In Brittany, big boats sail straight in to the harbour at half-ebb...
Topsails come off, gaffs drop, tricing lines haul up luffs. A kedge splashes over the stern. The big wooden hulls lose way. Finally, gently as butterfly alighting, the stem kisses the beach. A couple of lads put down a leg on each side.
The remaining sails come down with a run. Fifteen minutes after first contact, the hands are dropping off the bowsprit and stumping up the beach towards the café.
It never seems to be as easy as this when we try it, what with the legs falling over the side, and there being stones where there should only be sand, and the kedge refusing to dig in. But it has left me with a deep affection for the process of taking the ground.
This was reinforced by a cruise in the Dutch Frisian Islands in company with a friend whose splendid classic drew nine feet. The sea between the islands and the mainland dries out completely at low water. Our boat at the time stood happily on its twin keels.
One of the great pleasures of the trip was the expression on my friend’s face as he hurtled on a sinking tide towards a closing harbour gate, lips moving in prayer, trailing a cloud of disturbed seabed from the bottom of his keel.
Perhaps taking the ground is catching on. Certainly sales of lifting keel yachts are burgeoning – Southerly, the stoutest and most luxurious, have seen their sales increase sevenfold over the last ten years. And one of Britain’s seafaring literary agents, always a trendsetter, has bought a motor yacht for the specific reason that at low water it sits bolt upright on the sand, facilitating precision barbecue management.
Taking the ground should, of course, be approached with care. The owner of a large yacht once decided on a flat-calm night to anchor off a beach.
The boat, he reasoned, would lean gently over on its side, dry out, and float again on the flood. He and his crew anchored at half-ebb, ate a large dinner and fell into a peaceful slumber.
Three hours later, the owner woke. Something was wrong. The boat should have taken a heavy list; but it was on an even keel. He looked at his watch. It was low water. He started to get up to look out of a porthole. Then, very carefully, he lay down again.
The boat had a long keel. The bottom of the keel was six inches wide, and flat. The tide had indeed gone out. But the boat had not lain over with it. It had dried out on the hard sand, balanced on that six-inch-wide keel. If it fell over now, all twenty tons of it, there would be one of the most expensive crashes ever heard by land or sea.
The owner spent the next two hours staring at the deckhead above his bunk, praying that nobody else would wake up. It is said that next morning his hair was white as snow, though from here this sounds like a lie.
The thousands of wrecks on the Western Rocks of the Scilly, terrible hedges of granite rising from the deep Atlantic, are a testament to the need for control in taking the ground.
On the other side of the islands, at the back of St Martin’s, there is a wide bay of crystal sand. This is a fine anchorage if the wind is in the southwest. If the wind looks like going anywhere else, it has its advantages too, in the form of a clean bottom.
If the wind starts blowing into the bay, the conventional wisdom is to head offshore and find sea room. On a beach like this and forecast permitting, we prefer to lay out a kedge, take the ground just after high water and ride out the gale parked on a nice firm bit of dry land.
Sam Llewellyn is a novelist, columnist, and Editor of The Marine Quarterly, www.marinequarterly.com