Death on the foredeck

So here’s the choice: Have a heart attack or lose the boathook.

Not much of a choice really. It was a new boathook.

There is a tradition that old sailors die on the foredeck – at least there was until someone invented the electric anchor windlass. If you saw my post on the subject last summer* then you’ll know where this story begins: For most of last year I was hauling up the anchor by hand.

Not this year, though. Now the windlass is fixed. I wrestled it off the boat, drove it up to Norfolk and, with £500 worth of new motor it’s not going to give any more trouble (it had better not).

And so, the day after Samsara went back in the water following our three month Christmas break, I dropped anchor in the River Deben at a place called Sea Reach just upstream from the moorings at Felixstowe Ferry. Apart from anything else, I wanted to try out the windlass.

Actually, I couldn’t wait to try out the windlass – so I convinced myself I wasn’t in quite the right spot and started winding it all back in again. The windlass whirred away, clinking in the chain, grunting a bit as the big Rocna broke out of the glutinous Deben mud.

Come to think of it, the windlass didn’t just grunt. It complained loudly. In fact, it faltered, sweating amps in all directions. Eventually, very slowly, the anchor emerged … with the most enormous ground chain hooked up in it. This was no mere 10mm riser. This had to be 16mm at least – and I couldn’t see the ends of it. Presumably, they trailed down on both sides the full five metres to the bottom. No wonder the poor windlass was struggling…

It was at this point that the new motor admitted defeat. When I pressed the button again to try and get the tangle within reach, all I got was a mutinous “click” that spoke of overload, smoking windings and £500 down the drain. Meanwhile, we drifted gently in the direction of the moorings – and beyond them, the Deben Bar … and the North Sea….

Mind you, we weren’t drifting very fast. Not with all that ironware dragging along the river bed after us.

That was how I came to reach for the boathook. The way I looked at it, all I had to do was lift the chain over the tip of the anchor. (If only the windlass had kept going for another half a second, it would all have been within reach and I could have got a rope on it, dropped the anchor out of the way and all this would have been rather dull.

Over the years, I have been given a great deal of advice on choosing boathooks (your own height in hickory with a solid brass fitting on the end – for sharpening, so you can skewer pirates…)

Call me a wimp, but I went for the flimsy telescopic variety so I could get it in the cockpit locker.

Actually, to give the new boathook its credit, it did succeed in lifting the chain – all 57kg of it. (I just looked that up: 16mm chain weighs 5.7kg a metre – but, of course, you have to double that because it was hanging down five metres on each side.)

The only problem was that now the entire 57kg was hooked onto the boathook … the plastic, telescopic boathook … which commenced its own protest; a sort of tortured screeching as it extended to its full length.

This was when I started making my own noise. If I let go, we would be free but I would lose the boathook. On the other hand, if only I could pull the chain up to deck level, I could shift my grip to the business end and then the whole thing would flip upside down and the chain would simply drop off.

Except that the boathook was now extended to its full 2.1m – which meant that the weight was increased by two to the power 5.7kgs per metre. In other words, more than an old man on the foredeck should be lifting if he wants to sail another day…

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