Stories from the Slipway 2 – Talking Bilge

Stories from the Slipway 2 – Talking Bilge

I first learnt to sail on a half decked gaff rigger on the River Alde in Aldeburgh where for many years our family took our annual holiday. Sailing lessons were my holiday treat and my teacher was a grizzled, grumpy fisherman who ran one of the fishing boats off the finger of shingle between the river and the sea and in his spare time ‘taught’ sailing. He rarely touched the helm but indulgently coached me to sail by trial and error; either I was good or he was brave but I learnt a lot. We would clamber board at what is now Slaughden Sailing Club but in those days was a rundown pontoon surrounded by fishing shacks. My father, rather derogatorily, but probably accurately, called him a Sea Gypsy.

I loved it and my abiding memory, sailing aside, was my teacher who, all too regularly, peed into a large frying pan and then swilled it over the side before holding it out for my use; heaven forbid! Thankfully he never offered me any breakfast or tea. On occasion I was also treated to a sail in a wooden gaff dinghy on Thorpe Haven Lake, now Haven Nature reserve, where I was allowed to go out on my lifejackets in those days! It was my Swallows and Amazons! This love of sailing never left me and I processed through many a dinghy at Chichester Sailing Club in Kent and then racing the college Fireflies and Merlin Rockets on the Welsh Harp, now the Brent Reservoir. Why on earth change such an evocative name.

And as an avid reader I was entranced by the stories of sailing around the world. Books by Chichester, Knox Johnson, Hiscock, Rose, Blyth and many more that still adorn my bookshelf; they are absolute classics. And I dreamt of following in their footsteps but sadly, still, only in my dreams. My first venture into ‘yachting’ was the purchase of Othona, named after the Roman fort at Bradwell-on-Sea on the east Coast. She was a Folkboat with a varnished, carvel mahogany plank on oak and iroko hull with a cantankerous Stuart Turner petrol engine. She had the freeboard of a submarine but sailed like a dream. Long keeled and drawing 1.2M she had a river bank mooring at Benfleet Sailing Club in Benfleet Creek.

For those of you who are unaware I should tell you that Benfleet Creek is a drying tributary of the Thames that runs from the Leigh Buoy, West of Southend Pier, up the Ray Gut into Hadleigh Ray and then into Benfleet Creek. Further it is small, twisty and flows at speed especially at Springs and my bank side berth was nearly 2½ miles, probably three with the twists and turns, up this winding creek that only had water for around 2/2½ hours either side of HW. Writing this article I looked up my old club and I quote Benfleet Club’s own navigation notes ‘Navigating our Creek is really not as bad as you think'. Say no more! Worse still the river banks were precipitous and berthed yachts needed a line from the masthead to ensure the yacht did not topple out into the river when the tide went out!

Wooden hulls are a nightmare, varnished hulls are a nightmare, Stuart Turner petrol engines with magnetos are a nightmare, unless you can afford professionals, which I could not. And on top of that you need a very good understanding of electrolysis on copper fastened hulls. All of this before you start sailing. Once a week each year she looked magnificent, that was it. But I still loved her.

In the early ‘80’s I was in love and I thought my new love should be introduced to my first love. Well that was always going to be risky but being bold I suggested we visited Othona before she went back in the water, especially as the lady in question’s perception of boats was ‘yachting’ not ‘sailing’. I needed to begin managing perceptions. We both lived in Hertfordshire so it was never the easiest of trips but the autumn weather was kind, no rain and a light wind. On arrival I pointed proudly at Othona in her wood cradle, towering above us with a wood ladder strapped to the cradle. My new love looked nonplussed. Up there I suggested tentatively. I was given a rather cold smile so I quickly clambered up and gallantly handed her up the ladder. Have a look around whilst I unlock I suggested. She was nervously looking over the guard rails at the near three metre drop. As I dropped down into the cabin I turned to her and casually mentioned that she should ‘mind the bilges’.

Well next moment there was a strangled ‘what are bil....’ a loud scream and she fell on top of me; I will not relay the language here! I should explain for those of you who have never owned a wooden boat that a slipped wood boat dries out. If the boat is carvel this can be quite serious as the hull planks can shrink resulting in the boat trying to sink when it is re-launched. So to avoid this you lift the flooring, fill the bilge with sea water and lay old towelling or heavy cloth inside the hull down into the bilge. This acts as a wick and stops the planks from drying too much. So when I stepped down I knowingly spread my legs and walked on the hull stringers, above the water line. Sadly I had not explained all of this before and my girlfriend, eagerly following me, dropped into a foot or two of icy water. I had learnt a lesson; always talk plain English if you need to be understood.

Submitted on 8th September 2021