River Cruiser: Rushmere (2010)
Posted by Tim Joiner, 19thMay, 2010
I’m told that the best ideas start in pubs.
I know that the worst ones do too.
So when, one Tuesday evening as I was enjoying a pint of extraordinarily well kept Wherry in The Ship in South Walsham, the owner and master of a river cruiser with a respectable racing pedigree asked the four of us assembled around the table to crew for him, we were undecided as to whether this was an idea which fell into the first or second category. Of the four of us, I am the least experienced.
My wife is in the National Finals. Olive was in one of the crews which was narrowly eliminated, and Popeye is so good that he declined to enter because he felt his crew weren’t up to scratch. As the amateur I watched. Or should I say listened. Because whist this crew may be amongst the best bellringers in the world, our sailing experience could politely be described as limited.
The Master and his son are both good sailors and excellent bellringers. The question is whether with the deadweight of four novices, they can do justice to one of the most exciting inland sailing races in the world. Or are we all about to drop the largest clanger the race has seen in its 50 year history.
I’m no stranger to long duration races. I’ve competed in the Devizes to Westminster Canoe race – at 125 miles the longest and hardest non-stop race of its type in the world. I’ve prepared a crew for the Yukon River Race, a gruelling 450 mile race over five days, the longest canoe race in the world.
But the Three Rivers Race demands much, much more. Complex calculations of tides, currents and winds. The ability to lower a mast and shoot a bridge. Four times. I’m told my canoe experience will come in handy as engines aren’t allowed.
The ability to find the rare parts of river and broads which have been adequately dredged – at night. And the skill to remain on talking terms with your crew through a race which can last up to 24 hours.
Talk amongst other crews seems to revolve around the size of bucket needed to pee into, the best treatment for pressure sores on the posterior, and how much to allow for the curvature of the earth when plotting the great circle route across Hickling.
Talk amongst our crew focuses on whether our craft has a grill to allow the rhubarb brulée to be adequately crisp, and the capacity of the fridge to chill both milk and champagne.
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2nd May 2010
Our first practice race. A downriver from Horning to the Thurne Mouth. On board, the Master, my wife, Popeye, Olive and me.
A word of explanation. Popeye is a bell-hanger by profession. The size of his forearms closely resembles those of that famous character in his post spinach state.
The wind is blowing. A lot. We leap on board our cruiser at Horning, and proceed under engine power downstream. We are running late for the start, but make good time under power, and by the time the five minute gun went (had we been near enough to hear it) Popeye’s forearms ensure that jib and mainsail, complete with reef is set. The Master looks nervous, so nervous in fact that he is immediately rechristened. The ‘Nervous Skipper’ takes us across the line in pole position.
Under sail the cruiser assumes a 45 degree angle, and Olive slides across the cockpit into her husbands arms. We politely look the other way, and the cruiser in second place passes us. Apparently Olive’s antics were related to her silk knickers which don’t give enough grip in these conditions. She asks me not to print this, so I won’t. Ranworth and South Walsham pass us in a flurry of wake. Near St Benets’ we perform a magnificent tack right under the bows of a hire cruiser, missing it by inches and gaining lengths on the leading boat. We’re impressed by his sang froid. The Nervous Skipper jumps. He hadn’t seen it. We are instructed through clenched teeth in future to point out any boats we think he hasn’t seen.
Our tacks get more adventurous and we get nearer to the bank each time. A loud thunk and a lurch remind us that dredging standards are not all the Broads Authority would lead us to believe they are. We later see a sunk cruiser which hit the same obstruction!
We pass the finish line in a respectable 2nd place.
As we land, the Nervous Skipper immediately lodges a protest. The expected 90 minute lunch break in the pub has been cut to 60 minutes, and he fears for our digestion. As always, an excellent lunch at The Lion. Popeye jumps ship, allegedly because he has another engagement that afternoon, but we all secretly think it’s because we aren’t good enough.
The race back from Thurne starts with a down wind running start. We’re last across the line, and to the lee of all the others. Windward boats must keep clear mutter The Nervous Skipper. They do by disappearing off into the distance. Bother says the Skipper, at least I think he said bother.
We plan a complicated figure of eight around the downwind buoy to avoid a gybe. Both the leading boats perform immaculate gybing turns. The skipper says “bother” again, and we check the condition of the antifouling as we round the buoy.
Our skills on backstay and jib sheet improve, and we’re 2nd across the line. As the winner in each race was a different boat, we amalgamate the results and declare ourselves the series winners. More beer follows.
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Week commencing 3rd May.
Because we all live in different parts of the country, there has been no actual sailing practice this week. However each in our different ways, we have continued the task of preparing for the race.
Olive has been nominated chief cook. She got Popeye to put wooden blocks under one side of her Aga so that she could practice cooking chilli whilst sailing close hauled. Next week she plans to practice the other tack.
My wife is a manager with a retail company. She has been arranging the duty rota, ensuring that all aspects of the Working Time Directive are achieved, and that each of us has a minimum of 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, immediately earning herself the ‘nom de guerre’ of Dozey.
The long range weather forecast predicts winds of no more than 7kts. By my reckoning, that means if the tide is against us at any point we could be sailing backwards. Wonder whether to mention this to Nervous Skipper. My other job is to find out exactly what our other competitors are planning. To this end, I enrol myself on a First Aid course at a famous Norfolk Sailing Club where, I am assured, I will meet a number of my competitors.
The flurry of sailing related conversation leaves me no better informed than I was before. But at the end of 7 hours I know how to administer CPR to the Nervous Skipper just after Potter Heigham bridge, and have discovered that the minimum headroom above a bunk for a river cruiser must not be less than 2’6”. Wonder whether to mention any of this to Nervous Skipper.
A White Boat cruises past the classroom. I spy the Nervous Skipper with two young ladies as crew. Decide to pass on the conversation about bunks, and turn to my textbook on CPR with renewed vigour.
The day has been set aside to practice raising and lowering the mast. On board are Popeye and Olive, myself, the Nervous Skipper and his son.
Wind conditions are light to moderate, but we practice taking the mast up and down a couple of times whilst still firmly attached to the bank just to get the hang of things. It’s very straightforward.
Off to the broad for some real practice, The Nervous Skipper’s son at the helm. During the course of the next frantic 30 minutes, we learn that our helm is a talented sailor and always knows what to do. He, on the other hand, seems rather disturbed at our increasingly incompetent efforts at lowering the sails and mast and encourages us with clear sign language (waving arms) and pithy instructions: “well just pull the green rope, no not that one the other green one”.
On the final effort we get the lazyjack wound round the topping lift and the gaff assumes an arch-like shape. “Bother”
I drill the crew on paddling skills, and the boat goes so fast that I wonder about the need for mast and sails.
I suggest a couple more practices at raising and lowering the mast. Our helm glowers from the stern, and the Nervous Skipper sensing an impending mutiny suggests tea.
Olive is tutored in the art of cooker lighting, and emerges five minutes later with cups of steaming tea. We all politely ignore her missing eyebrows.
Having deemed my attempts at finding out other crew’s intentions a complete failure, Olive hosts a strategic dinner party and invites members of three other crews. From the blocks underneath it I deduce that the Aga is on port tack. We seed the conversation with 3RR topics, and listen to see what the tide will bring in.
Expert Dinghy Sailor regales us with stories of tiller waggling at the waterworks at midnight, and the Nervous Skipper perks up. I think he may have misunderstood. We are all slightly concerned by her gung ho attitude to the race, but remember that she has no grill in her Leader. That must make a difference.
Danny Boy waxes lyrical on the exact size of pirate hat to be worn when sailing downwind, and furthermore extols the virtue of said hat at intimidating other crews at Potter Heigham Bridge. We discard the notion that in 2009 he got wedged under the bridge with two other river cruisers and an Enterprise, as he convinces us that he did in fact get free first.
Glamorous Crew talks about the importance of the right boat, going on to explain how the way it’s set up can make an enormous difference to the boat’s overall performance. We are all in awe of her technical capability until we remember she’s crewing last year’s winning craft.
Try to convince the Nervous Skipper that it would be a good idea to allow for some more practice time. He obviously does not believe in over – rehearsal, so my wife and I head to the southern broads for a weeks’ holiday. We are planning to purchase some pirate hats for the crew.
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Friday 4th June
The eve of the race. We all attend the pre race barbeque in a final attempt to improve our odds. A close study of the tides, currents and weather forecast gives us no clear strategy. My suggestion that we check tea leaves or study the entrails of a sheep is put down to too much wine.
Saturday 5th June
Race day dawns. It is clear and sunny, but there is little wind. We repair on board and remove all items of furniture which we think we won’t need in order to lighten the boat, and then pack every available space with provisions and clothing. We can’t now get below decks, but we won’t sail the boat from there anyway as one (nameless) member of the crew points out. Ballast, in the shape of several enormous bottles of water, is carried aboard, and stowed carefully away. I am slightly concerned at the lack of gin, but am reminded of the need for cups of tea by my wife, who is a fully paid up member of ‘tea drinkers r us’.
Our first challenge is to paddle the boat clear of the vast quantities of blanket weed which thrive in the mooring. The helm does a good job of shouting ‘Stroke, stroke’ but claims he cannot find his paddle, so takes a mainly supervisory role.
Thinking we are clear, the engine is started, and promptly stalls as a hidden clump of the evil growth clearly planted by one of our competitors wraps itself firmly around our propeller shaft. We sail very slowly upstream and moor up on the windward bank to clear the prop.
In a careless moment I recall mentioning to the Skipper that I own a dry suit. So he raises an expectant eyebrow, and into the water I go, removing several yards of green sludge from the out-drive pod. The Skipper hands me a green scouring pad, and I gather I’m expected to check the rest of the hull and the rudder. I thought keel hauling had been banned, but I set to with vigour, and remove a surprising quantity of green scum from various parts of the bottom of the boat.
While I am carrying out this fine tuning, the rest of the crew tuck into pork pies and salad, calling out helpful advice to me every now and then. Eventually I hope to be allowed back on board.
The crew next door have a check list for lowering their mast, and are chanting the steps out loud. We look at each other in some concern. What is a nubbing cleat? Trailing green slime I break water for the last time, and the Nervous Skipper jumps as I attempt to pass the scourer back to him. I think he’d forgotten I was in the water.
A number of shotguns fire in the distance, a little early in the year for grouse I think, but notice that everyone else is bent over their watches.
I take up my position sitting in a hatchway in front of the mast, and work out that if we collide with any one of the dozens of boats around us, I could end up swallowing the blunt end of the boom.
Fortunately the Mutineer who is at the helm realises my predicament, and courteously lets the rest of the start depart before crossing the line. The 10 or so other boats split into two groups, and whilst the front group sail off into the distance, the remainder indulge in a competition to see who can shout “Starboard” or “Water please” most loudly. They then get thoroughly tangled up with each other and the bank, and with a moment of inspiration, The Mutineer sails calmly around the back of them all, and we set off in pursuit of the leading group. Standing on the cabin roof, I call out the number of sails in the Ant, and the decision is made to go to Ludham, and then to South Walsham. Ludham is easy. South Walsham involves dropping a token in a bucket. That’s my job. As we approach the turning buoy, I’m instructed to lean out on the port and starboard sides alternately until the Mutineer points out that as we are rounding the buoy to starboard, I need to be on that side. I score first time, and we continue towards Thurne Mouth.
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The moment of decision is fast approaching. Our calculations show that we will spend the least amount of time sailing against the tide if we go to Acle first. My view from the cabin roof shows that this is a minority decision.
Tacking down towards the bridge, the first test of our bridge shooting skills arrives. Paddles ready, sails down, mast down. Paddle – against the tide and wind – keep paddling. The training pays off and a spectator comments how professional our paddling looks as we move slowly forwards through the bridge. No comment is made about our sailing. Mast up, sails raised, stop paddling, catch the wind, catch breath and off we go again.
I’m told that the windmill shorn of sails with its accompanying trees is known locally as the Dalek, and as we approach it I can see why. We spend some 20 minutes tacking fruitlessly to and fro holding station level with it until an extra gust clears us from this obstacle to wind and progress.
The turning point arrives and once round it, with wind and tide behind us we race back towards Thurne with a bone firmly fixed in the teeth of our craft.
There is an added sense of urgency to our mast lowering at Acle as with wind showing no signs of dropping and tide sweeping us swiftly, we don’t have long to get the rig down. One boat is not so lucky, and they create a new dent in the bridge.
The rig goes up although one shroud fouls a fitting and communication between the back and front of the boat suddenly becomes louder until we lower the mast again and clear the shroud.
The first tea break is required, and I take the helm for a brief spell, the responsibility of best possible progress weighing heavily on my shoulders. Olive hands out the most delicious flapjack, and we learn that it was acquired in a trade with the Expert Dinghy Sailor for some fudge brownies. The exchange rate was extremely good.
We reach Thurne Mouth in record time, and start meeting crews coming back from Hickling. “Carnage” they say. “Keep within the marked channel” they say. “How much do you draw?” asks another, and winces at our reply. The Nervous Skipper mutters something to Olive, and she writes each of our names on bits of paper. She claims it’s the order for food, but I sense that it could also be used as the basis for a ship lightening mechanism.
The Mutineer takes the helm from me. Clearly he’s staking an early claim for the necessity of staying on board.
Potter arrives, and our paddling reaches new heights as a spectator comments on our excellent timing. It’s a long paddle through both Potter bridges, and we settle into a good rhythm, moving faster than we were sailing.
Learn that Danny Boy’s craft has succumbed to structural failure owing to the excess windage caused by his hat.
Heigham Sound is littered with evidence of the inadequacies of the Broads Authority management - craft in and just outside the marked channel all firmly aground awaiting rescue tows. We place lookouts in the bow, and each time they see bottom we tack early. We still touch bottom two or three times, but manage to keep going, and I place our counter in the bucket with consummate skill. The return trip to Potter is accompanied by growing darkness. Not so much a sunset as a sense of someone fading the sun out quite quickly. We debate where the new bridge at Potter is exactly, but the flashing light of the guard boat clearly marks the paddling zone. Mast down, up, this time without a hitch, and the turning tide helps us back down to Thurne Mouth where we turn for home, and begin the long haul against the outgoing tide. It’s about 11, and we are confidently predicting a midnight finish, when the wind drops.
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The next four hours pass incredibly slowly. Olive disappears below, and the smell of our chilli scents the air. Suitably refreshed, The Mutineer finds zephyrs of breeze where other craft find none, and we find ourselves overtaking 20 or 30 other boats all on the other side of the river, all on the other tack! “They’re making those electric engines incredibly quiet these days” mutters the Expert Dinghy Sailor, and I thank her courteously for the flapjack as we leave her wallowing in the ripple of our wake.
Each in turn goes below to add extra layers of clothing. Popeye complains bitterly about the smell of his feet, no one offers to help. Olive gets wedged on a bunk, caught out by a rogue tack, and Popeye goes to assist. We all politely look the other way.
My wife decides that a full refit is called for, so strips down to the buff, and carefully seals herself in 7 layers of thermal clothing. She asks me not to write about the naked bit, so I won’t.
We each carry out some ship lightening manoeuvres; the chilli adds unexpected harmonics to our efforts and causes some hilarity. It is Olive who comments on the similarity between the night call of a Reed Bunting and someone cleaning a window with a leather which is just too dry. The continuing commentary of the squeegee bird reduces us to incoherence, and results in some more impromptu boat lightening.
As we arrive at the water works we wrestle with two dinghies tacking back and forth desperately trying to use what little wind is left to counteract the current. Roll tacking a cruiser is hard work, so we don’t do it for long. The Squeegee bird pours scorn on our efforts, and the dinghy sailors, not understanding, take offence at our laughter as we slip away from them.
Then it starts to rain. Oilskins are donned except for those of us before the mast who don’t have such luxuries. Popeye disappears into the forehatch, and the song of the squeegee bird is drowned out by his snores. A mudweight dropping 2 feet next to the ear of sleeping crew produces a satisfactory result.
At long last the finish approaches. It’s about 5am. Our cruiser slides slowly o’er the line and the welcome bell rings for half ahead on the engine to take us home. Sadly the engine is having a fit of sulks, so one last effort is called for from the paddlers.
Moored up, we unload vast bags of unused clothing and stores, and repair to the clubhouse for breakfast. A cheerful meal at which we learn that we were 51st home over the water, but as so many have yet to finish, we don’t know what our position will be on handicap. Thirty minutes later, the red sails of one of our opponents crosses the line, and we frantically stir our tired brains into working out 2% of fifteen hours.
Back to the mooring, and the Mutineer is despatched to collect celebratory drinks returning with a magnificent magnum of champagne. It’s now about 6.30am. Never has so much champagne been demolished so quickly by so few. We slip into our dinghy, float upriver for 5 minutes, and drift off into a world of slumber, punctuated at odd moments by the ringing of a distant finish bell.
Final position 71st on handicap, and about halfway up our start. Our amazing skipper and his son are well pleased with our efforts. What an adventure.
Bids are now being accepted for an almost novice crew for the 2011 race.
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