The Thames Trafalgar Race

A Race Obstruction

I took part in the 2014 Thames Trafalgar race as a member of Michael Forbes Smith's crew on board a chartered Hanse 342 from Britannia Sailing School at Shotley marina.

Three of us met at Shotley on Wednesday evening. The crew for the passage to Tower Bridge consisted of Michael, Angus Annan (who had flown down from Stirling) and me. Originally we had planned a 1000 departure aiming to pick up a buoy at Queenborough for the night followed by another day's passage to St Katherine's on Friday. Unfortunately the evening tide was outside of St Katherine's working time directive so we had to be there before 0945 on Friday for the lock operator to let us in. We therefore left Shotley at 0600 on Thursday on passage to Erith YC moorings. Immediately after leaving the lock the lock keeper called us up on the radio to inform us our rear light was not working. We were motoring past Felixstowe in stealth mode! After many attempts to access the rear light in the dark we opted for the easier option of turning the steaming light off and turning the anchor light on in it's place. It may not be strictly tote rules but at least we were now showing the correct light configuration from all angles.

The passage to Erith was directly into a light sw wind the whole way and so the sails remained furled and we slogged on under engine, working our way to the north of the Gunfleet Sands Wind Farm before turning to cross the Swin Spitway and then via the Middle Deep and the West Swin down to the Thames Estuary. The first of this was against the tide and progress seemed to be slow but once we were in the Middle Deep the flood began and progress increased quite markedly. The passage was quite uneventful until we reached the QE2 bridge. We had just been passed by a large RoRo ferry, the Victoriana, when we heard her call London VTS announcing she was just commencing her turn into the dock. Unfortunately she did not say which way she was going to turn (I assume London VTS knew) and in the twilight it was difficult to determine which side of the river was the dock. With the tide now flooding quite strongly it was quite difficult to stop, especially with the columns of the QE2 bridge very close. However she turned very quickly as we shot past her stern and soon we had picked up a buoy at Erith at 1830.

The next morning we slipped the buoy at 0530 and continued up the river under engine, passing the Thames Barrier in the dark, and entering St Katherine's lock at 0830 Friday morning and were directed to moor up next to the Queen's barge Gloriana. Avventura, Jonathan Hague's boat, was moored on the other side of Gloriana but with Gloriana's Ensign Staff protruding in front of Avventura's shrouds. Leaving would have be done very carefully if the crew were not to be frog marched the few yards to the Bloody Tower!

Friday was a day of rest and recuperation. Angus and I had an excellent English breakfast in a Turkish restaurant followed by some much needed sleep. Saturday, the first race day dawned bright and breezy. We were joined by the fourth member of our race crew, Barrie Martin, at 0900 and left St Katherine's with the 0915 lock. Now was the time to hoist the sails. The first problem we had was that the main halyard clutch would not work. The halyard had to remain on the winch if we wanted a tight luff. Unfortunately the main sheet was led on the same side of the companionway and used the same winch. We had to use the winch as a fairlead and "cross winch" the mainsheet on the other winch. The jib sheet cars were much too far aft for the fully unfurled genoa and these could only be adjusted when there was no weight of wind in the sail. How can the equipment be so badly set up on a sailing school boat which is meant to be used to teach sailing? After all the adjustments we had time to make a few practice runs to the start and also noted the big wind shadow immediately in the lee of the Dome. Even then, our start was not very good being almost stationary when the start was sounded. Luckily the boats that started well immediately sailed into the wind shadow of the Dome and by sailing around the outside of the bend we managed to make up a bit of ground. At the barrier engines had be employed and the fleet motored through in line astern. Sailing commenced again after the Barrier had been passed. This leg was more of a broad reach and so I employed our secret weapon. I took the tail of the genoa halyard, led it forward through the mid-ships cleat and then up to the clew of the genoa. This gave a much better, although not perfect, sheeting angle on the reach, taking a lot of the twist out of the sail and the boat began to accelerate allowing us to sail through Avventura's lee.

Being in the A fleet the course took us under the QE2 bridge and then turning into Fiddler's Reach and rounding Black Shelf to starboard before returning under the bridge and sailing to finish at Erith YC finishing line. As we passed under the bridge again we caught up the B fleet which had turned at Stoneness at the beginning of Fiddler's Reach.

Once across the finish line our next problem became apparent. We had forgotten to isolate the engine battery and it was flat. Boats that motor up to a buoy that one is trying to sail to are just not playing cricket. Eventually we managed to pick up a buoy and the Erith YC bos'n came out with a heavy duty battery so that we could jump start the engine and recharge ours. Eventually, after and hour or two's battery charging we managed to go ashore where we could replenish our fluids and sit down to an excellent dinner.

The start of the Sunday race was brought forward to 0800 so that some boats would be able to access St Katherine's Dock again after the race. Thankfully the start line was at the Erith YC and was only a few yards from the mooring buoys. This was a shorter race finishing just before Greenwich Hospital. However, most of it was a beat and we just couldn't get the charter boat to point as high as others and, although we made a good start, gradually dropped back through the fleet. As it turned out we recorded two 5th places and finished 5th overall.

Once across the finish line we turned downstream and after dropping Barrie off at Greenwich YC pontoon we motored through the barrier before raising the jib and sailing to Queenborough for the night.  On Monday we departed Queenborough at 0730, once again sailing with just the jib returning to Shotley marina at about 1600, just before the remnants of Hurricane Gonzalo arrived.

Graham Broadway, 22.10.2014 | More from Graham Broadway’s blog