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Donkin on Sailing

Cruising with Jonathan Adnams – July 2008

Cruising with Jonathan AdnamsA summer evening in Southwold. The beach is deserted but for a solitary fisherman perched on a folding chair. The colourful beach huts with names like “Costa Plenty” are empty but the dry sand is churned about, evidence of daytime play.

I can see why Gordon and Sarah Brown, the prime minister and his wife, would choose this place to holiday. It has the feel of a quieter, more optimistic time, as if the all the clocks had stopped on that day in 1957 when Harold Macmillan told us that we had “never had it so good.”

There’s a grocery store, a newsagent, a post office and a butcher’s shop, the kind of businesses that bind a community together. People walking their dogs look you in the eye and say “good evening.”

I was here to answer a question that has puzzled me for some time, ever since taking up sailing in fact: what’s the difference between cruising and racing? Does it have something to do with the pace of life?

I checked in to the White Swan Hotel owned by Adnams’ Brewery – the biggest business in town – then walked a few doors down the street to the Crown, another Adnams’ pub. “What are you drinking?” asked a man at the bar, wearing a rugby style sailing top, canvass slacks, no socks.

“I’ll have pint of Adnams, please,” I said. Well what else do you say when the brewery boss is in the chair? Diet Coke? I don’t think so. Jonathan Adnams, chairman of the brewery, was taking me sailing.

I had half-expected a blazer and captain’s cap but that’s not his style. “I like to think of myself as a seaman rather than a sailor,” he said. The distinction is telling. Anyone can sail. I can sail myself. But I wouldn’t call myself a seaman, not yet at least.

Adnams had invited me to join him on his Italian-designed and built Grand Soleil 43, Sole Bay Blue. The boat’s name recalls a period, about 300 years ago, when Southwold was Britain’s main fleet anchorage.

The sands have shifted so much on this part of the coast that Sole Bay itself has disappeared; but here it was, in 1672, that the Dutch fought an Anglo-French fleet in the Battle of Sole Bay, a destructive encounter that left both sides claiming victory.

I had thought it would make a pleasant change to get out of the Solent but had assumed we would be racing. “Is there a regatta?” I asked.

“No, we’re cruising. I thought you might like to see some of the Suffolk coast,” he said.

The idea appealed. I know that cruising on yachts is popular, but going back over more than 10 years of sailing I could hardly recall a journey that might be described as a cruise.

For the most part my sailing has been confined to stripped-down racing boats, slogging across the English Channel in all conditions; either that or racing dinghies around buoys on the local gravel pit.

So I welcomed the opportunity to sail a boat for nothing other than the joy of sailing. After all, this is what most sailors do. They go down to their boats, stock them up with supplies, cast off on the tide and sail where they please. It seems the most natural thing in the world and it is.

I rose early to take a stroll down Southwold’s main street. A cheery, whistling, milkman is doing his round. Just outside the hotel a man is unlocking a glass cabinet and adjusting the needles on the tide dials. “I’m the comptroller of tides,” he says. One little push of his finger changes so many things - the time we might go fishing, the time for a swim and the time we put to sea. This morning the tide would be perfect.

The boat is moored at Levington, just down the coast. It’s a tidy looking boat with clean lines and teak decks. I had been thinking over the distinction between sailing and seamanship – difficult to define on paper, but you know it when you see it.

It explains why skippers like to look at each other’s boats, scrutinising boat-handling skills. There were plenty of clues on Sole Bay Blue: ropes evenly coiled, deck scrubbed, sails smartly folded and tied. Down in the galley every cup had its place. There was real crockery and the boat interior was lined with wood, not the Duck tape and netting used to pin everything down on an ocean racing boat.

“I always sail to the weather and the tide, even if it means leaving at two in the morning. We keep the boat stocked and ready to sail. I like the idea that you can just drop everything and go,” says Adnams.

This morning we have both the tide and the weather with a gentle south-westerly breeze. We cast off neatly with plenty of room to manoeuvre, unlike the crowded Cowes marinas where boats seem to be coming from every direction. Taking the helm, it became clear why Jonathan had chosen the boat ahead of newer broader-profiled designs.

“She’s a very good sea boat. The bow is more flared than most of the newer designs. That means it cuts quite easily through the waves and she performs well in a following sea,” he says.

As a senior helmsman for 15 years in the Southwold lifeboat, Adnams accumulated a deep understanding and respect for the sea. It shows in his skippering. “Racing’s not really my thing. What I like is taking a good quality passage, ideally going somewhere new and getting the pilotage right,” he says.

The marina is based on the River Orwell, immortalised by Arthur Ransome in his 1937 children’s adventure story, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea. Indeed the Nancy Blackett, Ransome’s yacht at that time, still sails these waters, crewed by members of a trust set up to preserve her.

Our course takes us down the estuary, past towering cargo ships lining the dockside in Felixstowe, the UK’ busiest container port. We track one of the ships for a while before changing from a reach to a tack, weaving our way up another estuary.

It isn’t sloppy sailing. We’re trimming the sails the whole time, trying to find the best point of sail. But it’s a different pace, altogether more comfortable than crashing around the cans during Cowes week.

We tie up for lunch in one of the nearby creeks. Jonathan has brought along some bottles of his latest ale, Adnams East Green, branded as the UK’s first carbon neutral beer.

He’s proud of the beer, proud of his brewery and conscious of his East Anglian roots. The business is very much part of the local community. Adnams’ approach to sailing reflects the way he does business, taking pains to get things right, paying attention to details. It’s the kind of fastidiousness you expect when you look forward to a well brewed pint. In sailing it makes for an incident free log. When it’s time to come in we come along aside the pontoon as tidily as we left.

Good beer, pleasant company, effortless sailing, a hearty on-board picnic – what more could you want from a day on the water? Cruising as it should be. Yes, I can drink to that.

http://adnams.co.uk

http://www.grandsoleil.net

See also: Yawl sailing in Salcombe

   
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