by Chris Bentley.
Delivery Trip One
West Mersea for the Dabchicks Sonata Nationals. Easy. A nice day sail from Medway. But which day? As the first start drew inexorably closer, the weather grew inexorably worse. Sharon had booked Queen Victoria’s yacht, a present to Albert, as our pied-a-terre for the week. A magnificent 90ft of immaculate Victorian woodwork, sadly, no longer rigged but a delight of carved mahogany below and an aft deck where, of course, dressed appropriately in boater and acres of chiffon, we would sip champagne whilst the sun set over the Mersea mud flats. Not quite St Trop. but with enough champagne we could suspend reality sufficiently. (You can work out for yourselves who would be wearing the boater). Thus ETA West Mersea was Saturday morning, allowing us ample relaxation, and a romantic weekend of decadence before the crew arrived and the rigors of Champs racing commenced. Back to reality. It was Friday and the wind was NE 6. When do we ever get NE in June? On the weekend before the Nationals, apparently.
We cast off from the MYC pontoon at 16.00 on the Friday before the Nationals. We slogged down the Medway. Finally, sense prevailed and a night of beating up the Essex coast in the dark was given up for a buoy in Queenborough. Sorry, L’Esperance (Vikkies yacht), have to see you for Saturday tea instead. And so we did, not forgetting to kiss the Foulness sands, and I think also the Barrow on the way up. We do like to maintain our little traditions. Beating in 1.4m of water out of sight of land amongst shifting sands does pose some tricky nav exercises. That’s my excuse, anyway. We were supposed to be guiding Watersong, crewed by Luke and Max, young Sonaterers, but we didn’t do a very good job of it and had to stand by whilst they extricated themselves from, I think, behind a bit of the Barrow sands after straying another 100 metres too far East. Apparently the Navionics chart plot, which Luke had on his i-phone, made interesting viewing.
The 2011 Nationals
We were made Royally welcome by Dabchicks Commodore John, shepherded to our pen for the week and de-camped ashore. Accounts of the Nationals are posted on the Sonata website elsewhere but we had a great race week. Enough said on that. Ashore we basked in the luxury of L’Esperance’s original Victorian bath and her six foot beds, that is they were six foot wide but also six foot above the cabin sole. Midnight toiletries were gymnastic. Enough said on that too.
Delivery Trip Two
Departure day post-Nationals, Saturday, where was the wind? Nowhere. So we chugged South, parting company with MYC Sonata Figaro at the end of the Swin. We heading SE to Ramsgate, they SW to home port. Nav for this trip, with an extra 2m of tide over the yellow bits was easy. Head for wind farm one off Brightlingsea. Turn right. Head for wind farm two in Thames. Turn left. Head for wind farm three off Ramsgate. Who needs Navionics? None of the blades were turning on the 500 or so poles we passed. Tide was dragging us along at a comfortable two knots. Can they not be turned upside-down, these things? It would mean 24/7/365 rotation and a lot less visual intrusion on a nice seascape.
Secure in Ramsgate we caught the fast train home to London. One hour and 15 mins to St Pancras. They have got something right after all. We didn’t get it quite right because we forgot that the Blackwall Tunnel is shut on Sunday nights, had an eclectic taxi/train/bus/tube/bus ride home.
Delivery Trip Three
13 days, 7 hours to our Round The Island start and we are 100 miles away to the East of Cowes. No sweat. But what do I see marching across the weather charts? Lots of little curved lines, bunched close together at small intervals. Oh! north easterlies, where are you now I need you? Absolutely out of sight and back to the British trend of SW, and not very nice SW for June either. The weekend was out of the question: 6–7 SW, rain, poor. Very poor for a 14 hour beat to Eastbourne. Very small weather window Monday. Had to grab it. Crew were all, sensibly, back at work so yours truly started the outboard at 04.00 Monday, Ramsgate, and headed out into the North sea in pouring rain but no wind. My log-in call to the Coastguard had ended with him telling me that they had very poor vis. It was Dover Coastguard, 16 miles south. He was watching over one of the busiest shipping areas in the world. Did that make me feel good? Not a lot, and by this time the rain had already wormed its way past the neck towel, the zipped up hoodie, the fleece and was travelling south down my back and front.
Best bit was passing Deal Pier really close with not a fisherman in sight. (this is an in-house joke for Steve, amongst others). Dover, and the vis had cleared enough to see 4 ferries safely in their pens from my position 1 mile off (it’s the rule) and no inbounds on the horizon. But then, bugger me, Sea France puffs a smoke signal. Out he comes and I calculate we will meet in about five minutes. I am to his Port so I make the decisive 90 degree turn to Starboard, and am now heading towards Dover Eastern Entrance. What do I then see? DFDS preparing to exit the same entrance. Form Four geography dimly inserts itself in my damp brain. Denmark is North of Dover therefore he will turn left once clear of the entrance and pass ahead of me. And so he did. So I played successful footie with the ferries on that morning. What I should have done, and indeed what I normally do, is call Dover Harbour Control and ask them if they can see me, vis or radar, and if any movements are about to happen. I didn’t because I hadn’t looked up his VHF channel beforehand and getting the book out on the way down would have soaked it in the rain. Lesson learned.
The rest of the delivery was uneventful. Those of you that have done the route will know that Dungeness power station is an ever-present landmark. The damn thing is so big you see it in front and behind for most of the way. I had been bright enough to do the tides right and made a very creditable passage to Eastbourne in 12 hours. Motor 5.5knts, tide 2knts. Good speed for a Sonata. (My record is 8 hours, but that was in a 6 going the other way under small white sails).
Delivery Trip Four
Four days, 15 hours to start and we are 70 miles East of Cowes. Those nasty curved lines are still bunched tight. Cowes is dead to windward. Friday is the day of comparatively better weather, comparatively being the relative term for not SW6 gusting 7, but possibly a SW 5, gusting 6. And so it was. 16 hours to windward in wind, drizzle, waves and cold was a bit of a marathon but we made it with nine hours to spare from the start. Phew!
Round the Island
Emerging from a 20 minute hot shower at the Island Sailing Club that evening, I knocked into a guy who was running a Guard Boat for ISC at the Needles. “What’s the local forecast for tomorrow?” I asked innocently. “Bumpy” he replied. I checked it later and 30knts SW seemed to be the consensus.
Next morning I did the safety briefing, reminding the crew where all the essential bits, flares, anchor, etc were and radio procedure. We were in for a drubbing, no mistake. But we have a tough little boat, an experienced crew and lots of sea miles behind us. And of course, the real possibility of Silver at the end and a crack at Gold if we really make good. We had made so much effort to get here that the thought of not starting was not discussed. Personally, I had decided that if we made it to windward reasonably sensibly as far as the Needles, then it was game on. If we struggled, then the ride back to Cowes in the relative shelter of the Solent was the get-out clause.
We started sensibly on Starboard about three quarters of the way out to the pin. There we had clear air and relatively few boats in close quarters. It’s harder to call the line that far out and, contrary to previous RTI’s we got no VHF, but that may have been us. I know that there is the first ‘slingshot’ tide up tight to the Squadron end but I wasn’t convinced that frequently tacking amongst the melee of boats down there with Port out, Starboard in was going to be ultimately productive in that weather. Also, according to my charts, the tide there hadn’t picked up that much at 07.00.
Down the Solent we paced our Class boats adequately – some of them were 30ft long plus (hello Sigmas)! We had two Sonatas behind us and one in front. We were comfy with one good slab and No.2. We played clear air tactics all the time we could, watching for bigger windward boats who would roll over us and ducking Starboard boats on our Port tack out when we wanted to get back to clear air. It seemed to work ok. At Hurst, where the second tide slingshot works, we got stuffed. Caught on starboard with a 40 footer sitting on our starboard quarter, we couldn’t reasonably tack. He took us well past the critical point before we could make the tack behind him without losing acres of ground. Such is RTI racing! We got to Hurst a good 500 metres late and the lead Sonata, who had picked his route better, was well clear. We got the last of the tide boost and tacked for the Needles gap. The two main dangers in the gap are Goose rock and the Varvassi. I had GPS on both, but there was no opportunity to refer to my Garmin. The seas were now 20ft high, steep, and starting to break at the top. The priority was to keep the boat moving up the faces of the waves. Max, my son and foredeck crew, said it felt like BFG started the climb up the front face, got about half way up, shuddered a bit, decided that she had more to do and just got on with it. We have great, tough little boats. Thankyou Dave Thomas.
Somehow, we closed the gap on the leading Sonata before the lighthouse and crossed him on Starboard with, in my estimation, ample room to clear the dangers. I was navigating by eye at that time, using the “Solent Hazards” transit of the top of the lighthouse/cliff transit in Peter Wright’s book. I also had a deeper boat inside of me. We made it and breathed a collective sigh of relief. It took us five minutes to realise that, although the seas were still big, the wind was not. Lead Sonata had carried on his port tack and was now behind us. “Kite” was the call and kite we did. It was a very controlled hoist, perfectly executed. Thankyou crew. We kept both tweakers hard down and the pole slightly below horizontal and set off down the South side of the Island surfing at a max of 10knts. In our sights was Matt on the Foxcub from Poole, with a glaringly obvious lime green kite. Behind, both following Sonatas had not yet launched their kites. We were pulling out distance on them by the minute and, again, pacing 32-38 ft boats who were not wearing kites. We felt good about this.
I was aware that St Catherine’s Point was the next critical mark. Our course was a broad reach but I took every opportunity to gain height. BFG was in perfect control as far as sail trim was concerned. The danger was the waves which approached on our Starboard quarter and attempted to throw us into a broach. Good eyeballing by Max and keeping me informed was the key to our safe passage. (There was no way I had time, or wanted, to look backwards). The onset warning of a big wave was met by me with a 20 degree bear-away to surf it rather than have it knock me sideways into a broach. This worked perfectly, much to the disgust of much more heavily crewed big boats near us who were pirouetting all over the ocean and most eventually gave up and white sailed. Lesson (they should) learn. We were never anywhere near a broach.
St Cats approached and we were to leeward of a red Contessa 32. Every time he got a surge, we were blanketed. I dared not bear away for clear air on such a lee shore. I could not luff up above him as he was white sails. BUM! He was slowing us down. Mark that, a fairly fast 32ft boat was slowing down a 22ft Sonata. I stuck it out because I knew that the third tide slingshot was minutes away. I cut St Cats as close as my nerves allowed. In 5 minutes flat, we were 100 metres clear of our Contessa blanket having overtaken him to leeward. We felt good about that too.
We join the navy!
The seas after St Cats got steeper. Same direction, ie on our Starboard quarter, and same wind. But their ability to throw us into a broach was stronger. A couple of times, I had to make big helm corrections to line BFG up properly. Max eased the kite to help me, something we hadn’t had to do on the way in. On the third correction the rudder snapped at the waterline. BFG immediately broached and laid over 60 degrees. I called to fire the kite, which we did. Then us three strong guys attempted to pull it into the cockpit via the sheet. Impossible. I called to get the main down, which we did and lashed it to the boom. The kite was still flogging wildly held by halyard and sheet. We winched it to the deck in tatters. We were beam-on to the sea and approaching a lee shore at approx 20 degrees. I estimated we had at most 20 minutes before we hit the rocks. Sharon called Race Control and then Coastguard informing them of our situation. At that time, Coastguard had at least five Pan Pans active and were somewhat busy. Nevertheless, they responded, took our position and situation and promised to get back to us. We mounted the outboard and started it. Steering with the outboard was virtually impossible. One minute of progress offshore, where we wanted to go, was negated by a pirouette to leeward caused by the following waves. We lashed our wooden paddle to the rudder stock. Max did rudder, I did outboard, turning it through 180 degrees to try to maintain a course. It improved the capacity to steer, but not by much. We chatted to Coastguard during this bit. By effort, we succeeded in making enough ground to clear our drift into Sandown bay, giving us some time before another lee shore. We again informed Coastguard that we were now in no imminent danger but in 50 or 60 minutes we would be approaching new rocks and could we please have a tow. A RIB from Race Control, the “Yellow Toad” arrived and towed us out of the bay a bit. After some chit-chat they told us that we were to be rescued by the Navy and, sure enough, over the horizon came HMS Exploit. I said to them that an astern tow would very probably be disastrous as, even with a long line, without the rudder BFG would pirouette and snatch on the line, and would be dragged sideways and down by the tow. They agreed and, after some clever manoeuvering, got us alongside, protected by seriously big fenders, (as big as Sharon)! and we lashed ourselves to HMS Exploit. We were safe and within five minutes they provided tea in nice mugs protected from spillage by cling film. What class! They then drove us to Cowes in style with plenty of photos taken from the surrounding yachts beating to the line and, no doubt, a touch of envy at our dead upwind progress. Hurrah for the Navy!
It was a disappointing end to our personal race as we knew we were well up in Class Three and definitely streets ahead of the other Sonatas in our class. We had won the Sonata Class two years before, crossing swords with the Nordic Folkboat ‘Ratatat’ all the way down the South side of the Island, and then calculated an IRC position, which (had we entered IRC) would have given us third overall. ‘Ratatat’ won the Gold that year. We were on track to repeat something similar this year. But such is yacht racing. Well done to Sonata ‘High Note’ for winning this one for the Sonatas. Well done to ‘Impro’ for completing the course and coming second. Commiserations to ‘Tosca’ and ‘Xante’ who retired. Well done also to the Sonatas in ISC, ‘Pint Size’ for winning, very sincere commiserations to ‘Selene’ for being OCS and taking the killer penalty on your last shot at the junior league. Tough, Joe, but now you are amongst the big (I really mean old) boys and on your track record we really feel scared. Come to Burnham and try your luck!
If you look at the RTI stats you will, I am sure, find that Sonatas were amongst the smallest boats to compete this year’s RTI as a fully fledged race keelboat amongst some much larger competitors. I am ignoring the little gaffers and various other classes that started and retired prior to the Needles or made it round in their own time. We, Sonatas, should be very proud of our achievement. We all raced the course full on. It was a challenging enterprise, but we all survived it. (well, we personally, didn’t, quite, but we were there for a while and we made ourselves safe). It conclusively proves, if it ever needed proving before, that our tough little boats can match, and mostly, exceed the capabilities and speed of craft much larger than ourselves. And, importantly, under IRC, a well sailed Sonata can knock spots off of their bigger rivals. Maybe we Sonatas have bred a generation of better seamen. Maybe we have just happened on a design of boat that we treat like a stock car and it gives us back safe sailing in extreme conditions. That is something to be proud of. That is something to promote our class to another audience so we can grow our membership. Lets do that.
Delivery Trip Five
Sunday dawned with a flat calm in Cowes roads. Magic! With a lash-up rudder (we had now exchanged the paddle for the centre thwart of the rubba dubba) Poole, our next destination, looked ok. Problem was we couldn’t see the Squadron at all from our mooring 100 metres away, there was a thick sea mist. I furiously plotted extra waypoints into the trusty Garmin. We left at 08.00. The thwart performed around the moorings, we had steerage. Off down the Solent then. Green buoys came and went where they should be. Thankyou Garmin and thwart.
About Bembridge, a sleek Grand Soleil appeared out of the mist behind us. “have you got GPS?” they hailed. “Yes” we said. Nevertheless, they slowed to match our speed and we both had fun using our horns to communicate with the Bembridge ferry who was noisily crossing us ahead. We saw him, just, but many thanks, guys in the GS, for sticking with us in a critical bit.
Christchurch bay was a complete white-out. Garmin knew where the shore was but we didn’t see it until we were almost up the Sandbanks beach. It was a 90 degree left with helm (the thwart) hard down because we were less than 20m off when we saw it. The chain ferry was making a lot of noise too as we crept towards the entrance. Fortunately, the noise was to our Starboard, which meant he was setting off from Sandbanks side. We just saw him pass in front of us going right to left so I estimated we had enough time to clear his track before he came back, and so it was.
Our fuel level was then zero, so we made for the fuel barge off Brownsea Island. A couple of shouts to passing craft assured us we were heading ok (the vis was still less than 20m). Arriving at the barge, the owner told us that his petrol pump was u/s. Magic! Jury rudder, nil vis, how were we now going to get to Poole YC, then back up a creek to windward. But out of the blue (grey, actually) a good samaritan arrived in the form of a really nice bloke who had a petrol auxillary and we exchanged reddies for his spare petrol litres enough to get us home. Thanks, nice bloke. It really is a wonderful boost when motor boats and yachties get together to help each other and yachties look after other yachties, as in our Grande Soleil mates above. It used to be called the camaraderie of the sea. Whatever it is now, we, BFG, appreciated our comrades assistance, and we thank you for it. Nice to know it’s still there.
Poole YC loomed out of the mist. Sharp right and there we were, safely berthed. And then the sun came out. We dried out everything we could and caught the train home to London. Waterloo East met us with a wall of city heat. We guessed you guys in town had experienced a heatwave. Next move, Brixham for the Sonata Southerns.
Next week, Friday, we drove to Poole with the tow rig. (Sharon and I had run out of time to sail Lyme Bay). Dumped it at Davies Marina, around the corner from Poole YC. Taxi back to YC. Bridge, (Poole) operates at two hour intervals in the week. We just missed the 14.30, next, 16.30. BUM. Grabbed Michael from Sonata Seline team to catch mast, which he did magnificently. Shot bridge with mast down, lifted and on road by 17.30. Dorset hills a challenge for my Mitsubishi, but we coast into Brixham to be met by David who guided us backwards into the Brixham YC compound where BFG rested for a week. We were welcomed so well by the Brixham guys that we didn’t leave until closing time. Arrived London 04.30. Work next morning UUGGHH!
Next weekend, Sonata Southerns. We got there to lift in on the Friday before. Harbourmaster (or deputy HM Never did work out the pecking order) Rob, launched us off his crane after a nerve-racking reverse down his rather narrow quay during which we, BFG, halted the traffic in Brixham and I counted two trip coaches, several tourist 4x4s and a bemused ice cream seller all fixated on my ability to back my rig around a right-angle bend onto the quay and then not dump it and BFG prematurely off the edge, a foot away. We, I achieved it. Phew!
Again, race report on our site, (thanks Katina) but fab weekend’s racing. 8 races in two days. How good is that? Take note, organisers of areas, and nationals too. Brill organisation, hospitality and race management. Well done, BYC.
In the midst of all this we, your NSA Committee, had an AGM. As a committee, we have some seriously difficult information to impart to our members. We have decided to keep some of this information confidential to members only, thus the access to the website will now be restricted, in certain areas, to members only from now on. (See my post on this subject). We believe this is a positive move firstly to encourage more owners to join us and, secondly, because some of the stuff we are about to tell you is not for world-wide consumption. I am not Rupert Murdock. I believe in transparency at every stage. I have, with the backing of your committee, acted as I believe, reasonably and in your best interests. This will take a while to resolve. Bear with me if you can, and I will report the progress on our new, restricted, forum area.
BFG rests in Brixham. Sharon and I hope we can get back to her for a long weekend of enjoying the SW coast in cruising mode soon, as we did in Scotland around the Kyles of Bute. We are looking forward to this after a hard slog to achieve our race timetable and represent our class in as many fixtures as we could fit in.
Chris Bentley and Sharon Brokenshire