Then I had to break the news to Sheila. Expecting a terrific rocket for my extravagance, imagine my astonishment when she said, ‘Oh, I always wanted to sail. What an excellent idea!’ I had no time to spend on navigating charged sandbank after sandbank on the east coast, and when Sheila came up to have
her first sail from Brightlingsea no one had seen or heard of the Florence Edith. At last an old fisherman said to her, ‘Oh, you mean that there yellow boat? She be lying on Buxey Sands, and it’s lucky ’tis fine weather, otherwise she’d be sunk when t’sea rises. What’s more, there be thick fog coming up, and if she do get off the sands, it’ll be a long time before you see her in Brightlingsea.’ My wife was urged by the friend she was staying with to go home and get a divorce, but she decided to defer that, and left a message in case I should turn up. The fog did come up, as the fisherman forecast, but I had an amusing bit of navigation feeling the way along the channel into Brightlingsea by means of the hand lead. Sheila had her sail next morning, and enjoyed it. She joined in enthusiastically in redesigning the interior of the yacht. We rebuilt the cabin, making berths for six, which cost as much as the boat.
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Next spring I entered for the North Sea race, 220 miles from Harwich to Rotterdam round the North Sea. I had been in only one race before, and was the only member of the crew who had been in any. Sheila had so much faith in me as a navigator that she expected me to win, and was most disappointed when I telephoned from Rotterdam to say that we had come nearly last. Before the start I had run aground in the River Crouch, losing my kedge anchor in the process of getting off.
We renamed the yacht Gipsy Moth II. I changed her from sloop to cutter rig. With her mainsail, staysail and yankee she carried 540 square feet of sail. She was 8 tons, Thames measurement, and 24 feet on the waterline, the minimum length permitted to enter for RORC races. I had one brilliant idea after another for speeding her up. For example at great trouble and expense I streamlined her sharp-edged iron keel with a false wooden keel, bolted on below. It made not the slightest difference to her performance.
My next race was from Cowes to Corunna. Unfortunately there was a weakness in the new masthead fitting which had been specially designed for her, and the top of the mast snapped off in the middle of the night in some dirty weather west of the Channel Islands. From the cabin it sounded like the crack of doom, and when I darted up into the cockpit there was a tangle of shrouds, halyards and wires wherever I shone the torch over the boat or in the water. Then one of the crew dropped the torch overboard with the light still shining, and as it sank getting fainter and fainter, it looked like a ghost leaving us for a better world. One of the crew evidently thought that we might be doing the same, and wanted to signal to a steamer whose lights were visible some distance off for help. I squashed that, perhaps more roughly than I need have, and told everyone to turn in except for one man to keep watch. When I awoke and went on deck I found our watchman fast asleep in the cockpit. Next morning we cleared up the tangle of gear, set a small staysail, and headed for Guernsey. There was a strong current as we approached the island, and it looked as if we were going to be carried on to the rocks. One of the crew was a very devout Roman Catholic, and I noticed his lips praying nervously as we were being carried towards the rocks. We cleared the point, sailed into St. Peter Port and tacked up to a mooring buoy by carrying from one side of the deck to the other the boom to which the staysail was attached.