‘Cruises of the Joan’ is from a delightful series, the Lodestar Library, featuring ‘interesting, the unusual, and the downright eccentric in nautical writing’. The series is published on ‘Sailing by’ with permission from the publisher, Lodestar Books.
In this extract, W.E Sinclair, skipper of ‘Joan’ describes his journey north from the Tyne, keeping away from the ‘smoky steamers’ and their harbours, steering carefully through the Farne Islands to reach Berwick, where he’s stormbound for a fortnight, but enjoys the ‘fresh and interesting place’ away from the smoke and grime. After moving northwards again, and resting in Granton with fellow sailors for a couple of days, he continues on passage across the Firth of Forth and River Tay to Arbroath.
Tuesday, June 5th
The Tyne is a river full of steamers and business. I had had enough of a purely business river in the Tees, so that I at once took a violent hatred of the Tyne, except for its easy entrance, and sneaked into an out-of-the-way corner off Herd Sand where I stayed for two nights.
I made the passage from the Tyne to Farne Islands in fourteen hours with a moderate wind, getting as far as the Longstone Light by 11 p.m. Then the wind played its old trick, went foul and freshened. The nearest harbour to leeward was Blyth, thirty-four miles away, a smoky steamers’ harbour about which I knew nothing, so that I thought it best to go on. The only way of keeping a course was to watch for steamers and keep in their line of traffic; at least not too far inshore of it. Inability to see the compass was more of a nuisance that night than ever before; for I did not like to go far out nor dared to go far in where the Farne Islands lay.
In the morning the sea sickened me to look at it. I had never seen anything like it before. The waves were all broken. You could not make out any line of them more than a hundred yards long. The troughs were basins with breaking rims. From crest to hollow of the biggest wave I judged at ten feet vertical height, but I found the judging difficult and unsure. The wind was blowing hard enough to make me think of a reef, but I had learnt off Harwich that with a head wind reefing is no good for the ‘Joan’. She got an excellent washing, but everything in the cabin kept dry except where the water came in streams down the chain pipe. I had bought a pair of rubber thigh boots in Middlesbrough; these and oilskins made a perfect combination which kept me dry. Keeping a dry suit on you in such conditions more than doubles your power of lasting.
The dinghy was a quarter-full of water, the floorboards were loose and floating, and being unable to bail out I could only hope the painter would stand the strain. But the ‘Joan’ herself liked it well. I was becoming convinced she could stand something really bad. In 1922 she had behaved well running before a bad sea outside Plymouth. Someone told me she would have behaved even better head to wind, but I did not believe that. Belief was forced on me at last by facts.
I reached Berwick at 8 a.m. half an hour before high water. There were breakers all round as I came near the pier and not a boat was to be seen. I began to wonder if there was a harbour here, and felt squeamish enough to get the anchor ready to drop on the instant. A man on the pier saw my difficulty and directed me by signs. It was a simple matter when you knew, for you had only to turn two right angles, dodge between a sandy spit and a mud flat and let go in the channel.
Wednesday, June 6th was a red-letter day
Things combined to enliven me. I had left the Tyne the day before feeling tired, sleepy and generally off colour. All Tuesday night had been spent in a hard beat, nine hours having been taken to turn a dozen miles to Berwick. Then to know I had gained my object; that I was in a snug quiet harbour while outside was a rough sea; that the cabin was dry and cosy although the boat had been smothered with spray and water for hours; a square meal: a wash; a stroll in the sunshine on the sand; a fresh and interesting place to look at; all combined to make me pleased. And after the iron- and-coal country with its constant hammering and blazing, its smoke and dirt, I felt pleased to be able to be pleased.
Berwick kept me nearly a fortnight. For two or three days it blew south-west, a fair wind for me, but I had arranged to wait and rest over that period. It was lucky for me too; for on the Sunday after I went in, it blew a gale. Whenever I find myself in a good harbour during bad weather I feel particularly pleased; just as if for once I had got the better of my worst enemy. Later on the wind went north, my course, and I waited and walked.
The journey from Berwick on June 18th was a slow one
Being on a paltry wind as far as St. Abb’s Head and against it as far as Bass Rock did not make for speed. On Tuesday, after sailing for twenty-one hours, I became afflicted with the assurance that it was impossible to reach Leith that night. I drifted slowly into Largo Bay where by the aid of a puff or two a depth of six fathoms was found a mile off the village of Largo. The last five hours were exceedingly unpleasant in spite of the beauty of the coastal scenery; for a long slow drift by a sleepy steersman is a drawn-out weariness. But such an experience impresses upon one that the simplest pleasures are keenest. Nothing can make me forget the joy of lying on my bunk and deliciously falling into unconsciousness.
I looked out at five o’clock next morning to find it dead calm. I looked out again at ten, and a light fair breeze made me hurry up to dress. The boat drifted off for Leith. I thought of bringing up in the roads. The reading of harbour descriptions is discouraging. The Sailing Directions made me wish to keep out of most harbours. There is often trouble going in or coming out. But when I got near Granton I saw several small yachts sailing outside. They were the first I had seen since leaving Pin Mill, and the sight of them made me feel sociable; we hailed; and I went into Granton harbour where a mooring was offered me on which I lay snugly for two days.
Then the wind came west and hard. But a westerly wind meant an offshore wind along the Scottish coast. I considered the chance ought to be taken. A number of things had to be done, there always is, a holdfast painter had to be put on the dinghy, and two reefs had to be put in. Seeing I meant to go, everyone took up a restful position to watch the start. I have watched others getting under way very often, so that I had nothing to complain of. I could only do my best that no little mishap should occur, which it is easy to do when you start from a mooring, seeing that you have only to slip the buoy to be free. My luck held. When I slung off the wire that held the boat, she went slowly and surely upon the only right tack; and as soon as the wind caught her sails she bowed quickly and went. My vanity was spared.
The wind took me as far as Elie Ness on the north side of the firth opposite Bass Rock. Then it dropped altogether. Very soon a north-east air came, a head wind for me. I thought severely of it and went into Elie bay for an anchorage. This bay is well sheltered from everything except winds between south- east and south-west. At 10 p.m. the wind came south-east; it was light, but I am always ready to suspect winds; so I beat out of the place in sorrow. I might just as well have stayed to get my fair night’s sleep, for the wind died away altogether while I drifted slowly on my course.
When daylight came another westerly breeze hustled me along, with all sails drawing well, the sea smooth, and the boat as steady as anyone ought to want. This lasted long enough to take me across the Tay nearly to Arbroath. Afterwards I had a great mind to go into Montrose, but there were several hours to wait for the tide in. For the rest of the day the weather was fine and windless.