Written by Matthew Diggle, Engineering Manager
Sleep deprivation, disorientation, and a general feeling of lack of progress might sound like a normal day at the office, but add feeling cold and wet whilst sitting outside on a boat made of concrete that’s pitching and rolling in the middle of the English Channel and you get a flavour of my time volunteering with a sail training charity as part of Hitachi’s Corporate Social Responsibility programme. I spent a week helping with a couple of trips for young people, and if I’m honest it wasn’t all hard work.
The crew for the first part of the week joined the boat without knowing each other and, in general, with very little sailing experience. I was Second Mate, in charge of a “watch” of five, and my role was to mould them into a tight-knit band of expert mariners, or at the very least help them to work together and learn how to do some of the tasks on-board without injuring themselves or each other.
We started off in Chatham and went a little way down the Medway to anchor for the night. Checking the weather forecast the next morning showed that, although things were fine to the east of Kent, a storm out in the Atlantic was making the sea in the English Channel rather rough, so to avoid the worst of the conditions we decided to head for Ramsgate. As predicted the waves did get bigger as we approached Ramsgate, and it was at this point, as we dropped sails and prepared to enter the harbour, that the engine decided not to start. There were various options available but we had set our hearts on visiting Ramsgate, so we radioed up to see if anyone could give us a tow. Rather embarrassingly it was the huge blue and orange RNLI all-weather lifeboat that turned up to drag us in.
The next morning, with the engine repaired, we set off for northern France. This proved to be a rather gruelling 27-hour battle into wind and waves, with the watches running 3 hours on, 3 hours off throughout. This wasn’t too bad during the day, but waking people in the middle of the night and getting them up on deck is a different matter. However, all the crew did their best, despite quite severe sea-sickness in some cases, and we sailed on through the darkness watching the lights on-shore getting ever so slowly closer. Finally, as dawn approached, we entered the harbour in Dieppe.
We spent the day in France where we came across a vintage car rally. The cars seemed to date from a period before silencers were invented. As we watched from a “respectful” distance, the owner of one, which was obviously Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang’s noisy, older sibling, swung the starting handle and it started up thunderously with flames coming out of the exhausts, surprisingly close to the petrol tank.
The next day we set off back across the Channel, heading for Portsmouth. This trip was much more comfortable although it still required standing watch through the night, but we were rewarded with a stunning sunrise as we approached the Isle of Wight.
When we arrived I swapped over to the charity’s other, smaller, boat to be First Mate for a rather excitable group of sea-scouts to take part in the Association of Sail Training Organisations’ Small Ships race in the Solent. To start with there was little to no wind, so we drifted with the tide and at one point we were going sideways using what little wind there was to avoid a very large green buoy. We just made it, but in the process I think we rather frightened a couple of chaps who were out for a quiet day fishing in their little motor boats. Fortunately the wind picked up for the leg back towards the finishing line at Cowes and we were pleased, and more than a little surprised, to find out that we came first in our class. In fact, we would have been first overall if we hadn’t picked up a penalty for missing one of the marks. In the evening there was a prize-giving ceremony, where we were presented with a (not terrifically exciting) book, followed by a bit of a celebration.
Our great victory in the race made the sea-scouts even more enthusiastic, so rather than going straight back to drop them off the next day we spent a few hours sailing in somewhat breezier conditions.
It was rewarding to see how much the sea-scouts had learned and how much better they were at working together.
I was rather tired by the end of the week and didn’t get home until almost midnight, so I returned to work the next day suffering from sleep deprivation, feeling slightly disorientated, and wondering how much progress there had been whilst I was away, so it was business as usual. But at least I was warm and dry!