Not noted as a performance yacht, my 1936 gaffer still managed second place in the last regatta of the season, says Dick Durham

Dick Durham:

It’s become the last event of the season on the East Coast. After the Maldon Town Regatta, boat owners start thinking about laying-up and this year the weather seemed to agree with their timing.

The day before, my crew Glum and I had drifted past Southend Pier aboard Wendy May, my 26ft gaff cutter, where the anchored sailing barge Melissa had a charter party sunbathing on her hatches. We went on down to the Blacktail Spit buoy, which twisted in the spring ebb, and so up the Swin between the sun-dried sandbanks expanding from the rapidly shrinking sea.

A dull bang reached our ears and I looked westward to see a large black cloud mushrooming into the sky. Somewhere over on Foulness Island the MoD had blown something to smithereens. Whether it was the latest ordnance being demonstrated to the Saudis, a burn-off of old shells, or the beginning of the apocalypse, we were too lazy to care.

On race day, however, after weeks of balmy winds and glorious sunshine, grey cloud boiled and raced over Mersea Quarters where Wendy May stretched a mooring warp bar tight, wringing the damp sea-wrack into dried grass.

The northerly near gale, which buffetted the sea lavender on the saltings, spread oystercatchers like a fan across the sky and held red ensigns in flat perfection, was also wreaking havoc among the boats preparing for the regatta. The genoa of an East Coast One Design unzipped its hanks from the forestay and billowed out into almost uncontrollable frenzy. A Six Metre gybed at the wrong moment and piled up on a sandbank. Reefs were being tied in as spars shook from side to side.

Aboard Wendy May, it was the first time we’d ever needed to tie the gaff mainsail down to its third reef. Now I discovered, as our start time ticked nearer, that the bunched luff of the mainsail could not be squashed close enough to hook the third reef cringle into the ram’s horn.
‘Quick, Glum, pass up a sail gasket,’ I shouted, and with that I lashed the sail to the reef hook.

We left the staysail in the bag while the jib leapt and jumped in fury before I could sheet it in, bending the Oregon pine bowsprit skywards until I could bowse down the bobstay.

We were now late for the start, which was between the Nass Beacon and the sailing barge Dawn, which allegedly sported the course number in the rigging.

‘Can you read the course number?’ I asked Glum as we sped for the line, already 10 minutes late.
‘No,’ he said.

‘Oh well, we’re late anyway. We’ll follow the nearest boat ahead.’

It was then I realised we were still towing the dinghy! Looking downwind I could see the regatta motor-launch bobbing around on the chop, towing several dinghies behind her. It is one of the useful quirks of the Maldon Regatta that a launch provides the service of looking after your dinghy during the race.

‘There’s the tender launch,’ I said. ‘Just cast the dinghy off.’

The launch helmsman was clearly looking at us and as Glum cast our 8ft pulling dinghy adrift, I waved furiously and pointed.With relief we saw the helmsman return our wave and we set off after a small, heavily reefed gaffer, which had got a 15-minute lead on our dreadful start.

After following our leader around the first three marks we deduced we were sailing a shortened course and sat back to enjoy the seas washing Wendy May’s topsides and rail, which needed a good drink of salt water after the long, hot summer had dried them out.

As we crossed the finish line, somebody yelled: ‘Well done, you’ve come second.’

‘Really?’ I said, much surprised.

‘Yes, out of two,’ came the smirking reply. All but two boats in our class had abandoned the race because of the wind strength.

Dick Durham

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