The Stoutest Ship were the Frailest Shallop

I include an aspect of my life in this blog – sailing, in particular the spiritual aspect of navigation and the sea. The title of this page comes from one of the songs of Elgar’s Sea Pictures as the poet describes a choppy sea:

O, brave white horses! you gather and gallop,
The storm sprite loosens the gusty reins;
Oh! brave white horses! you gather and gallop,
The storm sprite loosens the gusty reins;
Now the stoutest ship were the frailest shallop
In your hollow backs, on your high arch’d manes.
I would ride as never [a] man has ridden
In your sleepy, swirling surges hidden,
I would ride as never man has ridden
To gulfs foreshadow’d thro’ strifes forbidden,
Where no light wearies and no love wanes,
No love, where no love, no love wanes

Measured against the might of the sea, all man-made vessels are frail, from the greatest ships to dinghies and yachts. The experience of sailing a boat on the sea is paralleled only by flying in a glider, as we are struck by the silence of a world without human beings and our noise, or very few of us. The sea is like a church, a sacred sanctuary. A sailing boat does not “rape” the sea like a motor vessel, but respects and follows the elements. A dinghy can explore bays and estuaries, rivers and lakes – easily transported by road on a small trailer.

I have not sailed for very long. My childhood was filled with daydreams of sailing the seas. At the age of 12, I resolved to leave home and steal a sailing boat – but my project was not realistic. Though I was imaginatively equipped with food and tools in a plastic carrier bag, I was unaware that there would be no boats at anchor in Morecambe Bay in the winter. Also, no boat owner leaves a fully rigged boat for any small boy to make off with! Boats are unrigged when not is use, and the process of rigging a boat is something to be learned: hoisting up the sail with the main halyard, fixing the boom and the downhaul vang, setting up the outhaul and tying it with a bowline to the sail, the cunningham, setting up the mainsheet, rigging the jib with the jibsheet, finally the rudder and the centreboard. Obviously these were mere details outside the imagination of a small boy. I crewed a couple of time with our family dentist in a Kestral dinghy, but was discouraged through knowing nothing of the basics of sailing. I was 49 when I first went on a one-week catamaran course with adolescents and a couple of adults, and began lessons in a dinghy. I remember the razor-edge sensation in a close-hauled beating dinghy.

The first accidental gybes followed by broaches and capsizes were discouraging. No one thought of explaining the basics of the points of sail. All I knew is that you can’t sail into the wind, but that you have to tack. Gybing is the same thing but with your back to the wind, and the boom moves further over and with more violence (if you haven’t hauled in and passed the boom over gently). Getting hit on the head by a gybing boom is something you don’t forget, and try to avoid repeating. It would take a long time to begin to coordinate the rudder, mainsheet and leaning out from the gunwale to counter the boat heeling when beating or reaching.

I ventured timidly into sailing keel boats like the 747 below, a fast regatta boat but with no comforts.

I live in Normandy, only twenty minutes from Saint Valéry en Caux and half an hour from my sailing club at Veules les Roses and my sailing school at Veulettes sur Mer. I did quite a few seasons with « Voile Passion » in Veulettes, which is a class in which a number of us go out in the school’s boats supervised by an instructor in a Zodiac motor boat. The school’s boats are big and heavy plastic jobs that can take punishment on the shingle beaches of our coasts. It was Christophe Falon who gave me my baptism of fire in winds of 18-20 knots and the powerful waves of the English Channel swell. Christophe is an experienced sailor and a sportsman – but found it difficult to get the underlying theory over to us. It is one thing to do something well, and another to teach others to do it. The first thing is to get a hold over our nerves and work under stress. But, the worst that can happen is getting wet and cold, at least when the Zodiac isn’t far away.

My most precious part of my training was at the Glénans Isles in August 2009. My wife, family and friends offered me two things for my 50th birthday: a week at the famous sailing school in Brittany and a second-hand boat. And so I arrived at Concarneau in August 2009, made arrangements for my van to be kept in protected parking, and with my bags boarded a small ship that would take us to the Glénans islands. The crossing took about an hour. We would be going far from cars and the bustle of mainland life. My sense of wonder was complete as we passed Penfret, then arrived at the Ile Saint-Nicolas. We disembarked and were shown the way to small boats with outboard motors that would take us to our home for a week – Drénec. Life was something like a scout camp with three small farm buildings, a shower block and tents for eight persons each. We were mostly young adults learning to windsurf or go at breakneck speed on catamarans, but with a few of us in our 40’s and 50’s.There were several courses on Drenec, but all involving light sailing. I was with a group of eight people sailing the Laser dinghy, a racing catboat with a single sail. For learning, the Radial sail is quite enough!

We went out each morning and afternoon is extremely light conditions as well as a couple of days when the wind went up to 18-20 knots. We kept together as a fleet of eight Lasers and we tacked and gybed together, ever attentive to the trim of our sails with the downhaul, cunningham and outhaul.The basis is being able to do a close-hauled beat and find the exact balance between the mainsheet, the rudder, one’s position in the boat and countering the boat’s heel. Then one is able to obtain more control over a reach and broad reach when the boat is at its greatest power and speed.

Since then, I have had time to practise in my own little boat, but firstly, I should mention the Naviclerus regatta at Trinité sur Mer de 2011.. We were all priests and seminarians, mostly Roman Catholic but some, like myself, Anglicans. Two things in common, and this is humanity at its best! The three days of the regatta were unforgettable. We sailed in eight Dufour 34 yachts hired for the occasion. That involved 62 men, with 6 in our boat and 8 in each of the others. Perhaps the most precious thing we heard from our skipper, a retired priest and old sea dog: The sea teaches us modesty. Too right! Get cocky with the sea and it will swallow you without so much as a belch.

My boat is a light plastic ten-footer, which was dirt-cheap, easy to haul up the ramp after sailing and easy to right after a capsize. Actually, the boat is so stable that I have never capsized in it. It can also be hauled over a shingle beach without damage to the hull, and it is repairable by plastic welding. The hull is almost indestructible, but the mast and rigging are fragile. Replacement masts are almost impossible to find, as this boat, the Tabur 320 designed by Auzépy-Brenneur and produced at 12,000 units, has been out of production for thirty years.

I broke my mast on two occasions whilst beaching, and getting the hull rolled over onto the mast by a wave. The second time, the mast was not repairable, and I had to think in terms of re-rigging with spars and sails from another boat of comparable size. My choice was that of the Mirror dinghy, since masts and sails are easily available for low prices on e-bay and other private sales. Below is a rig with a part of the old mast used as a gaff and the mast made from a piece of aluminium tubing in imitation of the Mirror rig. Since then, I have also bought an original Mirror mast, gaff and boom.

This boat sails very well under a Mirror rig with the advantage on these Normandy beaches (like the south coast of England) of a plastic hull. It does not lose its weather helm, essential for safety at sea. It is not a very pretty boat, but it gets you on the water!

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2 Responses to The Stoutest Ship were the Frailest Shallop

  1. John says:

    A very inspiring blog…thank you it’s good to read about adapting boats and approach to circumstance. I particularly like your yellow dinghy with the mirror rig, as we also sail a Mirror However it is all too easy to capsize in gusty weather! I have been told the sails are good for bigger boats e.g. Wayfarer in rough weather Your point about humility with the elements is also well made. Please keep writing, anyhow

    • The problem with the standard Mirror setup is that it doesn’t allow reefing. See my article on my New Reefing System. You will need a sailmaker to do a proper job of putting in the reefing tack and clew, together with your sail ties. For the rest, just follow David Sumner’s method which he based on the old traditional rigs.

      Many people have converted their Wayfarers into a gunther rig, often using Mirror spars and sails. You have to remake the mast step at deck level – some kind of cross plank arrangement with a solid support from the bottom of the hull.

      You also need to add topping lifts to stop your boom dropping into the boat or in the sea as your transfer the weight of the yard (gaff) from your normal halyard to your reefing halyard. See Mr Sumner’s video. I position the topping lifts two-thirds the way along the boom going aft from the mast. Two positions are necessary, one to allow the sail to fill with wind normally and the other to lift the boom further up when your mainsail is down.

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