Saturday, 2 October 2010

A calm sea and a prosperous voyage

Fantasy Bob's many readers - all 3 of them - can stop anxiously phoning the coastguard.  FB is safely returned from his sea voyage.

At this point, it is only fair to warn those regular readers that this posting will contain little about biscuits and even less about cricket.  Nevertheless, FB hopes that they will carry on reading - even if they struggle to understand his acceptance that there is life beyond cricket and biscuits. 

A calm sea and a prosperous voyage are poems by Goethe which inspired musical works by both Beethoven and Mendelssohn.  Signing up for a sailing trip on former BT Challenge yacht Alba Endeavour in the west of Scotland just after the autumn equinox, FB would have known that a calm sea might be unlikely but, having sailed several times before with legendary sportscotland sailing guru Rod Smith, he was confident that his voyage would be prosperous.   He was not disappointed.

There are many reasons for running away to sea, but when Fantasy Bob met the rest of the crew duly assembled at Greenock on a grey Monday morning, he found that is own motivation - the shame of yet another wicketless spell in the final friendly of the season was by far the most serious.  Most of his new friends said they were simply there to broaden their sailing experience and to sample what a big boat feels like.  But whatever murky pasts they were escaping, this mixed group of strangers soon blended into an enjoyable and entertaining company.

Heading out of Greenock the destination was Douglas, Isle of Man - 120miles or so - perhaps 15 hours sailing if we maintained a steady 8 knots.   However, wind was not all that favourable and the need to secure safe passage round the shallows off the north east of the IOM meant that the journey took nearer 26 hours.  The low cloud base hid the moon and the sun for most of the night as we close-reached down past Galloway.  Poor visibility in the morning meant that the sighting of IOM at breakfast time may well have been a collective illusion since any sight of land promptly disappeared for the next 8 hours.  'Keep a look out for the south cardinal mark,' was the instruction from First Mate Bob Rutherford, but as the minutes stretched into hours, the crew came to the conclusion that someone must have moved it since we arrived at Douglas without any hint of a buoy ever appearing on the horizon.  Only regular servings of tea and biscuits kept the crew from mutiny.

At 12 noon or so we had tacked SW onto a long close reach which would eventually take us to Douglas, but there was definitely growing motion in the ocean.  Nevertheless, a couple of FB's fellow crew members made the heroic decision to go below and cook up some pasta and pesto for lunch.  FB was on the helm at the time, and wondered why he had become such a popular chap as one by one the cooks came to sit beside him.  Ah, such vanity!  Their real reason was not to secure insight from FB into how to bowl the perfect inswinger but to lodge in the downwind quarter as the motion below got to their stomachs.  More seriously though, down below OYT Watch Leader Alistair Mackay had been thrown against the heads doors as the boat pitched and lay in some pain fearing cracked ribs.  Gallows humour was required; and the talk turned to the number of body bags that the MCA required vessels to carry.  Should this be the same as the number of crew - and if so, who had invented the self-filling bag?

We made it into Douglas in the pouring rain at about 15.30.   A taxi came on the quay to take Alastair off to A&E.  The crew took some shore leave as dinner was prepared.  FB was led astray by sportscotland young blood Dave McCardel to find Danny's harbourside bar, where he declined change in the form of IOM notes but recommends local brew Okell's bitter.  Alistair returned from the medics before dinner floating from the impact of some strong painkillers, but, to everyone's relief, reporting no serious damage. 

The next morning the sky was lower as we set off for Bangor.    As they had on the first morning, the crew looked again to FB to sweat up the mainsail.  Now, this is a challenge worthy of an Olympian athlete such as FB, since the mast is 95ft high and the sail is a serious weight of canvas.  All FB's time in the gym and biscuits  consumed were put to good use at last.

Rod in the shrouds - don't do this at home!
As we motor sailed through the narrow sound between the south of IOM and Calf Island, the wind died as the sun came out.  It would be a long motor sail to that evening's berth.  

The bad jokes soon ran out. (What do you call a man with a spade on his head? - Doug; what do you call a man without a spade on his head? - Douglas).

Other entertainments had to be devised.  Skipper Rod showed off his gymnastic prowess by climbing the shrouds.  Slimmer members of the crew competed to squeeze through the coach-house roof hatches.  The Gun Fight at the OK Corral was reenacted in a competition of quick draw, in which you had to release the clips on your life line before your opponent. The fire pump was assembled and American visitor Don Hamilton got to reenact his childhood dream of being a fireman as he sprayed the hose high into the setting sun on a picture post card beautiful evening.   More biscuits were consumed.

A perfect sunset over Northern Ireland

FB driving
Bangor was reached at about 19.30 and after dinner a visit to the renowned Jenny Watt's Bar brought the end to a fine day.

Wednesday dawned bright clear with the wind barely stirring.  What an opportunity to get the spinnaker up!  Of course, it took the combined intellect of the whole crew to get the guys, sheets, poles, uphauls, downhauls and halyards all in approximately the right place.  It probably took less brainpower to get a man on the moon, but eventually up went the sail, and along we surged maxing at 13 knots.  Biscuits were required as a reward for such endeavour. Helming under the spinnaker was one of the highlights of the trip for FB, since his last encounter with a big kite was in his long distant days of dinghy sailing. 

As the wind backed the spinnaker had to be dropped.  To the great delight of the bosun, his letter boxing worked and she came in through the space between boom and mainsail.  It only took 3 hours hard sweat below to repack her!
As we crossed the North Channel, it seemed sensible to take care to avoid the Royal Navy's live firing exercise.  Radio contact was established with the senior service to ensure that they would not blast us out of the water as we got up close to Ailsa Craig.   Wake up and smell the guano!  The birds nesting on the basalt columns called their welcome to us as we slipped by.  A unique experience. 
The water sail beginning to draw
Most of the crew had never heard of a water sail, let alone seen one.  Some thought Rod was having us on at mentioning it, but others took him at his word and rigged one up with the storm staysail hanging below the boom.  It added about .25 of a knot to the the boat speed and, as we approached Ardrossan, may have been interpreted by all adjacent vessels as a sign of distress . 

We tied up at 18.00 and after making the boat safe repaired to local restaurant Cecchinis for an excellent dinner to round off a perfect sailing day.

Where's my dinner?
It had rained hard overnight and the wind had got up, so next morning could only be described as typical Ardrossan weather.  Initial thoughts of a race around Little Cumbrae between the watches were abandoned as the wind gusted to 7 when we left Ardrossan.  3 reefs in the main, no foresail and we were still doing 9 knots!   Lord above, this boat can move.

But, little by little, the wind eased as we got further up the Firth and 2 reefs were shaken out as we passed Cumbrae.  Coming up the Clyde we faced an escort from HMS Ark Royal and other NATO warships, presumably scrambled in the night to ensure there was no more of that water sail nonsense.  With no further opportunities for mischief, we tied up at Greenock at 14.00 totalling 390 miles on the log. 

What a fine voyage, what a fine company, what a fine boat.  Fantasy Bob sends his best wishes to all his new friends from far and wide.  Best wishes to sportscotland and best wishes to the Ocean Youth Trust.  Keep up the good work.

And next time Fantasy Bob has a couple of wicketless games or scores a duck, he will definitely be thinking about running away to sea again............................

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