Buried in the Christmas run up is the shortest day of the year. The countdown to the sailing season has started, says Jonty Pearce
Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat. The turkeys are looking worried and getting twitchy when cranberry sauce is mentioned. It seems improbable, but in the middle of the most frenetic Christmas shopping days lies the shortest day – the 22nd of December, at 0449hrs if you live in London. This means that from the 23rd of December the nights are getting shorter and the days are drawing out, although it never seems really noticeable until after the dark cold days of January. But rejoice – the first harbinger of the new sailing season has arrived.
The Winter Solstice as we know it applies only to the Northern hemisphere; in the Southern hemisphere its opposite, the Summer Solstice, holds sway to mark their longest day. At this time the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn having reached its most southerly declination with the North Pole tilted at its furthest from the Sun. This means that north of the Arctic Circle towards the Pole there are zero sunlight hours, whereas south of the Antarctic Circle the midnight sun prevails – a total absence of darkness.
While we can enjoy these lengthening days, it is worth understanding that The Winter Solstice defines the start of winter: three months of gales, rain, ice, and snow. I heard last night that gale damage to the piles securing the pontoon Aurial was in at Neyland had necessitated moving her to another pontoon. Thank heavens for efficient and caring marina staff – they really are excellent. But for those boats less fortunately harboured the season brings worry about chafing moorings and worn fastenings. All of us have to be aware of the dangers of ice – look what it did to Shackleton’s Endurance!
Luckily, rather than fears of being crushed and sunk, we only have the risk of freezing pipes and cracked water jackets. The power of expanding frozen water has to be seen to believed. Ever since I failed (or rather forgot) to drain the gas hot water heater I have been an early adopter of both emptying the water out of vulnerable components as well as the use of frost-stat controlled tube heaters. It costs a little electricity to run – equivalent to a 60W bulb – but can save buckets (literally) in the long run!
I’ve always been tempted by the notion of winter sailing on those magical sunny days that crop up with an unpredictable regularity. But therein lies the problem – my sailing days have to be diarised, and with a 3 hour drive to Neyland any spontaneity has usually been usually exhausted by the time we arrive with the majority of the daylight hours having been wasted on the road. As a result I have always opted for the safer option of removing the sails and canvas coverings to give the winds less to grasp and worry. So, although Aurial remains afloat all season, she spends her winter months safely hibernating and securely tied to her marina berth. I remain in envy of those sailors able to enjoy a brisk crisp Boxing Day sail – may their Eberspachers and wood-burners blast out heat below decks to defrost their numbed fingers after the hook has been dropped in deserted anchorages to enjoy mulled wine and turkey sandwiches.
So, my merry mariners, when Seasonal Affective Disorder afflicts you after the artificial height of the festive season and its subsequent anticlimax, transfer your dark musings to lighter thoughts of the lengthening days that semaphoring ever louder the onset of recommissioning time. And after that, you will be able to sail your yacht in the halcyon days of spring, summer, and autumn – after the joyous experience of renewing the antifouling, of course…