May – at last we’ve gone down to the sea again….

Finally, we got away, covering 180 miles from Cowes to Woolverstone on the Orwell in Suffolk in one go. Conditions were perfect for a fast passage, with Beachy Head crystal clear in the afternoon sun and the white cliffs of Dover actually shining as we passed in the brilliant light of a full moon.

We abandoned plans to stop in Ramsgate when we arrived off the town at dawn with the tide still under us. We kept going, motor sailing with genoa only because there was hardly any wind.

Looking away from the cliffs

The lovely thing about the eastward passage up Channel is that you can keep the tide with you for 11 hours or so past Beachy Head, as the surge of water moves up towards the Dover Straits and the turn of the tidal current gets later. With 2 knots of tide a lot of the way and 3 knots as we approached Dover (it was a day before springs) we coasted along at an easy 7 or 8 knots over the ground from Beachy Head. We weren’t pushing it, because this was our first sail outside the Solent since before the pandemic, and we needed time to get used to everything again.

Leaving Cowes, East Castle Point behind

We had started in light westerly winds with the tide behind us out of the Solent, then the wind got up to a Force 6 right behind us, and we creamed along at 7 knots through the water under genoa only, held back by the tide because it had turned against us.

Approaching Beachy Head

The wind died to a light westerly as we neared Beachy Head, where the tide turned again in our favour and stayed with us into the Thames Estuary. That removed most of the remaining speed from the apparent wind, and we motored past Dungeness, then Dover in the darkness and on to North Foreland.

Sun setting over Bexhill-on-Sea

The light wind had already turned into the North as we passed Ramsgate, and was dead ahead nearly all the rest of the time, mainly because of our own speed under power, so we ended up motoring across the estuary as well. We went through Foulger’s Gat, the shallow small craft route across Long Sand which takes you through a channel in the enormous Thames Array windfarm (clearance 25 metres if you wander too close, 10 metres higher than our mast) and into Black Deep, the main ship channel to London.

We nipped across before anything large appeared, and crossed the Sunk Sand out of Black Deep into the East Swin on a rising tide. There is a flat stretch over the sandbank with 3 metres at low tide, which is easy with satellite navigation but tricky without, because the remains of the old Sunk beacon that used to mark the crossing point are still there under water. There is no marker buoy to show the exact spot, which would make for a nervous crossing without a chart plotter because there are no easy marks for transits. The passage is called the Little Sunk.

From there we cut off as much of the north end of the Gunfleet sand as the tide allowed and headed for the Medusa Buoy, named after Nelson’s ship that daringly used this extremely shallow way out of Harwich Harbour when the wind was preventing departure by the deep water route.

Even in a yacht with 1.9 metre draft the Medusa Channel can take some getting used to. The bottom is so flat that you can safely use it with only a metre or two under the keel in calm weather. Crews who aren’t used to the East Coast get pretty alarmed at that point.

Passing Pin Mill on the way up the Orwell

Once in the harbour we stuck close to the main ship channel because dredging has silted up much of the wide expanse between Felixstowe and Harwich. We then crossed into the Orwell at Shotley Spit and went up past Pin Mill to the buoy we have rented for a month from the MDL marina at Woolverstone.

Tony picking up the mooring at Woolverstone

The Thames Estuary is bleak, with the new giant wind farms and the remains of wartime defences interspersed with sandbanks and busy shipping lanes, and it is mostly featureless on the horizon.

But piloting a boat across it and especially though the swatchways across the sands is always a fascinating exercise. A friend from Leigh on Sea said fishermen he knew did not use charts because they could tell where they were from the signs in the water – the depth contours, the colours, the floating weeds, the current, maybe even the smell. There’s a lot that could still be learnt.

There was nothing exceptional about our passage, which I’ve done often before – just that it was the first time since lockdown that we have properly been go sea, and that made it a memorable event worth recording.

Nowadays there is much useful online information for amateurs about the estuary, including free chartlets showing depths at the various crossing points and also the trickier entrances such as the Ore, the Deben and the Walton Backwaters.

East Coast Pilot, published by Imray, is useful reading, with an excellent accompanying website that is kept up to date. Crossing the Thames Estuary by Roger Gaspar is also recommended, though I don’t have it. The book’s website has useful chartlets including the key crossings, with some of them produced in surveys by the author. They are free to download even if you don’t have the book (maybe I should buy it.)

Admiralty Easy Tide publishes online predictions and tidal curves for four key points out in the estuary, calculated for every day, which can be saved on a phone or downloaded and printed in advance.

We had Imray’s paper chart of the estuary on board but relied mainly on our recently updated C-Map plotter and the full set of 2021 UKHO charts for the UK on a tablet, supplied by VisitMyHarbour in Cowes. Further backup is from Navionics on a phone and from Imray’s 2021 electronic charts of the North Sea, which came as a free download with East Coast Pilot. They are on another tablet. With that number of backups, you can tell what cautious people we are…

April – third mate missing

We moved the boat back to our mooring in Cowes this month, but on the way our autopilot lost its sense of direction.

Whenever we are just two on board the autopilot is an extra member of the crew, and an essential third mate on longer passages.

With a big steering wheel for racing, it is hard to deal with the sheets on Spring Fever without putting the autopilot on. With Pepper, the smaller previous boat, we had a tiller, so on a solo watch I could if necessary steer for a while with my knees while trimming the sails or doing other cockpit jobs, and would not have to disturb the watch below – sleep is of course vital for safe crewing.

A small problem, we thought, so we asked Wroath’s, the Cowes electrical firm to check when they replaced our broken masthead light. But it turned out not only that the repairs would cost a large proportion of the price of a new one but that spares are hard to get for a 10 year old model. So that’s £2,000 extra on this year’s budget for a new autopilot.

Thankfully, we are running twice that much below our target for annual spending, with very low bills so far this year, so it’s not too much of a pain to install a new one ahead of our hoped-for cruise to the east coast in May.

Meanwhile, better news on Pass Your Yachtmaster, the book I collaborated on with the original author, David Fairhall. It looks like Adlard Coles, the publishers, have a solution to the copyright problem that held it up. Fingers crossed. The text was delivered complete last June and the book has been ready for printing for months.

March: down to the sea again

The virus lockdown rules allow me to drive to the boat from this week onwards, so a day is at last in the diary for moving Spring Fever from her winter berth in Chichester to her permanent mooring in Cowes.

Now we’re hopeful that we might actually make that cruise to the east coast we cancelled twice last year, so I’ve been updating my Thames Estuary charts and pilot book and reminding myself of the different route options around and across the multiple sandbanks between North Foreland and Harwich.

It is always a fascinating pilotage exercise, partly because of its tidal complexity and partly because the sandbanks, channels, swatchways and buoys are constantly changing. Charts that have not been updated can be dangerous. In the 35 years I have been crossing the estuary, even ship channels have moved, and it can be by miles.

Fisherman’s Gat, for example, was a shallow unbuoyed shortcut for small craft over a bank the first time I used it, but is now the main big ship channel southwards. The nearest short cut is currently Foulger’s Gat, and to reach that you have to go through the Thames Array windfarm, which is spectacular when you are in the middle of it.

The Thames Estuary, 2020 chart

I’m explicitly banned from sleeping on board before 12 April, the RYA reports after seeking clarifications from the government. To make it more complicated still, we have to wait until 17 May before two people from different households can stay overnight. The upshot is that we’ll have to make it a day trip when we move the boat before the 12th April and cruising will start on 17 May.

We’re now glad we decided to leave Spring Fever afloat and in full commission over the winter, because we will not have the usual three day annual ritual of antifouling, launching, bending on sails and getting out and sorting all the equipment. We can load the dinghy on board (it was taken home for repairs) and go.

A few jobs left to do in Cowes: we’ll be installing a 50 gallon a minute emergency bilge pump to replace one of the manual pumps, and we have commissioned Wroath’s, the marine electrical firm, to go up the mast on our mooring to install a new LED tricolour and anchor light. The old one was smashed (was it hit by a gull in a gale?)

We’ll probably stay in British waters this year, to avoid the complexities of visiting the EU in the first year of Brexit re-regulation – which is still not completely clarified on either side of the channel – and with a virus situation that seems to be worsening. So after the east coast we may have a second cruise to the west country.

February – boat building, and a rediscovered sailing book

My most recent surrogate for sailing has been to watch You Tube videos from the Sampson Boat Company – an addictive glimpse into a  world where something beautiful, functional and powerful is being constructed out of wood, in a project run by an English boatbuilder working in the USA. I highly recommend it to anyone, boat person or otherwise, who wants to wind down from today’s tensions. This is a link. The YouTube viewing figures show that hundreds of thousands of others have found that out too.

Planking the hull of a 1910 Pilot Cutter being completely rebuilt at Sampson Boat. Still from YouTube.

I’ve built three small dinghies from kits, all less than 12 feet, and renovated two others. But that’s in a completely different world, and  I can’t even pretend to be a boatbuilder round here – our next door neighbour is a professionally trained wooden yacht builder and repairer.

The hull of  an Iain Oughtred-designed Feather pram ready to turn over and fit out. I built it 7 years ago.

This month‘s other sailing surrogate was a book published first in 1961 called All Season’s Yachtsman by Peter Haward, a professional yacht delivery skipper, full of the most extraordinary tales of how to deal with heavy weather round the UK and down to and across the Mediterranean.

As a hired skipper, he often had to deal with yachts in poor condition as well. He experienced one terrible tragedy, when a young man crewing for him was lost overboard. A result of that was Haward’s development of the safety harness, and its subsequent widespread adoption on sailing yachts.

The book was lent to me by David Fairhall, who crewed for Haward and is mentioned in the book. All Season’s Yachtsman was a precursor to the classic text Heavy Weather Sailing, which appeared in 1967 from the same publisher, Adlard Coles, and is still in print, much updated. Adlard Coles himself wrote the first edition of Heavy Weather Sailing, and I can’t help thinking he probably  got the idea from Peter Haward’s book, which he had published on his eponymous firm’s list 6 years earlier.

I have just ordered my own paperback copy of Haward’s book, retitled and republished in 1990, from a second hand seller on Amazon, to keep next to Heavy Weather Sailing.

1990 edition


This month was almost entirely occupied by overseeing the building of a small barn-cum-garage at home. Now the roof is on, I see it happens to cover just the right size space for a workshop to build another Iain Oughtred dinghy one day, maybe bigger than the Feather pram, perhaps with a sail. Tempting. Who uses a garage for cars anyway, now modern ones are so rustproof? Most neighbours use them for workshops or storage.

I would buy another kit from Jordan Boats, the firm that supplied the feather pram. They’re quite basic, leaving much wood to be bought and made into components from scratch, but they do two absolutely crucial operations: the planking is computer cut, saving the skilled process of cutting and fitting every curved plank individually, which I’ve been watching on the latest Sampson video; and the hull moulds are outlined and ready to cut and assemble.

I’d keep any new boat modest in size. When I built a far simpler 11 foot hard-chine plywood sailing dinghy many years ago, I shared the workspace with a couple building a 20 foot wooden boat. That’s when I saw the cube law in operation: the amount of material and work involved in a boat rises roughly in proportion to the cube of the length, so I’d guess a 20 foot boat is 8 times as big a project as a 10 foot boat.

Back to the future

I was intrigued by the equipment list below, which is more than three decades old, because it was a reminder of how long we have been arguing about the risks and rewards of electronic navigation. I found the list in some old files I was checking last year for the sixth edition of Pass Your Yachtmaster by David Fairhall and Mike Peyton, which I was commissioned to update by Adlard Coles*.

A 1989 list of yacht electronics talked about at the Boat Show

The list was part of an article I produced for the Guardian newspaper about electronics for small boat navigation, under the headline ‘And a satellite to steer her by’, researched by talking to manufacturers due to appear at that year’s London Boat Show. I had forgotten all about it.

Continue reading “Back to the future”

Satellite accuracy on a mobile

How accurate is the position calculated by your smartphone? As mentioned in the previous post, the Royal Institute of Navigation is sceptical. Its new book on electronic navigation for leisure sailors says: “At sea, mobile phone positioning uncertainty will typically be several hundred meters or more, which may be enough to put us into danger”.

I am looking for some proper studies on this issue, because I am sceptical about that statement. In the meantime it’s easy to check what your phone tells you about its own location performance when it relies only on satellite signals.

Continue reading “Satellite accuracy on a mobile”

Are phones reliable for navigation?

The Royal Institute of Navigation’s excellent new book on electronic charting is pretty tough on the use of smartphones as chartplotters, claiming their accuracy can be as poor as 200 metres or worse. I think they may be out of date on this narrow point of phone accuracy, which I’ll come back to in a later post. But in the meantime I’ve had a demonstration of a different smartphone problem, one I had not focussed on before: unreliability in cold weather.

One of the nicer things about lockdown (if there are really any at a time of rampant virus) is to go most days for long walks in the winter cold, which is how I discovered that my phone seriously dislikes low temperatures. Not just sub-zero, but any day with temperature near or below zero. When there’s a strong, chilling wind it even goes on the blink in an outside pocket with the temperature in high single figures.

Continue reading “Are phones reliable for navigation?”

Tide by Tide

“…one object I never pass without the renewed wonder of childhood, and that is the bow of a Boat…the blunt head of a common, bluff, undecked sea-boat, lying aside in its furrow of beach sand. The sum of Navigation is in that…in that bow of the boat is the gift of another world.”

“Harbours of England” by John Ruskin,1856.

From the introduction to my book, Tide by Tide, much of which is based on stories in this blog. It was privately published. The photograph is of a fishing boat on Aldeburgh beach, Suffolk, in 2018

Why do we go down to the sea, again and again? It’s uncomfortable, risky, time consuming and expensive, and interpreting the language makes the offside rule in soccer seem as simple as the basics of a game of snap. That’s before you get on to the deeper question of motivation and emotional attachments to the sea and boats.

Continue reading “Tide by Tide”

January – Brexit blues

After years of trying to work out what Brexit means for yachts, there are still some annoying issues yet to be cleared up, a month into the new regime.

The most vexed question is still VAT. Most of us do have an answer, though not the one we wanted: our boats lost their EU VAT status if they were not moored in a continental port when the transition period ended. That means that in future they can only be temporarily taken to EU countries.

But a minority is still in a potentially expensive limbo. These are the owners who have been away from the UK for more than three years, who may have to pay VAT for a second time if they return with a boat they bought and paid VAT on here.

Continue reading “January – Brexit blues”

December – checking proofs

With the new lockdown – boat and our home both in the highest tier of antivirus restrictions – winter sailing plans are off for the moment.

So the only boating thing getting done here is proof correcting for the new edition of Pass Your Yachtmaster, by David Fairhall and the late Mike Peyton, the cartoonist.

It involved writing a lot more new material than I expected – or perhaps I should have realised, given the speed at which electronic navigation, marine communications, emergency location, search and rescue and numerical weather forecasting have developed during the 38 years the little book has been in print.

Continue reading “December – checking proofs”

November – the sextant survives in the navy, & joy in little jobs

I learnt this month that Royal Navy officers still have to learn and practice astro-navigation with a sextant, despite the incredible array of technology at their disposal.

I was at a Zoom meeting with Rear Admiral Peter Sparkes, the UK National Hydrographer, organised by the Suffolk branch of the Cruising Association.

Continue reading “November – the sextant survives in the navy, & joy in little jobs”

October – the shortest season ever

That’s that, for the moment: new lockdown, can’t go to the boat for an autumn mini-cruise or even to do some maintenance, so sum total of this year’s sailing is 5 days in the Solent. I try not to contemplate the cost per day.

We have however decided to leave the boat fully in commission in Chichester Marina (above) over the winter and into next season, with sails bent on and engine not winterised. This is because Spring Fever was launched only in mid-September, so gear and antifouling have not just finished a long, hard season.

Continue reading “October – the shortest season ever”

New Brexit chaos for yachts

Just when most yacht owners thought they had understood the impact of Brexit, the government has changed the rules on Value Added Tax, with expensive consequences for some.

Last year there were assurances that, after Brexit, a yacht that has been away from the UK on a long term cruise, typically a few years in the Mediterranean, would not have to pay VAT on returning.

Now it looks as if many will have to pay up, even if the boat was bought VAT-paid in the UK before it left – in other words, owners could find themselves paying VAT twice on the same boat. The second charge would be based on its market value at the time of its return.

Needless to say, cruising yacht forums are full of anger and anxiety, though this is not an issue that will get much sympathy anywhere else because yacht owners are not exactly an under privileged minority.

However, many are far from rich, living aboard on tight budgets for much of the year, often after retirement – ‘fulfilling their dreams’ as the yachting magazines love to put it – a far cry from the superyacht owners everybody hates (who in any case probably arrange their affairs so they do not pay European or UK VAT). And while it is very much a minority problem, how many other much more important parts of the economy are being hit by similar administrative chaos 10 weeks ahead of final departure from the EU?

Both the Royal Yachting Association and the Cruising Association are rather desperately seeking clarity from the government. The Treasury’s position seems to be that under EU rules we already charge VAT on a returning yacht after an absence of more than 3 years. It has decided this will continue to be part of the UK rulebook after Brexit.

But until now the practice has been to suspend the rule in many cases, by exempting private yachts that come back after more than 3 years, as long as they are under the same ownership and have had no substantial upgrades (eg a new engine). In these circumstances, the VAT charge has not been levied. The latest indications are that this concession may go.

Just as alarming for many people, the government has changed the point at which the clock starts on the 3 VAT-free years. Last year the RYA was told that a boat currently kept in an EU-27 country such as France or Greece would be treated as if it had left the UK at the point the UK itself finally leaves the EU ie at the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. That would give a full 3 years to get back.

Now departure has been redefined as the point at which the boat physically left the UK. Any boat already kept abroad for more than 3 years will be liable to VAT if it returns to the UK after 1 January 2021. This led to howls of protest from the RYA and a promise that there would be an extra year – but no clarity about what that meant.

Would it allow a yacht that has already been abroad more than 3 years another year up to the end of 2021 to come home VAT free? Or would it just add one year to the 3 year grace period, so a yacht that has been away 4 years or less will not pay VAT after 1 January next year, but one that has already been away 4 years and a month will pay?

There’s another set of EU rules that make this even more onerous, if the UK imports them into its own post-Brexit system after we leave, as it seems to be doing with the 3 year rule.

Currently, as long as the importer of a yacht is not an EU resident, the yacht can be temporarily imported for up to 18 months without paying VAT. But if the importer is an EU resident, VAT becomes payable on arrival. (Nationality of the importer and registration country of the yacht are irrelevant – it is the country of tax residence of the importer that matters).

In the past, the UK has taken a tough line on this, with no grace period, though there has been at least one exception among EU countries – Greece in the past certainly allowed a month. If the rule is kept by the UK after Brexit, and applied strictly, it would be risky for a UK resident yacht owner to call in for a day at home in a yacht that has been abroad more than 3 years. The VAT would be chargeable immediately.

The rule seems to be aimed at stopping UK residents keeping their yachts VAT-free in tax havens such as the Channel Islands but using them in the UK – an obvious tax loophole if it were left open.

In fact Spring Fever was first registered in Guernsey in 1988. We have the VAT certificate to prove it was paid when the boat was imported into the UK a few years later, a vital document we guard carefully, especially in these new circumstances. With the first owner on the documentation shown as being a Guernsey resident, we may well be asked to prove VAT has been paid.