Monday, March 30, 2009


In which the saga of the near-sinking is concluded

In brazen defiance of ancient nautical tradition, the owner of the boatyard called with the news no boat-owner expects: repairs complete on time and under budget! Briongloid would be returning to the water on exactly the promised day.


On a calm and sunny Saturday, I found Briongloid floating calmly on the river by the boatyard, rafted to a fishing launch which itself was moored at a pontoon, her bilges drier than I could remember them. The tide was just right for escaping down-river - dead low, with the mud banks high, dry, and - crucially - visible. I ached to get Briongloid and her deep fin keel safely away from this alien place; you can't beat a fin keel for sailing into the wind on the open sea, but the same keel is a fatal vulnerability when aground on a mud bank (because if the water level should drop further, the boat will simply fall over, then flood when the water returns).

Before I attempted to get Briongloid down river, I had first to board with her dinghy and crew. The initial obstacle was the ramp to the pontoon - on this unusually low tide, it was as steep as a domestic staircase but with low-profile battens in place of steps. To my crew (my parents, combined age 144) it had something of the aspect of the north face of the Eiger. I made the first trip with a deflated dinghy (45 kg) on my back, descending backwards with hands on rails, as if using a ladder, then repeated the trip twice more, guiding my crew individually. They were too polite to say it, but I'm morally certain that they were reconsidering their decision to start a family.


We putted off down river, dead centre in a narrow and unmarked channel; nobody comes this far up river except locals, so why mark it? Clutched in one hand, I held my guide: a composite aerial photograph covering the first few miles of meanders. Taken at low water, the mud banks show clearly, as do landmarks on the river banks. I was betting that the outside of each bend would be deep, and the inside shallow...


This strategy worked beautifully for the first few bends, and soon we were alone on a stretch where the banks were silent and wooded, occupied only by watchful herons. Then, so gently that I almost thought I had imagined it, the bulb at the base of Briongloid's fin slid softly into the glutinous grey muck of the river bed. The best route away from a grounding is backwards; but full throttle in reverse gear did nothing but stir up some interesting vortices. For now at least, we were a fixture, essentially a small blue fibreglass island. Not a skipper's proudest moment.
Whatever my parents (never previously shipwrecked in their combined 144 years) thought of my seamanship, they were merciful enough to remain silent.

On a falling tide, this grounding would have been a serious mistake, liable to lead to a pretty severe wetting, at least for Briongloid. However, secure in the knowledge that the combined gravitational efforts of (a) a rock the size of Austrailia and (b) a spectral type-G star were, at that very moment, reversing the flow of the river, we did exactly what the likes of Charles Stock would do - made mugs of tea, and buttered the home-made scones supplied by a far-seeing wife.

Just when the scones were beginning to run low, eddies swirling out from under the hull on the up-river side revealed that the incoming tide was rising fast, reversing the flow of the river, and stealthily slipping over the mud. Reassured that Newton's laws still stood (more or less), I took soundings to port and starboard from bow and stern, revealing a definite gradient towards the stern. Adjusting my theory of the location of the main channel to this data, I was able immediately to motor free. After that, the keel touched once, but stuck no more; and off we putted down the Bandon River, breasting the current as we crossed from bank to bank chasing the main channel, watching rural Ireland slip past; apart from pastures and trees, the main features of that stretch were a ruined tower house, a demolished bridge (giving the submerged piers a very wide berth).

Near Kinsale, houses began to appear on the banks; passing under the road bridge (having checked for anglers and their dangling hooks) we entered the harbour proper, and at last met other boats, the usual miscellany: a gorgeous wooden yacht of classic lines and vintage, ultra-modern racing machines, a herd of gin palaces, a fleet of trawlers, a solitary coastal cargo ship - but all moored up tight - on a gorgeous March Saturday, we were the only boat on the move. As I tied Briongloid into a visitor berth at the KYC, I felt the sway of the pontoon, and smiled; we had reached the sea.

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