Sea-Change Youth Sailing Scheme on Reminder October 29th to November 2nd 2012. Photos

Five young people joined Hilary, Richard and Stretch for the last sail of the 2012 season. Making a welcome return after over a year pursuing work rather than sailing was Natalie. In addition there were stalwart trainees Anna, Zack and Dean who had sailed on Cambria during the summer and had something of a reunion. Dean, still 17 but only just,  is perfecting the finishing touches to his topsail stow.  We were joined by Sea Scout Ben who is keen on a career at sea and wanted some time on a larger boat.

The crew joined at 0900 on Monday but Anna, Nat and Hilary had already put much of the food aboard the previous evening once the weekend party had left. There were the usual last minute trips into town for essentials, this time mainly for coal as winter draws and long johns were definitely on.

With a midday high water departure was at 1100 and a light south -westerly enabled sail to be set from the quay. Anchoring for lunch at Osea enabled people to discuss the various ways of getting a barge under way in different wind and tidal conditions and then fortified by the first of many hearty meals the learning was  put into action. Later a man overboard drill off Mersea hammered home both the method and how much falling in is to be avoided. Given the early onset of dark at this time of year and the westerly wind Mersea was made the harbour for the first night and Ben was able to demonstrate his rowing prowess towards his Royal Yachting Association Competent Crew Certificate before supper.

It was also a week to make sure the fire never went out and this was almost entirely achieved with several accomplished pyromaniacs coming to the fore. Central heating there may be, but it is galling to have to run the noisy generator and anyway much more homely to be able to stare into the red glow of a real fire, not to mention the enjoyment of the challenge of keeping it going. This meant the generator was run more for the laptop and other modern items than for keeping warm which is a coded message to fit an inverter to reduce the carbon footprint by allowing quiet plugging in.

The forecast for the week was peppered with dire warnings of southerly gales and squalls with a deepening depression to the north of the UK no doubt associated with impending Scottish independence (just imagine having to produce a passport on the Flying Scotsman  although duty free Drambuie could be some compensation for the loss of North Sea oil). Although it would have been great to visit old haunts like Pin Mill and Walton Backwaters, the chances of not getting back later in the week made the delights of the Crouch a safer bet.

Consequently on Tuesday morning after a cooked breakfast the barge was taken through the Rays’n and into Shore Ends at the mouth of the Crouch. At this stage the ever-resourceful Mate was thinking of Halloween entertainments and proposed a shopping expedition to Burnham as a result. We also needed supplies. This meant motoring upriver against the tide but the sense of tucking ourselves well away from the gales in the hinterland was ample reason. After a short shore party to the Burnham Sailing Club pontoon, the anchor was raised again for a beautiful trip upriver in the wonderful sunset so often associated with impending bad weather. As we pushed on past Bridgemarsh Island with the river ahead a silver ribbon of reflected sky, the massive moon burst from behind the clouds and  illuminated the view downriver too. It was magical, if freezing cold. Overhead the stars came out and it was clear enough to identify the many jet aircraft and satellites adding to the night sky – you have to be a long way from habitation now in the UK to truly have an uncluttered view, especially now the Thames estuary, once a broad expanse of black with the occasional winking navigation light, is now a mass of wind farm lights at night. Even so, by 1800 it was only barely possible to pick out the masts of the moored boats at Fambridge against the upriver lights beyond. Remembering a previous visit, the skipper told us to look for a speed limit buoy against the dark of the shore and just in time Stretch (who seems to have a feline sense of where he is in the dark) found it and the barge was rounded up to anchor close under the seawall.

Sure enough the following day dawned bright but soon became overcast and the trip ashore was beset by wind and torrential rain, during which Anna looked for the road she lived in when she was three only to find it was a long walk away. The excellent Post Office store which used to be in Ferry Road has long since closed. We used to visit for provisions in the eighties in Xylonite and now Fambridge is yet another village without a shop, meaning it does not get visits from us any more unless we are with a group for whom the Ferry Boat Inn is appropriate. For YSS it is and for Dean soon it will be more so, but soft drinks and coffees sufficed on this occasion and the kitchen sold us the all-important half pound of butter. Despite the marina having a convenience store it was neither very convenient to the main landing nor had much in store sadly. There was said to be a shop a two mile walk away but the description sounded as though it was half way to Maldon.

After outboard driving practice and lunch during which the wind howled over the high water, we got under way to seek a more sheltered anchorage with a better jumping off point for the morrow and moved a couple of miles down river to lay under the farm buildings of Raypits Farm which are close to the river at a point where there is good holding and it is not too deep. Even so, it was a noisy night with the worst of the storm going through in the early hours.

In the meantime, the ongoing  Sevens tournament was put to one side so that Halloween could be celebrated in style. The girls cooked cakes and flapjacks. Selections of suitable faces from horror and thriller films and characters were made and Anna applied layers of coloured make up to each member of the crew, as you will see from the photos. This was not a pretty sight especially after the skipper lead the way with Gene Simmonds of Kiss although his tongue was far from adequate to the task. After dinner competitions started. Eating doughnuts from a string, passing the balloon from person to person, working out which knot you could feel on your chosen string in a vat of jelly all went down well. No one could remember who won but no one seemed to care.

With the familiar bad forecast outlook for Friday, the plan for Thursday meant an earlier start at low water, the anchor coming out after winding in two shackles (60m) of chain at 0830, so as to get down to the Rays’n well before high water. It really was not a good idea to take the offshore route via the Spitway with such an inclement forecast. In the expected squalls it could be very unpleasant off there.

The early rain at breakfast cleared to give a perfect morning with a bright low winter sun bathing the green hills of the upper Crouch in glorious sunshine. Every detail of every tree and house was clearly delineated in the crisp arctic maritime air circulating around the depression. It was not even cold at this stage and there was a lovely fetch downriver, speeding up as we came clear of the surrounding seawalls and buildings. The work to create a wetland paradise for the birds at Wallasea Island was moving on apace and further downriver we met one of the ships chartered by Crossrail to bring their tunnelling spoil from London.

Gybing and heading north along the Main, it looked certain one of the squalls coming up from the southwest would have our name on it but for now all was well. Nevertheless, before coming on the wind at Sales Point the head of the topsail was rucked and the backstays lead forward to avoid any chafe to the very tired topsail sail cloth which will be replaced in the winter. High water was made at the Nass by which time the topsail was set again in more sunshine. Gradually the heavens darkened to windward, however, and eventually the inevitable squall came down happy valley from Tollesbury with the wind veering as it did. The topsail was dropped again and as we tacked at Shinglehead Point all features of the river were blotted out by icy rain. The veer did mean we reset the topsail and fetched for a long tack well up the lower Blackwater.

Afterwards there was a lot of discussion about the wind strength but it probably did not exceed a force seven, but as Mersea fisherman Bill Read used to say when he sailed with us boys  in summertime, cold air knocks you flatter than  a summer breeze because it is denser…And it was getting cold as well as wet by now. Even Ben, who had not touched hot drinks all week, succumbed to welcoming a cup of cocoa. The silver lining was the amazing spectacle provided by the clouds and sun. There were multiple rainbows, and bursts of sunlight beneath and through the purple cloud base, evocative of  the wrath of God in a cinema epic or medieval fresco.

As darkness approached and the sails were stowed, some of us went below to prepare a magnificent shepherd’s pie for a warming supper after anchoring at Mundon Spit. The lights of Maldon twinkled in the  distance and the sky cleared as the warmth (sic) went out of the day and the energy of the squalls gave way to another big moon and a carpet of stars.

That night being the last, the Sevens tournament revealed Ben a dark horse whose early ignorance of the game masked a poker-player’s skill and he walked away with the trophy of chocolate and crisps. The world of high finance followed with a card game of monopoly which now includes theft as a gambit appropriate to the modern idiom of bankers and quantitative easing. On deck it was freezing but the hold contained warm people and warmer spirits.

The last day dawned bright and sunny… and the clean up started. The staysail was removed from the topmast stay and neatly folded and the racing staysail removed from its bag and treated in the same way. When we got alongside at Maldon all the myriad of little things you have to do with a boat being vacated were accomplished…water tanks filled, electricity cable plugged in, beds stripped, floors swept and mopped, decks scrubbed and brass polished. Then we all helped unload everything not belonging to the barge, which was a surprising amount including everything from waterproofs and wellies to Monopoly and a Walker log, oh and a white board because the skipper insists on making it like school sometimes. Eventually the barge was pristine for her next job as a short-break “cottage” for the weekend. She is the only barge with an ironing board and iron so as to get Visit England accreditation. It’s a long way from sailing for London for another freight but until Sea-Change gets its own barge that is not going to happen, so in the meantime YSS will continue to sail as it does now, for fun in a serious kind of way; and that will not stop, new barge or not. So…

Richard said: “It was a great end to the sixth season of working for Sea-Change, and although the weather was a little trying at times, seeing people enjoying and learning about what it means to work with the environment  was what it is all about. Also seeing people returning, remembering so much and running their own sailing trip is very rewarding.”

Hilary said: A wet, windy but enjoyable end to a great season.  Lovely to see crew returning and new ones joining.  Many highlights but I particularly enjoyed getting under way one our own, by that I mean without the skipper on deck. Our crew are learning so much but at the same time we realise we are always learning too, we’re just a bit further along the line. I feel so confident with this group of young people, their ability to run the barge without much supervision. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much as I did on Halloween night, my ribs are still sore! Thanks to you all for everything and I look forward to next year.

Stretch said: Its been a really great trip and great to see young people enjoying and learning how to sail and to see how much everyone’s come along from the start of the year and hope to see them next year.

Anna said: This trip has been Fantastic! Although the weather has been challenging we have had fair winds for speedy sailing. YSS is a continuing success and I really enjoy meeting new young people to work with. My highlight of this trip was Thursdays long sail from North Fambridge to Osea Island. We had strong winds and lots of rain but it was still thoroughly enjoyable. The crew celebrated Halloween on Wednesday which was great fun! I face painted everyone with scary faces then we played some games involving Jelly!… There isn’t any part of this trip I didn’t enjoy, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to next year and a new season of sailing.

Dean said: It was great to be sailing on Reminder again after nearly a year also great to see the same people coming again and meeting new people. It was windy raining cold October sailing but still loved it all the same and looking forward to next year.

Zack said: This trip has been amazing. The weather has been windy and rainy, but really exhilarating. Being with everyone again has been really good. It has been great to have sailed on a different barge. Many highlights of the trip but I particularly enjoyed the long sail from North Fambridge to Osea land, although it was really windy reaching at a gale force of 9.  Thank you to everyone for making the time really fun and enjoyable. I look forward to seeing you all next year.

Ben said: This was the first time sailing a barge and it was amazing. It has been such  a great experience to sail a barge. The most exciting part of the trip was the sail from North Fambridge to Osea Island as it was wind force 8. I’m thoroughly looking forward to hopefully sailing again next year with Sea-Change and thank you for everything.

Roll on 2013!

Richard Titchener, skipper

Photos to accompany the story here