Fine Sailing

I took my smaller of the two boats out on the Seine, the one which has just undergone a re-rig. I launched from Poses, from the slipway that is closed with a padlock and a bar. Sophia , unlike Sarum my sea boat, is so light and made of plastic that she can be tipped off the launching trolley and down the grass bank and into the water. It then suffices to bring the boat to the bottom of the slipway the other side of the locked barrier, which seems to be there to penalise all boaters for the nuisance caused by a few jet skiers. I then loaded the rig, centreboard and oars on board, put on the rudder and I was off by rowing against the wind and the fluvial current. I was going to have to earn my downwind sail. With eight-foot oars, I made good progress towards the narrow parts of the Seine upstream. I stopped a couple of times for my little picnic, usually using people’s private slipways and pontoons – ready to move on if asked to do so. One riverbank house owner seems to be in admiration of someone rowing rather than using an engine, and offered me a drink. “Very kind, but I have what I need in the boat”. I rowed on to get as long as possible a sail in the limited time available.

The sail was enjoyable in the fresh wind coming from the outer reaches of Hurricane Ophelia. France was safe from what caused such havoc in Ireland, but the eerie clouds and high atmosphere fog of Sirocco dust rose gradually in the afternoon, making the sun go red. The new rig with the old Optimist sail came into its own. Inland wind is not constant like at sea. There is turbulence and sudden changes of direction as it is deflected by trees, buildings and surrounding land. A puff one way, and then another way like on the little lake where I did tests some days ago.

During my Laser course at the Glénans in August 2009, we were very well taught techniques of ghosting and what I might term as “micro” sailing. Doing tiny tacks and gybes, weaving in and out of moored boats, rather like people learning the fine art of motorcycling, the training made a big impression on me. The skill isn’t in speed and strength but finesse and accuracy. I applied many of these lessons yesterday.

The first thing was to remove the pulley from the boom and tie the mainsheet directly to the shackle attached to the boom. No force is needed, nor is pulley tackle needed like on a larger rig. You just hold the line in your hand and feel the wind in the sail. When tacking and gybing, you don’t wait for the boom to whack you over the head – you pull it across by hand at the right time just at the limit of sailing on the lee.

This kind of minimalist “micro” sailing appeals to me as I begin to explore the rivers and gunkholes near where I live. There are a few rivers either side of the Seine estuary, like segments of the Eure – even though there are weirs and fast-flowing water in places – more conducive to canoeing than in a sailing and rowing dinghy. Some rivers are tidal and can be navigated both ways on the tide with some astute organisation of time. Fresh water rivers have to be explored in segments unless there is a way round the weirs.

It isn’t just a way of “been there, seen that”, but a contemplative way of spending a day off alone. Nature is at its least disturbed near rivers that are inaccessible to motor boats because of hyper-low bridges that are no longer an obstacle to Sophia. It is an advantage to take a pair of binoculars to observe the wildlife and birds, seeing them without frightening them away. I have been greatly inspired by duck punting, which is sailing reduced to its most simple expression. It is also possible to extend the sailing season into the winter in this way and experience new waters. For example, in some places, large areas of land become flooded. When the rain and wind are over, the boat can sail in only inches of shallow water and a great time can be had. I have even seen duck punts sailing down flooded roads with cars of imprudent drivers bogged down and a cyclist with half his wheels under water!

Again, on landing, I had tremendous satisfaction at beating the locked slipway barrier. I took out the rig and oars and laid them on the ground. I hauled the hull up the grass bank and onto the launching trolley. It was a pleasant way to spend a day…

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6 Responses to Fine Sailing

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This sounds delightful! (I used to row on a pond on Boars Hill, but it had no current.) I’ve finally started reading Tim Severin’s The Brendan Voyage – whew, exciting and scary! The sun here was coppery/brazen all day, in a greyish sky, on Tuesday – fascinating!

    • Long before I ever sailed, a friend of mine and I would hire a rowing boat on Windermere and go fishing. I once caught a 3 1/2 lb pike! I must have been about 11 or 12 at the time. These boats from the early 20th century are still maintained and can be hired.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Wow! I’d want a life preserver for that – but how I’d like to visit the Lake District, again! (I was pleasantly surprised to find I could row, as an adult, as I had been so miserable at it, as a boy, on a little lake behind a cousin’s house in the country.)

      • I don’t remember being required to wear a life jacket for these boats. They are very stable and designed to take four people. The dandy and his lady would sit on the stern seat and two people would row. I don’t think the boat hirer would allow anyone out in rough conditions – which can happen very quickly in the Lake District, believe me! I don’t know what they’re like, but they allowed two schoolboys with fishing tackle out on one of their boats. They probably keep a lookout with binoculars and send out a motor boat in case of problems.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I love being on any sort of boat or ship, but deep water worries me, not being the best of swimmers, or wanting to put the energy-saving ‘dead man’s float’ to the test under actual conditions. The only time I’ve fallen overboard was punting on the Cherwell, when (I blush to recall) I was unnecessarily splashy in getting helped back aboard.

      • Not everyone is made for boating. My first sailing instructor was a fellow by the name of Christophe Fallon, and his idea was the “baptism of fire” or rather of water! My first times out were in fairly rough conditions – big waves are frightening to a novice. We had to learn how to deal with capsizing, righting and boat and self-rescuing. That is essential. We don’t have to be champion swimmers as long as we can swim reasonably well, especially with a 50N flotation aid (not the same as a lifejacket which is usually about 150N or more like on ships). I have never enjoyed hitting the drink and a capsize is quite exhausting, especially when there is a problem with the boat. These are things we have to learn to cope with – or choose a different outdoor activity like mountaineering or cycling, depending on what we like, our age and physical condition.

        All that being said, some boats are safer or less “tippy” than others. Learning to sail gives you the rational and intuitive understanding of the causes of capsizing, and we all have to know the limits in terms of wind, weather conditions and tides. That is even more important than learning to handle the boat.

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