John Simpson recently wrote about his boyhood, which involved a lot of sailing on the East Coast. He’s written for us again – this time with the aim of persuading us that we’re too reliant on electronic navigation aids. He has a point, of course… Still – I publish this with a warning that most of us really should take care to avoid frightening ourselves and other people by sailing tiny boats on cold, squally days!
‘Navigational aids have obviously improved massively, with GPS-powered chart plotters and miniature echo sounders etc. When I’m coaching I often get an uneasy feeling about just how reliant some sailors have become on using these and other instruments.
‘Mankind used to cross oceans just using knowledge that the elements supply, but I’m beginning to feel we’re all in danger of becoming geeks who only look down at small screens – rather than looking around and discovering where to go for ourselves.
‘I sometimes think that the only people who haven’t fallen prey to this tendency are dinghy sailors.
‘It was very different when we were teengagers. I remember we were racing GP14 dinghies regularly at Leigh, at the mouth of the Thames, when a big East Coast event, Burnham Week on the River Crouch, began to attract our interest.
‘It would be years before we could drive legally, so our only option was to sail the boats round. My friends the twins Richard and John took one boat, Sappho round first – I was away sailing with my parents at the time of the voyage to the Crouch, but then I did the return leg with them, three up in the dinghy.
‘It was an inshore daytrip of roughly 40 miles. The plan for the outward journey was to sail in company with older club members. Crossing the Maplin Sands to the east of Leigh around high tide allowed the b oats to cut through the marshes at Havengore Creek, and then negotiate the creeks to join the River Roach, and then sail on into the Crouch.
‘Longer journeys like this gave us all confidence and helped us gain our parents’ permission for more trips – and with that the freedom to plan other cruises during school holidays. What a lark we had! We’d seen Frank Dye’s Wayfarer at a London Boat Show and he’d inspired us with his amazing North Sea exploits.
‘One memorable Easter-time crossing of the Thames stands out as an example of how hard we’d started to push these ventures.
‘The weather was cool that April, I recollect, with a westerly F4/5 blowing that occasionally veered more north F5/6 with snow flurries or icy hale, in big squalls.
‘Our regular crew were to set off on four boats set off from Leigh across the Thames, including the twins, John and Richard, in separate boats.
‘We waited some time for the fourth GP14 with the least experienced crew to join us – they seemed to be taking an age to launch, but hanging around wasn’t an option, not least because it was too cold.
‘John’s boat and mine were in the water quickly and we started going for it: every time we went sailing, it was a race!
‘The estuary at Leigh is roughly four miles wide when the tide’s in. We headed straight for Yantlet Creek by the Isle of Grain, which is the shortest route straight across the river. It was the right thing to do because the river was busy with ships back then, for London was still the biggest port in the UK. (I was a bit of an anorak and spent a lot of time spotting ship silhouettes from my bedroom window and reading vessel movement information was sent to me as a junior member of the Port of London Authority).
‘We were almost halfway across when John’s boat disappeared in a massive rain cloud that moments later also struck us. The wind increased fast, so that we both had to sit right out with the main fully spilled. My crew, Duncan, even had to release the jib sheet at times.
‘We dropped the main rapidly, which showed unusual discretion for us – but we didn’t want to capsize with our camping gear in the cold water.
‘We lost visibility but we continued reaching, relying on the wind direction to show us which way we should go to head us across to the other side. At that time we hadn’t yet fitted compasses to any of our boats.
‘Sailors (if they look up from their screens) can use things like the direction of the wind, a high landmark and the position of the sun, a cloud or star at night to keep heading in the right direction. Wave direction, usually at right angles to the wind, can be used to keep a heading when the visibility closes down.
‘Offshore, large swell left over from some previous weather (which may have occurred hundreds of miles away in an ocean) can also be another useful indicator.
‘The tide isn’t so easy to spot if you’re further offshore, but it can be indicated by large whirlpools, overfalls or steeper waves when wind and current are opposed. Places where tide or a current meet and go slack often can be seen with areas of debris or pollution.
‘If a tide or current is running the boat might not any longer be heading in the right direction, and this might be identified by seeing the water running round or over shallow spots or fixed objects like jetties, tree stumps, buoys and rocks. Then any two fixed objects in transit, if available, can show which way the boat is being set sideways.
‘The squall went through and John appeared out of the murk heading back towards us under full sail. We both decided to head back, unable to spot his brother Richard or the boat that had been slow to launch. After re-hoisting our main, Duncan and I chased after John, enjoyed planing our way backto Leigh, relieved we were now able to see ships as we re-crossed the main channel, again.
‘We returned to our launching ramp, and were surprised to find both boats there. Apparently an older member of the club was convinced we’d run into trouble and had already called out the search and rescue helicopter, which flew over us shortly after we landed.
‘Unfortunately we all saw red and gave this well-meaning chap a really hard time!
‘The tide was falling rapidly. We ‘agreed’ with the older club member that the fourth, least experienced boat shouldn’t join us and were happy to go along with this!
‘With limited tide we finally struggled over the shallows into Yantlet after our crossing.
‘Shallow water is easy to see in tropical places where the sea becomes lighter and lighter blue as the depth falls – but that’s not possible to observe in overcast conditions or colder waters.
‘Subtle indicators like your wake becoming larger and more pronounced as the water shallows if the boat is moving well, and thick or discoloured water colour might help, but sounding with a paddle or boathook gives the real answer!
‘Though our trip went well, it was an extremely cold one.
‘In those years we explored large areas of this coast with our dinghies using observation and instincts, and without navigation aids. Admittedly we were not often out of sight of land, but at no time do I remember feeling any worry about a lack of them.
‘We felt-out places because we’d become used to conditions in our local area, and found that you do indeed develop a feel and an eye for these things!
‘Nor did we fit compasses immediately to the boats, which we did only later and then to improve our racing performances by enabling us to spot wind shifts more accurately, when sailing up wind!
‘Finding Yantlet Creek, for example, was easy for us – as the description said, ‘it is just to right of large square building at the western entrance of the Medway’, and then on the way over we’d find the low day mark’.
‘In a different area with different conditions – for example, with hills, deep water and rocks, we’d certainly have been lost and would have needed a compass, chart, tide tables, lead line and used a best guess about boat speed or a Dutchman’s log. Of course we would have used handheld GPS if it had been available!
‘Once you’re familiar with your own cruising grounds, including the shape of high land, prominent tall buildings, lighthouses and beacons, you can work out where you are – but when sailing in unknown places this is more difficult. Thinking ahead about a new area’s general geography helps – for example, it’s obviously good to know which was a a river heads, that the coast runs mostly north south or that there are offshore islands are to the west.
‘Other more subtle features are worth noticing too, such as the position of the sun in relation to the time and the shape of windblown trees in relation to the prevailing wind, both of which can help us to quickly re-orientate ourselves. But I’d like to think that some of the ideas I’ve talked about here might help take boat users’ eyes away from our tiny screens and bring us all back to using more natural navigation methods.
‘By the way – the final outcome of our adventure was that all six of us were banned from club racing for a month following our verbal abuse of this older fellow and ignoring his advice. With hindsight, I can see now that we were rather arrogant and wild kids – but I also reflect that pushing ourselves is often the way in which we become more skilful.’
Thanks for taking the time to write John!