An Old Gaffer's Solent (Mis) Adventure
by Andy Oliver
Misfortune arrives in threes, so they say, and that is certainly how it seemed during a recent trip in the Solent. The plan had been for the four of us – my brother Neil and Ross (co-owners), Miles and myself (crew) to sail the 27ft gaffer Ruach from the Solent to Plymouth to join in the Old Gaffer’s Association (OGA) rally there on the 9th/10th May 2013.
The OGA was marking their 50th anniversary that year with a series of rallies and a Round Britain Cruise; we wanted to join in the leg across the south coast and had planned to start the sail west the weekend before, with a crew change after we arrived in Plymouth and then Ruach would return the following week.
We had all sailed together previously and were expecting a pleasant week. We’d undertaken the passage planning with gusto, the tides and times fitted nicely with overnights in Weymouth, Dartmouth/Salcombe and then Plymouth. Provisioning had been rapid – to the point of having only one bottle of malt whisky on the boat! A serious oversight.
We left Cowes on Sunday morning under a sunny sky, F2/3 SW and the tide running out nicely. Our first stop was to be either Keyhaven or tucked in on the anchor just behind Hurst Castle. Both locations would give us the option of an early start through Hurst Narrows and a good bit of progress westward whilst the tide was in our favour.
We made good progress down the relatively empty Solent making a few long tacks and had almost reached Yarmouth when our first ‘incident’ occurred.
It could have been much worse, but when the anchor of the Bavaria broke through our hand rail and its bow rode up over the toerail we did fear the worst. I was below – making tea, I expect – when I heard a lot of shouting from above “starboard …, STARBOARD …”, followed by that sickening crunch!
Apparently we had not been noticed by the port tack yacht, and we did not have time to manoeuvre out of his way.
After disentangling ourselves he sailed away a little, dropped sails and motored back
We, meanwhile, checked for water ingress (none, phew!) and no personnel injuries. We exchanged details and returned to assessing our damage. I took a number of photos of the splintered wood before we bound up the handrail with the ubiquitous gaffer tape (where would we be without it?)
A confab in the cockpit resulted in the view that we could and should continue our passage – being very wary of the weakened hand rail.
So westward we set, one reef in, headsails straining and after making a couple of turns we were moving well when ‘incident’ number two happened – the tiller broke at the top of the rudder stock! Sails were immediately dropped – which left us drifting slowly about the ferry route between Yarmouth and Lymington. Fortunately, both ferries were still in port so we had some time to sort ourselves out. The first task, though, was to remove the tiller fitting and find a suitable piece of wood for an emergency tiller – no specific one being onboard. This was located in a “bag of bits” in the bottom of a locker – I knew that the family preponderance for never throwing anything out would come in handy sometime!
With the temporary tiller in place and us out of immediate danger from ferries, Ross set to with the toolbox and whittled the broken end of the tiller down so that it would slip into the fitting.
This was accomplished with the help of a hammer and the whole contraption lashed to the top of the rudder. Inspection of the broken pieces revealed no hint of previous damage or of any wood rot. Quite why the beautifully laminated tiller broke at that time is a mystery.
We decided at that point that our voyage westward would have to be abandoned in favour of getting back to the home boatyard in Newport. But first we could at least have a restful night and consume some of the enticing vittals on the boat. We made carefully for Newtown Creek, and managed it successfully with the new tiller arrangement.
Manoeuvring and anchoring in Clamerkin Lake was its normal enjoyable lark – there really is not a lot of water in there sometimes! We settled down for the night with the obligatory “spag bol” washed down with wine and some of the malt.
We woke to fog in the morning...
It was time to leave the anchorage – everything prepared for the manual hoist of the anchor, engine in neutral, throttle forward to engage choke (it is a small petrol inboard), engine starts, throttle back to idling, engine continues revving at full tilt! Number three had struck!
We killed the engine and tried again – same result. Inspection of the intricacies of the throttle mechanism revealed that the governor lever (as we later found it was called) had sheared at its base so was not returning the throttle when the cable was slackened! So – what to do?
We convened another chat in the cockpit over cups of tea and considered the options: call a friend and get a tow back home, join SeaStart and get some help, sail off the anchor and out of Newtown Creek, ask the NT warden for a tow out, or ... operate the throttle manually, which would be hot, noisy and risky with all the moving engine parts. We investigated this thought further and managed to attach a 1ft length of stiff wire (not quite a coathanger!) to the throttle control.
So,crouched next to the engine at the foot of the companionway, with thick gloves on, “Chief Engineer” Ross operated the throttle as we carefully threaded our way between the yachts in Newtown and out to the Solent. Our progress resembled old wartime films, with the skipper shouting to the engine room “More revs” and “Hold the revs there!”
Once in deep water, we raised the sails and had a very enjoyable trip back to Cowes downwind with the incoming tide under us. We doused the sails outside Cowes Harbour and made our way up the Medina to Newport, utilising the same motoring technique as earlier. Home to another cuppa and to bring the yacht up onto the slip to inspect the hull for damage from the first of our misfortunes.
So, for us the old saying did prove true, unfortunately. Still, no one was injured, the woodwork looked reparable and the boatyard welded the engine part in about 30 minutes of our arriving. Our sail with other Old Gaffers would have to wait a while …
Some “lessons learned” on our experience, though:
- As a team we worked well together and were ingenious in our temporary repairs
- Membership of SeaStart or some similar organisation would have been comforting
- An emergency tiller which can be fitted quickly should be aboard, although our first jury-rig with the scrap wood worked well for the short time it was needed. Manufacture of a proper spare tiller is now a top priority.
- The time between deciding that the “give way” vessel isn’t actually going to give way, and your manoeuvring out of its way is very short.