6am Sun Rise at Seasalter
Ian just trying to warm up
You need your buddies on day like today
The fast dinghy and small cat fleet waiting for the start
The steep beach just before the surf kicked in
Round the Island Race (Sheppey) 2015
It seemed logical to sail to Sheerness rather than break the boats down and put them on the trailer, it would make the whole day more of an adventure. An adventure and a test of stamina. Most of us have raced around the Isle of Sheppey before, it is a bit of a slog as it is, add twelve miles to get there and another twelve back and we were looking at about 64 miles. More than we had sailed our 15’s in any one day before.
Derek, Joe, Ian, and Robin were already rigging up when I arrived at Seasalter SC at 5.45. The dawn had only just broken and the feeling of peace hung in the still air. For Joe, Ian, Robin and I this was our second long distance adventure this year and this meant we had a far more confident approach to our preparations.
We set sail for Sheerness at 6.30 just as the wind backed from the south and went north east as forecast although it struggled to get to 10mph. When ashore it looked like we would have the sun keeping us company, but by the time we drew level with the Island, the clouds closed in and the cold took a grip of our bodies. Most of us struggled with the cold for the rest of the trip; I resorted to press-ups on the front beam to keep the blood pumping. Ian later claimed he found it difficult to make the right decisions on the water, due to the cold. Joe complained he was too hot, but later revealed that he had invested in 21st century titanium wet suit technology which had set him back slightly less than I paid for my first house.
We had planned to attend the race briefing at 9am, but the lacklustre wind bang on the nose delayed our arrival until well past 9. On arrival we all headed straight to the galley for hot coffee and egg and bacon rolls. Joe managed two! Here we met Rob and Caroline, at that point Caroline wasn’t expecting to sail. Having missed the official briefing Derek kindly offered to do an unofficial briefing for us all, as a former member of Sheerness SC and having raced the Island a good few times, he generously explained the shallows, the spits, how to approach the Horse Sands, the dreaded bridge and the commercial shipping at Garrison Point. He was particularly animated in reinforcing the need to go round the end of the old submarine breakwater at the very start of the race.
There are three race starts, the sail boards and slow dinghies start first, the fast dinghies and slower cats start next and the fast cats half an hour after them. We started with the fast dinghies and as soon as the start sequence had run its course we all headed out to sea to round the top of the breakwater, Derek forgetting his own advice, sailed straight over the breakwater snatching a lead over the rest of the Seasalter contingent. Derek later explained with a dead straight face that we had misunderstood his briefing!
We shared a lot of the first half of the race course with Rob Smith crewing out on the wire of an Osprey, he later confided that he felt far less at home on the monohull than he appeared.
I could see that the fleet in front of me were sailing quite wide of the island to ensure they didn’t go aground. I decided to gamble and cut as many corners as I could, Robin must have thought the same as he stayed in my wake. Our rudders first grounded on the Shellness spit and again, more dramatically when Robin followed me on the north side of Horse Sands. We knew we were pushing our luck taking this short cut, and sure enough I misjudged where the narrow channel was as the stern rose up as the rudders lifted the whole boat as they slid over the soft mud. Luckily, the water deepened after about 30 meters and we gingerly sailed on holding our breath. The short cut probably gained us two or three positions, but it could so easily have turned out much worse. It was a strange sight to look over the crest of the Horse Sands to just see the tops of dinghy rigs gliding along in the main channel.
Past Harty Ferry and Fowley we began to get into a fast close reach, then opposite the mouth of Conyer we could see the dinghies suddenly change course and lift their dagger boards as they lost the route of the channel and scraped along the riverbed, we darted chaotically left and right gambling on where the deeper water might be. Surprisingly, we found ourselves sailing up the narrow strip of shallow water with an old tatty motor yacht, about 35’ long, skippered by an old salty sea dog, his depth sounder alarm must have been constantly triggering. He casually pulled back on the throttle repeatedly to let the tacking dinghies sail across his bow. Years of seamanship clearly showing on his relaxed face.
As we approached Ridham dock and the bridge drew into view, I could see that I was catching up with the Dart 18 that had overtaken me a couple of miles back - with my optimism regarding 15s pointing higher -my hopes of overhauling him were raised, but I hadn’t accounted for the wind dying and the tide increasingly heading us. It took an infuriating hour to cover the half mile to the bridge, time and time again we would put another leg in across to one muddy bank and back again to the other, only to see that we had made no headway at all. Worse, when we finally approached the bridge, the blanketing effect of the structure killed all the wind and the flood tide would sweep us back down from whence we came. I briefly entertained the notion that returning to Seasalter and waiting for the flood tide might be a better end to the day.
I finally found myself within six feet of the pontoon I was trying to land on, this alone felt like victory and I took a hopeful leap at it. I was never going to make it and I felt my boots sink into the rancid mud five feet below the water. I’m not sure where he came from, but at that moment a club volunteer appeared by my side, just head and shoulders above the water and with a big grin he offered me some muscle to wrestle the boat on its side and walk it under the span of the bridge, he explained about the caution required when wading through as there were large lumps of concrete below the water ready to crunch against shin, his occasional expletive indicated that he hadn’t quite plotted where they were yet.
Through the bridge and back upright again, panic suddenly gripped me as I realised that the same tide and wind direction was in action as the last time I did this race, that ended with us leaving about half a kilo of gelcoat on the concrete stanchion of the bridge. I knew I had no option; I just had to give the chap the nod to let me go and try to sail free. I pointed the bows up-stream, but just ferry glided across the river at ninety degrees, toying with the concrete of the bridge just feet away. I knew I had to tack, but was sure this would be my downfall as the tide took control. Should I tack on the opposite bank where the tide would be less strong? But doing this would put me in the wind shadow of the stanchion of the new bridge further upstream. I decided to tack mid-stream and this just about paid off as I slowly edged farther away from the bridge.
Incredibly, once clear of the two bridges, the wind filled quickly and in no time I was shooting from bank to bank whilst the dinghies preferred to tack in the shallows of the inside bank, they must have been exhausted, tacking every 20 feet cheating the tide.
Next, we briefly came free of the wind through Queenborough and shot through the trots past the various cruisers sitting quietly on their moorings. On leaving the Swale and joining the Medway I was approached by a patrol boat who informed me that the big ship moored in Sheerness dock was preparing to leave, I should keep at least 100m clear. As I drew level, a massive tug was just taking the strain on the line leading to the ships stern and in no time at all, the ships shore lines were free and the black smoke from the tugs chimney told me they were on the move. I must have calculated and recalculated the 100m exclusion zone a dozen times, although I must have been well on the safe side, doubt kept creeping in.
I couldn’t help thinking that I was going to be at Garrison Point about the same time as this ship and I didn’t want do battle with it. I needed to accelerate past the ship and then cut in front of it so I could hug the dock-side whilst he steamed past outside of me. I prayed for more wind, but I just seemed to be wallowing in the confused seas at the confluence of the Thames and Medway. In reality, I was well past the Point ahead of the ship and as I eased the sheets, the wind built and the last mile to the finish line was fast and exhilarating. I didn’t even see the ship pass me in the end. I shot over the finish line just as a 420 was bearing down on me with kite flying.
I went ashore and pulled the boat up the steep stony beach and waited for the others to finish. The sea wall and ramp was busy with volunteers and spectators and it was great to swap stories with other participants.
By this time a keen northerly had settled in, making the ramp a very lively place. Caroline had finished the race crewing aboard ‘Ginger Nuts’, named after the colour of the owners………hair. Problems with the rudders prevented them beaching and this culminated with Caroline having to set off a flare to bring their plight to the attention of the Race Officer only a hundred yards away.
Gradually, the Seasalter fleet assembled on the beach bemoaning the ‘bloody bridge’. Joe caused some consternation when having sailed a 40 mile race; turned hard to starboard to make for shore 20 meters short of the line. The entire crowd on the promenade were shouting at him to go through the line, eventually they were joined by the RO on the club tannoy, ‘GO THROUGH THE LINE, GO THROUGH THE LINE’, he finally realised that the dim had a message attached and that we weren’t just cheering him home. We retired to the galley for warming coffee and tale of daring do. Oddly, Robin felt the need to shower before we put to sea again. Then we checked the hastily posted results and talked about how it could have been if only….
When we were all ready with Robin scrubbed clean, we realised that the wind had built to the top end of a force five, the surf was bigger and steeper than we are used to at Seasalter. I reckoned that we had to have the mainsail sheeted in and ready to drive the boat through the surf the instant the boat hit the water. I helped Robin and Joe get underway and then pushed my boat in, the shingle was so steep that we had to jump aboard within a couple of feet of the beach, I remember throwing myself aboard and the heart stopping moment when the boat was lifted high by a wave and I knew we had to sail forward before the wave subsided and the rudders hit the beach. Luckily for four of us, we got away. Unfortunately, Derek was less lucky; the surf pushed the bows round and battered him and the boat against the shoreline. We watched helplessly from our boats. After what seemed an age, Mr Ginger Nuts sprinted down the prom to Derek’s aid. They recovered the boat back up the beach, Derek indicated he was OK, but was retiring. This was our signal to head for home.
The tide was in and the sun was finally out. We needed to make Seasalter before the water left. We needn’t have worried, a screeching reach followed by a broad reach in some of the greatest swells the fifteen has witnessed, saw us back on Seasalter beach exactly one hour after we left Sheerness. We were grateful to see Steve standing waist deep in surf ready to help us land safely. We had comfortably beaten Derek who had jumped in a car and driven round to help us get ashore, we were all packed away by the time he arrived. In fact I was at home having my tea, shortly followed by an early night.