It was a gentle autumn afternoon, with a light breeze ruffling the grey-blue water. It was not a week for high seas action, because the forecast beyond twenty-four hours contained huge amounts of wind, but it looked as if an overnight cruise in the harbour should keep us inside the weather window.
The boat was a 21ft open yawl with a centreboard. We packed sleeping bags in a waterproof container, food, drink and oilskins in their locker. Off came the shore lines. A backed jib pulled her off the quay, the mainsail filled, and we moved briskly down the main channel towards the open sea.
There was more wind out here, racing across the water in little dark shadows. One of the shadows hit. The lee rail went down, green water poured in, and the boat surged ahead. It would soon be time to put in a reef.
There is an ancient maxim that if you think it will soon be time to put in a reef, it is already time to put in a reef. I put in a reef. We roared on, much more nearly upright, towing a long white vee of wake into Studland Bay. We ran in close under the beach, where the dunes had made a stripe of calm water, came head to wind, dropped the anchor and ate a slow lunch in the sun. Then it was time to start for the night’s anchorage.
The first part of our track meant going back the way we had come. There was plenty of white on the wave-crests now. We drifted away from the beach, still reefed, undercanvassed in the zephyrs. There is an ancient saying that if you think you should shake out a reef, make a cup of tea and then see if you still think you should shake it out. Today there was no time for tea. The first gust hit with a bang and there we were, still reefed, heeled twenty degrees, tearing away on a broad reach with the breeze hard and steady from behind our left ears.
The red port-hand buoys slid by one by one. The wind lulled in the narrows at the harbour entrance, but the sky to windward was heavy and purple. There was just time to reflect that the weather might be arriving early. Then the lull was gone, and a gust smacked us over and we shot up into the wind, jib and main roaring and clattering, mizzen hard in as we reefed again for dear life.
The boat was making sternway now. Shove the tiller down to leeward, and she was on the port tack, sails drum-taut little triangles of canvas, smacking into the short steep seas.
On we went, tack on tack, clawing up the wind, clods of green water tumbling aft. More squalls howled through, rain as well as wind. A sailing school swept by, a flotilla of Wayfarer dinghies, five wetsuited children wailing in each. A trio of spoonbills shot overhead. We were pumping now, but the water was coming in over the bow almost as fast as we could get rid of it. And there ahead at last was the anchorage, sheltered by a low cliff and a wood of wind-whipped trees.
We sailed all the way up to the shore and threw the anchor over the nose. Then we hauled up the centreboard, wrestled the tent into position, lit the stove and started drying things out. The radio was murmuring about imminent gales in a discreet BBC voice hardly audible above the roar of the breeze.
Two hours later, the tide left us. We slept peacefully among the curlews’ calls, dried out on the mudflat while the wind still thundered in the trees.
Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly