In this extract from Herbert Alker Tripp, published with permission from Lodestar Books, we find the author attempting to reach Cowes from Bembridge for Cowes Week in August 1928. He barters with a ‘grubby smack’ for a ten shilling tow to reach her berth against a turning tide. Tripp (1883-1954) was a keen sailor and accomplished author, whose regular occupation was in a civilian capacity with the Metropolitan Police in London from 1902 until his retirement in 1947. His vessel, ‘Growler’, was a twelve-ton yacht of barge type, cutter-rigged and built at Maldon, Essex. ‘Growler’ had an auxiliary engine fitted later, but these voyages were made under sail.
I was intending to shift round [from Bembridge] to Cowes for Cowes Week, and conditions, on the night before, seemed ideal. The wind, which was then south-westerly, had been so for days. It promised, therefore, to give us a comfortable reach round under the lee of the Island in the morning. An early start would be needed so that we should get the west-going stream in Spithead.
‘If we get away at seven, it will do,’ I had decided overnight. ‘Even if the wind is light, we shall push out somehow. Of course, the wind may play us a low trick. If it veers northerly at all it will bottle us here in the harbour till the turn of the tide. But there ought to be no chance of that; the glass has no tendency to rise.’ And so we turned in.
I was out on deck at six in the morning, and I snorted with indignation. The sunshine was delightful, but the wind was blowing hard from the north-west. Sweeping round St. Helens cliff into the harbour, it was dead foul.
‘Tumble up!’ I shouted below. ‘A foul wind. And it’s strong; we must pull a reef down.’
My companion, now in the well, made a very wry mouth as he looked about him. Wind and tide would do all they could to keep us from the Drumhead. ‘What about it?’ he said.
‘We’ll have a shot, but I hae ma doots,’ I replied as I tied the reef points. ‘And, if we can’t make the Drumhead against the flood, we’ve missed the tide outside.’
We would do our best, and see. The yacht heeled away from the breeze, and reached across in splendid style to the ferry. Down went the helm, and she essayed to turn to windward against the tide in that very narrow fairway.
A small racing yacht would have made nothing of the business, but a barge was at her worst, and powerless. Try as she would, she simply could not manage to escape; there was really no room for a yacht of her size to gather way and so to stand a fair chance. To and fro she went, seeking to zigzag to freedom, but the tide sucked her back every time, by the beam. It was no good.
So we let go our anchor with that familiar clatter of running chain, somewhere opposite the Clubhouse, there to await the deepening of the water over the banks; we could then reach out, clean over the St. Helens Sand, not bothering about the fairway at all. But I knew that we had lost our tide to Cowes. One’s fancy overnight had seen us berthed snugly in Cowes River by half-past ten this August morning, but half-past nine found us in fact still at Bembridge, just making sail for our second effort.
The sands had been covered within an hour or two, and a great sheet of blue water, broken into little waves, stretched to eastward of us. The anchor was hove in short and broken out. Over the sand flew the yacht with a few inches of water under her lee-board; the tide, of course, was rising and a touch could not have mattered a bit, but I breathed more freely all the same when we had cleared the sand. It was good to be at sea again. With any sort of luck, it might still be possible to make Cowes before half-past one, the hour at which the Solent stream would turn against us; true, the river tide would be ebbing, but no matter; the wind would be fair for the entrance.
Out in Spithead, with wind against tide, the usual steep sea was running, and we were deluged with spray. The yacht banged and thumped among the breaking hillocks of water, making a vast noise and turmoil of it. Those are the things that knock all the speed out of a boat, those vicious breaking foam-caps that hit her, hit, hit, hit her. Despite the tide under us, we seemed to creep; progress was wretchedly slow; we had weathered Ryde, it was true, but we had only just brought Wootton Creek abeam when the tide had turned, and we were still several miles from Cowes. The earliest sign of changing tide is the set of the current inshore, which begins to run easterly some time before the turn of the tidal stream itself, the ‘Cowes Tide’ they call it locally. A yacht anchored close to the land had swung to face the altered current long before the tide had turned out here in the open fairway.
When the tide did turn, progress, slow already, became more poor than ever. Every patient board gained incredibly little; but still we worked on, and at half-past four in the afternoon (not half-past ten in the morning!) we had won our way to Old Castle Point, and were drawing level with the bevy of crowded vessels which forested the roadstead with masts. The royal yacht at her moorings was close abeam.
But we were not into Cowes yet. So near and yet so far. That sluicing tide round the Point was too much for us; weather that corner we could not. We tried hard, tried and tried again, but it was no use, and down went the anchor. We had gained sight of Cowes and were in some shelter, but that was all. I was anxious to be at my berth before night; otherwise we should have sat there awaiting the tide with our customary patience. As it was, I was glad for once of a tow.
We finished our passage securely, but in complete ignominy. A Cowes smack, under motor power, came from the eastward within an hour, and her we hailed. ‘Give us a pluck into the river?’
Now Cowes folk make no pretence of general altruism during Cowes Week; the world is with them for a week only in the year, and they exact the uttermost, even from the most obscure hanger-on of the great occasion. The answer was obvious.
‘What’ you goin’ to give us if we do?’ The boat slowed her engine as she circled round us; and I asked them what they wanted.
‘Oh, we shan’t charge you much; we’ll do it very moderate. A couple of quid’ll do it for you.’
I had expected as much; but my reply, a brief injunction to ‘talk sense’ brought a reduced offer. ‘Say a quid, then,’ they shouted, and their tone was one of aggrieved generosity.
But I knew that the smack was going into Cowes in any case and was not likely to leave the price of several drinks and some tobacco behind her. So I shrugged my shoulders and said that I was staying where I was.
‘What will you give, then?’ came the inquiry, now with a strong rasp and asperity about it.
Unashamed, I mentioned the sum of ten shillings, and the response was immediate. ‘Chuck us y’r rope over,’ they said. And thus, at tail of a grubby smack, we arrived among the rank and fashion of Cowes Week.
The strong north wind had cleared the roadstead of all really small craft. Cowes had become a lee shore for the time being, and the anchorage would have been a welter of horrible discomfort for small vessels. They had run for shelter elsewhere, many of them into the Medina. And they were wise, for nothing is more wretched than an uneasy berth.