Solent Gaffer, Ben Collins, paints a picture of the Parade of Sail in brush strokes and words.
I’ve taken part in a few OGA ‘Parades’ in my time but the 2023 OGA60 Anniversary Parade under the Orwell Bridge and downriver will surely to go down as one of the Association’s most memorable! As a birthday tribute, gaffers and luggers of all shapes and sizes were to travel down the River Orwell ‘en-fleet’ to be joined by the smaller ‘open’ boats and dinghies coming upriver from Suffolk Yacht Harbour, Levington. Friday 4 August 2023 had started quiet with a few clouds and blue skies. The forecast was warning of rain to come and by lunchtime matters would change to high drama! Talk of a mini river ‘typhoon’ would be no exaggeration!
I had arrived at the OGA pontoons in Ipswich Beacon Marina to a relaxed pre-parade atmosphere. Crews chatting in cockpits, children finishing off their breakfasts, skippers showing off their brightwork and pondering when the bunting should be struck ready for water mobilisation. I was welcomed as ‘deckhand’ aboard the good ship ‘Cachalot’. My quiet moustachioed and bearded skipper gave me a quick tour of the ropes as we waited for the Admiral’s signal. The tide, as always, was in charge of timings. It was late morning before engines started to cough into life and boats manoeuvred out of tight berths only to then clutter the harbour pending the lock gates opening to set us free. Eventually we started to move, passing through the outer docks and downriver as the weather began to show signs of change. The blue sky was being overpowered by bigger clouds and the breeze was picking up. As I watched the line of boats astern, ominous grey clouds were towering up to the west. I realised this was not a part of the country whose weather signs I knew well and the low rumble of thunder was surely miles inland.
Conditions on the water were relaxed as we picked up a handy mooring buoy just upstream of the Orwell bridge. We pulled on the halyards as a gust of wind rattled our rigging and the mainsail was sent aloft. From the shore the fleet must have presented a fine spectacle, sails of all colours and shapes were soon criss-crossing the sound, ducking and diving between each other and moving on under the mighty Orwell bridge.
Now the wind was coming in small gusts as boats surged forward for a minute or two then sat becalmed. This time the thunder was sharper and nearer. We motored down to find our position in the brewing air. The light dimmed as the looming greyness over the city rolled towards us. As we cut our engine crews were at work reefing down in anticipation. The sky was soon completely dark above us and the air went still. The lull before the storm?
Then something from nowhere specific, a curtain of white mist appeared above the bridge. Soon the whiteness filled much of the sky, swallowing first the riverbank then one end of the bridge itself. One by one the boats behind were engulfed and our mottled parade was losing a whole section of its tail! The water near us turned dark and flat calm. Then from all around came the hissing. Faint at first, but growing louder as a sharp line of whiteness travelled towards us. Paralysis set in as boats stood still and crews watched on. The hissing grew lounder as the curtain got closer and enveloped the masts and sails immediately astern. Each of them sucked away as if by magic. The water over our stern boiled up white, itself disappearing into the pervasive mist. We were caught in the maelstrom! Rain rods crashed down on us, lashing the deck. Water cascading down our sails and pitching in a waterfall before sluicing along our decks and into the scuppers. Visibility lost completely!
‘Gaffers Parade swallowed alive by freak rain on the River Orwell!’ went the headline! Then the wind came back from astern to add to the mix! ‘Cachalot’ tilted forward and we careened under full sail and only just in control. Lightning and more thunder and we were sluicing though whiteness not quite sure where we were! We held tight and then just as we were getting into the stride of things the wind dropped and the rain left us. The curtain went up and all boats were standing exactly where we left them, but now half a mile downstream! The banks came back into view as did the little boats, valiantly coming up to meet us. Sails hung dripping as booms swayed loosely once more in the clear still air. The sky slowly cleared as the ebb tide took over. Now started the OGA’s biggest ever ‘drift’ as the sunlight caught the sails once again and someone, somewhere captured the mood with the sound of summertime jazz, wafting over the river to greet the fleet.
Had this all been in our imaginations? We had surely been visited that morning by higher powers!? A biblical deluge had been sent our way to bless our fleet and mark the OGA’s 60th Party. Well, it’s nice to be whimsical just this once. After all, we Gaffers are ever claiming to love the elements and the drama of the sea! Had we been baptised on this day or had we just been forewarned?
Words: Ben Collins, Solent Gaffer
Photos: Sandy Miller Photography