PART III – THE PROBLEMS OF CROSSING THE NORTH SEA IN AN AJAX
The broad problem constituted being a substantial distance from shelter for 12 hours or more in a boat essentially designed and rigged for estuary and coastal day sailing. In this context the constraints of an Ajax can be identified as follows:-
1. Risk of swamping.
2. Sailing performance.
3. Gear failure.
4. Alternative means of propulsion.
5. Safety Aids.
8. Insurance cover
To look at these facts in a little more detail:-
1. Risk of Swamping
The biggest single risk to safety was filling the boat with water as a result of substantial wave intrusion. This would have the potential effect of making the boat awash, and any large intake would at least be dangerous and unnerving. Clothing, stores and navigational equipment would be soaked and quite likely lost.
Swamping could occur through one of three causes:-
2. Striking from any direction by a freak wave.
4. Build up of spray and green waves.
5. Combination of the above
Whichever way the swamping might occur, the risk was progressively greater with wind force, and from experience, we knew it could be a serious risk from force 5 upwards. Below this wind force, the first three events are decidedly unlikely, although build up of spray etc. inboard going to windward or on a fetch could still be a problem. However, it should only be a gradual process and capable of control by pumping/bailing.
Thus putting to sea in a force 5, or with a probable weather change involving a wind increase to that strength or stronger during the likely exposure period, would be unwise. A force 5 on the beam or just aft for a short period in sheltered waters might be permissible.
2. Sailing Performance
The Ajax has a very good sailing performance on all points of the wind. It is particularly fast on a beam reach, or a broad reach under spinnaker, average speeds of at least 7 knots being sustainable in a force 4. It performs well in light breezes, but naturally, light airs would make a passage across the North Sea too lengthy a process.
An Ajax also goes well in a blow, but this involves risks described under other headings in this section. Further, with a blow on the nose, and a sharp sea, the Ajax does not have the waterline length or weight to make good progress.
Given a breeze providing something from a fetch to a broad reach and between force 3 and force 5 but it certainly ought to be possible to sustain an average speed of 6 knots, giving a crossing time of around 12 hours. A headwind, involving tacking, would make progress too slow, while running would generally be too risky – see 3 below. In August, this would mean beginning and finishing in daylight - a decided advantage in a boat without navigation lights, or proper shelter. Also, crossing quickly limits the chance of being overtaken by an adverse or unpredicted change in the weather.
Generally, a continuous force 3-4 breeze, giving between a fetch and a broad reach, seemed a necessary requirement.
3 Gear Failure
Gear failure is naturally a greater risk in strong wind and rough sea conditions. Within the confines of a racing fleet of Harwich, a failure of some sort is an acceptable risk, as assistance is not generally far away. But alone, twenty or thirty miles from land, this can be a serious matter, particularly if the sailing speed of the boat or its directional control is affected. Further, rougher conditions are encountered once the shelter of the Cork Sand is lost, and particularly nasty conditions can occur on the Hinder Sands, twenty or so miles off the Belgian Coast. Here waves carried by the prevailing south-westerly wind have a fetch right up the English Channel.
The Ajax is not rigged for prolonged performance in rugged conditions and again from experience we knew that the risk of some failure was a real risk at force 5 and above.
In this connection I should make the point that, in addition to common weak points – goose neck fittings, halyards, headsail claws etc., the Ajax has two particular weaknesses:-
(a) the spreader mounting on the mast
(b) the rudder.
(a) The Spreader Mounting
This constitutes a stainless steel pin running through the mast. The spreaders are fixed to this fitting by means of a thimble shaped fitting screwed to each end.
A seaway induces a lot of jerky fore and aft movement in the mast, to the extent that it can cause the steel pin to sheer as the outer end of the windward spreader is held firmly in position by the cap shroud an the inner end moves perhaps a foot or so fore and aft.
However, on Merlin, a modified design had been fitted by one of the preceding owners - I suspect up at Lowestoft, where big seas are a frequent occurrence. The fitting comprises a pair of stainless steel semi-circular wings, I think welded to the mast, which are closed at the front and open at the rear. The spreaders are mounted to this by means of a split pin from top to bottom, close to the mast. Most of the mast movement is forward and this fitting allows the spreader to pivot backwards on the split pin, free of the inflexible mast anchor point.
(b) The Rudder
The rudder has three weak points, which are difficult to counter without complete redesign. In my view the rudder is the only major design flaw of the boat.
(i) The Pintle fitting at the back of the Skeg
The screws holding this fitting, through which considerable strain can be transmitted, not infrequently shears or pulls out from the skeg.
This makes steering difficult, as the rudder loses its vertical support and its lateral stability. In time, the stainless steel tube on which the rudder is mounted is likely to bend and the problem will become progressively worse.
(ii) The Stainless Steel Tube on which the Rudder blade is mounted.
Apart from the secondary problem mentioned above, the tube does, after a period of years, have a habit of corroding and shearing through, at the point where it leaves the skeg housing at the base of the hull. This results in a loss of directional control, although the boat can be sailed between a close haul and a fetch, by balancing the jib/mainsail.
(iii) The Skeg itself
The skeg can shear off completely when broaching at speed and this is particularly likely in heavy seas, while surfing at speed. This is quite the most dramatic occurrence I have experienced in an Ajax. The loss of the skeg means there is no support whatever for the hollow steel rudder tube which buckles and will leave the rudder wedged against the underside of the hull at an uncompromising angle. It will be appreciated that, even with careful balancing of the sails, directional control is likely to be lost completely with the boat turning predictably in circles. This is very serious, as the boat will be completely immobilised. When it happened to us, we were under full sail and spinnaker in force 7/8 off Felixstowe, travelling at times at breathtaking speed say 15-17 knots. We were very fortunate not to fill when the skeg eventually broke and even luckier to regain the entrance of the estuary, and reach Butterman’s Bay, unassisted.
4 Alternative Means of Propulsion
Alternative means of propulsion are useful in the event of lack of wind, gear failure or to avoid fast moving commercial shopping.
Most cruising boats have an auxiliary or outboard capable of giving a boat speed of five knots at least. We were limited to a Seagull Forty Plus short shaft - historically used with the dinghy. However, we had fitted a special bracket to Merlin’s transom during the winter months to allow this to be used interchangeably. It could only be used on Merlin in a flat calm, though, as with any sea the propeller would jump out of the water.
This limitation again meant we needed sufficient wind to maintain good progress and also to be able to take evasive action from steamers, particularly in the shipping lanes.
5. Safety Aids
The Ajax is not fitted with any safety aids except built-in buoyancy. Naturally we would take life jackets, life lines and flares, but more elaborate means were not practical – such as navigation lights, life raft etc. It should be remembered that we would only attempt a crossing if conditions were near perfect.
We did take a cylindrical, covered-type radar reflector but were never able to devise a method of securing it high enough in the rigging to be able to use it to anything approaching its full effect. Had the visibility turned bad on us, we intended to hoist it up the windward shrouds on the spinnaker halyard, but this would have meant lowering it on each occasion that we came about. (In the event, the visibility was always pretty good and the reflector lived wedged under one of the after cockpit seats with the fenders)
We took our usual dinghy, a solidly-built fibreglass eight-footer with an exceptionally high freeboard, which provided us with a life-boat of sorts, although probably a rubber dinghy would have been safer and simpler to tow, had we possessed one.
6. Navigational Aids
We needed to be able to maintain a rough account of our progress in order to arrive at a port on the French or Belgian coast, and to avoid obstacles on the way.
Merlin was fitted with a compass, and we took a hand bearing compass, charts, tidetables, etc.
We considered the risks of taking an expensive RDF set too great due to the likelihood of its getting wet, while a log could not be streamed, as we decided to tow the dinghy.
Thus good visibility was important, while only a steady speed would make plotting D.R approximately accurate.
With no cabin, it was essential that, at worse, fair weather was likely, reasonable temperatures and little likelihood of rain.
Obtaining cover for cruising beyond “UK Coastal waters” proved to be one of the more difficult problems that we faced before leaving. Our brokers declined to provide cover for the continental routes and told us that no-one else would do this. They added that they thought we were mad to try going. George’s father’s brokers said that with knowledge of our sailing experience, they would do their best with underwriters. To their great credit, they succeeded, with a geographical limitation of Hook of Holland to Le Havre and only the imposition of a £50 excess on claims outside UK coastal waters. These were defined by the broker as ‘those in which one might sail when departing from one UK port bound for and subsequently arriving at another’- i.e. not restricted specifically to being within the UK twelve mile limit. On the other hand, if we departed Harwich bound for Ostend, for instance, we would immediately be on “continental” cover after passing Beach End.
To conclude, for the crossing to be feasible, we needed the following:-
1. Wind (a) between 45° and 120° of our course
(c) force 3 to 4
(d) both factors for a minimum period of 15 hours.
2. Sea – smooth or slight.
3. Visibility – good, possibly moderate .
4. Weather – temperature – not unduly cold.
precipitation – none or very little