At relatively short notice, George and I decided to take a week’s holiday cruising on Merlin. We had spent some good time and money the previous winter making sure she was in as sound a sailing trim as possible and were confident that most of the problems which we had experienced with my father’s Ajax, Osprey, that might arise, had been ironed out.
We had mulled over the idea of a second cruise for some time, but only in a hypothetical way, since we last tried a week’s cruise together on the Essex and Suffolk coasts, in Osprey in 1971. The dream of a repeat cruise in which, with luck, we might go further, really became something more over lunch in a wine bar in Hanover Square at the end of July. We had to go soon or the evenings would be drawing in and the week from the 8th August was the only one we could both take off at the same time. George’s wife Felicity, who had spent one rather cramped night on board Merlin with us after the Ewarton Ness Rally, decided that a week in Essex bottling fruit and cooking chutney would be far more comfortable and wished us the best of luck.
As for where to go, the most likely choice was to go north, with the constraints of a week’s holiday and a half decked boat making extended cruising impractical. We might get as far as Lowestoft or Great Yarmouth, putting in wherever we felt we inclined, particularly Southwold, which we had not visited by sea to date.
We also had in mind, as a remote possibility, sailing down to Ramsgate and thence to Calais or even less likely, a direct crossing to Ostend or Calais. For any of the continental choices, we needed the right weather in the first two days, or the problems of getting back again, together with limited time for cruising on the other side, would be unacceptable.
All depended on the weather for the first two days, the 8th and 9th August. George was to go to a wedding on Saturday the 7th. Thus, from midweek I was busily studying the Atlantic weather charts in the Daily Telegraph, while both George, Felicity and I were making general preparations for a week’s Ajax cruising – getting gear, charts and food together.
But many will wish to know why we wanted to go cruising for a week in an Ajax. Was it feasible to sale across to Ostend or Calais, and if so, what were the risks? How feasible was it to live on board? I shall try to answer the first point before describing and discussing the highly important meteorological developments of the day or so preceding the decision to go, while George will deal with the practicability of living on board, and then describe the cruise.
PART II – ASPIRATIONS
A Why a week’s Cruising in an Ajax?
An Ajax is enormous fun to sail. One is immediately impressed by its attractive lines, and on hoisting sale, by its responsiveness and exhilarating performance. It is lightweight but has a fixed keel, and is essentially a dinghy/cruiser hybrid. Compared to a cruiser of equivalent size, it has a much better performance and gives a much greater sense of speed. Further, the Ajax has greater space to move around in, as it does not have a low cabin, with ‘crawling room only’.
Compared with a dinghy there is no need to sit the boat out, and the risk of capsize is theoretically eliminated. The Ajax is quickly rigged and performs well in a variety of conditions, and in windy ones it is thoroughly exhilarating, particularly under spinnaker on a board reach.
With all this fun in a boat, why not a week or more’s cruising and living on board? We had in fact done this in 1971, cruising the Essex and Suffolk estuaries in Osprey. This had proved very good fun, admittedly with better than average weather. We had been able to come to terms with most of the practical problems of living on a small, half decked boat - all that had changed was that we were 11 years older. On balance, the fun to be made from sailing Merlin, coupled with our spirit of adventure, more than countered the likely discomforts involved.
B Why a Desire to Cross the North Sea?
We had cruised Osprey and Merlin extensively in Essex and Suffolk coastal waters and even up to Norwich, and sailed out to the Sunk and Long Sand Head a number of times, on a fine day. I think it was natural, when turning from such well known marks, usually having been out of sight of land for some time, to ask ourselves the question, why not keep going? I think we both accepted that one day we should sail across, but our seagoing experience in Ajaxes and other vessels made it clear that the weather and sea conditions would have to be exceptional.
I shall now look at the problems we had identified and the influence they would be likely to have on our decisions, but the reader should remember throughout that the possibility of a crossing was a ‘long shot’, with the emphasis of our preparations being for a week’s East Anglian cruising.