Dinghy cruising on the Solent

Dinghy cruising on the Solent

Steffan Meyric Hughes went on the first English Raid for a few breezy days on the west Solent this summer. Photos by Kathy Mansfield

Summer dreaming

I know that having Matt Newland of Swallow Boats on our stand at the London Boat Show in January is trouble —in a good way. In 2009 he offered the loan of one of his boats and I ended up taking a pretty little Storm 15 double-ender and rowing and sailing it in a 100-mile circuit around London (CB255).

This winter, the country was in the midst of its deepest freeze in 30 years —Isure none of us has forgotten that satellite photo of the whole country brushed white with snow. It was a good time for Matt to sell me the idea of a summer raid, which his firm was part-sponsoring, and in which he, and it seems I, would be sailing. And so it was that on a summerevening at the end of July, I found myself, with first mate Lara and a car full of oilies and camping kit, about to set sail on another Lilliputian odyssey.

Keyhaven to Cowes

The next day, Will, one of Matttwo young boatbuilders, and I set sail in the new BayRaider 17, threading through the muddy channel that snakes its way gently past moored yachts from the pretty village of Keyhaven and into the Solent. We rapidly established that neither of us was could be compared to the late Frank Dye in terms of dinghy-cruising expertise and that neither of us had a clue where we were going. One thing we did agree on though, was that buoyancy aids make great cushions, and we were just settling down to a gentle run in a light zephyr with the morning sun warming our backs when we went aground.

We came off easily enough, but I became suddenly aware of the distinguished company we were in. Not only was Matt somewhere ahead, with Lara (something inside told her shehave a more competent lift with Matt) and his other young boatbuilder Ian, but we were in the company of none less than yacht designer Andrew Wolstenholme, Thames boatbuilder Colin Henwood, dinghy maestro and builder John Claridge, organiser George Trevelyan and wife Julia swooshing around on a RIB in a rather statesmanlike fashion —not to mention scores of highly-experienced Solent sailors and others whoarrived from Holland, Russia, Italy, Austria and France to be here.

So we wanted to look good as we tacked up the narrow channel to reach the supporting Thames sailing barge Alice for our dayinstructions and packed lunches.

Soon we were away, in the Solent proper, already sizing up the competition. For competition, I should say ’. The raid was technically competitive’, although there were a number of races around the buoys contested by the seven Swallow boats that attended.

In particular, Matt seemed keen to beat Pelham Olive, one of his clients (whose other boat is the 1903 Mylne yawl Kelpie) enjoying the raid on his 22ft (6.7m) SeaRaider with daughter Alexandra and son Colin. In the end, Pelham, in the quicker 22-footer, sailed past Matt, in his 20ft (6.10m) BayRaider.

Will and I were having a private race against Moray MacPhail of Classic Marine and Mattdad Nick, in Moray s 18ft (5.3m) gaffer First of April. In light airs we kept side by side for some time and then we got the oars out and started to pull ahead. Then Moray broke out his secret weapon, a spinnaker, and slowly drew away from us, heading west to Cowes. A raid is supposed to be a and oar’event, though in reality the use of oars is seen as an admission of failure with the resulting punishment of having to perform a repetitive, mechanical task —which is certainly how we saw rowing.

As we sailed towards Cowes, the wind picked up and we put the oars away with some relief. We had a bouncy ride, running straight down the wind, the boom end way above our heads, and the jib and main butterflied out each side —not always the wisest idea, but the ballast tank was full and so we went, one hawk eye on the mainsail s luff for signs of fluttering and three hawk eyes on the activity that was increasingly meaning we had to watch our course very carefully. Gybing over onto starboard tack did little to allay our nerves as we were surrounded by a seething mass of yachts. It was just two days before the start of Cowes Week and ageing Sigmas were crossing tacks with the Extreme 40 catamarans which were slicing one hull through the glowing emerald of the Solent while flying the other far above the water and accompanying RIBs.

The Extreme 40 fleet is always a dramatic sight, particularly with the frantic shouting from the cat crew to the RIB below. It sounded like a desperate, monosyllabic version of: gust s died and the windward ama is about to crash down upon your heads.”We had a few close brushes with the 40s ourselves.

Dinghy cruising on the Solent

George Trevelyan told me later that some had questioned the decision to cruise a load of small, open boats through this amazing melee. Perhaps they were the same sort of souls that George, Folkboat sailor of the Royal Lymington, had told me about, those who to think you cancruise the Solent in anything less than a 50-footer these days.”

In fact, apart from a love of raiding, it was the desire to see the Solent given back to little sailing boats, as well as drawing together local fleets like the Lymington Scows and Prams for a fuller adventure, that drove George and co-organiser Jeff Probert to stage the event. Jeff was on his own boat, one of the quickest in the fleet, a 28ft (8.5m) GRP whaleboat just 6ft (1.8) in beam.

Upriver to Folly Inn

We passed the Royal Yacht Squadron and its famous cannons to starboard in a short chop and turned up the Medina, passing the lovably ugly little chain ferry and tacking upriver, shaving the pontoons on each side in an effort to minimise tacking, as the awkward angle meant short tacks across the river and long ones upriver.

More than one soul waved to us from the banks, smiling at the sight of a fleet of little dinghies tacking upriver the old-fashioned way and soon enough we splashed ashore outside the Folly Inn pub for a very welcome barbecue supper, laid on by the pub (organised, as were all meals, by the raid), and an evening of drinking beer outside in the warm night air, with the river flowing past beside us. Will and Ian, part of our Swallow Boats contingent, proceeded to drink a quite impressive amount of beer after the rest | of us had retired to tents, and ended up dancing on tables with a group of sailors dressed as French women, and later testing out the accommodation potential of the new BayRaider 17, one collapsed on each cockpit side bench.

Next day they pronounced it very comfortable, although both had a wild, desiccated air about them, falling upon their bacon sandwiches with brio. Lara and I hopped in with Matt on the 20 for the day. It had the luxury of an outboard motor, so none of this sail-and-oar rubbish for us!

Medina to Ashlett Creek

We motored slowly back down the Medina in a calm, giving a tow to a couple in one of the many Lymington Scows on the raid. Of the 39 boats that attended, no fewer than seven were GRP scows and prams built by John Claridge, and they would ghost along beautifully in lighter winds, only losing out when it blew harder and it all came down to length and hull speed.

Out on the Solent again, a breeze sprang up, and we sailed through our raid fleet, admiring some of the boats. The Dutch Wuptem, one of the most unusual-looking, and perhaps the fastest, was 22ft (6.7m) of pale blue, clinker-built cat schooner. The other Dutch boat was one of the slowest, though one of the most charming: the little oaken Hubertje, a Dutch Grundel of unknown age, though her Dutch owner, Willem Leopold, described her to me as old, very heavy and very slow.”

Soon we were crossing heavy shipping, eyes once again darting everywhere while Matt pulled out the asymmetric and we flew across the Solent, waiting patiently while a Grimaldi Line container ship crossed just a few feet in front of us, then running in front of two smaller coasters chasing us up Southampton Water. Being so near to container ships, choppy waters and the sheer scale of industry and trade turns what would be a dull sail on a full-sized yacht into something with a far darker thrill on a little open boat where you can dip your hand into the sea and feel every nuance of the water as you sail through it. We felt as vulnerable as mountain climbers as we reached the mouth of Ashlett Creek, where we were due for lunch at the Sailing Club.

We milled around oustide the entrance to the creek for a while before braving the channel. Shameless opportunists lined up to follow us to see if we went aground, which we did —though only through altruism, slowing down to offer a tow to a poor couple caught in the act of having to row. So we lost steerage way to the beamside breeze and got blown into the muddy shallows. I hopped over the side to push us off and immediately sank knee-deep into mud with the consistency of wallpaper paste.

Beaulieu, the Yar and home

A shower and a lunch later, we were on our way to a lovely stop outside the Royal Southampton Yacht Cluboutpost on the Beaulieu River at GinFarm, where we pitched our tents right on the wateredge and enjoyed a sit-down supper for 100, spending the evening getting to know our fellow raiders. The next day, the raid explored the upper reaches of the Yar before making its way back to Keyhaven. We opted to sail straight back, so Swallow Boats could trail their boats back to Wales.

George is talking about the possibility of another raid somewhere in England, in 2012. As seemingly more and more people wonder why they ever gave up the simple joys of their first boats, it will likely be as oversubscribed as this was. And, quietly, a lot more competitive than the Olympics.