Jonathan Footerman has some time to explore the coastal towns along the UK’s Yorkshire coast.
(Taken from the ninth and tenth chapters of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman.)
An evening stroll along the middle lane of the New Jersey Turnpike is probably a little more suicidal than sailing in UK waters without keeping a lookout, but not much. Maritime law requires a look-out at all times, no problem in a crewed yacht with a watch rotor: a UK circumnavigation can be accomplished in a week or two sailing 24 hours per day, gazing at a distant coastline and spotting dolphins. You are welcome to it. New to the activity at 56, I was sailing a small boat single-handed and could only go as far as wakefulness would allow. Making my way from port to port with all the problems of inshore currents, tidal gates and port access, I also had the rewards of harbours old and new amongst people unchained by big city lives. A succession of 60 mile journeys (13 hours in a 4-knot boat), the last through a storm, had brought me bedraggled to Bridlington in mid-June 2010, 250 miles up the east coast from Dover and about 200 miles from Eyemouth, over the border in Scotland. The boat needed attention, and my personal battery needed a recharge.
After a night against a raft of fishing vessels, I came in over the mud at high tide to tie to a yacht on a drying pontoon at the back of the harbour. Mud: a syringe of silicone sealant dropped overboard disappeared smoothly on its way to Australia. Elektra would settle upright against a wall, but dredging had pushed the local vessels off their moorings to use up the wall space, and against the pontoon or a taller vessel, she would lie at an uninhabitable angle. Fortunately the Royal Yorkshire Yacht Club offers bunk beds to marooned guest sailors, and I had somewhere to sleep. Members of a ‘Royal’ club are an official part of the merchant fleet with the right to fly a blue ensign instead of a red one. Enjoy the privilege while you may: your vessel serves Her Majesty when required, and you may awake one morning to a burly bo’sun and hairy seamen commandeering your luxury yacht for the Admiral’s use. Ha ha ha!
In contrast to the previous port of Grimsby, Bridlington is a resort with ‘candie shoppes’, homemade ‘fayre’, and many places to eat. I returned from dinner with the master of the vessel I was rafted to and found that Elektra had slid down with the tide and tucked her gunwales under his hull. I had been so looking forward to my bunk but I had to stay up to make sure that she did no damage when the tide refloated the boats. At about 2 a.m., I walked to the end of the breakwater to watch the water creep up the mud into the harbour, where I found a flock of gulls doing the same. They were not feeding or competing with one another for scraps, making no noise save the odd squawk. The front ones would leapfrog to the back of the group as the water advanced, and the spooky ritual was repeated like something out of Du Maurier’s “The Birds” for 150 yards to the back of the harbour. Was there a leader, a hierarchy, a demagogic design in it; or was it an innocent game with free entry for those who had stolen too much tourist cheese sandwich and had trouble roosting? Maybe they just love the feel of wet, squidgy mud between their webbed toes.
I found a cafe for breakfast frequented by the local fishermen, and started a house chat about the Yorkshire coast and conditions. Their knowledge was better than anything in the pilot books or almanacs. Some talked of 20-foot waves over shifting sandbanks, later understood through binoculars in the yacht club bar from where thunderous breakers could be seen on a ridge a mile out into the bay. Elektra was tied up near a motor launch which had 260 horsepower on the back compared with her 5. The pontoon was a bit of a duck roost and since Elektra was smelly with fish mess from a night against a raft of fishing boats, I hosed them both down. Two little girls belonging to the launch had been playing there earlier but it had gone fishing on the bright, windy day. It soon returned, and the girls reported excitedly that the waves were so high they bumped their heads on the 7-foot roof. It was clear that I was going nowhere. Time for some maintenance.
‘Brid’, as the port is known, has a well-stocked chandlery run by women who know more of their products than the staff of any other I have visited. They advised me about repairs and even lent me a drill. I cracked the through-deck/bulkhead screw-sealed wiring joints and found every one corroded, and some of the wire beneath the insulation. The outboard trickle-charges the ‘deep cycle’ battery (similar to a car starter battery but can be fully discharged without dying), and that circuit was also corroded. The effect was a voltage reduction across the autopilot rams below their operating limit, but low-power electronic instruments were unaffected. I re-wired both circuits, and would keep a diagnostic eye on the voltage after that. I also had to resolve the problem of the outboard swivelling off line in heavy seas, and after a near miss in Brighton, I hesitated to lash the outboard in place as suggested: in any case I helmed with it for berthing. With a coat hanger I rigged a quick-release system that prevented it swivelling very effectively–I was determined not to be caught out again.
In the cabin, Elektra has two berths in the forward V which are big enough for children, and one on each side at the rear beneath the cockpit. Amidships is a paraffin double-stove on the port side, the chart table and electrical control panel to starboard. The maximum height is 4’8”, so everything is done in a crouch. I used the V for all dry interior storage. The starboard rear berth was home to the battery, charger, mains isolator, dinghy and wet interior storage. Fixing the wiring meant wriggling down it on my stomach. I slept with my head by the stove in the port berth, a space too tight to pass my arm over my hips if I lay on my side. I wriggled out of my sleeping bag each morning like a 200 lb butterfly from a chrysalis. Between the berths was a water tank, the suction end of the bilge pump and cross-over drain pipes from the cockpit to the holes in the hull (think of the outlets below the waterline when heeling to understand the reason for the cross-over). I had finally tracked down the source of a leak to one of those drain junctions at the cockpit, which would let 6 gallons into the bilges on a rough 12-hour trip. I nearly sank the boat repairing it. I returned from matching the fitting at the chandlery to find that the sea-cock did not close properly and there were already 8 gallons on the floor. Very amateurish, but not as bad as the bloke who assembled the drain in the first place. His method: make your hole too close to the cockpit support; cut a slice off the sealing flange around the drain to make it fit; find that the encircling nut is also too close and cannot be turned; re-drill the hole a centimetre further away so that it is oval and partly uncovered by the missing piece of flange; fill the gap with silicone, which ought to hold until some other poor s.o.b. has to deal with it. I put in a new fitting.
A few days of June sunshine and light wind let me enjoy 20-mile hops up the Yorkshire coast. Scarborough is a once select resort known for the twin towers of its Grand Hotel, and sloping gardens to the sea front. Now the promenade is lined with slot-machine arcades, neon-lit cafes selling ice-creme (sic) and sports pubs for Dads while the kids are watching the sand sculptor at work. He may have the skill of Picasso but it is hard to tell when the clientele demands Barney the adenoidal dinosaur. I had a coffee served on an unusual saucer with an eccentric cup ring allowing space for a spoon and a biscuit. Very practical, but I had to tease: “May I have a right-handed saucer, please?” forgetting I was in Yorkshire, where the slow-witted have to emigrate. “Course you can, darlin’!” came the cheerful response, quick as a flash as she turned the saucer around.
Whitby was next, a pretty tourist town with a swing-bridge and a tiny waiting pontoon no bigger than Elektra herself. I had a couple of hours before it opened and walked into the town square where white doves strut suicidally under the feet of the milling tourists. I visited the Black Horse pub, a few yards away from the White Horse pub, to explore the historical animosity which was bound to exist between them, but the barman was too young to care (terrible how traditions die) and I was hungry. An excellent dressed crab from a shellfish stall and a hot doughnut were the cure.
I was already late for Scottish weather, best in the spring, and a deep low pressure system was building in the Atlantic. So I headed on to the protection of the Hartlepool docks, enjoying the Yorkshire coastline where one headland succeeds another, caching industrial port-towns between the granite cliffs. At the Tees estuary, a forest of towers and chimneys lines the coast and the river banks into the horizon, a Lowry vista and a monument of the mills and refineries that powered British colonial history. Hartlepool is part of the industrial dockland, the marina inside heavy pneumatic lock gates, and when on the following day the wind rose steadily until it howled through the rigging at 50 MPH and persisted for 48 hours, the dock water remained undisturbed. The turbulence in the North Sea brought masses of jelly fish to the surface which entered when the lock was operated and were brightly visible in the still water.
The town brims with industrial heritage if not beauty, left high and dry by the disappearance of the production line economy. Original municipal and charitable buildings in local blood-red brick look good in their surroundings, erected by nineteenth century tycoons, but doubtless arousing as much resentment then as their post-war neighbours in Soviet-style monumental concrete. There is cast and wrought iron road furniture a century old, elegance buried beneath its nth coat of paint; neglected monuments to the dead of old wars; a large-scale mall-cum-exhibition-centre never occupied and deteriorating; a large Anglican town church and a Wesleyan Hall with a porch in Corinthian orders, both converted to other uses while the plethora of Baptist, Evangelical or revelatory new communities are bursting out of their premises. I was there during Soccer World Cup week, and screams and bellows emerged from every bar. Even the lounge of the smartest hotel in town was in deafening uproar. I did not take a camera with me: nobody likes to feel like a zoo exhibit, not even zoo exhibits, and this was no evening to test beery northern open-mindedness. I found a glass-fronted bar that was the only exception, entirely occupied by women, and hesitated to intrude on a ladies’ night out; but having walked past three times in indecision, I was beginning to look like a peeping Tom, and went in. The barman explained: they did have flat-screen TV, but it was not big enough. They were doing brisk business with the women, and I had a pleasant dinner amongst sparkly stilettos, short-and-tight skirts, high-gloss lipstick, mascara’d fake eyelashes an inch long, sequins and bouffant hairdos, and wrote my emails.
The swell left by the gales lasted another day, and I knew better than to enter the Tyne until it had subsided. The river flows out between the pincers of two enormous breakwaters which help large vessels into the docks but create eddies perilous for smaller boats: a yacht the size of Elektra was grounded and damaged in April this year. So it was a 4-day delay in Hartlepool before I sailed up the coast in light wind and motored for 2 hours up the Tyne, past idle docks with no other vessels on the move. The end of British marine dominion (her fleet carried 50% of world trade a century ago) could not be more evident than in the emptiness of the once great river Tyne, from where coal, steel, glass, locomotives, turbines etc. were carried world-wide in ships built in the estuary docks, and liners served a dozen continental ports in living memory. Newcastle was my destination, founded when the Romans built the first Tyne bridge and Hadrian’s Wall, to tie up on a pontoon almost under the Millenium ‘Blinking Eye’ footbridge in the city centre. The curved horizontal part matches the vertical arch, and the two blink by rotating together for vessels to pass beneath. I photographed it in changing colours as night fell. The up-river view of bridges at different levels linking Newcastle and Gateshead on the sides of the deep Tyne valley is spectacular. The High Level road and rail bridge is the oldest, built by Robert Stephenson in 1849 in the footsteps of his father George who created the Rocket steam engine. In the bar of the Bridge Hotel at the north end, I glimpsed some excellent stained glass windows, and persuaded the staff to let me in out of hours to take pictures.
With its ancient lineage and energetic industrial heritage, Newcastle is endlessly photogenic, but time pressed and I could not afford to linger. The weather had been more typical of the autumn than the spring, which can happen in the UK, and I knew I had to get around Scotland and down the west coast at least to the Irish Sea before real autumnal weather systems moved in, or risk being stuck in Scottish latitudes for the winter. Now that I had passed England’s industrial heartland, between me and Scotland lay the North Yorkshire and Northumberland coastlines, designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. My journey would take me between off-lying islands, past pretty anchorages and the famous Lindisfarne (Holy Island) on the next leg into Scotland, and I was looking forward to it.