Exercise PIRATE GOLD Sailing Expedition to the Solent

The complaint is often made that it is too difficult to fit in Adventurous Training (AT), particularly when serving on the busy fast jet station. It was with this in mind that Sqn Ldr Baker and myself of the mighty Goldstars (31 Sqn) decided that instead of waiting for a week of AT to align with our Squadron programme we would organise some ourselves.

To that end, in February 2013, just before we deployed on Op HERRICK we booked four Victoria 34 yachts from the Joint Services Adventurous Sail Training Centre (JSASTC) in Gosport and put some adverts out around the station. Upon our return in July we had managed to put together enough qualified skippers, mates and other random unqualified crew to fill the boats. The task then was to turn the intent into reality. At this point I would like to thank the staff of the PEd section here at RAF Marham, particularly Cpl Sean O’Donnell, for their patience and assistance with the task of administering Ex PIRATE GOLD. Getting 18 unconnected people to  register their interest in something is not difficult, the task of completing all the mandated paperwork proved much more challenging.

However, by mid October we had a crew list, enough cash for food and mooring fees, and four yachts waiting for us at Gosport. All we needed now was some good weather! After watching the Sunday evening feature movie on TV, ‘The Perfect Storm’, it was with some trepidation that we set off from Marham at 0600 on the morning of Monday 28 October, in the grips of ‘the worst storm since 1987’! Fortunately the wind eased (a bit), so after signing for the boats (and receiving a pre-emptive telling off), we cast off from Gosport with a plan of making Port Solent before sunset. The strength of the wind kept everything interesting (apart from Sqn Ldr Wild’s boat, who chickened out and just used the engine) with a bit of ‘practice’ running aground in the mud (a theme of the Exercise) and a sideways parking ‘demonstration’ in the Marina entrance before mooring up in the glamorous surroundings of Port Solent. Some of the younger members of the crew were surprised to see the lights of civilisation so close and after a fine curry onboard we ventured out to see what the ‘boardwalk’ had to offer. This was enjoyed by all before turning in for a night of creaking fenders, banging halyards, snoring and the ‘after effects’ of the curry…

Tuesday morning greeted us with perfect sailing weather; blue skies and winds of between 15 and 20 knots. The boats left the marina in good order and made their way out of Portsmouth Harbour into the main channel of the Solent, where the wind increased, the swell built and stomachs were put to the test. The morning consisted of some fairly intensive sail training for those not accustomed to the ways of the sea, after which most of the boats anchored in Osborne Bay off the Isle of Wight. I say most of us, as Sqn Ldr Baker’s yacht was sat in the middle of the Solent not moving. Running aground was ruled out, due to the depth of water, so the only other possibility was that the boat had become caught on a line of lobster pots. After a call to the JSASTC for advice they put out a request for a tow, to which our boat responded and we motored off in their direction to laugh, take photos and perhaps offer them some biscuits? Fortunately, before we arrived they managed to poke themselves free of the offending lobster pots and they were back in business. The rest of the day passed without incident and all four boats ended up in Cowes for a fairly relaxed evening of sight seeing, and an early night. Wednesday saw us heading out into more sunshine with the intention of reaching Lymington back on the mainland. By 1600 three of the four boats had made it. By sunset, the forecast stronger winds and rain had arrived and we were getting increasingly concerned that Sqn Ldr Baker’s boat had yet to arrive. We were relieved therefore to receive a phone call at about 1900 to inform us that they had spent the afternoon aground on the mud in a small (muddy) river on the Isle of Wight. After a lot of effort they had floated themselves off but were  now facing a long motor into the flood tide to reach Lymington. After a few speed/distance calculations they gave up on Lymington and moored for the night on a bouy in the Beaulieu river further along the coast. As we enjoyed a night of Poker on board, listening to the rain and wind, we were thankful that we were in a comfortable marina and not attached to Sqn Ldr Baker’s mooring bouy!

The morning saw the rain disappear and we all set out to run downwind back to Cowes. We put into Beaulieu Creek for lunch, fortunately under better navigational conditions than the night before. It was here that the final sailing ‘lesson’ of the week occurred. After a very pleasant lunch I decided to show off my nautical skills by sailing off the mooring rather than using the engine. This is a difficult manoeuvre to master… so it was no surprise that we found ourselves, in full view of the other two boats, sailing into the mud. Fortunately, unlike the grounding on the previous day, we had plenty of assistance and after satisfying their mirth, Cpl Mike Brown and his crew took great delight in towing us off.

Our final evening saw all four boats back together again at the Folly Inn, further down the river Medina from Cowes. A good meal and live music provided us with a fine end to the week, with added entertainment being provided on the walk back by a certain member of the crew walking into a post and falling into a hole in the jetty!

After a short sail back across to Gosport on the Friday morning we scrubbed the decks, handed in all our  it and set off back to RAF Marham. So, was it worth the hassle? Absolutely!

Those with previous qualifications had gained some valuable experience and a significant number of people were introduced to sailing for the first time. Most importantly though we had completed some genuinely  ‘adventurous’ training, met some new faces from around the station and had a thoroughly enjoyable week. So if you can’t find an expedition that suits your needs or timetable the resources are there for you to organise your own, or you could join us for the next instalment of Ex PIRATE GOLD, sometime next spring…

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