Hilary demonstrating wind power

As time passes, it is already over two months since I wrote to clients that the season was suspended until further notice because of the coronavirus and its impact. Since then a lot has happened but none of it has involved sailing unfortunately.

The sailing season was due to commence with Inclusion Ventures at Easter and only a few days before I wrote to everyone, their staff visited Blue Mermaid at Downs Road as they had not all sailed with us before. At this stage we were busy fitting out, painting and pulling together the myriad of things needed to get the vessel to work. The stability data needed for the cargo load line was with the MCA, and the result awaited. The lifejackets and life rafts were collected from the Marine Safety Centre at Lowestoft and at the same time flares and first aid kits were updated.

Gradually it became apparent the world around us was changing. There was due to be a Shipshape Heritage Training Partnership meeting at Greenwich and people were starting to ask if it was wise to travel before the government told us we should not. It now seems likely the common sense of the great British public was already having a bearing on the spread of the virus before our toys were taken away from us and we were locked down. The meeting was cancelled and as legacy of the project was on the agenda, what it may be has become one of many casualties of the lockdown process.

Ben at work

Our trainee Ben joined us on 23rd February with his boat on a lorry to be his home while in Essex. He came from having completed twelve weeks training at the International Boatbuilding College at Lowestoft with the other trainees and came to his placement full of vim and vigour. Similarly, Oli returned from the winter on 2nd March and work progressed rapidly. The yard had some jobs to do for us, like creating a new position for the leeboards to adjust the balance of the boat when sailing, as well as a few things down below. After sterling attempts it had not proved possible to get the hot water to circulate thermally, so small electric pumps were fitted and are a success. The Hydrogen came out of the dry dock and Thistle went in for some work, so we fitted in between her and the Wyvenhoe, which was due a big replating job. The bottom was pressure washed off by Lucian and then the three of us applied the antifoul and the barge moved back onto the pontoon.

Then lockdown happened. This was a double-edged sword as it did at least enable us to do several jobs that might have been done during the season. This included renewing the non-slip deck paint that had not gripped first time. The topmast was varnished and wires serviced while lowered down, and just before lockdown the Sail Loft delivered the motive power in case it was needed but could not be obtained due to the impending restrictions. The sails were stowed initially on the forehatch but it soon became apparent that they would not be needed for a while and they were put below in the forehold. The hatches were covered with a new polythene sheet under the hatch cloth to prevent any leaks. The next step is giving the hatch boards themselves a coat of paint for protection and this is under way.

Colchester smack Sallie

It was a whole new world working under virus conditions. Apart from a small number of tasks requiring close proximity like winding on the windlass handles a few feet apart, it was surprisingly possible to work aboard with distancing, but so difficult to remember to do it! Jobs finished, the barge was taken to the mooring and made secure. This was on 21st April and from that point the crew were furloughed under the amazingly generous and helpful government scheme. Ben’s training continued and for a short while he helped with some painting on Sallie in Heybridge Basin. He has been working alongside Oli who has not been furloughed as he was not on the payroll at the effective cut-off date but has been kept on a retainer to look after the barge. Now Sallie too is on her mooring and Richard has been giving her a much needed once over so she can be used for some crew training when possible.

Thames sailing barge Blue Mermaid launched

At the time of writing, Facebook reminds me that four years ago Blue Mermaid was launched at Polruan. It was a lovely sunny day in a beautiful place and the festivities went off well, aided by beer from Maldon’s Mighty Oak and Cornwall’s St Austell breweries. Shortly after she arrived here for fitting out and started work in May 2019 with an amazing charter to Mistley, the home of her original version. 2020 was due to be her first full season and is full of exciting plans, still there on the white board but otherwise only real in a virtual sense. This included a second dive to locate the wreck of the original Blue Mermaid. That and many other things can carry over, maybe until 2021.

Now the lockdown is gradually being relaxed but it will be a long time yet before residential activities are allowed again. We are starting to look at what will be possible within the requirement for continued social distancing. The key thing seems to be that we may need to work with a smaller number of people aboard until either the virus is beaten or a vaccine is successful. We have always been keen to work with small numbers where it is the right thing to do. In this instance we will need to also think in terms of other practices aboard to enable safe distancing and there will need to be far more cleaning than normally. There are some aspects that could reduce the quality of the experience and this is something we need to consider very carefully, as the whole point of what we and many others provide is the benefit of living and working together. Imagine an evening meal separated by two meters between each diner and you will see what I mean! Of course, if we could find a way of testing regularly for anyone coming aboard then this could make the necessary difference. Otherwise, only some kind of self-isolation for a week prior to the trip could provide a way ahead. When our thoughts clarify then we will discuss them with clients, if it is possible to organise some sailing this year.

In the meantime, I hope you are all well and stay that way.  Here is a photo to gladden the heart.

Launch Day at Toms of Polruan