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Bringing Nancy Blackett home for the winter

    Nancy Blackett’s last sail of the season turned into something of adventure, with a race against the weather to make it in time across the Deben Bar and up to Woodbridge.

    Sailing Secretary John Smith had originally planned this trip as an end-of-season members’ cruise, but the long-term weather forecast did not look so good, so he reluctantly settled for arranging it as a delivery cruise instead.

    With a worsening forecast, Nancy Blackett needed to reach the relative safety of the River Deben mid-week – earlier than usual – so with new skipper Stuart Morris aboard, along with mate Michael Hilton and chief coffee-maker Clive Fisher, the delivery trip commenced at Woolverstone Marina on Wednesday 10th October.

    Here is Skipper Stuart Morris’ story of the trip:

    Dawn broke misty over the River Orwell in silence, punctuated only by a distant curlew call across the water and the creaking pontoon tramp of an early morning shower block trip. Opening my eyes, the slightly sooty white of the deck head welcomed me to a new day. From the forward cabin the soft sounds of another early morning middle-aged riser cranked into life.

    Sunrise at Woolverstone, 10th October 2018. Photo Stuart Morris.

    Warnings of strong winds were in place for every UK inshore coastal area, save for Gibraltar Point to North Foreland. We were due a force 4, gusting high force 5 wind, over the following 24 hours. This was due rise to force 5, gusting up to force 7 over the next 48 hours.

    Not a ripple could be seen on the water. I looked up at Nancy Blackett’s mast and rigging. The decision had been taken to return to the Deben on the next tide and avoid the impending onslaught, curtailing our plans for Nancy’s last mini-cruise of the season.

    By way of compromise, the crew, who had not sailed on the Deben before, or experienced what I regard as one of the prettiest rivers in the country, had suggested an extended river sail, mooring off Ramsholt for the night to ward off the Autumn chill in the Arms of the well-known hostelry.

    Timing is everything in life and as the tantalising waft of bacon crackling in the pan began to permeate the air, our third and final crew member ambled down the pontoon to join us. Quickly sustained, we got about the business of readying Nancy for her forthcoming voyage. We’d had reports of gearbox clutch problems, but I had checked over her the previous Saturday and not found any particular problem.

    We advanced the Morse cautiously to be rewarded with an appropriate rise in engine revs, but not the desired lurch forward and tugging at the lines. Hmmm. We tried again but this time all worked as intended. After a few more cycles of both forward and back all seemed well.

    Nancy Blackett, like all of us on board, was maybe just taking a little time to spark into life. Lines were released, a spring on the finger-end guided us gently out into the fairway where, without a hitch, forward was engaged and we headed out between the assembled boats of pontoons E and F into the River Orwell.

    We were all pleased to feel a gentle breeze plying its way up the river from Levington. The tide buffeted against the bow. Sails were raised and Nancy Blackett bent softly to the wind, but not sufficiently to encourage us that our appointment with the Deben Bar would be accomplished by sail alone.

    The morning mist was beginning to burn away as the sun rose higher in the clear blue sky. The oak-lined banks slid slowly past as we wove our way, first on one tack – then another, mustering all opportunities to ply our way down river.

    “There will be more wind in the harbour”, and sure enough, as we rounded Collimer Point onto Lower Reach, the rigging creaked and the gurgle of the water under the bow began to compete against the plodding rhythm of the engine. We briefly touched 4 knots over the ground against both wind and tide.

    Looking back to Felixstowe Ferry, 10th October 2018. Photo Stuart Morris.


    Those on board not familiar with the busy workings, channels and hazards of Felixstowe Harbour were introduced to them one by one as we worked our way steadily on. Past Shotley Horse, from where Goblin didn’t mean to go to sea, inside the Cardinal at Shotley Spit – reminding us of the main shipping channel up to Parkeston Quay – and on to Guard, indicating that we were safely across. A last glimpse back to Shotley Pier and we focused our thoughts to the wider horizon stretching out ahead. The few sails to seaward were not reefed, the waves not exceeding much more than 12 inches and our own sails filling lazily. Weather data informed me we were now experiencing 15 knots of wind!

    “We had better keep the engine on to make it in time.” The crew discussed the advice from the East Coast Pilot on crossing the Bar; the challenges of the moving shingle and the hazards of an onshore wind. As we approached it we identified at first Woodbridge Haven, the safe water mark, then the two red and green buoys marking the path across the shingle. Today the Bar was in a benign mood with scarcely a wave breaking over the shallows. We passed swiftly across on the last of the flood tide, with 3 to 4 metres of water under the keel. Sneaking close in under the western shore where the water is deepest, the sun reflected off the assortment of houses and timbered huts. Safely past the big red Deben Buoy we lowered sails and picked up a mooring at Felixstowe Ferry.

    Swinging toward Bawdsey Manor, with the sole remaining radar mast standing proud above the trees, we broke out lunch. The foot ferry that plies its trade to-and-fro between the steps on either side of the Deben mouth was unusually absent, and a call to John White, the famed harbourmaster of these parts, confirmed that he too was shore bound that afternoon.

    Approaching Ramsholt, 10th October 2018. Photo Stuart Morris.

    Nancy Blackett swung on her mooring, the morning haze still hanging in the air. The silver muddy breadth of the Deben disappeared from view into the blurred treeline and gently rolling fields. With no easy way ashore, and after a further test of forward and astern drive which found an acceptable gear engagement, we slipped and ploughed on upriver against a rapidly strengthening tide.

    The tide ran strong in sea reach and the temptation to skirt it close inshore had to be carefully piloted to avoid the sometimes rapidly shelving mud and consequential groundings for which the river is infamous. Satisfactorily rounding Green Point, we gained our first view of the cluster of moorings fronting the Ramsholt Arms, nestling in the high tree lined northerly bank of the river.

    Concerned about our collective rowing ability, and as there is no ship-to-shore ferry here, we aimed for the closest vacant mooring to the Quay and its adjoining slipway. We shipped a sea-lettuce-covered pick up line and lashed a second line through the mooring buoy ring to ensure a secure mooring for the night, before settling down for an afternoon cuppa.

    The inflatable dinghy lay deep under the cockpit. We carefully removed it, photographing the jigsaw of the pump, seat and oars so that we could return them to their original close-fitting positions with ease. Another past lesson duly applied, we set to work inflating the “Imp”. Once launched, a fender was tied horizontally along the port-side, currently riverward side, of the hull to aid exiting from the dinghy on the landward side, once she had swung to tide during our intended visit ashore. We sat back and watched the sun creep slowly towards the horizon.

    At Ramsholt, 10th October 2018. Photo Stuart Morris.

    I have visited the Ramsholt Arms many times over the years. This evening it had an overly end of season quietness about it. I summoned the aid of Mr Google from my phone, only to discover that it was not due to open this evening! The sun was now slipping behind the trees and we had not brought an evening meal as we had planned to eat ashore.

    Fortunately the Deben is a two-pub river! With the Imp in tow we quickly slipped our mooring, again after checks for gearbox engagement. A lone anchored yacht frequented the Rocks, the next reach in the river. Sweeping past Shottisham Creek we watched a grey figure sculling a small boat towards an anchored fishing smack.

    Sunset over the River Deben, 10th October 2018. Photo Stuart Morris.

    The sun finally disappeared for the day and we flicked on our nav lights just as the bright lights of the Maybush at Waldringfield came into view across the marshes. Weaving our way through the yachts hanging on their moorings and in the growing dusk we found a vacant one.

    As the time was 18:45, we debated the best place for a landing as now nearing low tide the shoreline looked muddy. We rigged a riding light and headed off for the slipway to the Waldringfield yacht club. We tied up the Imp amidst the boat-cluttered shoreline and strolled to the warm embrace of the Maybush, relieved that we had completed our transit with only two wet feet and one wet bottom!

    An evening meal watered down with some of Adnams finest local brew was rounded off with a return journey to Nancy Blackett through the moonless dark, lit only by a clear star-filled night.

    A stiff rain shower and raising winds punctuated the sunrise. Masts of the surrounding yachts swayed back and forth across the open companion way. We waited for the tide to pick up sufficiently for us to clear the various shallows between Waldringfield and the Tide Mill Yacht Harbour, before heading off up the river under staysail.

    Waldringfield, 11th October 2018. Photo Stuart Morris.

    As we approached Woodbridge we sailed by Peter Duck, another of Arthur Ransome’s past yachts, which is also based here.

    Peter Duck from Nancy Blackett, 11th October 2018. Photo Stuart Morris.

    Our journey came to an end as we slipped into the south basin of the Yacht Harbour. Tidied up and cleared down the boat. Nancy Blackett was shortly due to be lifted out into Robertson’s boat yard with another season over.”

    And afterwards…

    On the Saturday a number of Nancy Blackett Trust members began unloading Nancy Blackett, ready for her impending lift-out, while that evening around 18 members attended for supper in the local Cherry Tree Inn – a lovely social evening with good food too, as captured by the Trust’s Chairman Roger Sturge:

    Dinner at the Cherry Tree, Woodbridge, 13th October 2018. Photo Roger Sturge.

    Monday 15th October saw Nancy Blackett’s lift-out, with the following scene photographed by Nancy Blackett Trust President Peter Willis:

    Nancy Blackett at Robertsons, Woodbridge, 16th Oct 2018. Photo Peter Willis.

    Additional reporting by John Smith. The original version of this article was published in the Nancy Blackett Trust’s members’ newsletter. To join the Trust go here.