August – Dun Laoghaire to Cowes

Covid caused a full week’s delay in Ireland, and the weather forecast added another three days. By then we were feeling fit, though perhaps tiring a touch more easily than usual. We grabbed the chance to see more of Dublin, along with Rob, who arrived by ferry late on Sunday night.

Sandy Cove, Joyce’s Tower almost hidden behind the trees on the right

Near Dun Laoghaire, the James Joyce Tower and Museum at Sandy Cove is fascinating both for its atmosphere and – at weekends – for the fluent storytelling about Joyce and Ulysses by the volunteers who staff it. The tower is the setting of the first page of the book.

We visited Trinity College Library to see the Book of Kells, which is beautifully presented and described, and walked a mile along the River Liffey to find the Decorative Arts and History section of the National Museum of Ireland in the Collins Barracks. There Rob searched out an exhibit that includes a photo of his mother (and Chris’s aunt) in army nurses’ uniform during WW2 – she was with the troops in Normandy after D-Day.

I went with Chris, who was nearing the end of her stay at Trinity College, to the Irish Film Institute to see the newly-released Joyride, set in Galway, though starring English actress Olivia Colman with what the Irish Times described as a “slightly undisciplined Irish accent”. The delay also gave me an opportunity to meet grandaughter Nora’s other grandfather, Brendan – Covid had ruined previous plans.

Rob as we passed Dalkey close inshore

Finally, the strong southerly winds veered round to northerly and weakened, so Tony, Rob and I set off on Thursday morning for the 120 mile overnight passage from Dun Laoghaire to Milford Haven.

Sailing down the Irish coast

The wind had dropped so far that within a few hours we were motor sailing until we were 15 miles from St David’s Head, where the wind began to build from the north-north west, right behind us. The seas built as well, so we eventually roared along in the dark with two reefs in the main, past the big headland and Ramsey Island. As dawn broke we saw Skomer and Skokholm islands to port, with Grassholm off to starboard, before rounding up into Milford Haven and anchoring just inside the entrance in a breezy Dale Bay.

Back into Milford Haven

There we slept till early afternoon, had a late lunch of spicy pasta, and set off in the early evening for another 120 mile overnight passage to Newlyn. There was the same northerly weather pattern, with light winds and motor sailing, and we encountered very little shipping overnight in the approaches to the Bristol Channel.

We had one scare, in daylight, when Rob spotted a long rope floating just under the surface and right across our track. He reacted fast by shoving the gear lever into neutral and stopping the prop. The rope was attached to a small orange pot buoy which must have broken loose. Badly marked and sometimes almost invisible lobster and crab pots are a menace nowadays, to the point where we have to plan overnight passages so that as far as possible we spend the dark hours well offshore. These hazards are everywhere.

Worse still, Antony F, who fishes regularly offshore from Plymouth, had told us on the outward passage that some of the buoys in the south-west were in pairs and marked the two ends of a net, floating supposedly well under water. But sometimes the nets broke free of their moorings, and it was wise not to go between the buoys

This was something I had been warned about when sailing the Adriatic but I did not realise we had to worry about it in the UK, where I thought all the buoys were for heavy crab and lobster pots. Whatever they are, the vast majority of buoys are badly marked with no flags, a practice which has now been made illegal in Scotland (probably unenforceable). The English government has not done anything about the problem, ignoring a campaign by the Cruising Association.

After the rope incident, the wind gradually built and veered to a good sailing breeze as we approached Cape Cornwall and Lands End, passed the Longships reef and then the Runnel Stone on the south-west point of Mounts Bay in the late afternoon.

Just as on the last visit in July, and as we logged the time before that, a northerly afternoon wind of force 5 built up as we approached Newlyn. I wonder whether this is coincidence or a local weather pattern?

Alongside the fishery patrol boat in Newlyn

We looked at the anchorages by Penzance Harbour and St Michael’s Mount, but decided we’d get a better sleep in Newlyn. Arriving late, there were no pontoons left for yachts so we were told to go alongside the fishery protection vessel.

We’re almost out of sight behind the big grey boat
…but a lot better than being alongside a rusty, laid up trawler.

This was a rundown looking boat with a big half-deflated and weathered RIB on deck. We wondered how many fishing patrols the ship actually did nowadays. The harbourmaster said it was still a fishery vessel but the crew tended to come down to it just for the day. Maybe that says something about how much this government cares for the fishing industry.

It was a comfortable berth, apart from the tricky clamber over a wide gap to reach the iron ladder on the harbour wall the other side of the fisheries vessel. We stocked up on food, had a good sleep, and set off the 70 miles to Plymouth the next morning.

We had a fast reach in a fine north-easterly breeze across Mounts Bay and the wind held till well past the Lizard, but of course Plymouth was then directly to windward. So we tacked eastwards on port for 10 miles or so till the wind died, at which point we gave up, furled the genoa and motor sailed under main only direct to Plymouth on a warm, sunny day, making a failed attempt to catch mackerel for supper (we were probably going too fast).

We anchored for a peaceful night just off the village of Cawsand on the west side of the entrance to Plymouth Sound, outside the breakwater. Next day we went into Queen Anne’s Battery Marina so Rob could catch his train home.

Cawsand

We then spent a pleasant afternoon helping Antony F and his daughter launch his Drascombe at Saltash Sailing Club, and Antony and his wife invited us for a delightful dinner and overnight stay, our first real beds for a month.

Finally, Tony and I started on the last passage of the cruise, 125 miles overnight to Cowes.

For the first hours down the Devon coast to Start Point we had a perfect breeze, mostly a close reach in a north-north-easterly 3 to 4 on a flat sea, close inshore, admiring the scenery. Start Point was peaceful, the tide race turbulence hardly visible even with wind over tide (we were nearer neaps than springs). Once round Start Point and after turning to a course to clear the south side of the dangerous Portland Race, the wind was nearly ahead. While it lasted, we tacked eastwards for a few miles, then it died to nothing.

We motor sailed on a glassy sea with a backdrop of a beautiful sunset and almost simultaneous moon rise, gently puttering across the bay, with our speed over the ground dropping to a couple of knots when the tide turned against us.

Fading blues in a low sun...
…and as it sets…
…the moon rises…

We timed it so that the tide began to run eastwards again with us as we approached a waypoint set south of the Portland race. From then on the strong tide did much of the work for us until well past St Alban’s Head in Dorset the following morning.

The north-east breeze got up again as we approached St Albans, so much of the time it was Force 5 over the deck. We compromised by motor sailing 20 degrees off both our course and the wind, rather than trying to beat to the Isle of Wight under sail only. With wind over tide it was choppy and the tide didn’t turn against us till we were a dozen miles from the Needles and the wind was dropping again.

Motoring up to The Bridge

The engine went off, and with the wind eventually backing we held our course to the Needles on one tack. Then we motored into the wind and tide across the shallow shoal called The Bridge that runs from the Needles to the ship channel, and edged up the Isle of Wight close inshore, helped by a counter current that runs north-eastwards from Alum Bay to near the fort at the Narrows.

It would take hours to get through the 5 knot ebb tide at the Narrows so we anchored in Colwell Bay for lunch and a siesta. Once the tide had turned, we rushed through the Narrows and the Solent to Cowes in less than an hour and a half, and were on our own pontoon at Whitegates by 19.30.

End of the cruise, Spring Fever moored

We logged close to 1,100 miles out and back. That’s a cruise distance we’ve often done before, but we’ve not had the complications of rounding Lands End twice in the same cruise.

Neither have we had a problem before that could have justified flying the yellow Q flag for a reason close to its original use (though not remotely as serious, of course). Q signified the 40 days quarantine afloat used to prevent ships’ crews arriving from abroad spreading plague on land.

As it happens we only flew Q to show Customs and Border Force we had arrived from abroad at Milford Haven. That was after the announcement a couple of days before of the abandonment of the government’s appallingly constructed online reporting spreadsheet, which has to be downloaded, edited, saved and emailed. I use spreadsheets a lot but this was the clumsiest I’ve ever come across.

Instead there is a new web-based app which on first investigation seems to work far better. As we arrived during the transition, we simply rang and gave our details to the National Yachtline. They did not seem at all surprised that their system had lost our exit spreadsheet, emailed weeks before as we left Milford Haven for Arklow, and helpfully just took down our details again on the phone and wished us good sailing.

July – passage to Ireland

The plan before Covid struck was to allow three weeks for a cruise to the Irish Sea, which is quite difficult to time exactly because of the uncertainties involved in rounding Lands End.

To make the new cruise work on our original pre-Covid timescale, Tony and I had taken advantage of a generous offer from Antony F to arrange a mooring for us at Saltash Sailing Club, an attractive and friendly place near the Tamar bridges (see June post).

Dolphins all the way from Plymouth to Helford – here’s one about to surface

A good wind to get to Lands End from Plymouth is often a bad wind for carrying on northwards to Ireland. Strong winds can also prevent rounding the headland for days, as we found in 2007 when we were held up for a week in Falmouth.

We set off again from Plymouth on July 11 – myself, Tony and Antony – and headed first to Helford where we picked up a mooring off Durgan, clear of the eel grass beds which are now protected, along with their seahorses.

Durgan, Helford River, with the eelgrass beds inshore of us

It was lazy summer motor sailing, and the three of us were dozing in the sun much of the way on a near windless day. There was entertainment: rarely have we seen so many dolphins surfacing right next to the boat.

Moonlight over Helford River

From there we went round the Lizard next day to the port of Newlyn, where yachts most definitely take second place to fishing. Thankfully, we did not have to moor alongside a rusty, smelly trawler, sometimes the fate of late arrivals, and found space at the end of a small-craft pontoon for the night.

We were early enough to have supper at an excellent little seafood cafe called Mackerel Skies in the town centre. It had been another gentle day until the final couple of hours heading up into Mounts Bay, when the wind rose to a northerly 5.

Newlyn Harbour

Next stop was 60 miles round Lands End and Cape Cornwall to Padstow, past the Longships reef and lighthouse.

The weather was fine with a lovely force 4 sailing breeze after we rounded Cape Cornwall, just after Lands End – except that the wind was ahead of us and we had to beat all the way from there. Force 4 doesn’t sound much, but Spring Fever easily goes at 6 knots in that breeze, so the apparent wind over the deck was solidly 5 and occasionally 6, which was hard work for the 40 miles up the coast.

Top to bottom: Antony, Tony and Peter, Longships in the background.

In fact, when we realised we might miss the closure of the harbour gate at Padstow we leapt into action like a racing crew, working hard for every bit of speed.

We had planned to be there with 3 hours spare till the harbour shut its gate but arrived with only 45 minutes left. Entry to the estuary is over the famous Doom Bar, dangerous in strong west and north winds. It turns out that Doom derives from an old word for sand, and not for what happens to boats that get too close in bad weather. Doom Bar is also the name of a widely marketed Cornish beer.

The Camel Estuary near low tide – an incentive not to miss the Padstow harbour gate.

In the estuary away from the harbour there does not seem to be anywhere secure for a boat with 1.9 metre draft to anchor comfortably without bumping the hard sand at low tide and leaning over. The recommended anchorages are outside Doom Bar on either side of the bay or 3 miles down the coast just east of Trevose Head, by the lifeboat station. None of them look as if they would be comfortable in a northerly wind. We might have had to go on 80 miles overnight to Milford Haven in South Wales if we had missed the gate.

Padstow is lively, though crowded, and the restaurants are heavily booked in the holiday season, so it was fish and chips for us when we arrived. There’s no chance of getting into the famous Rick Stein restaurant at short notice, or it seems any of the other good restaurants without booking well ahead. Not for nothing is the town sometimes called Padstein because of the number of eating places and other businesses he owns.

Moored alongside the harbour wall in Padstow.

We stayed two nights alongside the harbour wall using a fender board borrowed from the harbourmaster to keep us off the piling. Jean-Jacques joined us there by train and bus.

From Padstow it was 80 miles motor sailing to Milford Haven Marina in gentle winds, mainly north-east, arriving yet again to find all the restaurants booked. It always saves a lot to eat on board, anyway.

The marina has a lock gate and is the nearest to the estuary entrance, advantages that overcome the sight of the nearby oil terminals. Books say the estuary is beautiful further up, but we didn’t go to look.

Entering Milford Haven

Next stop was Arklow, 80 miles away on the Irish coast, and 35 miles south of Dublin. It was a clear day and I had not realised that the Irish coast is visible from just off St David’s Head in South Wales, and even less did I realise (as a south-easterner) that half way across we would see both North and South Wales and Ireland at the same time. That makes St George’s Channel seem like an inland sea. The Irish Sea further north is even more enclosed.

Entering Irish waters

Arklow we explored on a previous cruise years ago. This time we were woken by the thunderous sound of pile drivers working on construction of a new sewage works near the marina.

We headed off up the coast for the giant marina at Dun Laoghaire in Dublin Bay, which is a 20 minute train ride from the city centre, where Chris was staying for a few weeks to see family. We saw Antony F off on the airport bus, and collected Peter F from another bus, pottering around Dublin in between.

Coliemore Harbour, Dalkey, on the approach to Dun Laoghaire

After exploring Trinity College, where Chris was staying, dinner was at a lively old-fashioned pub called the Ginger Man, after the novel that made JP Donleavy’s name (the barmaid said he threatened to sue them for using the title without permission).

Left to right in The Ginger Man : Jean-Jacques, Peter F, Peter R and Tony K. (Photo Chris)

Next morning we went all of 7 miles to Howth Marina where we had a splendid lunch with Georgia, Peter C and Nora at the Aqua restaurant on the end of the fishing harbour pier, an excellent recommendation by one of Chris’s Irish cousins.

Nora gets to grips with the wheel
Chris, Georgia, Nora, Peter C
Heron leaves our pontoon – didn’t budge till we were a metre or two away

The plan was to spend a few days sailing further north exploring Strangford and Carlingford lochs before heading south again. But the weather was breaking down and we had only 24 hours to get to the nearest, Carlingford, or we’d be facing forces 5, 6 and 7 from ahead, the last thing we’d want to do voluntarily.

We decided to go just to Carlingford, a historic village, and look around there for a few days, regretfully dropping the plan to go to the beautiful Strangford Loch marine reserve in Northern Ireland. We needed to be back in Dublin the following week for Jean-Jacques and Peter F to catch their planes home and for Rob to arrive to join us.

Carlingford is packed with holidaymakers and eating places, and it’s there that things took the challenging turn described in the previous post.

June (2) – overnight to Plymouth, fuel consumption

With half a dozen tidal gates on a passage from the Solent round Lands End, we managed to get through four of them in 24 hours last week. The westerlies that usually slow a cruise to Devon and Cornwall gave way to light winds from between north and east, with calm seas.

Two of us were standing ready to sail to Plymouth as soon as we had the right weather forecast, so we would be better positioned for rounding Lands End on our way to Wales and Ireland next month.

Tony bringing the boat in from our mooring to Cowes Yacht Haven so I could do a pierhead jump – we’re too mean to pay marina day rates

We went to Cowes on Monday afternoon, left at 5am on Tuesday and were in Plymouth Sound about the same time on Wednesday.

We logged about 130 miles, mostly doing two hours on and two hours off, because there was not much sail handling to do – we motorsailed for all but two hours. We had to plug contrary tides twice, of course, but that’s a lot easier to plan when you aren’t beating at the same time against a contrary wind.

A friend who will join us for the next leg found us a friendly berth at his club at Saltash on the Tamar, and that’s where Spring Fever is at the moment.

How much fuel do you burn?

We all know that fuel consumption per hour rises dramatically with rising engine revs. But that doesn’t give a true efficiency rating because with higher revs and speed you go further per hour, of course. What really matters is consumption per mile, which is harder to measure. There is an excellent article on this subject in the summer issue of Cruising, the Cruising Association’s magazine.

Our nearly new Beta 30 is proving helpfully economical measured per hour: purring along at only 1500 -1800 revs, fuel consumption was less than 1.5 litres an hour on the way to Plymouth. We were getting a knot or two from the sails so we averaged just over 5 knots. If we had pushed the boat at engine cruising speed of 6.5 knots we’d probably have doubled or trebled the consumption per hour.

The good news is that Cruising’s research report shows very clearly that consumption per mile also rises with engine revs, though not as fast as consumption per hour. Our 1500 to 1800 rpm looks close to the optimum engine speed. Consumption per mile rises steadily as the engine revs up beyond that. The tests were on a 50HP Beta, so are not directly comparable, but it seems unlikely our Beta 30 would be very different.

There is also some useful related data in the article on the effect of headwinds and waves on consumption per mile at different revs, which is of course to drive it up further. But other than at very low revs, the data shows that the relation between rising revs and fuel consumption per mile is maintained.

Venice’s Vogalonga

The first boat to appear at the Dogana on the Grand Canal after the 30 km Vogalonga rally round the lagoon and canals of Venice was a coxed eight. It was another 40 minutes before the arrival of the first of the traditional Venetian boats, the ones everyone really wants to see.

All the boats finished further up, beyond the Rialto, and they then paraded down to the official pontoon at the Dogana, which is at the entrance to the Canal.

A coxed eight was the first to arrive

There they received their awards for participating in the lagoon marathon, which is open to any boat as long as it can be rowed or paddled. It took place on the Sunday before the Transadriatica.

A big international occasion has now evolved from what began in 1974 as a local event for Venetian rowers protesting against the damage motor boats and their wash were causing to the city. Since those days there has been a great revival of interest in Venice in traditional rowing craft, stimulating the creation of many clubs and training programmes.

First traditional Venetian boat to arrive, 40 minutes later

The Vogalonga itself, which is non-competitive, has changed its character over the years. Indeed, we heard that there was some resentment among local rowers at the way it has evolved, with boats appearing from all over the world, many of them starkly different from the traditional craft of the lagoon. There were reportedly 1,700 boats with 7,000 rowers this year.

One of the biggest competitors.
The Dogana (customs house) behind the official Vogalonga pontoon

There were dragon boats, rowing eights, fours, pairs and single skiffs and a variety of kayaks, including an exceptionally long one with four paddlers which was one of the first back, and a number of inflatable kayaks that were hauled out by their owners and packed into bags.

A great display of assorted craft passed by before we saw the first of the traditional Venetian boats with their forward-facing rowers, working gondolier-style.

Competition skiffs and kayaks can be seen anywhere in the world, but Venetian craft in their many forms are unique. The gondola is the most famous but there is a variety of other types, of which the sandolo is the commonest.

Packing an inflatable kayak

Some of the eights and other fast boats were from Venice, but many others were from elsewhere, including Britain, and the sheer number made it hard to keep track of all the national flags as they passed by.

The British coxed four in this picture was flying a Queen’s Jubilee flag. It was Jubilee weekend.

You can certainly see the advantage of facing ahead in the crowded waterways of Venice. While eights and most fours have coxes who look forward to steer, the uncoxed pairs and single skiffs must find it hard to avoid collisions at the speed they go.

The 2022 Vogalonga poster

March/April – refit after survey

We finally launched Spring Fever at the end of April, though not without hiccups, because the crane needed to put the mast up broke down.

On the way in, without a mast

We launched the boat mastless anyway, and used the time to collect a new cooker – the gas survey for our insurers had brought the expensive news that the cooker was condemned for corrosion and age.

Luckily there was one available at the marina near Newport, Island Harbour, so we chugged up there to collect it, and the gas engineer came to fit it the next day.

The boatyard where we wintered at Kingston managed to hire in a crane. so we went back there. The mast was put up three days late by a very efficient and patient team from Spencers of Cowes, which had made our new standing rigging. Spencers replaced the rigging last time we did it as well, in 2009.

Apart from that, we had the usual long list of bits and pieces to do to commission the boat, but because of the delays we had no time for a trial sail.

Just finished another updating project, this time of David Fairhall’s Pass Your Day Skipper, with cartoons by the late Mike Peyton. It will be published in the New Year. My update of Pass Your Yachtmaster was published last year.

February – survey nerves

Insurance surveys don’t come round very often, but it’s a finger chewing time when they do. What’s going to be found and how much will it cost?

We’ve been lucky with our insurers, who haven’t insisted on a survey since we bought Spring Fever in 2009. Our current insurers gave us a year’s notice that we’d need one this winter.

The survey has just been completed by Adrian Stone of Cowes. The good news is that the main work needed is a job we have been contemplating anyway, which is replacing the standing rigging.

Out of the water and pressure scrubbed.

It still looks acceptable on close inspection, but one of the risks with stainless wire and fittings is sudden failure, as likely from a hidden crack in a steel piece as from the wire itself. Some insurers are said to ask for replacement every 10 years but our standing rigging has lasted a full 13 seasons.

Other than, that Spring Fever has come out well from the survey for a 34 year-old boat with one significant exception: the P-bracket that holds the prop shaft has come slightly loose, and will have to be reinforced, a small job but an awkward one that will need an expert to do. The loose bracket has caused heavy wear on the cutlass bearing on the shaft. Other than that, the recommendations were minor.

Four years ago we commissioned a really big job, repair of delamination around the keel. If that hadn’t been found in late 2017 it would have been a big shock to find it alongside new standing rigging, but we got it out of the way. We also had a new engine installed in 2019.

It’s been expensive over the last four years, but keeping the boat up to scratch brings real reassurance when things get tough out there. The survey has been delivered to the insurers, Topsail, and the policy renewed.

January – RYA training upheaval, and ending an electronic chart nonsense

The small craft navigation conference in Cowes at the end of January heard that the RYA is finally promising to overhaul its outdated Day Skipper and Yachtmaster shore-based courses.

The conference was also told that there is to be a concerted attempt to abolish that annoying legal disclaimer on all our electronic charts that they are “not for navigation.”  As soon as we switch on a pop-up appears with this message, often with a line underneath saying that only paper charts must be used, which of course almost everybody ignores.

First, the RYA: any novice has noticed for years when boarding a cruising or racing boat that most navigation is electronic and paper charts are relegated to backup. Surveys of skippers have proved that. 

The approach of RYA shore-based courses has been like getting into a car with full satnav, and being told not to switch it on but instead to dig out the AA road map from under the back seat.

After a 2 year gap without a manager for the Day Skipper and Yachtmaster shore-based courses, an executive has now been hired, and the promise is that course improvements will be a high priority this year. A better integration of training for electronic charting and traditional navigation is long overdue. More on that another time.

Second, that warning notice on our charts: it has become a joke, but it’s no laughing matter. It reflects some real quality and standards issues affecting leisure charts, which is why official hydrographic bodies will not licence their data to publishers unless they use the disclaimer. This is also the legal position, because under international maritime law only official charts from hydrographic offices are recognised.

Many fishing boats use the same charts as yachts

That’s not a problem to worry about if you are a leisure sailor on a modest size yacht. But it is an issue for large numbers of small commercial vessels, including fishing boats and indeed for sail training yachts and large private yachts.

They are all under that same restrictive legal umbrella, but they mostly ignore it and use cheap leisure electronic charts anyway, because official electronic charts and equipment are so expensive. In theory they are supposed to navigate only on paper, but the law is honoured only in the breach.

The Royal Institute of Navigation, whose small craft group organised the conference, is now leading an attempt to get something done about it.

The plan is to seek minimum standards for leisure charts and chart plotters. This would be in the hope of improving them to the point at which there can be some form of official recognition, and removal of the warning.

The RIN has involved the RYA, the Cruising Association, the Marine and Coastguard Agency, the UKHO, the Marine Accidents Board, the RNLI, chart publishers, equipment firms and various other interests. The focus is a new Pleasure Vessel Navigation Systems Working Group, reporting to the UK Safety of Navigation Committee, which is under the MCA.

There is no plan to set detailed specifications – attempts to do that for the fishing industry in the UK and similar projects in Denmark and Italy failed. Instead, standards would be developed setting out what the charts should do and the functions equipment must contain in order to be approved. Manufacturers and publishers would find their own way of meeting these standards.

For example, some measure of underlying accuracy should be available, as it is on official ship charts and on Admiralty paper charts, where survey age is shown. You then know if the last survey was in 1930 or thereabouts (or indeed 1849, a contributory cause to an oil rig grounding under tow in the Orkneys in 2006).

One proposal is a much simpler traffic light system, with the colours related to the reliability of the information, including survey date.

Other issues include clear separation between crowd-sourced feedback and more rigorous survey information, which are in danger of getting mixed up in some chart brands.

Updating should also be reliable and easy. Shore features should be shown clearly on all charts, and there should be ways of drawing bearing lines from them, measured by the navigator and plotted onto screens to give a traditional fix.

Ideally, all electronic chartplotters should have a common default method of operation so anybody can switch boats and still work the plotter. That is the case with ship electronic systems, but it’s a long way from being taken seriously by leisure chartplotter makers.

The objective is to make leisure chart standards high enough to allow that disclaimer to be removed – and while it may be asking too much for international authorities to accept it, perhaps it will be known instead as the RIN standard.

It will not be simple or quick to achieve, and there are legal obstacles, too – where would liability end up if a faulty leisure chart causes an accident? But that warning as we switch on is a technical issue of real importance.

After a scrub

Meanwhile, on Spring Fever: We took the boat out of the water at the Kingston yard in Cowes for an insurance survey at the end of January. The boat turns out to be basically fine, but we’ve decided to preempt what will probably be an instruction from the  insurance company anyway: we’ll replace the standing rigging, now in its 14th year.

Calm before the tempest

It’s sad to read happy accounts of a peaceful sailing season just before the worst storm ever unleashed on Europe – by which I mean World War II, not the weather.

I’ve been leafing through the 1938-9 Yachtsman’s Annual, picked up for a few pounds the other day in an Oxfam bookshop. It’s not just the handsome young people in bright sunshine helming racing dinghies, who we know might soon be in mortal danger on the front line in a war. It’s also the international cruises and races, some of them to Germany, with skippers and crews displaying no public awareness (whatever they privately thought) of what was happening in the world around them.

Continue reading “Calm before the tempest”

October – summer returns

Summer came back in the middle of October, with sun, warmth, gentle winds from helpful directions, and calm blue seas.  Five days sauntering along the Dorset coast under bright blue skies was an unexpected gift at the end of a season of dull weather.

We left Cowes in the afternoon and picked up a free mooring outside Yarmouth harbour for the night in a calm that hardly moved the boat. The next day we went pleasantly to Weymouth in a Force 3 from the land, which gradually built to 4, so we creamed along on flat water, well out from St Albans Head because the army firing range was operating.

Continue reading “October – summer returns”

September – laying up season approaches

But if a yearning seizes you to roil
In stormy seamanship, when the Pleiades,
Fleeing Orion, sink in cloudy seas,
That’s when all kinds of wind blasts rage. Don’t keep
Your ship longer on the wine-dark deep,
But work the earth, and mind what I command:

Now’s when to draw your ship up on dry land,
And pile stones round to keep wet winds at bay.
Pull out its bilge-plug, that it not decay
With Zeus’s rainfall.

Stow the gear, all things
You need for sailing, make sure the wings*
Of your seaworthy ship are in good trim.
And hang the well-wrought rudder in the scrim of smoke#.

Till sailing season comes, just wait. Then drag your swift ship seawards.
Range the freight in its hold, get ready for the profit you’ll
Bring home”

From “Works and Days (Penguin Classics)” by Hesiod, 7th or 8th century BCE, trans A. E. Stallings.

* sails or oars. # to preserve it?

A quiet month for sailing, but we’re planning at least one autumn cruise before layup – if the wind blasts don’t rage.

August – back to Cowes through the blue channel

For almost all the daylight hours during our 170 mile passage back to Cowes the sea was a mesmerising blue.

After weaving our way overnight through the sandbanks and brilliantly lit windfarms of the Thames Estuary, there was little to do in the calm of the English Channel except watch the autopilot and check the plotter from time to time.

It was enjoyable in a way that had very little to do with sailing. We did three hours on, three hours off and probably got more cumulative sleep than we usually have in 24 hours at home.

There was one concern during the passage, which was that the fine weather had prompted an unusually large number of refugee boats to cross from France.

We kept a watch for them as we went through the Straits, passing Dover as the sun rose, and saw none, though we did come across a channel swimmer making way at 1.7 knots. (We could tell the speed from the escort boat’s AIS broadcast).

The swimmer doing an impressive crawl.

We heard the coastguard talking to a yacht that had come across a refugee boat, one of a couple of dozen that were later reported to have crossed that day. Coastguard regular VHF broadcasts included requests to report the positions of any boats spotted.

There was no sense that danger was imminent in the case we heard, and the coastguard let the yacht continue on passage once it had reported the position. If it had been rough and the refugee boat was in danger of swamping that would have been another matter, because a yacht would need to stand by a potential casualty until help arrived from the RNLI or Border Force boats.

Only a few weeks previously, the shameless Nigel Farage had launched an attack on the RNLI for running what he called a taxi service for illegal migrants. He may have pleased the far right but thankfully he also prompted a huge increase in supportive donations to the RNLI.

After the Straits, we stayed inshore simply for the views, close to the lighthouse and power station at Dungeness and nearer to Beachy Head than we’ve been before.

There was not enough wind to switch off the engine even once until we arrived on our mooring in Cowes. The two nights were as calm as the days, though cool, with most of the light breeze produced by our own speed through the water. We added a knot to our speed by motor sailing into our own wind.

We chose to go because it was an all-too-brief weather window between south-west and westerlies. Long gone are the days when I’d have seen a 170 mile beat to windward as a challenge, and anyway I would not have dreamt of trying that without a crew of at least four, rather than two-handed.

Within hours of arriving in Cowes at 4a.m. the wind had got up from the south-west, there was driving rain and visibility was down to a few hundred meters, making it a miserable day for the racing boats which were there for Cowes Week.

Luckily it wasn’t the last sail of the month. Had a lovely few days going to Weymouth and back in the sunshine with Robbie.

Not much wind going there but a splendid sail hard on the wind in a NNE 4 from around Lulworth Cove to where we dropped anchor in Totland Bay on the Isle of Wight. We waited there for the tide up the Solent.

Moored in Weymouth

Weymouth was in a holiday buzz, helped by the focus on British holidays this year, and we had a very pleasant time there. We bought fish – prawns as a starter and then fried skate with capers – and both were the freshest I’ve tasted for a long time. The fish shop on the quay said they were from the boats moored outside.

How would we help a refugee boat in trouble? The usual advice is not to take people on board. There is an implied threat in that advice – not spelled out – that a skipper could be seen as complicit in illegal entry if a yacht arrives in port with refugees on board. On the other hand, international maritime law obliges ships and boats to try to save any life in danger, regardless of who they are, so quite apart from the instinctive reaction to help there would be a duty to intervene if a boat is swamping and refugees could drown.

It would not be easy to help. We practice man-overboard retrieval from yachts, and in all but calm conditions it takes many minutes to retrieve a practice dummy (usually a lightweight fender), and then there is the even bigger problem of getting a heavy person on board.

The stern ladder is dangerous if there is any sea running and a folding side ladder is difficult and slow for all but the fittest. Our backup method is a crane using the blocks and tackle of an old mainsheet, kept ready in a locker to be hung from the end of the boom, with the rope run to a big winch, a system that we have tested by lifting a 14 stone man.

The most practical way to save lots of people quickly is probably to launch our liferaft and three horseshoe buoys for them, and perhaps some fenders, keeping all the equipment tethered to the boat with lines, while we take the weakest on board as best we can, hoping for the lifeboat to turn up quickly.

July – sailing with children on the Suffolk and Essex Rivers

There’s nothing quite so much fun as messing around jumping off boats on a hot day.

Here Seb and Xan are having a great time leaping from Spring Fever at The Rocks, a beach on the River Deben where we anchored.

There was a strong tide running, so we set up a rope on a fender and let the dinghy out a long way so there were safety lines to grab.

Those in the picture below weren’t quite long enough, because once Xan didn’t quite make it back to them when he swam away after jumping from the bow. Ben took him down to the next anchored boat where they were helped out of the water and into our dinghy when I arrived.

We doubled the length of the lines and they went on jumping. I joined the fun in another session later in the afternoon. By then the water had reached almost 25 degrees as it ebbed down river after sitting on the mudflats further up.

Ruth had joined us at Ramsholt for a morning away from her work-at-home laptop, and we ferried her ashore to walk back along the river bank. She had a full afternoon’s work to do back at Bawdsey, where she was staying with Caroline – one of the mixed blessings of lockdown is employers’ willingness to let staff work from anywhere with wifi.

Ruth after landing at The Rocks

After swimming, we picked up a mooring at Ramsholt and went ashore for a walk and for drinks with Caroline on the terrace of the idyllically-set pub.

Chris ready to go ashore at Ramsholt

A few days earlier, Indigo and Will were on board with us, and here she is showing her steering skill.

We went ashore and walked a mile to the Butt and Oyster, Pin Mill, for dinner at an outside table. It was high tide, and Chris and Indigo watched horses that had just been exercised in the water.

On the way back we saw the Nancy Blackett, Arthur Ransome’s boat and the model for Goblin, the yacht in which the children accidentally start from Pill Mill and end up in Holland in We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. It has been restored and is owned by a trust.

The Nancy Blackett

The previous night was the European Cup final, and we stayed on board to watch England lose on penalties.We had no England flag so used a number 8 signal pennant to stand in for it.

Will then photoshopped a picture of Indigo with our Irish courtesy flag into an Italian flag (changing orange to red) and sent it to the Italian side of her family when they won.

It was still a good dinner! We watched the match on Will’s laptop linked to my phone as a hub.

Children found the size of the container ships awe inspiring as we passed them close by at Felixstowe, but Seb and Xan were much more excited to see the polar research ship the Sir David Attenborough, which is registered at Stanley in the Falklands but whose UK home base is Harwich.

Felixstowe container port
Boaty is hiding somewhere

They scrutinised every inch looking for the Boaty MacBoatface, the winner of the national naming competition for the ship. The winning name was hastily switched by the organisers to a research submarine the ship carries, after the competition misfired in a rather splendid way. Boaty must have been stored on the other side, because we couldn’t see it.

After anchoring for lunch further up the Stour we locked in and spent a night in Shotley Marina, where we explored with the boys along the river and also looked at the derelict Royal Navy training college HMS Ganges. There we saw the sadly decayed mast of a 19th century sailing warship once used for recruit training.

The mast at HMS Ganges

You can see from the photo below that half of the top yard has broken off and is hanging down from a rigging wire, the other half has gone and a complete spar is missing lower down. Before closure in 1976, the college featured annually in the newspapers for its graduation ceremony, where cadets perched along the yardarms and the best in class saluted while standing precariously on the 18 inch diameter ‘button’ at the very top. He was called the Button Boy.

The Button Boy is at the very top

Seb and Xan brought their sketch books and relaxed with them later in the saloon.

Below. crew boss Ben, helmsman Seb and cabin boy Xan take charge.

At the end of this cruise, which also featured a walk to Pin Mill for dinner, the water taxi at Woolverstone Marina made packing up and leaving the boat on the mooring a lot easier than it used to be by dinghy. Dinghies are great, but not so much fun carrying a crew, loads of baggage and a week’s worth of rubbish ashore.

Landing in the dinghy at The Rocks
Ben, Peter and Xan coming back from the pub
In the water taxi, Ben talking to the drivet
Leaving Spring Fever on the Woolverstone mooring

The last event of the month was me taking Spring Fever to Suffolk Yacht Harbour at Levington for a bargain summer scrub. We were trailing such huge quantities of weed that with a clean bottom we added a knot afterwards, measured at 2500 rpm on the engine.

Out for a wash

While waiting. I had a lovely 6 mile walk along the banks of the Orwell and back inland (via a pint at The Ship at Levington).

The path along the cliff top opposite Pin Mill

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Yachtmaster book out

The new, updated and expanded edition of Pass Your Yachtmaster is in the bookshops. It’s the best primer around for the RYA sailing qualification, and the only one with jokes – the serious stuff by David Fairhall and myself is leavened with lots of hilarious cartoons about sailing by the late Mike Peyton.

There’s a new chapter on electronic charts and fresh material on weather forecasting, safety equipment and other aspects of sailing offshore that have been changing in recent years as the technology improves.

Continue reading “Yachtmaster book out”

June – East Coast nostalgia

We are now pottering happily around the Essex and Suffolk coasts, visiting places we got to know well years ago when we kept our various boats here.

From our rented mooring at Woolverstone on the River Orwell, we went down to the River Colne, spending a night in the Pyefleet, one of the best known East Coast anchorages, just behind Mersea Island. We picked up a mooring buoy rather than having to spend half an hour getting glutinous mud off the anchor next day – worth the £10 we paid to the man from the oyster fishery, who came round on a paddleboard collecting money from yachts.

Evening on the mooring at Woolverstone, just after we arrived at the boat.
Continue reading “June – East Coast nostalgia”

May – at last we’ve gone to sea….

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
Continue reading “May – at last we’ve gone to sea….”