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‘Kelpie’ sails to the Medway: part 1

Rik recounts his ‘Trip to the Medway (or how not to do it)’, inspired by ‘The Confessional’. It’s published in two parts . . .

This article was inspired by the Yachting Monthly “The Confessional”. This is the first part, find the second part here.

We have all, I think, had trips that went less than smoothly. It is often the unintended consequence of previous actions or omissions coupled with unexpected change in the weather. First a brief description of my boat ‘Kelpie 2’. ‘Kelpie’ is a canoe yacht, more canoe than yacht by modern standards, 26 ft long, 6ft 6in beam drawing 3ft 9in. She is sloop rigged with roller reefing on both the main and the jib. She has plied the East Coast for all of her 120 years. The engine, at present, is a 2.5 horsepower outboard mounted on the beam within reach  of the cockpit. The disadvantage of this arrangement is that the engine only works in almost flat water and motor sailing is only possible in exceptional circumstances. At sea the motor is usually stowed between the bunks in the cabin. I usually sail ‘Kelpie’ alone, for a number of reasons, not least because I get seasick if I am not on the helm which leads to a boring time for crew.

My destination for what was supposed to be a short cruise, taking in an open race at Greenwich Yacht Club, was, obviously, Greenwich. This was quite an adventure for me; I had only taken ‘Kelpie’ as far as Erith before. Greenwich and Erith are her home waters as she had been launched at Greenwich. To get there would take three days. The plan: day one Harwich to Brightlingsea, on the River Colne, day two Brightlingsea to Queenborough on the Medway and from there up The Thames to Greenwich.

I left Pin Mill, my home port on the Orwell, late on Wednesday 15 June, 2022 moving the boat down to Harwich to spend the night. I often do this to make the most of an early flood without an earlier than necessary start in the morning. I caught the ebb out of Harwich leaving at about 6.30am, to catch  the tide down The Wallet, past Walton-on-the-Naze, Frinton and Clacton, and had a good trip to the Blackwater, getting  there in time for a sail to Bradwell before I turned round for the Colne and, entering Brightlingsea, took  a berth on the heritage pontoon for the night. 

The next morning dawned bright and clear with a moderate southerly blowing, forecast to increase to 4 to 5 later. Although the wind predicted was a little stronger than ideal it was nothing I could not cope with and with any luck the increase would hold off until I was well on my way. I had a bit of trouble getting the main up as the peak halliard and hardener had wound themselves up a bit but I was anxious to get under way and decided to sort it later in Queenborough. The halliards on ‘Kelpie 2′ have a tendency to wind round themselves which increases the resistance in the system making it hard work to peak the main sufficiently. This is caused by the turns taken when coiling the tails working their way through the blocks and twisting the braided rope. The last two lacing turns on the main luff were also undone but the main sets perfectly well like that, I generally only fully lace the main to the mast if I am racing because it is faster to reef if I do not have to unlace the sail first. It does, however, mean that the spare lacing line dangles around unless I tie it up.

I left two hours before low water to ride the ebb out of The Colne and crossed the Swin spitway on the early flood. With a southerly blowing it was a case of long and short tacks to pass the Maplins but with the tide behind me I was happy with the progress I was making and made good time to off Shoeburyness. As I entered The Thames Estuary proper and made my course for the Medway I thought it prudent to reduce sail; the wind was picking up and I was still close hauled. Because of the reefing arrangements shortening sail is easy. Roll up the jib and the boat sits head to wind, drop the main the required amount then up on deck to roll up the slack and nip back to the cockpit and resume sailing. One and a half rolls down and we were on our way. I must say that I miss the power station chimney that used to sit on the Isle of Grain; it was always comforting as an unmistakable navigation mark. 

I have never had a problem crossing the estuary, in terms of getting across the shipping lanes, not that I have done it that often. This time was different. The wind was still picking up so I decided to reduce sail more. I went through the normal procedure and now had three rolls in the mainsail but when I let out the jib I kept a reef in that as well. Now more comfortable I carried on south. As I approached the dredged channel it was evident that there were three ships moving, the first two travelling east and one, large container ship going west. They were so spaced that by the time I had let the two eastbound ships past the container ship would stop my further progress south. Then the radio came to life with a strong wind warning, southerly 7 imminent. 

My best option was to make the Kent shore as quickly as possible to get as much lee as I could and there would be less fetch for the sea. The two eastbound ships had passed but if I carried on I would, as I had thought, pass too close ahead of the container ship for either his comfort or mine. I turned west on a parallel course to wait for her to pass. Now I was going flat out on a broad reach, about 6.5 knots and she was going slowly as she was in a relatively narrow channel. It seemed to take an age for her to pass so I could cross astern, but at least I was travelling in the right general direction. I have since looked at my track on the sat nav and I shadowed her for almost two miles so about 20 minutes. As soon as I was clear of her and closer to Kent I decided to take in more sail. Normal procedure, except this time there was a problem. When I rolled in the previous reefs I had caught the bottom of the lacing line, which had shaken free from its stowage, in the sail and I could not roll in any more without releasing it. That would mean unrolling the sail completely and resetting it from scratch. I knew, however, that the sail would not roll up correctly unless I hoisted the majority of it before re-rolling it. The conditions were such that unfurling the whole sail would be challenging, to say the least, and the problem with the peak halliards now became a serious handicap, stopping me from easily re-raising the gaff. The only sensible course of action would be to carry on and hope things improved as I got further south. 

‘Kelpie 2’ Photo: Sue Lewis

I eased the sheets to lessen the wind pressure and discovered that I could still shape a good course as she was. I looked down to the echo sounder and had a momentary shock of panic. It was reading 0.0 metres. The echo sounder was three weeks old as I had had problems with the previous one and had replaced it. I quickly realised that the reading could not be true as I was still, according to my sat nav, on the edge of the dredged channel and not far from the track of the container ship. What to do? Well it was a piece of electronics, so I switched it off and on again. It decided we were in 14 metres, but now I didn’t trust it. They say things come in threes, the final thing was one of the shrouds. I have come to the conclusion that I had missed tightening the lock nuts on one of the rigging screws the last time I had adjusted the rigging, and the port aft shroud, one of two, was now flapping in the considerable breeze. I came to the conclusion that as long as I was close hauled, even spilling wind as I was, the running backstay could stay made up, so that should take some of the strain, anyway there was no chance of making up the shroud under those conditions safely, if at all.

I was by this time safely to the south side of the estuary but I did not want to push too far inshore with an untrustworthy echo sounder. So I was sailing a line somewhere between the shallows and the worst of the seas. Now further off the wind with the main eased to suit the boat was behaving herself although the occasional gust was difficult to cope with. I made good progress past Garrison Point but once in the Medway it was wind over tide with a four mile fetch so the sea was, well, boisterous would be a good word. I was once again as hard on the wind as I could get.

Words: Rik Graham, ‘Kelpie 2’