It’s been an eventful time on board JOHN LAING since the last bulletin, as we made one of our rare trips outside our normal cruising ground, with two voyages to take us down to the Brest festival and back again. It’s three weeks since the last bulletin, so there’s a lot to say. If you can’t face reading a long rambling account, just press delete NOW…….
Anyway – for those of you who have bravely chosen to read on – the Brest voyages included several crew members who had sailed with us before, plus some very good new people. Five of the crew (Fred, Jamie the gravy lady, Ollie the trainee bosun, and two new victims, Duncan and George, introduced by Fraser Old) did both legs of the voyage – almost 600 miles – as did six of the sea staff.
It all began on Friday 9th July in Ocean Village, Southampton. The intention was to set off across the Channel on the same day, after saying goodbye to Rosie and Phoebe (who was leaving for New Zealand before the boat returned). However, Fate had other ideas and we hadn’t gone far down the Solent when the mainsail split almost right across. This happened so quickly and quietly that for a moment, only the person on the mainsheet noticed. Crew member Paul, on the helm and congratulating himself for beginning to get the hang of steering, was therefore slightly surprised to be elbowed out of the way by the skipper while the cockpit erupted with sea staff and there was a frantic effort to get the sail down before the damage got any worse.
Our spare sails are kept in the store in Gosport, a lucky diversion as that’s where Rosie and Phoebe had gone. The spare main – the one used by the army for JOHN LAING’s trip to Antarctica – was unearthed; and Princess Craig got out his sewing kit to put the sliders on. This took most of Saturday, so the crew got to explore the delights of Gosport and we also managed to do some vital supplementary shopping (Note to Wolf: 15 crew + 12 pasties = not enough lunch).
After all that, everyone was pleased to set sail on Sunday morning, even if it was incredibly early and in slightly miserable weather. At this point it became clear that we were about to sail 300 miles to windward and that half of us were going to be sleeping in uncomfortable uphill bunks for all our off-watch periods for the equivalent of five Channel crossings. Things could only get better….except when they got worse.
Those of you who have had the pleasure of sleeping in the 18th berth in Wolf’s cabin will know that it can slide out to become a double bed. Only those who have tried sleeping in it while heeling at an acute angle will appreciate that it may slide out unbidden; and that it can slide so far that it becomes detached from the base of the bunk; and that when it does so, it takes the leecloth with it, while at the same time blocking the route which would allow someone to climb out of bed in the normal way. This means that the occupant has two options: either to drop like a stone across the whole width of the cabin, presumably breaking several bones; or to cling on to the uphill side of the boat with their fingernails whilst yelling: “Wolf! Help!” and hoping he was in the chart room and could hear.
Disappointingly, the latter option, delivered in anguished tones rising to panic, received the answer: “Not now, I’m busy.” The broken bones option began to seem ever more likely, but thankfully repeated pleas prompted Wolf and Andy Haynes to investigate, and when they had stopped laughing, a rescue was accomplished.
Thanks to immaculate planning (!) we caught the tide just right at the top of the Alderney race; but when Wolf went off watch at the southern end, it seemed clear that we would have to spend a long night tacking once we turned west to pass Guernsey. However, as soon as the skipper went to bed, we got the perfect windshift and were able to spend the whole night making seven knots in the right direction.
This brought us to the Rade de Brest on Monday evening, and we decided to spend the night in a quiet little anchorage before throwing ourselves into the festival melee. This gave us a chance to do some sail training on Tuesday morning, while inventing a few exercises for Andy Haynes who was doing his first mate’s assessment.
Brest itself was initially a little daunting: a huge festival of traditional boats of all types and sizes with, apparently, not much room for us, even though we were booked to take part. The first berth we were offered was some distance from everyone else and a long dinghy ride from the shore, tied to a decommissioned French naval hulk covered in notices explaining that it was absolutely forbidden to climb onto any of the places where we might have attached our mooring lines. It was obviously not safe, and a few frantic phone calls later we were given permission to go up the river and find a berth not far from where we stayed for Tall Ships 2002. A small yacht obligingly moved aside for us, and we were finally secured next to a beautiful ex-tuna fishing boat with a very friendly and musical crew, with an enormous and very glamorous Italian naval yacht on the inside of the raft.
Regular crew member Fred then produced one of the best meals of the trip (pork chops, cauliflower cheese, spuds and gravy, all perfectly cooked even though the meal was about an hour later than planned because of all the moving about). After dinner the crew went to explore the festival while Wolf and I went to a cocktail party.
Most readers will appreciate that we are not regular cocktail party-goers. But JOHN LAING’s presence in Brest, despite not meeting the strict criteria for a traditional vessel, had been organised by an old friend, Keith Martin, who has lived in France for years, knows everyone and appears to be able to arrange almost anything. I’m fairly confident that if we told Keith that we needed an elephant, a grandfather clock, three dancing girls and a cucumber frame delivered to the boat, he wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Keith was in Brest organising events for the local Chamber of Commerce, including this cocktail party on board HMS Norfolk, and so Wolf and I were invited. We did make it clear that we weren’t exactly able to dress for the event, but no-one seemed to mind; and we were made to feel very popular as the naval officers, given a choice between talking to us or to French-speaking Chamber of Commerce representatives, evidently concluded that we were the more relaxing option. I think we may have been the last to leave….
We did, however, manage to discuss some relevant business with the Chamber of Commerce people, as we sowed an idea with them for a Franco-British voyage next year. We met a lady who works with French business students who hope to work in companies where good colloquial English will be a prized asset, and we started developing an idea for a voyage for six French students with six English equivalents. David Parrish, one of our watchleaders, has good relevant UK contacts, so this is an idea we really hope to pursue.
Meanwhile our crew were enjoying fantastic fireworks and a great atmosphere with all the other crews. The atmosphere was a little like Tall Ships but with more of a family flavour because of the greater diversity of ages among the other crews. And lots of our old friends were there, including the Brixham sailing trawler Provident, and also Simon Holman, Cat Mott and Dick Pattison, who had all come across in Simon’s dad’s boat – Si’s first Channel crossing as skipper.
There was so much to see and do that there was no pressure for any more sailing for our crew, and we spent two more days in Brest, memorable chiefly for the vast amounts of seafood we consumed. The sea staff earmarked one particular fish restaurant for an evening meal, and our two youngest crew members, George and Ollie, chose to come with us. We sat in the window of the restaurant while that evening’s firework display took place right in front of us.
Eventually the first of the two voyages ended and we had to say goodbye to four of the team. David Parrish left with a completed 3rd mate’s assessment, while three crew members, Paul, Kate and Aaron, left with Competent Crew certificates and promises to sail again and help with the refit. Paul and Aaron also completed their Duke of Edinburgh Gold residentials.
They were replaced by four new crew members. Katy and Julia, originally from Steve Lacey’s group, joined Ollie as trainee bosuns. George Furber came for his second trip; and Hal Sutherland became the latest in a very long line of brothers and sisters to enjoy the OYT experience.
On the first evening of the new voyage (Friday 16th July) we sailed to Camaret, where we went for a walk ashore and ate a lot of icecream, while Craig successfully identified the volume of strong coffee required to keep him bouncing off the ceiling all night.
The next stop was Douarnenez, which was interesting in many ways, and sells extremely good smoked fish. Wolf learned that if you buy smoked fish to take back to the boat, and keep the parcel in your pocket all afternoon, your shorts smell very bad for the whole of the rest of the voyage.
Sunday evening saw us heading for Morgat with Christina Aguilera on the deck speakers. A small French yacht was rather startled to pass close by and find fifteen English people all singing “We are beautiful, no matter what they say” at the tops of their voices.
Sadly there was no time to go ashore in Morgat as we had to catch the tide north in the Chenal du Four early next morning, heading towards l’Aberwrach. Away to the west we could see the island of Ushant, and Wolf announced very mournfully that with the weather so settled, we could have gone there if only he had thought of it in time. Having had the idea, it was impossible to let it go, and a quick look at charts and tidal stream atlases soon revealed that we had not, after all, missed the opportunity. Best of all, the harbour that we could reach was called the Baie du Stiff, which raised innuendo possibilities which could not lightly be ignored.
Stiff turned out to have a mooring buoy available, a creperie with a view of the bay, and a bicycle hire shop. Most of the crew set off to cycle round the island, while Wolf, Craig, Dinghy Boy and Andy Royse chose to walk. Not long after they left, the team who were staying on board to keep an eye on JOHN LAING received a phone call from the walking team begging us to look at the chart and help them work out where they were and where to go next. Wolf’s navigation is a lot better at sea than on land. Shortly afterwards, Andy left the other three as it was his turn to cook dinner. It took him no more than twenty minutes to get back to the boat, and the crew also returned on time, having caused a certain amount of havoc on their bikes owing to Fred’s need to screech to a halt every time she saw a sheep, causing innocent French families to plough into the back of her. But two hours passed and there was still no sign of Wolf, Craig and Dings…..
We were beginning to wonder how exactly to organise a search party on a tiny French-speaking island which didn’t seem to have a police force, but eventually we got hold of them on the phone. It was a bit hard to make out what was happening but the gist of it seemed to be that they had taken a short cut through a bog, been unable to find their way out, and kept falling over.
When they eventually arrived back on the boat, they were battered, bruised and terribly scratched about the legs. Wolf kept the crew in fits of laughter by re-enacting the highlights of their ordeal, interspersed with agonised screaming as the wanderers used antiseptic wipes on their cut legs. They were cheered up by an enormous on-board barbecue (cooking tip: marinade pork chops in apple juice and garlic). The BBQ went on for some time as Andy couldn’t bear to waste the last of the coals and kept on using them to make toast.
The next morning involved more cycling round the island, which is a UNESCO–designated “biosphere reserve” with a huge variety of plant and bird life, plus some extraordinary rock formations in the spectacular cliffs.
Eventually we set off for l’Aberwrach (for the second time), and arrived off the entrance early on Tuesday evening. Unfortunately, that was the moment when the engine refused to start and was clearly taking air into the system. l’Aberwrach is emphatically not the place to practise manoeuvres under sail, so the only option was to head on for St Peter Port – a mere 100 miles away. The crew took the news very well, considering. Of course it’s possible that they just didn’t believe us since Wolf had been crying wolf almost everywhere else we’d been. (“Sorry, guys, the harbourmaster says we can’t stay here……ha ha, only kidding!”)
Luckily Craig’s friend Ross is very well-connected in Guernsey and although St Peter Port was officially full, he was able to arrange a berth for us on the fish quay. The crew went for showers and a look round the town while the sea staff split into two teams: an engine room squad and an impromptu but highly successful boat open day squad.
Mark Windham from Guernsey’s Youth Justice team had contacted the OYT South office some time previously to find out more about our voyages; and so David Salmon had suggested that he might come and see the boat while we were in the area. He was so impressed that he asked if he could bring some colleagues and even his family to have a look around, so in the course of the afternoon we played host to all sorts of visitors who work with young people on the island. They all seemed very interested and very keen, and several were very enthusiastic when we pointed out that there were berths available for the trip back to Southampton the next day. Most were unable to get off work at such short notice: but Mark Sullivan from the children’s charity NCH rang later on to say that he was taking up the offer and would join us at 7am next day.
We had a busy evening which included a visit from Steve Furness and Lucy, who were just about to get married – many congratulations from all your friends in OYT South.
The next day was another early start with fine weather but no wind, which was sad for new crew member Mark as we had to motor virtually all the way back to the Solent. Luckily he seemed to enjoy himself anyway; and we were still laying on events for Andy Haynes’ first mate’s assessment, which added interest to the trip. On this passage, we did the “skipper down” exercise, where the skipper is assumed to be dead or injured and Andy had to get the boat safely home without instructions or advice.
Andy wasn’t the only person being tested on the voyage. With three trainee bosuns on board (Ollie, Katy and Julia) there were several practice man-overboard drills with the bosun dangled over the side in a climbing harness to recover the casualty. Indeed, Ollie had been tormented for the entire trip by frequent exercises to time how quickly he could get into oilskins and climbing harness. As Ollie is quite large and an accomplished rugby player, woe betide anyone who gets in his way when he’s dashing for his kit……
Katy in particular enjoyed being in her climbing harness and we had trouble getting her out of it until we were making our approach to Yarmouth, where we arrived on the evening of Thursday 22nd in time for dinner and a quick run ashore.
On Friday, we had to wait for the tide to get back to Southampton, so did the big clean-up in Yarmouth. We also managed a brief chat with Marion Heming as she came sailing past. Mark Sullivan and Fred had to leave us in Yarmouth to catch the ferry home; but the rest of the team got back to Ocean Village in the early evening, where most of them left us.
Both Georges, Duncan and Hal all passed their Competent Crew certificates (and George & Duncan’s mum is considering booking a voyage next year for her school). And Andy Haynes passed his assessment, though he needs to get his Coastal Skipper certificate before he can actually sail as a first mate.
Thanks as ever to all the sea staff involved in these two weeks, but also to the crew members who made it such an easy trip. We hope to see every single one of them again for future sailing and refits.
But meanwhile life goes on without them. Saturday was a busy and largely successful maintenance day which somehow ended with Andy Royse and Julia swimming in white paint as they tried to clean it off the dinghy – enough said…..
And on Sunday it all started again with a new crew from Gloucestershire Youth Services Transitions, including two group leaders, plus a sea staff of Wolf, John Parkin, Tee Hee, Dings, Peter Simpson and Graham Fairs. They had a hard beat across the Cherbourg during which all the sick buckets were given a thorough workout. After a day in Cherbourg and lots of competent crew training, they had an easier return crossing, partly motoring and partly sailing, using both the mizzen staysail and the cruising chute.
Several of the crew really shone during this trip. Wolf was especially impressed with a girl who had never baked a cake in her life before but managed to produce one on Thursday morning.
Special thanks once again to Chris from Contact Marine for his help with JOHN LAING’s engine.
Anyway, that’s enough burbling for now. Wolf is looking for someone else to sail in the 3rd mate’s berth on voyages 36 and 37 (7-12 Aug, 13-15 Aug, starting and finishing in Plymouth) – call 07771 771864 if you can help.
And don’t forget all the shorebased activities needing help as detailed in bulletin 14 ½.