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My First Boat

I came by my first boat, a Kestrel 22 rather fortuitously; I had been looking for a cheap boat for a while and had gone to look at a Kkestrel 22 which had been out of the water at Lower Halstow. Unfortunately she was a bit of a wreck and had been sadly neglected for quite some time, the engine had gone, the rubbing strake needed replacing and as I stepped down into the saloon my foot went through the sole board and up to my ankle in stinking water (she later sold for £770 on ebay). That evening Simon Reay, the friend who had introduced me to sailing and who had accompanied me to look at that first boat, was looking on the internet for information on Kestrel 22’s when he came across a post from a man who had a Kestrel that he could no longer afford to keep and was willing to part with it to a good home for nothing! Several e-mails later, Simon and I were in West Mersea looking her over.

Calie B

To me, she looked good, was well equipped and seemed ideal as a first boat. The bad bits? Well the name for a start, Zuben’Ali is, I was told, the name of a star or constellation visible in the southern hemisphere. A repair was needed for the rubbing strake where shrinkage had split the wood. The engine had not run for a considerable time, and the keels were looking a little dodgy, they are made up of a large cast iron tip spaced out from the hull by several hardwood shaped blocks, they had shrunk and large (to me) splits had appeared. The name could be changed, as indeed I found out it had been several times already, initially she was called Linda Elizabeth, then Valid before the change to Zuben’Ali. The rubbing strake could be fixed and the engine serviced. A trip over to the yard office to talk about the keel problem suggested all it might need was sitting in water for a few months for ‘a good soak’. Thus heartened, and over a cup of tea, the deal was struck. The owner wanted an exchange of money to take place so a bill of sale could be drawn up and asked for £1. I only had a £2 coin but after a little haggling he finally agreed, and the deal was done.

The boatyard did a few jobs for me up the mast, replacing the aerial and getting the mast top lights working, I drained the fuel tank and stripped the carb which was full of muck and what looked like sand but which I have been told was salt!. After a couple of weeks most of the jobs were done and she was gently lifted onto a trolley and rolled into the water at low tide.

Calie B

As the tide came up, so did my anxiety level – would she float – would she stay afloat – as she lifted off the trolley would she swing round and rip the keel off! A slight bump and she was off, still dry below and looking level.

Calie B

Another slight bump and a grinning boatyard man came alongside to tow me out to a mooring.
For the next 2 weeks she sat there as we waited for appropriate weather and tides. The opportunity was taken to check out various bits of rope and replace the dodgy bits, the engine was now running so we took her out and tried sails and equipment out. Seemed ok so back to the mooring and wait. And wait. The mooring we were on belonged to somebody who was getting his boat put back in the water soon so when we got a good forecast (NW, 3-4 fair slight) and a low tide early in the morning we were away!  At first things went well, we got out of West Mersea without hitting anything and without going aground which at low tide around there was quite a feat.

As Simon went forward to hoist the mainsail his shoe became jammed between the toe rail and the genoa track, so as he lifted his foot the shoe gracefully flipped up and over the safety wires. I always thought shoes would float a bit longer than that. Oh well, it was a warm morning and at least it wasn’t going to rain.

With the sails up we started to make good progress, 5.8 knots on the log and the autohelm holding the course well. Time for a cup of tea.

After about another hour the wind started to change and as our course became more westerly so did the wind until eventually we couldn’t hold the course we needed so, down came the sails and on went the engine. Still doing 4 knots the motion started to change as the increasing wind over the flooding tide started to make some large waves. Then the engine slowed, quick check on the fuel levels but still over half a tank. Perhaps we had knocked the throttle back so added a bit more. The engine slowed more and then stopped. We indulged ourselves with a quick moment of panic as we were drifting towards the sandbanks over which the waves were now breaking, hang on, the banks were east of us and the tide was meant to be flooding to the south west, quick check of the wind instruments showed westerly at almost 30 knots!. What happened to the force 3-4!. So, up went the sails, and the slab reefing didn’t work!. The lines used were too large and were jamming in the gear. Using the oversize lines we hooked the cringles on and tied down the excess sail. We were no longer drifting towards the sandbank but weren’t really going anywhere else either.

After a few minutes of standing still with waves now breaking high over the bow and into the cockpit it was obvious to me that we had the makings of a potential disaster. Quick discussion with Simon, a much more experienced sailor than me showed that he was more worried than I was. 12:30 Pan-pan call made to Thames coastguard, position passed and decision to try to make passage to the Crouch communicated. Experimentation showed that engine ran ok, but when put in gear started to slow after about 10 seconds.

 13:00 and we hadn’t moved, trying to make passage towards the Crouch our leeway was carrying us towards the sandbanks, heading towards the Isle of grain we made little progress forward but none towards the sandbanks.

13:30 scheduled contact with coastguard made when they asked if we needed the lifeboat. Not yet, we weren’t in imminent danger, just struggling.

14:30 again a scheduled contact when I asked for an updated weather report as although the wind had dropped the visibility was now so poor that we couldn’t see the forts and the large ships anchored around us. The report was bad news, currently force 5, 8 later, Vis. Poor, sea state 4-5. Do we need the lifeboat was the question again, as they had put it on standby. I didn’t answer immediately as I had been thrown across the saloon and had lost hold of the microphone. I got it back as Simon called me up to the cockpit. A quick ‘not yet’ and I went up. The genoa sheets had come out of the cars and were flapping wildly. I had no choice but to go forward onto the bucking foredeck and get them back. Without thinking I grabbed one sheet in each hand and was now spinning like a top on my backside on the nice slippery forehatch!

Finally realising I didn’t need both at the moment I took the lee sheet back through the car and onto a winch. Simon now quietly drew my attention to the mainsail, the top slider had broken and as we watched the second one failed. Down below I was again thrown bodily across the saloon amid a scatter of charts, instruments, plates & general debris. I had been keeping a running position on the chart but had not updated it since the last radio check. A quick look at the clock, 15:15! Where had the time gone? It took me 10 minutes to transfer a position from the GPS to the chart.

We had progressed 2 miles in 2 hours. So, decision time. At this rate another 8-10 hours to the Medway against what then would be an ebbing tide, couldn’t make progress towards the Crouch, no engine and sail blowing out, darkness within 3 hours and we were in the main shipping channel so we couldn’t stay here.

I went to tell Simon I was asking for help – he just nodded. Thames coastguard took my request for assistance quite calmly saying that the Sheerness lifeboat was on its way. Within 5 minutes the lifeboat called and I passed our GPS position. 20 minutes, the radio op said in her calm, relaxing voice. Back in the cockpit, and we struggled on.

There she was! In a flurry of spray a blue and orange lifeboat appeared through the murk. I called them on the radio – yes we see you – and she swung towards us. Simon and I were very tired and battered, Simon’s feet, in a pair of canvas deck shoes were soaked and he was feeling the effects of constantly battling the sheet and tiller so when the lifeboat asked if we could take a line or wanted someone to come aboard to help I unashamedly asked for a crew member to come aboard.

With 8ft waves and my little boat bouncing around like a cork in a washing machine it took 5 tries for the coxswain to get close enough for the crewman to jump across. With a line aboard and safely under tow we could finally start to relax. As we approached the Medway the weather started to clear of course, and as we were gently deposited on the all tides pontoon at Queenborough it was with a calm sea and a glorious sunset.

Calie B

We were met by a coastguard representative and a large number of local residents – word had obviously got around. After a few questions by the lifeboat crew and the coastguard to fill in the reports, Simon and I were met by our wives and, in my case my grandson.

Calie B

We made a number of mistakes that got us in a position where I had to call for help, mainly because of my inexperience and lack of knowledge, but this was never mentioned by the lifeboat crew or the coastguard, all of whom I talked to said I was right to initially contact them and right to eventually ask for help before things became desperate. But I will always wonder what would have happened without the volunteers that man our lifeboats. And I know I will never walk past one of their collecting boxes without putting something in.

Michael Curtis
Calie B

Date Published 16th Nov 2009