Cats (three aids for the less agile - boarding, boat hook, topping lift)

". . . les mouvements des equipiers (the crew) doivent avoir Ia promptitude et Ia souplesse de ceux d’un chat . . ."

I came across this in the Touring Club de French sailing school manual which I was using to coach four young Dutchmen in French sailing terms. They had been taken on as assistant instructors for the T.C.F.’s July sailing courses this year. Like most of their nationality, they were good sailors and their English was fluent, but even their every day French was somewhat inadequate. French pupils instructed by Dutchmen who had had their French sailing jargon imparted to them with a Scots accent! I wish I could have stayed on to see some of the results . . .

However, the object of this article  is to offer some wrinkles to an who, like myself, find, by reason of advancing years or any other reason, that their ability is short of cat-like. I suppose that the best advice to them would be to buy a small cruiser. But this is a little heavy to make passages across France on the roof of an ancient van, particularly one whose compass courses are hopelessly deviated by the magnetic attraction of the Massif Central for the pilot.

The Bassin de Thau is a salt water lagoon. 12 miles by 2, behind the port of Sète in Languedoc. Thousands of plated oyster poles along its northern shore provide a guarantee of the purity of its warm water for those addicted or prone - to total immersion, and provide an additional incentive to visit the inns of the one or two little harbours along its shores. Sète itself offers the lover of ships everything, and can be visited by a network of canals which put Venice to shame. The T.C.F. Centre Nautique at Balaruc les Bains offers an excellent camp and caravan site, not restricted to club members or sailing pupils, except perhaps in July and early August, but prior enquiry from T.C.F., Bureau Regional, 4 rue de Verdun, Montpelier, is advisable. The centre has its own private slips and jetty.

Mirror 21831 “Le Mirage” (dictionary definition “optical phenomenon, associated with water and/or with objects seen upside down”) — Bedford “Vital Spark Too” and their owner have made the double passage from this, their port of registery, three times in the course of which they have involved themselves, severally and jointly, in numerous misadventures from being stranded at the source of the Loire, at 4000ft. to being blown across the Bassin under bare poles by the mistral, the strong north wind that whirls down from the Massif Central and the Maritime Alps. It is of maritime affairs that I would write.

Wrinkle No. 1:

For the uncatlike the Mirror is delightfully easy to get out of from any position, provided you do not mind landing in water of any depth, with or without the boat on top of you. I had an uneasy feeling that getting back in solo, after righting her if necessary, might not be so simple. Being alone this year I thought that some experiments were called for, even if I HAD to be a lone wolf. I had no desire to sail the width, or at worst even the length, of the Bassin in the guise of an auxiliary and animate rudder. So I anchored her in chin-deep water and tried, over the transom, naturally. It could be done but the exercise was strenuous, and only achieved in a more or less unclad condition, after removing the rudder and more skin from various parts of my anatomy than I cared to make a habit of. Furthermore, judging from the comments of some small boys watching from shallower water, the performance must have been most undignified. National pride had to be considered. Then I tried a stirrup bent to a line passed through one of the transom clearing holes, round the midship thwart and back to hand. No good. The length of the stirrup 'leather’ could certainly be adjusted, but as soon as any weight was put on it, it rode forward under the boat.

So - laugh who will - I have made myself a little ladder, designed to hook over the transom without removing the rudder. Any nosey parker seeing this stowed on the after thwart (but easily removable) will be told that it is a set of fiddles to prevent the beer and sandwiches being couped into the bilges when I am lunching in a popple.

Wrinkle No. 2:

An excellent way of achieving the total immersion above referred to, delightful in summer Med. waters, but undignified, is when coming alongside a jetty single handed and leaning outboard to get hold of something to which to pass a line. It can be positively ensured, if the free end of the bow
line is lying where it should not be - at the foreward end of the foredeck — and the lone mariner essays a perilous crawl along that no-man’s-land.

With me in a Mirror there is no room for any extra clutter such as a boat-hook. So I found me a piece of steel rod which would just fit into the D-eye at the middle of the spinnaker boom, bent about two inches at right angles and slipped this finger into the eye. Then I ran the rod along the boom and made another judicious bend to lit the rod into the claw at one boom end, taking care not to put pressure on the claw. and finished off with some kind of hook. Round off the two ends of the rod to avoid tearing sails or, better still, fit a small wooden parrel ball on the hook end. The fitment can be
clamped into the boom in a moment or removed from it with a single tier of lacing line. Anyway, few uncatlike Mirror sailors will use their spinnaker single handed. The gadget is also useful when catting the anchor without venturing on to that perilous foredeck. You can grapple for the warp forward of the bow transom and drag it round and get your anchor on board opposite the mast without risking punching a hole in the bow transom.

Wrinkle No. 3:

The Mirror’s boom is doubtless admirably designed for its primary purpose. But with its weight and square section, and being so low hung at the clew, it is capable of inflicting some vicious swipes on the head and shoulders of the uncatlike helmsman when luffed, getting under weigh, bringing up, or at other moments when things are not strictly under control. In any case, it can be an infernal nuisance at such times, or when rowing.

As a most uncatlike small boat mariner I am not ashamed to admit that I carry oars and moreover keep them in their crutches, blades lying forwards against the shrouds so long as I am within soundings (dinghy soundings). Substantial collars at the top of the leathers allow me to let them trail if need be.

But they would be of little use with that infernal boom flying backwards and forwards about a foot above the gunwale. So I rigged a topping-lift: bent on a small snap hook at the head of the gaff and spliced an eye into a length of light line (similar to that used for the luff lacing is ample). This line I rove through a transverse hole in the boom after end, thence to a jamming cleat about two feet forward on the side of the boom, and, after checking that there was ample slack, stopped off the end with a small parrel ball. Then I topped up the boom as high as it would conveniently go without straining the gooseneck fitting. cut the line, turned an eye splice into the lower end of the hanging part and spliced another snap hook into the part rove through the boom. This ensures that the hanging part of the lift can be fitted, if wanted, as the sail  is hoisted and removed as it is lowered. Carefully checked for ample slack it won’t spoil the set of the leech. But you presumably don’t want it racing (it may even contravene Class Rules) or with a crew on board, and if left bent will sooner or later produce a hurrah’s nest with the main lowered, for which, if unbent, it provides a useful tier.

I once saw the late Uffa Fox, arrived late at a meeting, lash H.R.H.’s Bluebottle to a nasty jagged seawall railing with his mainsheet. while he went for sailing instructions, watched by the usual group of devotees — my pupils - whom I had recently instructed that a main sheet should be reserved for its primary purpose, not used as a sail tier, warp or whatnot. The Mirror’s standard sheet gets kinky enough as it is after salt water use. With this topping lift, “Le Mirage”  even in her most intractable moods is reduced to absolute docility. I have sailed her through the worst of a mistral squall with the mainsail so scandalised. It is as well, of course, to remember to let go the kicking strap before topping up. It is of tougher cordage than the topping lift!

Lt. Col. Ean McDonald. M21831
Edinburgh

Editor's note - This article is from Reflections No. 11 Autumn 1973, page 5 and has been captured by OCR, so typos & errors are possible.

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