There's no fool like an old 'un. She was half my age, with lots of charm, and the kind of looks that stopped traffic. She'd sailed with me on some weekends around the Solent and was getting quite handy on board. Yes, really! Daddy was a professor of something, with a big research budget, and Mandy and Mummy were always accompanying him to 'give papers' somewhere or other. So when I got a phone call from her late one night in mid-October, saying she was in France, had just had a tiff with her parents and didn't want to spend ten days drinking 'Burgundy with Bores in Beaune' - and did I have any better ideas, I went for it hook, line and sinker!
I agreed to meet her in Paris in 48 hours, phoned my partner to tell him I was off to France for a few days, threw some gear in a bag and was off down to the boat within the hour! I motored down the Solent to Keyhaven, stopped for some early breakfast, then hauled up the big powerful mainsail and was off to Jersey. The boat was a 40-foot Kelsall racing catamaran, built of foam sandwich for the Round Britain Race and, with the Autohelm set, she just swallowed up the miles. I was able to read and snooze in the cockpit in the early afternoon while the 60-odd miles to the Casquets Light clicked past. Dusk found me motorsailing down the Little Russell Channel to drop the hook for a few hours' sleep in Havelet Bay, Guernsey. It's only another 30 miles across to St. Helier in Jersey, and I had the boat secured in the marina there, and me in a taxi to the airport, by lunchtime the next day.
Mandy was waiting for me at Paris/Le Bourget, and within the hour we were in a hire-car hurtling down the Autoroute L'Océane into Brittany. I had friends in Vannes and for the next few days they treated us royally - well, Mandy, at any rate. All too soon we were on the ferry heading back to St. Helier, several cases of wine on flight trollies trailed behind us, to pick up the boat in Jersey and sail back to England together.
We slipped lines about three in the afternoon, punching the last of the weak foul tide along the south of the island, and turned north up past La Corbière Light and Grosnez Point. It was dark just after five, and the warmth of the afternoon sun was soon gone. A clear starry night, the wind steady from the south-west, a 2-knot tide under us, and 10-12 knots boat speed….. We charged past Sark and the Banc de la Schôle, going well.
I was dog-tired. The past 5 days had been hectic and non-stop. Everything was set fair for a fast passage, and I needed just to get back across the Channel, with the prospect of the rest of the weekend together in front of the fire, trying out our wine. So I didn't turn left into Braye Harbour at Alderney for an early night as I'd planned. There was still a good couple of hours of making tide and if we held onto this wind…… So I put the big spinnaker up. With Cap de la Hâgue light behind my right shoulder, Quenard Point over my left, and about 40-odd miles to run to the Needles, it felt like we were on the home straight. We'd soon pick up the loom of Anvil Point or The Needles….. But I didn't see the stars switching off in the sky behind me.
The first squall hit us hard, wind and rain together, and the boat just took off. Quite unprepared, I spent the first few minutes simply steering down the building seas, partly on instrumented wind angle, partly on wind-in-the-ear. "Don't worry about this," I told Mandy in the hatch, "this squall will blow through in a while, then I'll get the spinni down." But it didn't blow through. It increased. I had full main and spinnaker, 20 knots of boat speed, and over 20 knots apparent wind from astern. I was fully awake now! I didn't dare go forward to the mast - my little lady couldn't helm in that! If we broached around, we were over! I could only run off at speed northwards, great plumes of spray jetting from the bows, and hope an 'opportunity' arrived before Dorset. In the blackness, the spray and driving rain, I could see maybe 60 yards - or about 3 seconds - ahead.
My tired brain wouldn't work, wouldn't do the arithmetic, wouldn't decide on how best to dump the spinni without broaching, wouldn't do the mental arithmetic about how close to the coast we might be - when the opportunity came. We surfed over and down a long wave, then up and over the next, accelerated hard down the front, then buried our bows in the next trough right up to the mast. The front of the boat stopped dead. The back didn't. The big sea behind just lifted her sterns, the apparent wind in the spinni doubled, and I found myself doing a handstand on the wheel. I could hear tins and gear tumbling forward in the hulls. I noticed the nav lights - red and green - glow underwater, and I remember wondering if she'd go over sideways or invert straight stern-over-bows. Then the big wave crest hissed by and we slapped back down, stopped in the water.
We didn't need a second invite. She was trying to take off again, so I dumped the spinnaker - halyard and all - straight into the sea. That certainly stopped her! I then dropped the main into the lazy-jacks and - briefing wide-eyed Mandy, who'd only just realised what had happened - started the long job of hauling the spinni, full of water, back on board and down the hatch. That was a fight! It took us an hour to recover the 'chute and rig the mainsail to the deep-reef point, and by then we were both shaking with exhaustion.
I hadn't a clue where we were, or how close to Dorset - nothing to be seen in the rain and flying spray, and the wind was still rising. So I stated the obvious to my young-and-lovely….. "We're in real trouble. I've made a handful of mistakes. We've no chance of getting into shelter tonight, for I can't see a thing. We can only stay out at sea, in deep water, and keep sailing under some control until daylight comes and this weather eases." So off we charged east, wind on the beam and the deep-reefed mainsail out hard on the shrouds, still making 12-15 knots. We weren't going to fall over, but there were other problems we could run into at speed - such as 20,000 tons of moving steel, or 20 miles of Wight.
Mandy was soaked through and shaking, so I sent her down to get into some dry kit. A couple of minutes later, the rain lifted a bit and I could see a shore light way off to port. "Quick, Mandy!” I called, “Come and take the wheel - I need to look at the chart." Into the cockpit she scrambled, clad only in some wispy pants and bra…. and my thick red sox. Down below I dived to the chart table. Then, premonition shrieking, I turned back - but too late. I felt the bows shovel up a big one and the boat stagger as the sea's weight rolled across the deck. Framed in the light from the hatch, I saw this blonde, near-naked little waif disappear under the solid green water pouring over the coachroof. Then the boat lurched, shook and she re-appeared spluttering, her expensive French lingerie - and all else - saturated, long blonde hair plastered back, the cold water gleaming as it ran off her. Quite a sight for tired old eyes! "She's going to have hysterics," I thought. But no. She just laughed. In her red sox….
The shore light was gone, lost again in the rain and spray, but we could surely cope with anything now.
We rushed on into the night, my bones aching from hours standing at the wheel, Mandy passing me bits of fruitcake from inside the hatch. Slowly the rain eased, then the wind - and a slow, grey dawn showed us miles of dirty grey, breaking seas all around. Away ahead, I began to make out a strip of low-lying land, with the odd tree on it. I couldn't quite make it look in my head like Hurst Spit, for there was no Castle on the end - and no Isle of Wight, either. Slowly it dawned on me that we had Selsey Bill, 30 miles further on, in front of us. We'd completely missed Wight, but clearly not by much! Brain like treacle, I was soon able to gybe the boat around and unfurl the genoa. Before long, we were reaching into the East Solent and into the lee of Wight.
I remember us picking up our pile mooring in the Hamble River, checking the 'Q' flag, and sliding into sleeping bags in the saloon. I remember nothing else for 13 hours. The Exciseman came, looked around, and went. He left a note. So did Mandy.
Now, I don't know whether I've grown out of overconfidence when there's a pretty girl around, or whether to make better decisions when I know I'm tired, but I do look back over my shoulder these days for the stars switching out behind me.......
Bilbo, © 2008