Race Report: 19 August 2018: INVISIBLE WIND

There was a pungent smell of rotting seaweed on the beach at Strand which floated on an Invisible Wind and lazily flapped around the sails of Nick, Tim, James and Lev and Michael and Alice on hot and humid Sunday as they prepared for a ‘D’ course down to Hammersmith.

Perhaps it came from the churned-up stones as the Safety Boat was grumbled and graunched on broken rollers down the shore accompanied, as if in an awful concert, by the groaning cries of David who every winter has to repair the damage to the hull – and who was coming on board with Andy [standing in for Enoch, who was taking Zena to enrol at the University of Amsterdam].

A generally Westerly wind occasionally stirred itself up into a brisk gust – and then dropped away.

Henry was OOD, and by the time he had whistled for the start Michael was only just afloat on the water – and was having trouble with his rudder. He came ashore again at the start line to attend to it while the others sailed off. By the time he had fixed it [temporarily as it turned out] the fleet of three were still only a quarter of the way to Chiswick Bridge.

The mid-channel course was an empty conveyor belt with barely a ripple on the water, though ominously the tall trees of Hartington Road were swinging about quite wildly. Something was up there.

But it appeared it was going to be a long and slow journey to Hammersmith.

David leant back in the bow and got out his pipe and while he recounted stories of his son Robert filming with Tom Cruise in Budapest he repeatedly failed to light it while, in a premonition of things to come, pernicious little gusts of Invisible Wind blew it out – and he wished he’d brought along the yachtsman’s all-weather butane torch lighter that Norbert had given him.

While the blue Enterprise sail of James and Lev was now out of sight, the tips of Tim and Nick’s white sails could just be seen going round the Barnes brewery bend as Michael and Alice meandered their way gently towards and under Chiswick Bridge.

Then my mobile phone unexpectedly rang!

Not anticipating David for company, luckily I had it with me; planning to do little else than peacefully drink some iced tea from a picnic flask and listen on my headphones to the competition of the Eurovision Young Musicians of the Year 2018 on Radio 3. Will this continue post-Brexit? Where will young musicians’ and composers travel grants and their funding come from in future? Do Brexiteers listen to anything other than Land of Hope and Glory? Will they play it from loudspeakers on every lamppost, every morning – like a call to prayer?  Or is that, absurdly, to fear Fascism?

It was Tim! He’s capsized! And could the Safety Boat please come and help him?

How could that happen? Where was he? And, extraordinarily, how did he manage to call me while in the water? Was his i-phone amazingly waterproof? Tim is recognised as a magician of everything electronic, and an expert trader on E-Bay – but this matter was not up for auction. We sped off to find him.

As we came further round the Barnes bend, there was indeed a boat in the water.

But it was not Tim’s overturned Axolotyl, thankfully not embarrassingly displaying a very large and very pink Englishman’s bottom, looking as if it was sun-blushed with too much overexposed backside of flesh on a nudist holiday beach.

No! This was an oyster-white and rather smaller hull at right-angles to the waterline. It was Nick.

And around the bend coming the other way was the RNLI lifeboat at full speed with a huge bow wave and its blue lights rotating. Where were they going – and how were we going to manage the wash as they sped by?

The RNLI stopped by Nick. They were there for him!

Nick was clinging to the bow. As we edged in closer to him the RNLI boat backed off, and went around us in a circle. Were they going to help; or just observe us? David caught Nick’s bow line, while the Safety Boat was gently manoeuvred alongside – and the RNLI man shouted loudly that we should mind out as there was a man in the water; which was very obvious, and was actually the whole point of us being there!

Nick was not saying anything much at all. This was a bit worrying. Was he OK? The step ladder was fixed alongside – and Nick was invited to climb up it. But he couldn’t. He said he couldn’t lift his legs. Was he injured?  He didn’t reply. He said: “You’ll have to lift me out”. I really wondered about the risk of this. What was wrong with his legs – or perhaps even his back? I was suddenly glad the RNLI was there, hovering. This might be a very real emergency. But Nick was trying to float his legs up, parallel to the surface – and he was bending his knees, and kicking the water, so he seemed to be uninjured. But it’s difficult to do anyway. And he was obviously quite exhausted.

So grabbing onto his life jacket and his trousers and with a mighty heave he was brought slithering and sloshing like a large Labrador dog into the Safety Boat. But still he was not saying anything. It seemed to me that he was perhaps in shock. I turned to the RNLI boat and asked if they could take him onboard; telling them also that Nick was hard of hearing – if only to help to justify hitching a lift with them, and saying that the Safety Boat had to catch up with the other sailors. They said they would – and asked where to take him; and I said back to SGSC.

Meanwhile, Michael had very slowly passed us by; virtually un-noticed. So as the RNLI motored off up-river, with Nick safely wrapped up in a thermal blanket, and with his boat tied alongside, the Safety Boast anxiously sped off to find the others.

And immediately, there was James and Lev coming back!

How could they possibly have got all the way down to Hammersmith, and back, against the tide? Was the wind down there that strong? We came alongside and James said they had turned: “at the green buoy” – but without saying which one. And half a mile later we found Tim and Michael were virtually side by side of each other; – and completely becalmed, in the open water just after Barnes Railway Bridge.

And there was a green buoy, against which the tide had turned. This must be it.

And for the next 20 minutes the two of them played a ceaseless game of hide and seek with an Invisible Wind that sometimes appeared to roughen the water with small cat’s paws – always out of reach just two or three boat lengths away – and sometimes within the slack eddies by the river bank under the trees by the bandstand – which solemnly refused to play any water music. But, inch by inch, they crept forward until, with a great tiller-waggling flourish, Tim turned round the buoy. And five minutes later, after showing micrometer judgment and with nano-second fine-timing against the now fast-running tide, Michael turned round the buoy too.

So now then for the easy run home; high-speed assisted with the tide!

Not a bit of it.

For Michael in particular it was totally extraordinary that no matter which way he pointed the boat, it was always going to go head-to-wind a moment or two later.

Again and again Michael crossed the river, searching for a steady wind. But it was invisible. And it was constantly twisting about. A stalling struggle through Barnes Railway Bridge was not helped with the recurring difficulty of controlling the rudder; which kept popping up.

And it was clear that the Invisible Wind that had done for Nick, [and had, apparently, almost brought Tim to grief too, while someone on the bank had seen Nick capsize and had called 999], was blowing in a line from Chiswick Bridge to the White Hart, and it was very much stronger than it appeared. Michael was now in danger of an imminent capsize – which could have been perfectly timed, if it was going to happen, with the leisurely return of the RNLI lifeboat. Do it now, Michael – and get a lift home!

But he persisted with his zigzag course; often stalling, and with his hand on the boom; ineffectively cross-set with the jib that Alice correctly held open, but against the wind.

With the swiftly-rising tide there was now a question of whether he would get under Chiswick Bridge. He had to approach it diagonally to be in the middle of the arch. But he started in the middle, stalled – and so headed straight for the inside of the bridge. It was a pure fluke of the current that at the last moment the boat spun around and he cleared the bridge by going backwards through it, with not an inch to spare.

This was all to exhausting to watch; let alone do!

Back at SGSC around 7pm it was remarkable that the race had taken over two hours – but over only half the distance to Hammersmith.

Ranking with the many quixotic experiences of sailing at Strand it had been both with and against an entirely unpredictable and totally Invisible Wind.

© Andy Ross                                                                                                 19 August 2018