Dick Durham April podcast: With my boat laid up, the forecast should have offered no more than cosy reassurance. This year was different...

“As night-time storms rattled the slates, I dreamed of that one length of studding holding the boat upright”

We’re very close to saying goodbye to the gales of winter. I for one will be relieved to see the equalisation of night with day as the spring equinox and its associated stormy weather passes. The high winds of the laying-up period brought me more anxiety this year than normal. It started like this.

Back in late November, mine was one of eight yachts to be hauled out at the boatyard. I arrived early and took a turn on a fuel barge while the travel hoist was backed down the slipway. I had told the lay- up officer my draught – 4ft 3in – and was surprised that shoaler boats were being pulled out ahead of Wendy May, my 26ft, six-ton gaff cutter. But I remained sanguine: although High Water had passed it was ‘standing’ for a while as it does, except at springs.

Then came a hitch. One 36-footer had been hauled out and once clear of the water it was found her aft sling was half on and half off the central keel. She had to be gingerly backed down into the tide, hauled off and re-sited in the hoist.

By now time was ticking, or jerking if you want it in digital terms. Muddy clots of weed began to head east, streamers of ebb crinkled around the withies and the handlebar of a previously submerged supermarket trolley appeared on the far bank of Oyster Creek. ‘Five minutes, Dick,’ yelled Alex the yard master. I got the engine started, the turn made up as a slip.

‘OK,’ he gave me the thumbs up.

To place Wendy May into the hoist meant putting her at right angles to the now fast- running ebb. I had to keep a good amount of way on and as a result she had a bow wave like that imagined by Kaiser Wilhelm II for his Dreadnought fleet. She thundered into the hoist, sweeping the aft sling half way up her forefoot, and crunch! Her massive cast iron keel hit the concrete slipway beneath.
With the engine hard astern and the tractor driver using the hoist’s misplaced sling as a shunt, we got the boat back afloat and the slings under her any which way, as fast as we could, as the tide ran off.

She was hauled from the evaporating creek with a list – the last boat of the day’s lay-up – and driven swayingly and slowly to her allotted slot on the clinkered earth. With a railway sleeper
beneath her long keel and her heavy legs ready to fasten on each side, I suddenly realised that the bolts through her top plank would not be long enough to go through the side and the leg as well; they were just there to block the holes while the legs were unshipped.

Fortunately my fellow members came up with two lengths of studding – used to repair the club’s stagings – and all was well. But we still had the list to contend with. I lashed a line around the mast and six men hauled her upright as the hoist operator lowered her onto her sleeper and each leg was blocked off. But the operation was not perfect and her weight was on one leg – to starboard. I chocked oildrums under the turn of the bilge each side as backup.

But as night-time storms rattled the slates, I dreamed of that one length of studding holding the boat upright, and at dawn I focussed the binoculars on Wendy May’s mast to check it was still upright. At dusk I listened in trepidation to the Shipping Forecast and, when a south-west gale Force 9 was forecast, drove to the yard and in driving rain and pitch black night hauled two massive baulks of timber to each side of the boat and lashed their ends, which stood proud of the rail, down to the chainplates. She was now a two-legged beast with walking sticks.

Next autumn, I’ll plead for an earlier slot.

Dick Durham