Many thanks to small-boat sailor Tony G for this Guest Writer article in which he shares some of his earlier sailing experiences in Little Sally, a 15 foot bilge keel cruiser.
A First Foray Down The Blackwater Estuary by Tony G
So there I was, standing on the beach just outside the Stone Sailing Club on the beautiful Blackwater estuary. I had just paid for her and was now the owner of Little Sally, a Sunspot 15 in slightly scruffy to average condition, in need of some paint, varnish and anti fouling. The sails were old, tired but in usable condition. A plough anchor and a 4hp Evinrude outboard engine completed the inventory.
I joined the Stone Sailing Club and was very soon being offered lots of good advice and practical help from the very friendly and helpful members. Within a few weeks Little Sally was spruced up, engine serviced by a local mechanic, provisioned for day sailing and ready to go. I rowed out to Little Sally which was now on a swinging mooring in the tender, a 2.4m dory which although a bit large proved to be a very stable little craft. My sailing skills were pretty limited ( they still are) but I cast off from my mooring in a gentle breeze and sailed downriver with the outgoing tide on a beautiful sunny day. Everything was looking wonderful for my first adventure in Little Sally. I had no passage plan (I didn’t know they existed) and while sailing downriver decided to visit Mersea Island. Amazingly I reached the public jetty at Mersea without mishap; even managing to gently bump against the jetty, hopefully looking quite accomplished, and tie up. All without even starting the engine. I've got the hang of this already I thought.
After a stroll around the very pleasant town of West Mersea, which has the air of still being in the 1950s and a fine lunch in a local café, I arrived back at the jetty. It was now slack tide and even a novice like me knew that I should cast off from the jetty pretty quickly as when the tide returned Little Sally would be pressed against the jetty by the force of the tide and I would find it very difficult to get off. As the Evinrude outboard engine was direct drive, (no neutral) I cast off, drifted with the wind away from the jetty and attempted to start the engine. I pulled the starter cord, adjusted the choke, pulled again several times but it wouldn’t start. I tried and tried and tried, getting hotter and more annoyed. It still wouldn’t start so I gave up as I thought I had probably flooded the carburettor, although I didn’t smell any petrol.
The start of the incoming tide was by now counteracting the wind and I was slowly returning to the jetty stern first, watched by an amused audience of holiday makers and children catching crabs off the jetty. To save myself from further embarrassment I unfurled the jib and began to pick up some speed. Soon I had I raised the mainsail and after picking my way through the moorings had almost reached open water. The force of the tide had now increased but the wind stayed the same gentle breeze with the inevitable result that although we sailed at the same speed through the water Little Sally was not actually going anywhere. Correction, we were again sailing stern first. I tried everything I could think of to increase speed and used the full range of my sailing skills from A to B (well A anyway) but it was no use; I had to concede that I was slowly reversing into Packing Marsh Island. I now know that this a rare skill. It must be because I have never heard of anybody else managing it!
As Little Sally and I sailed stern first I tried the engine again but it still wouldn't start. I waited for the thump of GRP hitting land but we were in luck as we just slowly came to a halt stuck in the thick ooze of Essex mud. I lowered the sails and dropped the anchor to ensure that as the tide came in I would not be pushed by the tide further up the mud. Then I had a brainwave. Put the kettle on.
Soon I was relaxing in the cockpit with my cup of tea, trying to look as if I had intended to stop at this spot. Between sips I pondered on the problem of the engine not starting and decided to give it another try. OK, let's check. Breather valve open, yes. Choke out, yes. Petrol on, no. That’s why it wouldn’t start. How stupid of me I thought, that’s a lesson I won't forget. I did, of course. I turned on the petrol and on the second pull the Evinrude started. Little Sally began to forge through the water. As we motored over the anchor I pulled it up, covered in thick mud, and lashed it to the deck, scrambled quickly back to the cockpit feeling pleased with myself for solving the engine problem (even though the problem was caused by me).
When I was back in the main part of the estuary I raised the sails, stopped the engine and enjoyed the peace of sailing. About twenty minutes later I noticed a grey cone shaped object floating to port about 100 metres ahead and being curious I altered course to investigate. As I approached, the cone turned around and a pair of large dark eyes looked at me. I was surprisingly pleased to meet a seal on my first outing in Little Sally and as I approached, the seals long grey mottled, sleek body slid through the water and dived. I sailed on and the seal re-appeared astern, watching me. The tide was now in full flood and combined with the steady afternoon breeze we were making what seemed to be a very good speed. I'm not sure how fast we were sailing as little Sally had no navigation instruments. Eventually I was able to make out my mooring and dinghy opposite The Stone pub (a good landmark for finding the mooring) and made preparations for picking up the mooring buoy. The plan was to pass the buoy about two boat lengths away, turn just as I passed it and use the tide to stop Little Sally and calmly pick up the mooring, just as I had read about in Practical Boat Owner.
OK I thought this is it, pass the buoy; yes. Turn, and on course for the mooring with the momentum slowing rapidly against the tide. Too rapidly, as about six feet from the buoy we came to a halt and began to fall back. I decided to start the engine. Pulled the cord a few times with no result. I checked that the fuel was on (it was) and continued to pull the cord until the engine was flooded with petrol and I was a bit tired. I decided to give up on the engine and sail back to the mooring against the tide. However by the time I had manoeuvred through the other moored boats and got to the point where I could sail back the mooring looked about a mile away. I sailed for about half an hour but did not seem to be getting much nearer. I edged closer to the shore, even scraping the bottom with the keels in an attempt to stay out of the full force of the tide. Painfully slowly Little Sally made progress towards the mooring, allowing me plenty of time to admire the very nice scenery and other boats.
It took about an hour to get back to the mooring and tie up. Over a cup of tea I thought over what my first days sailing had taught me.
• Things don't always go to plan.
• Throw out the anchor before going aground.
• Running aground isn't necessarily a disaster. On a rising tide you have time to sort out problems and make some tea.
• Engines don't always work so improve the sailing skills.
• Sailing your own boat no matter how modest is just about the best way of spending a day.