To Potkin’s horror Absalom Rowbottom drove Centaur straight into the centre of the mayhem and joined in.
“Starboard!” he cried, spinning the wheel wildly as a dozen vast and unwieldy craft swept back and forth along the start line waiting for the gun. They ducked under sterns, shot across bows. When a dented, steel hulled barge named Indomitable rushed smugly by, rashly close to Centaur’s stern, Absalom surreptitiously took a rusting shackle pin from the pocket of his long coat and, whistling innocently, lobbed it high into his rival’s tops’l. It rattled onto Indomitable’s deck where a whiskerless lad retrieved it, looked worriedly aloft and rushed with it to his skipper.
Something akin to a smile, but much more scary, split across our captain’s face.
“They’ll be a long time wondering where that’s come from. Has something aloft given way? Will the gear come crashing down at any moment? Should distract them for a bit.”
On the five-minute gun all the barges rounded up and commenced their dash for the line.
(There is, I am assured only one gun, a little brass cannon, but several bangs. On the ten-minute bang everyone must switch off their engines and the five-minute bang signals frantic manoeuvring by the keenest skippers for the best position at the start. The aim is to reach the starting line, going flat out, just as, BUT NOT BEFORE, the start bang goes off.)
Several craft, including Centaur, were neck and neck as there came another report and a puff of white smoke from the committee boat. The race had begun.
With the leading barges clearing the mouth of the river the wind became a gale. Dark clouds twisted and turned as they rolled past and the chill rain stung Potkin’s face. He was glad to be wearing his waders and sou’wester.
Centaur began to pitch wildly as the lumpy seas battered her hull, great waves crashed over her bow and swept along the deck. Potkin was cold and a little frightened. He could taste his breakfast when he burped and was sure his fur was turning green. Searching for shelter he found an upturned bucket by the mast and curled up beneath it.
The crew, hunched against the wind, was still pulling on ropes called sheets while the skipper shouted, “Lee ho!” and “Leggo!” and the sails crashed from one side of the ship to the other.
As they swept onwards towards a buoy far out to sea, Eben staggered on deck with mugs of hot tea. Potkin was wishing that he had stayed at home, but after the warming drink he felt a little braver and the queasy feeling in his stomach began to subside. He nibbled a ginger biscuit and quickly perked up.
With barely a memory of his former discomfort Potkin was chatting to Rick about how much he was enjoying the voyage when they rounded the black and yellow north cardinal buoy which had been designated as the outer mark.