Sunday, 21 August 2011

Chasing Dragons in Beds and Bucks

Friday 19th - Satrurday 20th August

"Two boat trips in two days!" exclaimed the Cheshire One, as she stood on Cleddau on Saturday morning.  Bound for a day out and a night on board "Grampy's boat" she was ready for more adventure. Indeed, in her words, one adventure plus another adventure equals an expedition...

We had signed up for a Chasing Dragons Friday morning activity at a local Country Park in Bedfordshire. While Boatwif is not an enthusiast of cardboard rolls, tissue paper and glue model-making sessions, she was willing to see one through... Instead a guided walk ensued. Out into the sensory garden we toddled, a gaggle of young children, assorted parents, carers, escorts and a leader.  Not DRAGONS but dragonflies we were to study. Picture clues and simple text answers provided much information. Did you know that dragonflies were much larger in dinosaur times or that they had two sets of wings or that they can fly backwards and forwards and hover like helicopters...? Keen eyes spotted sometimes a single, sometimes a pair mating on the wing, zooming across the sunny paths and reed-edged ponds. The walk slowly progressed, interrupted periodically by more "dragons", ladybirds, the sound of grasshoppers, the sighting of demoiselles* and even the deft capturing of a tiny frog by Techno Son-in-Law. On we all went, far out into the meadow, where, comfortably seated on rugs and blankets, the story of why there are so many dragonflies was told. Then came the craft moment: a few twists of two pipe cleaners, a pair of eyes and a set of wings and voila! A takeaway dragonfly!

There is a place nearby famed for its riverside setting, where last year Cleddau had twice moored up for crew refreshments. For the Cheshire One the major attraction is its large bouncy castle...  After some serious bouncing we lunched in the sun right beside the river.  Little electric hire boats were tied up close by. "Would you like to go in a boat Granny?" It is wrong to tell an untruth and Boatwif's eyes would have betrayed her.

 In minutes it was organised:  three lifejackets, a briefing on engine handling, then we were off upstream. We glided away, twisting and tacking, getting the feel of the boat. Dragonflies and demoiselles were here too! Then a half mile out a problem, the tiller somehow becoming disconnected from the head. An unforeseen adventure... we turned back, held head and tiller together, reported the fault, swapped to another craft. Off we zoomed again: sheep shaded themselves under trees on the riverbank; a fish jumped out of the water alongside the boat; dragonflies flew low overhead, two landing as if to lay eggs.  More demoiselles; more dragonflies. A kingfisher flashed across the water. A pair of swans and their five cygnets swam inquisitively towards the little boat. No sign of the otter pair and no human sightings either, just the occasional voice or bicycle bell could be heard from the nearby riverbank path. On a warm afternoon what could be better than an enchanting voyage along the serene Great Ouse, three generations in one tiny boat, all taking a turn at the tiller.

Saturday morning dawned and Cleddau's crew of five assembled at Milton Keynes marina. Just four very sharp right angled turns and we would be out on the broad Grand Union. Cheshire Mum, not a fan of tight corners or potential crises, buried her head first in the fridge, then in a newspaper. For once wind did not affect play and a smooth exit from the marina was made. This was a first Grand Union cruise for the Cheshire Three. Front deck observations could be made on other boats, the condition of the tree-lined towpath, the well proportioned old red brick bridges of the 1800's, the wide modern concrete bridges of the twentieth century... We came to Fenny Stratford Lock. Out swarmed the crew. Eagerly the Cheshire One opened a lock gate, pushed the footbridge out of boats' way, closed a lock gate. This was her work. The water drains in and out here almost imperceptibly, just a 13 inch height difference. On we went. Next the Stoke Hammond Lock. Here was a completely different view: floral arrangements adorned the bridge footings, the lock side, the fencing. The lock is seriously deep, the gates bigger. Still the Cheshire One played her part. Back on the boat for another twenty minutes and then we arrived at the Soulbury Three. Crew were landed, despite a hire boat moored on the lock landing stage, and again the Cheshire One gritted her teeth (even the extremely loose centre bottom one) and put her shoulder to the gates!  Once safely above the locks lunch was created for the hungry,hard-pressed crew. After about half an hour, and without much drama, the boat was turned, Cheshire Mum remaining below while Boatwif delivered her own peculiar semaphore to the Captain from the front deck.

Down the Soulbury Three – by now the Cheshire One was jigging under headphones, Techno Son-in-Law was i/c throttle and tiller, the Captain and Cheshire Mum at work with the windlasses. The boat descended and progressed onward, the jigger still jigging... Then back at Fenny Stratford Lock the urge to do the bridge overcame her on board distractions. Techno Son-in-Law was waiting there, wet from the rain, having walked the three miles or so between Stoke Hammond and Fenny Stratford locks, spotting en route yet more dragonflies and demoiselles. A heron posed time and time again upon the towpath, languidly taking off just as Cleddau's bow was within a metre or two. Moored nearby, quietly,  was nb Pendragon, a name which apparently means Head or Chief Dragon. We crept by, thankful that she was  no fire- breathing monster**.

Mooring up in the marina proved a trickier operation than the earlier departure, gusts of wind putting Cleddau absolutely where we did not wish her to be... Overall, though, it was a great day afloat in Bucks, and not too bad a night for the adventurous Cheshire Three who stayed on board – despite the ducks and dragons.


*demoiselles, properly banded demoiselles, are a species of damselflies


** Back in Beds a local butcher is selling Welsh Dragon sausages, made of pork, leek and chilli, delicious for diners liking fiery breath!

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Lazy jacks and caffled lines

Friday 5th August: from Burton to East Angle Bay and back
    Six of us were afloat on about 12 metres depth of sea water on a falling tide.  "Ssh, listen to your Captain." Eyes and ears strained to follow instructions. This boating experience was courtesy of Boat Owner and Number 1 Niece, she the Captain. Deftly she had unhitched the 36 foot motorised yacht from its mooring and re-tied the small shore-to-mooring tender. We had gathered at midday on the Burton pontoon and were set for an afternoon of cruising and sailing upon the Milford Haven waterway. Previous trips have been upriver, but in calm conditions we turned downstream, seeking wind. What luck to coincide in sunny Pembrokeshire with other family members on holiday or on an earned Friday off. Now the Cleddau crew was starting a Cleddau cruise from right beneath the Cleddau Bridge...
   The Nephew and Boat 'Usband (demoted from his Captain status on this trip) were deckhands, letting out the lines, winding the winches, letting go the sheets, later hauling up the anchor. Boat Owner steered while the Captain busied herself below producing drinks, snacks, lunch... There is so much to gaze at on a trip downstream of Burton: the high level Cleddau toll bridge at the start, the jetties from which the old ferries had plied their crossings for so many years, the housing clinging to the steep hillsides, the old dockyard, where once fine warships and Royal Yachts were built, and later home in the forties and fifties to the RAF Sunderland flying boats.  A huge white slab all but blocked the way, the Irish car ferry, sideways on, until neatly it berthed. In only 90 minutes time it would be heading back out to the Irish Sea. A marina, a yacht club, a church, a terrace of pretty cottages to starboard, an offshore round tower to port. If fortifications are your interest try scouring the Haven: Palmerston defences are readily visible, Martello Towers at Pembroke Dock, large forts on the north and south banks of the tideway, East and West Blockhouse on seaward facing cliffs, plus several island forts, designed in the mid-nineteenth century to prevent invasion by the French navy.
    The waterway broadens and the horizon is filled with angular shapes.  On the port (southern) side five quite stumpy, still shiny, chimneys indicate the site of the renewed Pembroke Power Station; not much further on the jetties start. Oil tankers were moored beside them. The Nephew, a veteran of the petrochemical industry, explained which was discharging crude oil, which was loading "product", oil refined into petrol or diesel or fuel for heating. We gazed at the Greek national flag and at the onboard lifeboat tilted at sharp angle ready to launch off the tanker in case of fire. Later two tugs were busying themselves around one of these tankers. Starboard, on the opposite bank, are more massive jetties, these for the even larger tankers (about 140,000 tonnes) which deliver liquid gas from Qatar. Industrial piping marches up the hill to feed into the storage tanks. Then comes the town of Milford Haven, its terraced streets built for the fishing industry. Beyond it, in the deepest water, is another refinery terminal.
    We tacked downriver, heaving ho periodically, intense activity followed by gentle water-lapping progress. A few sailing vessels, a couple of speedboats, the harbour police boat, the catamaran for disabled sailors, all streamed past. A mooring for lunch. No towpath bashing-in of mooring pins was called for, just some agile stretching with a boathook to catch the ring on top of a mooring buoy. We bobbed on the sea, just off East Angle Bay, within easy view of the Angle Lifeboat Station. The enormous Irish Ferry pounded past, on its afternoon sailing for Rosslare. We ate and talked, talked and ate, interrupted only by a warning bleep. The depth gauge! The tide was ebbing still. With only half a metre of water below the keel greater depth was needed. The engine was restarted, the boat untied and turned back upstream.
    The sails flapped, devoid of sufficient breeze. If we were to moor up in time for later arrangements the boat would have to return under power. "Who's to steer?" called out Boat Owner.
    "I will." The words fell out of Boatwif's mouth. But there was no tiller! Hands grasped the large suede-covered wheel.  What had she taken on...?
    "Steer her like a car," urged this boat's Captain. Boatwif programmed her mind, trying to concentrate, not to be distracted by scenery or sea.
    "You might need to correct again," said Boat Owner. "Remember, there's still the effect of the wind and the movement of the water."  There were occasional veerings off course, yet no-one else would volunteer to take the helm. While Boat Owner, Number 1 Niece, Boat'Usband, The Nephew and Nephew's Wife feasted on fresh fruits Boatwif (more or less) kept them out of danger. During the cruise ears had heard unfamiliar nautical terms, now eyes began to notice unfamiliar signage. For instance, what did the big green lollipop warning sign warn of...?
    We cruised back upstream, located the mooring buoy and finished with a wrestling match for the lines (ropes) were very "caffled up" on the buoy (Pembrokeshire term for tangled together).  More rope and a screwdriver seemed to save the day. And what a glorious day.
    Much, much later, in Baby Sis's house, there was conversation with a one-time professional mariner, who had circumnavigated the UK, a tug operator rescuing and salvaging all manner of craft. Lunch in Belfast, across the Irish Sea for dinner at the Isle of Man, towing dumb barges through the Caledonian Canal - what tales!  It was truly a day confirming our maritime heritage!
    Finally, what were those "lazy jacks"? Pulleys ...? Answers please to Boatwif...