Friday, 9 November 2018

Go with the flow. Three days away by Julia Jones

Monday Oct 29th 2018: Peter Duck was on her mooring, lying to the flood. The wind was blowing in the opposite direction, straight down the river from the cold nor’ nor’-east. It was going to be impossible to hoist the mainsail as the full force of the wind would be bellying into it as soon as it was half way up the mast. I tried the foresail. It was flappy and excitable, offering only to sail us off at an angle which would put us directly on the mud. The channel is quite narrow here and there was little water as yet. I was impatient to set off.

my brother, Ned
 hoisting the  mizzen -
many years ago
I went aft and consulted the mizzen. This is my favourite sail. My friend George Jepps (who lends his name to a ‘Peter Duck’-ish character in forthcoming Pebble) once called it Peter Duck’s “rudder in the sky” The smallest child can raise or lower it and it’s a sail that will always try to help if you ask. Former PD owner Greg Palmer once gave it as his opinion that Arthur Ransome never got the best out of her sailing because he didn’t understand the mizzen. (I don’t think he got the measure of her bow either but that’s by the way.)

I hoisted this sweet, tractable, little sail and pinned it in tightly. Peter Duck turned willingly through 180 degrees and the mizzen held her there, facing directly into the wind as I heaved up the mainsail, keeping it sheeted in for as long as I could. Then I released them both, ran forward to raise the foresail again, held it aback, cast off the mooring and PD was away, turning almost in her own length as we went running down the river.

It was a day of sunshine and squalls, showers and rainbows, fluorescent against the charcoal sky. I would like to have taken photographs but my hands were too full. The river was channelling the wind so it was almost always dead astern, thus keeping PD on the point of gybe. This doesn't worry me as it used to do: I hold her mainsheet in my hand (instead of keeping it fastened round a cleat) and sail as if she were a dinghy. This makes it possible for me to  respond as soon as the airflow goes creeping round the wrong side of the canvas, when the boom twitches and lifts, ready to smash across. 

The marker on the right hand records 
the pressure at the beginning of the day.
 The left hand needle shows a 20mb drop. 
The strength of the wind varied and our progress against the spring flood was not fast. High water at the Deben bar was 1430. I knew that I probably needed to use the engine if I was to reach Felixstowe Ferry in good time to leave the river safely and take the last moments of the flood southwest down the coast. But the point of this brief holiday was to sail, not to scuttle about watching the clock as if I was on land. Let the conditions dictate: go with the flow...I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the river anyway. The forecast was grim and the barometer plummeting.

We reached the river mouth almost at the top of the tide. The sky darkened dramatically, the wind freshened further. If I were heading for the Orwell or the Walton Backwaters we’d be wind against tide all the way and foul weather when we got there. I didn't want to go to sea -- and I didn't have to.

Peter Duck was reluctant to turn back against the weight of wind -- even the mizzen couldn’t persuade her – so finally I asserted myself with a burst of engine.Then we were beating back up the Deben and the ebb was soon running against us. By tea time the light was failing and the intermittent showers had settled into steady rain. At the top of the Rocks anchorage I gave up. We drifted down to a favourite spot at the entrance to Kirton Creek and picked up a mooring. It was cold and I was glad to shut the cabin doors. By 5pm I was in my bunk with a hot water bottle and a book and by 6pm I was asleep.

The sun goes down over Kirton Creek

Tuesday Oct 30th: The following day offered no temptation to go anywhere as it rained and blew without ceasing. I stayed in the only warm place – my bunk – and read Robert Smith’s Crossing the Bar. Robert is the harbourmaster at Wells-next-to-the-sea. He was born there; learned about the life of the marshes and the longshoremen from his father and grandfather and from his own private adventures and narrow escapes. He worked as a bait-digger, a longshoreman, a docker, a member of the lifeboat crew and of the harbour commissioners. All his life he's been learning from direct experience, from other people and from his environment. Then, once he became harbour master and had access to the centuries of harbour records, he began to research the history of the port.

Not especially appealing
A better place to be
Peter Duck and I met Robert and his harbour colleagues in the summer of 2015; we were “Going Foreign” along the North Norfolk coast and were charmed by the welcome we received as we put into that pretty port.

Part of our delight was the relief at being there at all. Wells bar is a sand bank with a fearsome reputation. It’s a killer that makes our mounds of shingle at the Deben mouth seem almost tame by comparison. Even the flood tide hesitates before it comes in.

Available from
Wells Harbour commissioners
For six hours a bulge of water builds beyond Wells bar, the ridge of sand at the mouth of the harbour entrance until it surges from the North Sea towards the beach and town. As it flows it scours the channel, covers the sandbanks, tugs at the buoys marking the way and snatches at the anchors and chains of vessels. Where the channel meanders, the current races across from bank to bank, seeking the shortest course as if intent on completing an urgent mission. For a while the flow slackens but doesn’t entirely stop. Even when the water stops pouring over the bar it carries on flooding into the quayside for another twenty minutes, Flotsam and jetsam gently slow and drift along the shoreline at the channels edge, while in the middle the flood still races along…” (Crossing the Bar p 166)

Later in that summer of 2015 Peter Duck's engine had failed the wrong side of that Wells bar. A combination of lack of wind, tide imperatives, distance to any other port and responsibility to my crew made me glad to accept a tow back into harbour. Peter Duck was stranded there for several weeks and I learned more about the place and the practical kindness of its people. One particular image – apart from the bar itself, which can be watched all day by video cam from the harbour office – that has remained with me was the marker showing the height that the tide had reached in 2013, for higher than the floods of 1953 or the destructive surge of 1978.

In Crossing the Bar Robert Smith explains the enduring impact that the c18th marsh enclosures (when the major landlords extended their agricultural land) has had on the capacity of the marsh to act as reservoir, a sponge, soaking up the mass of water as it surges in under certain meteorological conditions in the North Sea. When the flood breached the walls in both 1978 and 2013, it was reclaiming its former channels, dammed almost three centuries earlier.  So why now? You'll have guessed at least part of the answer. Rising sea levels put much of the East Anglian coast at risk, and off the North Norfolk shore, dramatically increased dredging for aggregate (sand and gravel for construction work) may have significantly reduced the invisible protection provided by those outlying shoals. “During the 198os and early 1990s the quayside flooded once or twice every few years. By the late-1990s it was awash with floodwater more regularly and today its not unusual for it to happen six or seven times a year,” writes Smith.

After 1978 and again after 2013 Wells cleared up, refilled the breaches, built new and stronger walls. Crossing the Bar proposes that the town should look again at its history and make an accommodation with the flooding tide that will allow it, in extremis, to have its way. Divert the banks so it empties itself where it powerfully wishes to go – on the former Slade marsh and on some of that reclaimed agricultural land. Not ideal of course but very much better than watching the water pouring up the streets of the town, flooding properties and putting lives at risk. Smith  remembers himself as a younger man watching the 1978 flood as a spectacle but “now I’m harbour master there’s nothing I find exciting about a tidal surge”.

Smith has needed to overcome dyslexia to write this book. "I can become impatient with myself as I try to articulate the pictures in my head and the stories told to me into words on a page." (Many non-dyslexic writers will sympathise with this!) He sees this mental barrier as analogous with the physical challenge sailors face when they are crossing the bar (and you might like to reread his passage on the build-up of the flood tide as a metaphor for inspiration and writing compulsion). In Crossing the Bar Smith has produced a compelling account of human relationship with the forces of nature. I read it all day as the rain drummed on the cabin roof and Peter Duck jerked and snubbed against her mooring chain. When I finished my first reading, I began again.

Wednesday October 31st
Early morning Kirton Creek
The depression has gone
The quiet, chilly last morning of my three day holiday  A light mist covers the river, there's no wind yet and the tide's running steadily out. The barometer has risen as decisively as it fell. Later, when the flood returns I'm expecting a light breeze from the SSE. Perfect for our final sail of this season, back up the river where we began. 

I'd snatched those few days away as a reward for the effort it had taken to get Pebble (Strong Winds volume 6) to the printer. This week (Nov 8th) I've been putting copies into envelopes and boxes to send them out to readers. All I want to say in the light of this post is that when I'm writing these stories I always have the detailed local tide tables beside me -- and sunrise, sunset and (often) moon phase information as well. My plots may be preposterous but I don't muck about with nature.  


Jan Needle said...

You muck about with my head though, Jul. I'm meant to be working, for gawd's sake! Please keep it up... xxx

Bill Kirton said...

This is the nearest I've been to sailing in a couple of years. Even the minutiae of the value of a mizzen had me smiling and empathising with you through every bit of those trying conditions (although my mizzen experiences were all on Loch Ewe with cadets in 27' Montagu whalers).

As for Robert Smith's wonderful writing (despite dyslexia) in 'Crossing the Bar', it's just breathtaking.

Thanks for letting us sit quietly at our keyboards as you did all the work taking us on that trip.

Penny Dolan said...

A wonderful post, Julia, even for a totally wimpy landlubber like me.

Umberto Tosi said...

You catch pure poetry in your sails, Julia. Loved it!

julia jones said...

Thank you all -- I was really uncertain whether my scamperings to and from the foredeck would interest anyone except me. Leaving the mooring felt such a personal moment of pleasure, I wanted to write it but at the same time knew it was so small and so dependent on those conditions at that time. I'm amazed by your understanding.

Sandra Horn said...

I've never even been on a sailing boat but was utterly there with you, Julia! Terrific post! Thank you.

Katherine Rosen said...

Loved reading this, Julia. I don't know how to sail but I felt I was there with you.

Lydia Bennet said...

So evocative Julia - I used to sail dinghies on the north sea which gives me some small idea how a sailor has to work with natural forces so much more powerful than herself. Peter Duck is lucky to have you as her skipper! Your use of sailing vocabulary enriches this piece so much too. Words with centuries of history, danger and adventure behind them.