Memories of CDYC

Chepstow & District Yacht Club from the Memoirs of Don Hodge

Not long after my arrival in the Forest of Dean, as soon as I had become mobile, I began to look around for sailing waters.

There was not much choice.

Apart from Llangorse Lake, a pond high up in the hills near Brecon, there was only the Severn estuary and one day I took myself down to Beachley, from where the car ferry operated, to assess the possibilities.

I was aware, of course, of the enormous rise and fall of tide on the Severn, in the whole world only the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia has a comparable range, but even so, I was unprepared for what I saw.

The tide happened to be ebbing and just upstream of the ferry slip-way a wall of muddy, foaming water was pouring over a jagged line of rocks (the ‘Hen and Chickens’, I later discovered) with a roar which could be heard ¼ mile away.

The ferry happened to have just left Aust on the far bank and with its engines going flat out, was slowly crabbing across, 90% of the effort expended on simply holding itself against the racing tide.

Thoughts of sailing a dinghy on such waters were clearly out of the question; I rode away and abandoned the idea.

Two years rolled by and then, by chance, I heard nebulous reports of a sailing club at Chepstow and after much detective work I managed to track it down.

It went by the somewhat heavy title of ‘Chepstow and District Yacht Club’ and had apparently been founded a few years before by the local veterinary surgeon aided and abetted by two of the town’s doctors and other such irresponsible persons.

It was a dinghy sailing club and was based in a small, muddy creek called St Pierre Pill (locally, all creeks were ‘pills’) a mile or so downstream from the Beachley narrows.

Access to the pill was by private lane, over which there were frequent disputes, and thereafter by a bumpy and sometimes boggy track across fields (no wonder that I had never found it before).

Moorings had to be laid by individual owners themselves and to add to the excitement a 30,000 watt power line hung menacingly over the upper end of the pill.

The tidal range of the river often exceeded 45 feet and the quality of the water itself was pithily expressed in the local description ‘Too thick for the ‘osses, too thin to plough’.

Although there was water in the pill for about 3 ½ hours either side of high water, after about 2 hours ebb the currents were so ferocious that sailing was normaly limited to about 1 ½ hours either side of high water.

There can be few dinghy clubs which face more daunting conditions.

The local people, who had a healthy respect for the dangerous estuary regarded the idea of sailing on it for a pastime as unspeakable folly, a view which I could fully understand.

However, the club had been launched in full awareness of the difficulties and also with remarkable foresight.

The type of dinghy favoured was the ‘Yachting World’ 14 foot Dayboat; strong, beamy, virtually uncapsizeable and, with its added buoyancy, unsinkable and over the years it proved to be ideal.

Club safety rules were inviolate and, although there was no formal requirement, any new member was dissuaded from going out on the rivere alone until the club elders were satisfied that he was competent and fully aware of the unforgiving nature of the waters.

It so happened that a colleague of mine at work, one Mike Gillman, casual, imperturbable and one time Battle of Britain pilot, was also interested in doing a bit of sailing.

At the time, neither of us could countenance the outlay for a new Dayboat (there were no secondhand ones) so we went shares in the best that we could find.

The boat was a 13’9” clinker-built dinghy of the estuary type built at Sheldon, Devon, and we called her ‘Pippin’, the pet name of Mike’s youngest son.

We were welcomed into the club and found that despite the unpromising conditions, there was a regular programme of racing throughout the summer, a few ‘cruises’ at intervals and even an annual regatta.

We joined in the menagerie class and although I had not done any dinghy racing before, I began to get a taste for it.

The sailing was quite different from anything that I had done previously and most of my experience was of little use.

Races were arranged to start a little before high water when the river had the deceptive appearance of a huge lake.

The boats were swept up by the last of the flood to the upper marks then, as there was no slack water, the ebb swept them back to the finishing line off the pill.

Lying in wait for the unwary mariner, a little down stream from the pill were the fearsome ‘Shoots’, usually referred to with bated breath.

This was the name of the narrow deep channel between the rocks through which the ebb tide roared at up to 8 knots (Admiralty Chart data).

In fact, we believed that the rate was sometimes even higher.

It needs little wind against a race such as this to produce dangerous overfalls and often, at half ebb and with a westerly breeze the Shoots was a mass of white water and no place for an open boat.

It was essential, on the homeward leg of a race to avoid being swept on to the main channel side of the Charston rock; once caught in the main ebb stream there was no returning and a boat would be swept on down the Shoots to oblivion.

As some safeguard against this dread possibility, each boat always carried an outboard motor stowed away so that in the event of the wind failing one could avoid being drawn into the mainstream.

As a last resort, oars and anchor were also carried.

Races were won or lost on finding the right tidal eddy and these were changing all the time.

It became second nature to be continually watching shore marks to assess which way the currents were taking one and the actual movement of the boat through the water was a secondary consideration.

I even learned that it was possible to sail across the river, and back, in a flat calm, relying on the apparent breeze caused by the boat being carried through the still air by a 4 or 5 knot tide.

After one season, the superiority of the Dayboat was so clear that I abandoned my share of ‘Pippin’ to Mike and set about acquiring my own boat.

To save costs, I bought a construction ‘kit’.

This consisted of the bare hull as lifted off the moulds but with frames fitted, and enough bits of wood to finish the job.

By now, my pleasant little bed-sitter in Lydney was becoming untenable ...I found a small flat, crude but serviceable, in the house of another works colleague at Coleford and moved in.

The house had a very large garden with a number of outbuildings and the owner was quite happy for me to pursue my boatbuilding activities in one of these.

So, during the winter of 1955 much of my spare time was spent boatbuilding at 700 feet in the middle of a forest.

There was no heating in the ‘boatshed’ so that if it was freezing outside it was freezing inside also, which was not good for glued joints, or for boatbuilders’s joints either, for that matter.

Still, zeal kept me warm. And in the spring ‘when the birch buds quicken’ ‘Tomahawk’ was towed down to the sea, or rather to the somewhat murkier waters of the pill.

The little fleet of Dayboats was expanding; we now had nine or ten and although perhaps rather comical in comparison with the big fleets of today’s dinghy clubs, we had much enjoyable and hard-fought racing.

The only other sailing club nearby, based at Oldbury Pill, 3 miles upstream on the opposite bank, had a similar number of Dayboats and they attended our regatta and we attended theirs.

None of the ‘down-channel’clubs would face the Shoots so we were a select little band.

When I first joined, I had been intrigued to discover what ‘cruising’ the club could possibly do and this turned out to consist of day trips, in company, up or down channel as the tide suited.

The first in which I took part was a sail up river to explore the wreck of a steamer which lay on a sand bank off the little port of Lydney and I found it a somewhat hair-raising experience.

The channel snaked from side to side of the estuary and mostly, the tide was setting strongly across it.

Although well marked with leading marks and beacons, a few moments inattention could be disastrous and I felt for the captains of the steamers which occasionally came up to discharge at Lydney or Sharpness docks.

It was salutary to recall that Lydney had been a Roman port; I should know as I had spent time digging on the site with Norman Bridgewater.

The tidal conditions must have been the same then as now and the navigation of the early sailing craft an even more exacting business than it is today.

I felt a great respect for these ancient mariners and would very much like to know how they managed it and whether they had their own system of leading marks, etc.

It is known that there was a beacon on Chapel Rock, at Beachley, in the 6th century, claimed by some to be the earliest ‘lighthouse’ in Britain. Perhaps there was one there during Roman times also? I often thought that the subject would make an interesting research project.

One of the most memorable cruises was a visit to the island of Flatholm.

This lies in the middle of the Bristol Channel, about midway between Barry and Weston-super-mare and the cruise involved a round trip of some 50 miles.

One lovely summer morning, three boats left the moorings at the top of the tide when the Shoots and surrounding rocks were under many feet of water, the ebb had not yet begun and Nodens, the god of the Severn, slept.

By the time that Avonmouth was abeam, the tide was gathering strength and hurrying us down into the broad, empty expanses of the Bristol Channel.

I began to feel that we were getting rather a long way out to sea in such a vulnerable craft as a dinghy and it was comforting to see the other two boats sailing steadily on nearby.

On past the English and Welsh Grounds lightvessel (which we had visited on an earlier cruise) the tide swept us towards the growing bulk of the island.

Flatholm is uninhabited save for the lighthouse and eventually, feeling like Captain Cook landing at Botany Bay, we scrambled ashore on the stony beach.

The flat, tussocky table-top of the island proved to be the breeding quarters of hundreds of gulls which, to a bird, left us in no doubt of their feelings with regards to our invasion of their territory, and it was with some difficulty that we found an unoccupied spot where we could sit down and eat our sandwiches.

We could not start on the return trip until the tide turned and were idly dozing in the long grass when we were surprised to see a man approaching.

Oh dear, surely it must be the warden, or the owner, come to demand our passports and entry permits, but no, it was only the lighthouse keeper.

He had seen us arrive and had hurriedly dashed off some letters which he now, somewhat apologetically, asked us to take back and post.

So on the passage home, the C.D.Y.C. was carrying Her Majesty’s mails – recognition at last – and on the top of the next tide, with a dying breeze, we drifted gently back into the pill.

It had been a long and satisfying day.

In the above instance, the passage of the Shoots was avoided by waiting until the top of high water, but it was not always possible to arrange this.

On one occasion we attended the regatta of the Clevedon S.C., some 13 miles down channel, on the English side.

The event was held on the ebb and when it was over, rather than wait 6 hours for the next high water, it was convenient to return with the first of the flood, thus negotiating the Shoots at dead low water.

This meant anchoring off Portishead until the tide turned, by which time darkness had fallen.

Although there was a moon and, of course, the leading lights guided us, it was an eerie experience.

Under outboard motors, four little dinghies put-putted in line astern up a vast, gloomy canyon with walls of black, dripping, seaweed-covered rock on either hand.

It struck me, that rather like an underground cavern, it was the sort of place which few people ever saw.

Surprisingly, it was quite safe, the only problem being that on arrival at the pill we had to hang about for an hour until there was enough water to enter.

There was, of course, some inherent risk in these activities but on the whole, the dire forecasts of the local populace were not realised.

During the years in which I sailed with the club, there was only one accident, and this happened in an extraordinary way and, eventually, involved me.

It was not during a club event.

Early one Sunday morning, the most experienced member of the club, one Tom Lanham, had set off up river to visit his parents who lived near Oldbury pill.

Another experienced member accompanied him for the ride.

It was a quiet morning and they were proceeding under outboard motor with no sail set when, without warning, off Aust cliff the boat suddenly capsized throwing them both into the water.

They could not right the boat (one had a damaged wrist) and could only hang on as the tide carried it on up river, upside down.

By an extraordinary stroke of luck, one of the Thornbury club members happened to be out for an early morning sail, saw them and picked them up, almost in the nick of time.

The boat, of course, was abandoned to its fate.

Later that day, I was contacted by Tom who asked me to accompany him in a motor launch to search the estuary for his dinghy; from a knowledge of the tides one could work out roughly where it might be, if still afloat.

At the time, Tom worked for a Contractor who was involved in the building of the Severn Bridge, driving their motor launch which ferried personnel back and forth across the river, and he proposed to use this launch to search for his boat.

It meant negotiating the Shoots at 4 hours ebb, the most dangerous time of all and I did not relish the thought.

Still, the launch had two powerful diesel engines and there was only a light breeze, so, not without misgivings, I agreed.

No sooner were we aboard and it was too late to change my mind, Tom cheerfully informed me that only one of the engines was working.

I prayed that it would keep on working.

Mercifully it did, and we got safely down although the sight of the bones of an old wreck on Gruggy rock did nothing for my peace of mind.

We scored the waters as far down as Clevedon but saw nothing and in the end had to come back empty handed.

When we got back, we learned that the dinghy had been found and recovered by one of the ‘down-channel’ clubs; they knew it was Tom’s boat and finding on board a flask of tea, still hot, they were seriously alarmed and telephone bells had been ringing.

So, in the end, Tom got his boat back, albeit with a broken mast.

We never knew what had caused the capsize; the most likely possibility is that the centreplate clipped a rock and the racing tide had instantly flipped her over.

We took good care to keep well out from Aust in the future.

A National 14ft Dayboat Association had been formed and I took part in the first annual Regatta week held at Weston-super-mare. ‘Tomahawk’ and two other boats sailed down to Weston to take part, the crews sharing a caravan for rhe week.

It blew half a gale for most of the week, the waters were exposed and much of the racing was abandoned.

The following year, the event was held in Poole harbour and I teamed up with the club secretary, Howard Rattenbury, his car and my boat, to take part.

Although at home I often managed to finish somewhere near the front of the fleet, in this wider gathering we were clearly outclassed, even, on one occasion of a long race round the harbour, crossing the finishing line far and away last.

I can still see the relief on the face of the duty officer, standing huddled in the rain, when we finally turned up.

I learned that there is a world of difference between racing for fun and racing to win but a good time was had by all and I began to appreciate the advantages of Poole Harbour.

It was a central feature of the Chepstow club, and probably the reason for its survival, that all members shared in the running of the club, and even I eventually arose to the lofty heights of Commodore.

Although I did not know it at the time, it was to be my last year with the club.