Colin Jarman

Writer and Photographer

Dogwatch aboard 'Firefly'. © Colin JarmanDogwatch on board the beautiful 1922-built Albert Strange and T Harrison Butler yawl Firefly. "I wonder if we'll get a run ashore tonight?"

Wandering around the Southampton Boat Show - and I've no doubt I shall find the same at ExCeL - I was impressed by the sheer size of the boats displayed. Not only were they of great length - a 34ft Hallberg-Rassy looked minute - but they were also of extreme beam, usually carried right aft to the transom. How will they ever fit into a 30 year old marina berth? Oh, and there's the enormously deep keel under them too. Where will there be water enough for that?
    Some of these keels look like a pencil with a torpedo on the end - absolutely perfectly designed for capturing fishing nets. Brilliant. Trawlermen everywhere will be over the moon. All they have to do is put their names and addresses on a label attached to the nets, then when they lose them, along comes Joe Yachtsman with his net catcher and the fisherman will doubtless offer a reward for the return of his gear.
Also, how secure are these narrow, deep keels? We've heard of several dropping off racing yachts at sea, so what would happen if the boats carrying them were to bounced hard on an offshore sandbank?
    Many of the displayed boats had wheel pedestals mounted high in the air, forced upwards by the need for headroom in stern cabins. It gives the helmsman a good all round view when motoring, but he'll have no idea what's going on behind the genoa while sailing and he or she will be exposed to every breath of a chilly wind, to say nothing of the kiss from a friendly wave that slaps against the open stern. And, might I warn, all that fine array of electronics mounted on the pedestal - each with its maker's name emblazoned on the screen cover - is just begging to be nicked.
    I saw several boats with hydraulic doors in their broad transoms, behind which were stowed inflated tenders. Very neat, very clever and very likely to go wrong, trapping the tender behind the closed door, no doubt.
    Cynical? Perhaps, but the level and sophistication of equipment on these boats makes it highly likely that in a year or two their owners will be spending much of their cruising time in marinas trying to get an engineer to come and help. Is this what cruising under sail is all about?

The other thing that struck me forcefully about the boats on show at Southampton was the strong influence of racing on their design. This has always been common in production boats - with a few notable exceptions - but just why does anyone think we want boats with wide, flat sections aft (derived from down wind sleigh riding) that fling their cockpit crews skywards when they heel, but are often not as weatherly as might be hoped?
Why do we want narrow cord, bulbed keels that you can't dry out on and that will have the helmsman sweating to hold a course as the boat twitches and leaps about? And why do we want all this beam towards the stern? Is it just to gain a pair of claustrophobic double berths under the cockpit? (Who wants two anyway, particularly with only 9mm of un-soundproofed plywood between them?) Or is everyone pretending to be a hotshot racer? Boats are beginning to look very like 'pimped' Vauxhall Corsas, I fear.

At what point does trusting your GPS and chart plotter become dangerous?
    It's Sunday morning, you've got to get home on the tide to be at work on Monday, but the fog's come in over night. You're not in an area of shipping, you're in home waters and there won't be too many other boats on the move if you get under way soon. Do you set off, relying entirely on the GPS and plotter to show you where you are, leaving you to keep your eyes peeled for anything looming out of the white wall that's shrunk your world to a room just a few feet across?
    Given a working radar you might be in a stronger position, but without one?
    I put the kettle on, made a brew and thought about it carefully. By the time I'd downed the tea the fog had changed to a thick mist, the sun a bright patch shining through it and one river bank could be made out. Any approaching craft would be avoidable and the chart plotter would act as a useful guide, coupled with the echo sounder and a knowledge of landmarks, buoys and groups of moored boats to be passed. I set off.
    Within a mile the mist dispersed and it turned into a drifting day of precious little wind, but a lot of time to mull over the decision to get the anchor and go to sea. Right? Wrong? It all worked out well, but I'm still not entirely sure what I would have done had the fog not thinned while I supped that mug of tea.

With the day looming closer when 'Gypsy' would be brought ashore for the winter, I was becoming more and more frantic. I couldn't undo the security lock on the trailer.
    Each day for four days I soused it in WD40. I bent and twisted the key; I poked with wire; I finally resorted to a rubber lump hammer. It was no good. I would have to buy an angle grinder and cut it off.
    Then, for some reason, I tried the spare key. Hey presto! - well, words to that effect, but mostly profane words - off it popped. Just like that. With relief, I applied loads of oil and so on, then found the original key also worked. No detectable difference in the keys and everything only six months old. I've given up trying to work it out, but the lesson must be to try the spare key before taking irreversible action.

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Published Work

East Coast Pilot