Canterbury Tales

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

When April with its sweet-smelling showers

Has pierced the drought of March to the root,

And small birds make melody

Those that sleep all the night with open eyes

So Nature incites them in their hearts,

Then folk long to go on pilgrimages.

The General Prologue: The Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer 1343-1400

Except that it hasn’t rained for the whole of April; with not even a sniff of ‘sweet-smelling showers’. A blocking High pressure over the UK as the jet stream shifted south bringing Arctic air across the North Sea had produced clear blue skies. A gusty East wind randomly tumbled over the Strand’s houses and helped to push on further the incoming tide that was meeting with no resistance from water coming down the river.

The small fowls [the geese anyway] were all making a honking melody – and Nature indeed had incited the hearts of SGSC sailors as: ‘folk longing to go on a pilgrimage’ since nine boats turned out to set forth on the scheduled ‘A’ course.  But pilgrimages are difficult journeys.

With a consistent wind apparent out on the main river the OOD decided to add in a ‘sausage’; historically reflecting our fondness for ‘beer and bangers’ [but perhaps more properly described as a loop], into the base of a triangle of buoys – and specifically requiring a return beat back and forth across the river from the Bell & Crown to the Surrey bank, before heading on the next lap downstream again to a third buoy that was set at the grid.

Carried with the wind and the tide the fleet easily reached the open water; roughened up with gusts.  As they turned and tacked back up to be at the start, so they separated.

A ‘Super League’ of James [with Emma], Rob, Lev [with David] and Henry [with Mary] more or less maintained a start line position while a ‘Championship League’ of Ian, Chris [with Laura], Tim Young, Ben and Tim [with John] carried on being drifted upstream by the tide.

Ominously, Rob capsized just before the start – and failing to get across the boat in time he fell into the water and struggled to get back on board but eventually did – and, soaking wet, resumed his position to be second across the line after James, followed by Lev, then Henry. But the rest of the fleet, without the sponsorship of such rich owners of ‘the luck of the gods’, were finding the combination of strong wind and tide were hard to overcome.  

Chris, in this second fleet, found the trick of sticking to the Surrey bank paid off sufficiently well to be able to cross over between the PLA trot and Oliver’s Island and then return and be able to cook his own sausage on this grill of a course. But it took them over 40 minutes. And then, having done it, they very gratefully proceeded back to the club to recover.

Meanwhile, exhilarating gusts were still sending the second fleet streaking back and forth – but without ever providing sufficient momentum to get them up to the start line.

Ian in Vibe followed Chris’ idea and tracked up all the way along the Surrey bank to try and get round the top of Oliver’s Island but was defeated there with no wind and returned back to the start – and then got drifted all the way back down to Kew bridge, where he crossed the river, and found himself becalmed at the Steam Packet – and decided to retire. 

Ben had begun his race with at least two capsizes before the start, but quickly re-righted and re-joined the race with a constantly zig-zagging course which eventually took him up to the buoy at the grid, where there was also very little wind – but he manged to round it and returned to confuse the OOD with a second lap largely spent sailing backwards while heading forwards while also tracking sideways; turning through all points of the compass. Eventually successfully.

But where was Tim Young? At the back of the second fleet, he had not only tipped over in a capsize just before Kew bridge but had turned turtle with the mast at risk of grounding on the riverbed.

With David Jones in the safety boat, crewed by Nick Jeffery on his first induction into the dangerous and complex procedure for rescue, they faced a collision with the bridge. Scraping the side, they got through it, though the sail was badly ripped by a log hidden in the water – and emerging on the far side, they tried to right the boat. The gusty wind, funnelling through the bridge arch capsized it again, and again.  They could not right it. Carried on by the tide and heavily waterlogged, they all drifted off together to Brentford. 

Tim and John had been gallantly jilling about, back and forth, and they eventually crossed the start line and found their way all the way around the triangle, until sinking back into a lagoon right in front of the Kew Pier pontoon – with the imminent risk of being carried into it with the heavy tide. Where was the safety boat? Nowhere in sight! Thankfully, and very skilfully, they gradually eased their way forward again, completed their sausage in a dancing skittish wind – and finally completed the course after well over an hour of strenuous sailing. 

While all this was going on, the ‘Super League’ triumphantly managed to score points.

Both James and Rob each completed four roundings of the course.  In particular, Lev [with David skipping lightly around from moment to moment with every shift and nuance in the wind to perfectly balance the boat] completed their first lap just 6 minutes behind James – though the strain began to show, and they dropped down to 6 minutes behind Henry and Mary; similarly completing three laps in just over one hour. They too, had manoeuvred their way around this complicated course surviving hair-raising dramas in sudden deep gusts followed by instant patches of dead calm – and back-sliding to end up exactly not where they wanted to be.

This racing spectacle was watched by an increasing crowd of spectators at the Bell & Crown.

They had dared to bare pallid skin in shorts and dresses that had not seen the sun for a year; and never in such company; either on the water – or amongst each other. Fiona, the landlady of the pub, standing guard on the pub steps with her laptop to QR her customers – and keenly observing how the dramatic sailing enabled them to engage in romantic conversations, pulled a pint of London Pride for the OOD! His first of the year! And by way of joining in with the telling of the tale, the scudding clouds blew off the froth on the beer!

Oh! How this Spring of love resembleth

The uncertain glory of an April day

Which now shows all the glory of the sun

And by and by a cloud taketh all away.

Shakespeare: The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Act 3. Sc1. L178.

Andy Ross


25 April 2021