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A New Take on the Royalist Regatta

Plain Sailing?

And so to another charity regatta in Portsmouth. We have been summoned by Patrick ‘Long John’ (don’t ask) McHugh. Normally to be found slumped face down across a table in a pool of ale at a notorious central London tavern called the Cheddar Cheese he has been tempted South by the promise of drunken feasting and the opportunity to take booty. For me this is year three. I turned down the first request but woke up one morning with a lump behind one ear and a copy of a parchment enrolment for the privateer ‘Black Dog’. The terms are irresistible, in return for handing over a sack of groats we get to suffer two days of personal abuse in howling winds on a sea soaked deck. There should be a rum ration but in previous years Long John has downed it before we leave the dockside. He claims to be concerned it might be poisoned.

We gather at a Portsmouth hostelry as the dawn breaks having tethered the horses. Patrick has organised a special deal, we get to sleep with the horses after cleaning the stables but we don’t have to share hammocks this year. Patrick adjourns to the upstairs masters suite. From the yard we can see his silhouette against the window. He draws deeply on a bottle of port and the merry laughter of serving wenches provides a tinkling backdrop to his gruff tones. We huddle together waiting to be summoned to the Black Dog. The crew are motley. Ed ‘Mad Dog’ Sankey, rumoured to be keen to take a cutlass to the present Master of his usual vessel and assume command. Ed is both tireless and fearless and wears a bandolier laden with bandages and salves for the many injuries he sustains on voyages. Geoff  Llewellyn often known as ‘The Quiet Welshman’ is generally a master in his own right and presently skippering a Livery class sloop moored near the Thames. Handy with pistols from short range and useful in close quarters debate. Richard ‘Two Meals’ Stewart has been persuaded to join us from his base in London by the promise of extensive onboard victualing and open access to the Mars Bars. Deceptively languorous, he possesses a special skill in selecting the most talented crew to pressgang from the many London drinking houses. Mary ‘Eagle Eye’ Collis is with us to ensure we master the many reefs around our course. Having been the master of a vessel herself she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the flags of the sea and the hazards we face in navigation. Myself Jeff ‘Long Haul’ Cant having picked up the name from my stamina at hauling on ropes and ability to remain until the tavern lights are switched out. Paul Ayres, our final member, sends a pigeon from Ireland at the last moment carrying a message claiming he has been kidnapped by Leprechauns. The crew votes to give him a taste of the cat when he returns as a form of encouragement. Richard uses his highly tuned recruitment skills to bring in a sailing mercenary called Chris. Chris spends much time stroking the tiller when the Skippers back is turned. Finally we are supplied with a harbour pilot to ensure amongst other things that the vessel stays seaworthy.

Long John is notorious for his motivational speeches. We assemble for the traditional crew briefing. He makes references to our doubtful ancestry, our personal hygiene and the probability that we are carrying highly contagious diseases. To ensure we know the health and safety rules he teases the nearest crew member with a beautifully crafted leather cat and swiftly lashes a plank to the Dog. It doesn’t feel as if he is offering diving coaching by Tom Daley.

The first day is a trial sail. We don’t lack enthusiasm, but there is some confusion as we try to board due to the poor state of many of the crew’s knees and other joints. The sound of these creaking makes the vessel sound more like a wooden sloop than a state of the art 40 foot fibreglass racer. We finally cast off and head for the race course. Winds are light about 10 mph so Patrick makes us row out. As a concession we are not chained to the benches.

The sailing bonds the crew and we make 5 or 6 successful sail changes before returning to the dock.

The evening brings the traditional meal on board the Warrior the first iron warship moored in a dock close to Gunwharf Quays.  We are required to dress up as the navy always wheels out a forest of admirals and captains. They share a common problem, stooped and grimacing with back pain under the weight of gold leaf and silk braid forming small hills on their shoulders.

The sea scouts attending the lavish meal lift our spirits. They are truly inspiring. Pictures of energy and health and optimism we all feel both slightly wistful for our youth and proud of theirs. As usual they perform with skill and dedication. Long John suggests we bundle a couple into a sack and force them into service on the Black Dog to improve our chances in the races but they are too closely guarded. The ambience eating on the gun decks of this ancient vessel is an experience in itself. Surrounded by oak we drink flagons of wine and listen to rousing stories from Rear Admirals and Sea Scouts alike. There is a lively auction for prized rewards, the most sought after being a meal on a warship hosted by a senior naval officer. We finally return to our straw mattresses arms linked and singing rousing choruses of ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’.

And so to the race day. This follows a rigid pattern. The Royalist, an elderly wooden schooner, is the base for the race marshalls. It sails early to the starting line, slowly due to the fact that it seems to carry a huge crew of white haired sailors whose main activity seems to be attempting to drink the equivalent of the GDP of a small Eastern European country to wash down vast amounts of the finest food. Each time we pass them a few wave pieces of cake in our direction and seem to be indicating that they can see two of us?

There are usually six races and around ten boats with a motley band of crews. Some dress to compete for the best dressed award. . The Navy always field a crew of muscled bronzed 20 somethings who sail in perpetual motion. They generally win but to make this fair the Navy only allows them to train full time for 6 months before the event. The first of the six races start at around 1000. For the first three races there is much banter on the decks. Edward and I man the foredecks (the sharp bit at the front) under the direction of a continuous stream of orders from Patrick who has the exhausting job of hanging on to the wheel and pointing us in the right direction. We get through the races without mishap barring one close encounter, until the fifth when a frayed rope holding up a sail breaks and we have to haul the pilot up the mast in a cradle to rig up a temporary fix. The racing is much busier than casual cruising as the boats cover a short distance course and there is much sail changing and changing course as well as trying to outdistance the other boats. We have smuggled a deck cannon on board with a bucket of grapeshot to discourage the others but the pilot won’t allow us to use it as we haven’t taken the health and safety course.

We return to moor up at around 1600 and so to the prize givings at the Old Customs House tavern. Our results have been good for four of the six races but the rigging disaster in the last two has taken us down the rankings. We are not to repeat our triumph two years ago when we landed the City best sailing performance award. Those of us who have returned for three years or more are rewarded with tasteful bandanas. The crews search the tavern for the chest of groats prize money, but it seems the Sea Scouts have a better use for it than wine and victuals and have taken it back to their fortified encampment.  And so to horse and back to rustic harmony for the crew.  A happy combination of charitable thoughts and memories of vibrant company accompany us.

Jeff Cant