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The Matthew Sailing

Sometimes offers or invites come along that you just know you will kick yourself if you do not take them up. So when someone says ’There is a night sailing on the Matthew to Cardiff, would you like to come?’ there really has to be only one answer, Yes!

And so at 9:00pm on the 26th of August 2005, I boarded this wonderful replica of John Cabot’s ship in which he set sail in 1497 from Bristol and (alledgedly) discovered Newfoundland BEFORE Christopher Columbus. I am accompanied on this unique voyage by others members of the local media and photographers and of course the crew. I meet Rob Salvidge our skipper (slightly worried at this point about the Skipper’s last name because i thought that you Salvage ships once they have SUNK!) However Rob puts me right that his spelling is the old fashioned way and so no problems.

One of the crew members Martin Pick, was a member of the crew who made the historic sailing to Newfoundland in 1997 to mark the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s adventure.

But enough of history what of my own adventure tonight? We moored (you see how easily I slip in these nautical terms) at Cumberland basin around 10:30pm awaiting two things. Firstly the arrival of Robin our river pilot and secondly for the tide to come in sufficiently for us to make our way down the River Avon to Avonmouth.

Robin arrived in good time and he remade acquaintences withthe skipper and some of the crew. It seems it is a close knit community as many know the same people. River Pilots on the Avon have traditionally been born in Pill near Avonmouth and in fact it was a Pill River Pilot who took the Matthew down the Avon on the start of its voyage in 1497. Sadly Robin is the last Pilot to be born in Pill and at the end of August he retired and with him went that tradition.

The skipper called us all below decks and we have a safety briefing on wearing lifejackets at all times at night and the dangers of a fire which as you can imagine on a timber ship would be no joke. Then it was all hands on deck for a quick run through on what to do if we lose someone overboard and a very practical demonstration on how the loos work (or should I say ’the heads’)

At around midnight, we move into the lock gates and on into the Avon. Apart from the occasional car passing along the Portway, the only sounds were the gentle throb of the motor, the milky wash of the Mattthew’s bow as she cut through the water and the occasional sound of wildfowl as we disturbed their sleep along the river bank. The moon was often hidden behind the clouds and as we moved around horseshoe bend and left the Portway behind, I couldn’t help thinking how the people of this fair city were missing out on seeing this majestic ship make its way down river like a thief in the night. I like many others will have noticed the large white posts dotted along the river bank and have not really ever given them much thought other than they must be some sort of light. But at night when you are standing near the helmsman and listen to the river pilot, you suddenly realise how cleverly positioned they are. For as you steer towards one red light, another looms into view ahead and you adjust your course accordingly to take you safely down river. The Matthew slips silently past the powder house on the starboard shore and very soon the folly known as ’adam & eve’ on the port side. Soon the village of Pill looms and next Avonmouth, the M5 bridge and the Royal Portbury dock. The Matthew does benefit from some modern-day devices such as a depth sounder and compass and wind speed instruments, however the steering is still done by means of a large wooden pole which passes through the deck and connects to the tiller. I expected a wheel like you see in all the best pirate films but the skipper informed me that the Matthew predates wheels.

It was about now as we passed under the bridge that I noticed the  first hint of the transition from dead flat of the Avon to the swell of the River Severn. The prow of the Matthew began to slowly rise and fall.

In a short while we had navigated the sand bar and glided on into the dark of the Bristol Channel leaving the lights of  Portbury behind us.

The wind had picked up to 20 knots and I whiled away the night hours on deck riding out the swell of the channel and marvelling at just how much knowledge the River Pilots have. To me all around us was an array of twinkling lights, some quite clearly the coastline of England and Wales but many others a total mystery. But to the pilot, every one of them meant either a rocky outcrop or a position on the Channel or perhaps a bouy. At around 3:30am a car transporter cruised past us at a steady 20 Knots (compared to our 3 knots) If you think those ships look big when you view them from the land, trust me they are an awful lot bigger when you are on the water! It slid past like a greased block of flats, a huge dark wall with just a few twinkling lights way way up in the air.

We continued on our way with the different watches coming and going, some teams working on the bilges, others doing ropes and sailing stuff. Cardiff Bay came up on the starboard side around 5:00am but we continued on to Breaksea Point just off Barry Island where we finally said goodbye to Robin (who jumped ship onto a launch). We cruised on and began to turn into the wind and made ready to unfurl our sails and showboat all the way into Cardiff Bay.

The unfurling of the sprit sail was not quite as easy as it looked and it was while I battled wth hauling on ropes while looking down on to the foredeck, that I decided perhaps the sailors life was not for me and also that I was very appreciative our cooked breakfast was going to be served AFTER we had stopped moving!

Matthew is primarily of course a sailing ship and she takes on a completely different feel and sound when the motor stops and you just rely on wind power. For a while I thought that perhaps we had stopped because the motion is so much more gentle yet our speed was actually much the same.

We sailed around the headland and our goal was finally in view. The Matthew under sail is an unmistakable sight and even though it is not the first time that she has been seen by anyone she conjours up the same interest that makes people look at Concorde.  A number of small fishing boats acknowledged us on our way in and it was nice to have a visit form the boys in the Cardiff lifeboat who couldn’t resist coming aboard and having a look see for themselves.

We are soon through the locks and into the fabulous Cardiff Bay Marina. A short cruise to our mooring (more waving from the hotels) and we finally arrive at our destination.

The breakfast, expertly served by Shawn our trusty ships cook and a fond farewell to the skipper, crew and fellow passengers brings the trip to an end.

I began this review saying that i would have kicked myself if I had missed this experience, I haven’t changed my mind. I count myself amongst the privilidged few that will make such crossings in this unique vessel and put the whole thing down to one of lifes great adventures.

Happy sailings! 


Chris Mills 2/9/2005

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