies in St Malo Bay, listening out for finishing boats calling Grace (the committee boat) and then it was our turn to cross the line. Congratulations all round – we’d survived another wet and windy trip. When the results were calculated later Clarionet managed a second in the IRC Traditional Class to Quiver V with Noryema IV in third. Just sixteen boats made it to the finish – the weather testing and wearing down the fleet.
We just missed the morning locks into Bassin Vaubin so took up one of the waiting buoys and persuaded a local trip boat to ferry us ashore for a lunch of moule frites. The lovely American owned 54ft S&S yawl Night Watch tied up nearby soon after us. Later we got into the birthday spirit with champagne in the square followed by a meal in one of the restaurants. On the quayside it was windy – Clarionet’s Skipper spent a painful night listening to the sand being blasted across the new varnish on deck so the following morning we unilaterally decided to move further along into the shelter of the wall which was fortuitous as it made the cockpit a pleasant place for a late night party attended by many of the boats after the prize giving supper at the SNBSM. We were surprised and very chuffed to be awarded a Spirit of the Regatta award, mainly for our efforts in getting to Dartmouth but in part also due to the spoon playing – that must be a first! (A note from the organisers: Susie is being modest, the Raymarine Spirit of the Regatta trophy was awarded to Clarionet for her perseverence and endurance in the face of appalling weather – she beat to windward for 14 hours in force 7’s & 8’s just to get to Dartmouth – and for her crew’s spirit in still coming up smiling and always being the life and sole of the party.)
Paul is still wondering how to install his prize of a modern electronic gizmo from Raymarine… it was during our channel crossing that we’d worked out why the VHF chirped annoyingly at intervals waking the off-watch; a DSC radio should be connected to the GPS and without this it continually warns that it has “no fix”. We teased him that while he was in a mood for fixing things, he might also calibrate the wind instruments (they’ve not received any attention since being installed on the new mast in 2004) but on the other hand perhaps it was better that we’d no evidence of the wind speeds we’d recently been out in. After we’d apparently drunk the yacht club tent dry many of the crews wandered over to the bar in the Hotel L’Universe to continue the party. Conversations were of boats old and new, with life histories of our respective vessels swapped. The most wonderful thing about this regatta is it doesn’t matter what your background – old, young, French, English, American, Belgian or whatever – we are all united in one common cause; our classic boats. Eventually in the early hours the hotel bar closed its doors and the party transferred to Clarionet. When Clarionet’s crew woke it was to more wine on board than we’d started with and a “house guest” in Bruce who took up residence in the port sea berth, having parked his car on the quayside.
With Clarionet’s limited berths Alastair had taken his sleeping bag off down the quayside in search of somewhere more sheltered than the deck. Many thanks to Lutine for her hospitality – at 60 ft with just two crew space wasn’t a premiuim – Alastair came back raving about the push button heads (his 6 foot plus height means that in Clarionets cramped facilities by the mast he not only lacked elbow room but also head room!).
The weather continued to blow – with gales forecast for Thursday it was decided to abandon the racing in St Malo Bay and postpone the Guernsey Race start until Friday morning. Now our skipper has a funny ambition – to visit both the St Michaels Mounts; we’d achieved the English one when storm bound in Penzance last year so with the weather as it was it seemed a good opportunity to visit the French version. Thursday was another wet wet day – we donned oily jackets and Alastair negotiated a taxi – strange rates but very precise €80 return for 5 people plus €20 per hour waiting time, we guessed this wasn’t the first time they’d done the trip.
An hour or so later found us delivered right to the gate! It was raining buckets – Mont St Michel is an odd place especially to anyone who has first visited the English version which is very National Trust – preserved splendour, tea rooms and peaceful English gardens… not so in France; here it was more like being in some film set that’s been turned into a theme park – cafes and souvenir shops crammed in side by side up the steep, cobbled and narrow main street. The half timbered buildings lean crazily across towards each other. The densely packed crowds were moving here and there in a heaving throng of wet weather gear – at least the shop awnings and the closeness of the buildings mean it wasn’t quite so wet. We turned a corner and escaped up some steps finding ourselves in a church yard – few others had made it thus far mainly because of the continuing drizzle. From there we climbed on upwards eventually reaching the ramparts which we toured taking in the views or taking shelter beneath the trees when the rain got too much. It’s not a place for boats, that far East corner of St Malo Bay. Flat marsh land reaches out to grey mud in one direction and equally flat land reclaimed through drainage in the other. Time to go – we were due back in St Malo for pre-briefing drinks on Night Watch. Taking along the surplus wine we joined the throng which in turn became the race briefing on the foredeck as it was easier to move the members of the race committee than 70 or more people conversing in every corner of Night Watch over some of the most powerful fruit punch ever produced! Later after dinner we and the most hardy of the crews reconvened at the unofficial regatta headquarters – Hotel L’Universe for a final session.
Friday: The sun was shining as we locked out in the company of the rest of the fleet. What a difference – the sea was almost blue but the wind was still quite strong and from the NW so it would be a beat out to the Minquiers. Clarionet headed out for the start eager to be racing in perfect conditions for her. Lutine and Quiver V led the way out of the channel but we soon made up for a rather poor start through some well judged tacks and Clarionet’s superb pointing ability. The crew sat on the rail and enjoyed the sun on the sparkling blue-green clear water.
Round the Minquiers and reaching off to St Peter Port – it was fast and we were in time for a late supper – in fact we were among a group of boats than reached the finish before Grace had managed to get herself sorted on station so took our own times as we crossed the finish off Castle Cornet! We heaved out the dinghy from the forepeak and pumped it up to row ashore for a Thai meal. Marianne arrived under tow – “She is a sailing boat, what need do we have for an engine” pronounced her owner later. This Belgian boat had only been purchased days before the regatta started and her family crew were taking part on their delivery trip home! Despite their unfamiliarity with the boat they’d managed a second in the CCRH Traditional Classics class for the race from Dartmouth to St Malo.
On Saturday, the race briefing for the Round Sark Race took place on Night Watch and one of the pontoons where the fleet was moored in the harbour. In the spirit of the regatta various dinghies ferried various skippers to the right place. I set off for M&S for a spot of (food) shopping trusting the skipper to note down the salient points. He was rather dubious about the marks but they were soon identified with the help of the almanac – next time bring a large scale chart of Sark. As we were about to leave for the start, Charmaine of Poole, a beautiful pilot cutter arrived from England. Better late than never – her skipper jotted down the SIs and they turned the boat around to join the start without even taking their oilies off! Another glorious day with sunshine, a stiff breeze and as most of us soon discovered a very strong tide. Some of the fleet headed off towards Guernsey whilst those of us less knowing of the local conditions tried to make straight for the first mark.
Soon all the fleet were in the grip of the tide sweeping across the southern end of the Little Russell. With spinnakers up Clarionet and the majority of boats were desperately clawing our way towards Guernsey sometimes with some success and most of the time helpless. As a spectacle from the islands it must have been wonderful – a mass of classic boats of all sorts virtually parked off Jethou. Positions switched time and time again with the boats that came around the fleet from the Guernsey side mostly getting round the mark and away. Eventually Clarionet was round by which time two or three boats were in the distance and close to the southern tip of Sark. Cervantes, Noryema and Cariacou crossed paths several times with us. Cervantes at one point made several attempts to take Clarionet to windward. More than once we hardened up and hardened up again til we were close reaching with spinnaker up. Cervantes dropped back unable to sail as high but didn’t give up trying – sorry guys, Clarionet has raced against Cervantes many times in the past 30 years and we know we can sail higher!
Despite being hampered by lack of local tidal knowledge and once more not having a detailed chart available we managed to work our way through the fleet and not miss any of the marks. However as we were doing a sail change with all hands on deck the radio crackled into life – what was that – I caught something about race committee – was that a shortened course? I checked with the race committee it was! What a relief, the wind perversely was dying away and we’d need great luck to fight our way round the back of Sark even to make the new finish line. The fleet seemed to divide into two camps – those who stuck close to the island and those who stood off all patiently tacking back and forth fighting the tide. Everything we know about keeping Clarionet moving in light airs came into play and somehow we made the finish capping it off with a transit of the rock strewn passage between Herm & Jethou on our way back to port (our only guide the almanac and the fact that three of us had been the same way at Easter).
As a grand finale to a wonderful week, that evening there was wine reception and a prize giving at Castle Cornet where Marianne’s crew won the second Spirit of the Regatta prize for bravely deciding to race their new and far from trouble free new purchase with true corinthian spirit. Clarionet, Giaconda, Cervantes and Cariacou all triumphed in their respective classes over the two St Malo/Guernsey races. The prize giving was followed by another excellent crew supper, this time courtesy of Guernsey Yacht Club. And then it was time to head homeward – by 10:30pm Clarionet was sailing towards the Alderney Race and on to Southsea. It was a fantastic week despite the weather or perhaps even because of it – Clarionet’s crew made some super new friends from both sides of the Channel and from across the Atlantic and we had a lot of fun together. Many thanks to all who were involved in organising the regatta – Clarionet for one will be back next time.