We left the quayside at Reedham on a bright Sunday morning. The sun was shining and there was a moderate South Westerly blowing. We hoisted the mainsail outside Corvette Marine and sat down to enjoy a sail against the tide to Cantley. There was some tacking, but shifts in the wind gave us some close haul reaches - luckily through the ferry was one.
My crew member had just tacked the reach by the Limpenhoe windmill and was turning into the Hardley Dyke reach when she asked me to take the mainsheet and pay it out. She was struggling to get the boat onto the wind when we were hit by an almighty gust. The mainsail was right out and we still had severe weather helm. White Rose was travelling at boat speed (or faster!) towards the iron piling on the southern bank. This was the windward bank so all should have been well; apart from the boat speed and the continuous weather helm!
I took the tiller and let the mainsheet right off. The figure of eight knot did not hold and the rope started to unthread itself through the blocks. The end of the boom was level with the shrouds and in the water. The jib supposedly should have helped me turn the boat but only hindered, so I released it;the sheets immediately down the deck with the end kept trapped against the fairleads, the remainder of the sheets were airbourne above the forestay, as was the jib!
I could see the iron piling looming and I was bound to hit it with my bowsprit at a slightly oblique angle, I could foresee the bowsprit splintering, the weight of the rig snapping the mast and the impact being so furious that the hull would crack or shatter and the boat sink.
The crew member, wanting to be useful, asked what she should do. I asked her to furl the jib if possible but the jib was having none of that! On her second request of something to do I told her just to stand in the well.
We looked at the river only to see the whole of the water surface rise up vertically and shower down on us. This was very weird. Luckily I managed to turn the boat onto the wind at the last second, bringing a great air of relief. I still had the boom right out and an unthreaded mainsheet so I travelled (still at speed) to the leeward side of the river before pointing the boat head to wind opposite Hardley Dyke. I had the whole length of the dyke to remain head to wind if I needed it, but hoped not to enter. Before the entrance I managed to retrieve the boom and mainsheet, drop the mainsail and start the engine.
The crew took over the motoring to Cantley whilst I furled the jib, rethreaded the mainsheet and checked things were in order. I think I have got away with just a small rip in the mainsail. It was a close thing and very scary. A reed-lined bank would have eased the tension somewhat.