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Monday, 22 July 2013

Hearts of Oak sails the bay back home

The days when it's perfect weather for sailing come around far too seldom around here. What with the way the tide rushes out of the bay leaving countless miles of mud flats so that the times of the high tide are crucial. Then you need some wind, not a howling gale, and not a fickle zephyr , and it's a bonus if it's not raining on the days you can go down to the sea again.
Today the sun was shining with high cirrus and a force 3-4 coming in from the NW. High tide was at 1630, and today the crew of six aboard Hearts of Oak were about to attempt to sail her back to her birthplace of 100 years ago. She was the last boat to be built in Ulverston  and today she was going home. We set off from Roa island at 0930 with the plan to arrive on the flood tide at canal foot at about 1600 hrs.
Its about fifteen miles from our starting point to our final destination but fraught with the unknown of the Morcambe bay sands which due to the shifting sands and channels are seldom navigated and impossible to chart.  Our skipper for the day is Tony who lives at canal foot and has figured out that we should have clearance as long as we arrive on the top of the flood at 4pm.
Back when Hearts of Oak was built mariners would regularly do this trip we were about to undertake but today hardly anyone attempts it. It's more than likely you'll end up on a sandbank, stuck waiting for the next high tide to lift you off, and today is not a particularly high tide so the adventure is tinged with more than just a hint of trepidation.
We have to head out into the bay and find the main shipping lane that comes out of Heysham, a busy ferry port on the Lancashire side of the bay which has deep water at all times of the tide.  Then when the tide starts running we will catch the flood and sail it all the way to Canal foot, Ulverston.
It takes about two hours to tack out to lightening knoll before we turn north and ride the tide surging at four knots into the bay. The wind has picked up and is on the beam as we start our approach towards the distant mountains at the head of the bay. We're flying along touching  9 knots with the rising tide and this fresh NW wind and all the time keeping a watchful eye on our newly fitted depth gauge. It reads off erratic changes in depth, sometimes ten feet, the next minute out of range. The sailing is exhilarating, the views stunning, but were running too fast. We need to slow down and wait for the tide otherwise we'll arrive without enough water under our keel at our destination.
Our skipper decides we should drop the main, which we attempt to do but the gaff gets stuck, staysail and jib flap violently, and the gaff refuses to drop. There's a rope flying loose, time to drop all sails.  Eventually after a few moments of panic everything returns to calm as we drop all sails and regroup under engine power. We throw out the anchor and sit waiting for the tide to put another few feet under our keel. The run of the tide is fierce but the big anchor seem to hold in the Morcambe bay mud, we've got four feet under us that soon becomes five. We lunch, Brian washes the sides and Skipper Tony enters the log.
With an hour till high tide we weigh anchor and gingerly cruise past Chapel Island, heading for the quay at Canal foot. The depth gauge reads one foot, then we bump the bottom but glide on. At 1600 hrs we glide into the calm waters of Canal foot and drop anchor. Hearts of oak is home once again and the crew breathe a sigh of relief.
In the olden days they would have done all that under sail. Today we have to exercise a bit more caution. The adventure ends on the beach with Jennifer, the prime mover, but no sailor, in the restoration on Hearts of Oak plying us with strawberry scones and cups of tea ashore
 A splendid voyage, and one that made us appreciate how difficult it must have been for those sailors of long ago navigating these treacherous sands day in and day out with just a man and boy and no engine to turn to.
She'll stay here a week and then next weekend we'll catch the falling tide and take her back to Roa island, now that could be even more fun than todays outing.