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A morning sail 

Medway Sam Llewellyn abandons thoughts of breakfast as his boat’s sails start to fill.

The curlews woke me. I reached out an arm and put the kettle on and looked out of the hatch at the still grey morning outside. The ebb made little clockings and gurglings. It was an hour and a half until low water. It would be good not to use the engine on a day like this.

While the tea was brewing, I pulled up the mainsail and dropped the mooring. It was a visitor’s buoy, all alone in this empty reach. There was not a breath of wind. The steam of the Earl Grey rose vertically into the morning air as the buoy drifted away upstream.

It was a lazy morning, cool. We floated, the boat and I, spinning very slowly. A shoal of mullet slid under the hull. The last of the night’s mist was clearing from the reeds. Ahead, the water was frosted with a delicate ripple. The mainsail went whap, and a faint breath cooled my face. I stuffed the tea mug down the companionway. The jib, which had been hanging in folds like a curtain, took on a pleasing curve.

I had been going to make breakfast, but this did not seem to be the moment. The jib sheets were pulling gently. Another catspaw came sliding towards us. Mainsail and jib curved taut. The sheets hardened, and the little seams in the water at the transom emitted a faint gurgle and became a wake.

Telltales stirring

The telltales on the jib were stirring now, the leeward ribbon straight along the sail, the windward one just lifting to the breeze from the sea. The deck took on a little heel, and the speed picked up. We were moving in good earnest now, and the inky shadows of serious gusts were snaking out of the grey ripple downstream.

One of them hit, then another. The boat dug its lee side into the water. The gurgle of the wake became a roar. The telltales were flying hard and straight, and the numbers on the log climbed and kept climbing. Another gust banged the mast down to leeward. The temptation was to push the tiller away, spill wind, but I hung on, feeling the acceleration, white water roaring through the chainplates.

The bank was coming up. Ease the tiller away. The boat came round in a smooth arc, on to an even keel, heeled the other way. As she went I let go the jib. The sail slammed over. Haul in the downhill sheet. Not more than five seconds after beginning the tack we were tearing across the river again, climbing up the wind like a mouse up the curtains, and the banks of the river were flying by.

Tack, tack, tack

Tack. Tack again, and again, and again. Five miles later we were into the moorings, sweeping past the yachts on their buoys. And there was our buoy ahead, an orange blob between two yachts. The log said six knots. Let go the jib. A roar and clatter, and in it rolled. Sail on with the main, close-reaching, spilling wind, the boat slowing. Step up to the foredeck with the boathook as the mainsail drummed and flapped. There were people on the quay, and they would be watching like ancient Romans at the arena, hoping for something to go wrong, which it would if it could. I thought: let us not wrap up now...

And there, thank goodness, was the buoy, waiting in exactly the right place, three feet on the starboard bow. Down went the boathook. Up came the pennant. Over the cleat with it. Drop the main and make all secure. The wind sighing over the deck had the raw smell of autumn. It was time for breakfast.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly

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