Swallows and Amazons

swallows-amazonsI have already written about my favourite hobby dinghy cruising. I suppose I become wistful about it at this time of the year when possibilities of taking the boat out become increasingly rare due to cold and bad weather. December and January do occasionally give nice little weather windows, and an opportunity is not to be missed even if it means more clothing and waterproofs.

Since last year, I have acquired the twelve-foot Zef hull and rigged it with my Mirror rig, and took it out for a sail as I described in Sarum’s Sea Trials. Sarum is now blessed and registered for next year’s Semaine du Golfe, the great gathering in southern Brittany where there will be more than a thousand boats from the size of mine to three-masted tall ships.

The trailer I bought last year is now improved and I have discontinued the use a separate launching trolley. My next project is to create the possibility of going for a cruise of several days and sleeping on board. This is done by setting up a tent over the boom and some boards to make a bed (pneumatic mattress and what one would use in a tent).

This is what we will be doing in Brittany next year. The alternative is being vehicle and campsite based and keeping a close eye on the time to avoiding missing the bus provided by the event’s organisers. I was reassured a few days ago by the veteran dinghy cruiser Roger Barnes that all the ports where we stop over for the night will be serviced by fresh water taps, catering (for a reasonable price or even free) – so that we don’t have to carry too much food.

You sit there sipping your coffee and munching your croissant, watching the other harassed crews arriving in buses from their distant campsites.

Some of the ports have showers, and make it possible for us to be more civilised. Our boats will have to be very well prepared for all likely weather conditions in May, including reefing, anchors, fenders and warps and enough in the way of tools and spares to do at least temporary repairs to what is most likely to go wrong. I am looking at different ideas for arranging the tent and the bed.

I remember that when I was learning to sail, it was all about high-tech boats and racing. The training was good, and prepared me for harsh conditions and performing at the limit of our physical fitness, which in my case… (!). I became confident at handling a small boat in reasonable conditions.

As I mentioned in my last posting, dinghy cruising has quietly taken off. I have never owned a yacht, but I discovered that yacht sailing is expensive as are the docking and club facilities, and the boat is limited to a small area of sailing (unless you have several days or weeks to go further afield). A dinghy can be towed on a trailer anywhere and sailed very close to land in shallow waters, easily beached and free of structures. That is something that is very appealing. It is true that I would love to do an epic voyage like crossing the Atlantic in a forty-foot yacht. But, at what price? The dinghy is affordable and does a lot within its limits.

Some have made epic voyages in dinghies, and men have been known to cross entire seas in bad weather in a small open boat. They also risked their lives! When Captain Bligh lost the Bounty to the famous mutiny, he sailed more than two thousand miles in the ship’s longboat to safety and a passage back to England. Every sport has its extreme versions. Most of us are a little bit more reasonable, preferring a gentle sail for a few hours in a familiar bit of sea, along the coast and never far from safety. In between, we have cruises of three or four days, alone or in the company of other sailors and their boats. There are so many possibilities: islands, along coasts, up estuaries and rivers, long canal trips inland. There are also lakes like Geneva, Annecy, the Great Lakes in the USA and Canada. Canada must be wonderful for inland sailing. Near my home, there is the Baie de Somme, which has a very complex tidal system. It is something I should try, but after getting advice to avoid being dried out miles from the sea because the tide has gone out! One is close to nature, non-polluting and non-consuming (except for the occasional use of an engine when sailing is impossible).

The Semaine du Golfe has a distinctive “democratic” spirit by showing sailing as something within the reach of ordinary people, away from the stuffy spirit of British yacht clubs. We don’t need to have expensive shiny new boats, but what we can find in the classified ads going for a song, an old hull to do up in one’s spare time and a rig that will go with it. With the adult version of Swallows and Amazons, many of us are eager to go beyond day sailing or the potter around the bay for a couple of hours. There comes a day when we feel urged to sail to a distant island and give ourselves a challenge. A dinghy can be kitted out for camping on-board no less comfortably than the little tents of hikers in the mountains. The boat can be beached and anchored or left afloat in a really safe and secluded bay.

We dinghy cruisers tend to be independent like the old sea dogs who circumnavigate alone in the yachts on which they live. At the same time, it is good to follow the progress of clubs and associations that organise rallies, as others do for vintage car and motorcycle rallies. France is more advanced with the Semaine du Golfe and the Route du Sable in which I participated last year. One can meet a different kind of humanity than in our cities! It is as much a human experience as improving our seamanship. I would love to see sailing schools diversify into dinghy cruising and “adventure sailing”, especially for youngsters. It would be a wonderful discipline to add to Scouting programmes and school sports. Precisely, it is something that brings health of mind and body without the spirit of competition and aggression found in many sports.

If any of my readers are thinking of taking up sailing, they would do well to get The Dinghy Cruising Companion by Roger Barnes and enjoy the refreshing change from expensive boats and stuffy commodores…

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4 Responses to Swallows and Amazons

  1. Patricius says:

    The title of your post reminds me of Nymphs and Shepherds, for some obscure reason.

    • The book by Arthur Ransome is very well known, the touching story of some children on holiday sometime during the 1930’s in the Lake District and get the use of two boats to live their dreams. All the same, I agree with you, as nympths are also of the same dream world of children. Here’s one of those charming little boats:

  2. Fr Graham Colby says:

    Such a shame the real “Swallow” was lost. As you doubtless know “Amazon” – formerly “Mavis” – was rescued & restored, & I think is now at the steamboat museum on Windermere. I saw her at Greenwich in the 1980’s or 90’s & was surprised at what a heavy craft she was.

    • Yes, it is quite surprising how heavy those old clinker-built boats are. They are very stable on the water – less risk for the kids – but more difficult to launch and recover than our modern fibreglass boats. There is a revival of traditional boats, mostly with a catboat type mast position and single lugsail. One of the most promising boatbuilders presently working is François Vivier. I have seen some beautiful boats from his workshop or built to his design.

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