January – satellite scares, and getting ready for Biscay

At the Royal Institute of Navigation’s small boat conference in Lymington earlier this month, I learnt a lot about  new risks of error  in satellite navigation : I did not know, for example, that it is possible with quite cheap local equipment to fool the GPS on a plane, ship or even a missile into thinking it is somewhere other than its real position.

There are now tens of thousands of reported incidents of errors, deliberate, accidental or of unknown cause, with a substantial number of them unsurprisingly in sensitive areas such as the Gulf, and the Black Sea near Ukraine, suspected to be hostile activity.

Reports of accidental errors include a couple of local failures when US naval vessels arrived in the port of San Diego, apparently forgetting to switch off unspecified electronic equipment, which interfered with satellite-derived positions for miles around.

These are serious issue in defence circles, and of course for boats and ships of any kind near a source of interference or one of the ‘spoofing’ attacks. It is easy to imagine some disruptive force deciding to get hold of the equipment and blocking position-finding in a sensitive commercial area such as near an airport or in a vital shipping lane.

Satellite positions are integral to the operation of every form of commerce, from planes and ships  through mobile phone masts and everyday driving, Amazon deliveries and Uber – you name it and somewhere in the business location finding is vital. So there is increasing pressure to redevelop  an old ground-based system called Loran as backup. Loran has not been switched off, but would now need a lot of development and investment. If you want to know more, look at the website of the Washington-based Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation.

GPS is just one of five satellite position-finding systems in operation, all now called GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System). GPS, like the word hoover, is a US name that is in danger of wrongly becoming the label for  a whole range of products.

Other GNSS now running include the Russian GLONASS and the EU’s GALILEO – so in one sense there’s a lot better backup against total failure. GALILEO was completely out of operation for a while last year after operational mistakes were made by its staff. It was only in the start-up phase but the fault  proved that a single system can go down.

The cover of the current 5th edition of Pass Your Yachtmaster

I was at the conference because I have been commissioned to update an excellent sailing book, David Fairhall’s Pass Your Yachtmaster, illustrated with hilarious cartoons by the late Mike Peyton.

Completely coincidentally, the cover of the current edition has a nice but anonymous photo of a Sigma 362, the same model as Spring Fever. Having done 11 seasons polishing and antifouling, I recognise the detail of that bow!

David has updated previous editions of the book, first published in 1982, but asked me to take the baton for the next.  The book is a primer for students doing the Royal Yachting Association yachtmaster exams and tests.

I have to say that re-reading  David’s book and many others on navigation has reminded me of several things I ought to remember, and certainly knew when I did the exam and practical test in the 1980s, but had forgotten, so it’s a good exercise for more than one reason.

Back at the yard, plans for sailing to Spain are firming up so we’re making a couple of small improvements to the boat and some minor repairs. We’ve also booked for the Cruising Association’s Biscay Day in London in March where we will meet others sailing that way.

One annoying issue on Spring Fever has always been the need to lift the anchor from the bow roller a couple of feet along the side of the boat when retrieving it to stow in its locker. I’m always afraid that this is going  to damage someone’s back, holding a 15 kilo weight plus chain at a very awkward angle on a potentially rolling boat.

The reason is that the drum of the Furlex reefing gear almost touches the deck, a feature from the boat’s racing days to maximise sail area, so it blocks the anchor from being lifted straight from the bow roller. We are looking for a rigger willing to shorten the forestay with the mast up, to lift the drum 8 inches so the anchor can be pulled up through the roller, and if necessary lashed and dealt with later. Our usual rigger is not keen because he works alone and it needs two experienced  people, he says.

The sail luff can be shortened at the head because it is very narrow there. Our sailmaker is taking 9 inches off but we will lose only about a square foot of sail area.

We’ve also decided to install a holding tank, so the lavatory can be used when we’re somewhere, er, sensitive to such things eg a marina or swimming bay. Nobody ever asks in the UK or France but Spanish authorities are thought to be more vigilant in checking that boats have holding tanks to store their waste on board, an EU requirement. Very few places have pump out facilities to empty tanks so the usual procedure is to empty them by opening the discharge valves a few miles out to sea.

Spring Fever is ashore this winter at Kingston, the Cowes Harbour Commission yard, rather than at Cowes Yacht Haven, whose prices have been creeping up by the addition of extras. The Haven also focuses on expensive racing boats whereas the Kingston yard, which is very friendly, is mainly full of older boats like ours, so we immediately felt more at home. It is not as conveniently sited, but it is looking like a good switch.

December – thinking about Spain

Spring Fever was taken out of the water on December 16 and put ashore at the Kingston yard in East Cowes, where we are planning to leave her until May. Idle thoughts now turn to planning next year, and to Spain.

We have given up our pontoon mooring on the River Medina for 2020 because we plan to stay away from the Solent for the whole season and it will be cheaper to take a visitor mooring for a few weeks before we leave than to pay a whole year for our own. The conversation is increasingly focussing on the wonderful hills and Rias of North-West Spain, though we do not need to take any decisions for a few months.

Tony has crossed Biscay many times in big ships but neither of us have done it in a 6 tonner, so it requires a bit of research on routes and weather planning, plus the purchase of the pilot book for Atlantic Spain and Portugal.

The whole passage works out at about 600 miles, but it does divide neatly in two if you take the option that goes close in via Finisterre in western Brittany and then direct to a Coruna in Spain. This shortens the Biscay crossing to 300 miles, or two to three days, which is within the period of reasonably accurate weather forecasts, so we can be more confident of not having to cross the steep (and as a result sometimes very rough) edge of the continental shelf in bad weather.

Another option is to head for somewhere like Falmouth or Plymouth and then direct to Spain, crossing the shelf early in the passage, but taking longer, which means information on weather when approaching Spain will be unreliable. That is one serious drawback. Two other things that persuade us towards the Finisterre route are some nice French towns such as Camaret and Audierne where we can wait for a good forecast for the crossing; and the fact that with a short-handed crew – both co-skippers in their seventies – it is probably not such a good idea to do a three or four day passage. (Having written that down, I now remember the Yachting Monthly on my shelf with the account of 77 year-old Jeanne Socrates solo non-stop round the world voyage!)

There is a third route to North West Spain, which is down the west coast of France to the border and along the Spanish north coast, which is nearly as long as Atlantic France. One tentative thought is to come back that way the year after.

It would be good to stay in the EU over the winter of 2020/21 because if we can prove we are there at the end of the transition period in 12 months time the boat will retain its EU VAT paid status and would not be subject to the restrictions of the temporary importation rules for boats from non-EU countries (see earlier posts on Brexit).

The plan is idle winter speculation at the moment, and on past form we may end up doing something completely different from what we discuss at Christmas. But it’s fun to think about it.

There are however some things we really ought to do to make sure we have the option: we ought to fit a holding tank for waste, and we should certainly make some improvements in our anchoring equipment before it causes an injury.

The problem is that the boat was set up for racing, so the Furlex drum is almost touching the deck, which means that the anchor has to be lifted very awkwardly round the side of the boat to lift it back into the well, a recipe for pulled muscles if waves are building.

The drum needs to be raised, which involves shortening the forestay and recutting the foot of the working genoa. That way we can pull the anchor stock through the bow roller and lift it out in a safer way with less risk to our backs, and we also can lash it down to the bow roller if we are in a hurry or reanchoring soon.

November – ocean going on a lake

Looking back at Spring Fever’s logbooks recently to pin down the wheres and whens of a good cruising story, I found they were so sparsely written – professional in the best sense, as they should be with a Master Mariner as a co-owner – that I could not begin to tap them as a surrogate diary. And checking my blog posts each year, I see these have been relatively few, with long gaps between them.

So largely for my own benefit I shall start a monthly diary post, in the hope that in another five years I’ll actually be able to work out what we were up to.

November’s most interesting sailing observation was nothing to do with Spring Fever.
This beautiful 60 foot yacht called Tioga of Hamburg was moored at the end of November at Kressbronn on the German side of the Bodensee, or Lake Constance/Konstanz which is way up the Rhine, near where it starts becoming a mountain river, and well above the navigable section, so cut off from the sea. It is a US  design from 1931 by the great Francis Herreshof, but the original was destroyed and this replica (or so we thought at first from Google) was built in 1988 in Maine and restored in north Germany, where it was recently for sale.

So how on earth did a yacht with those tall masts get to the 38 mile long Bodensee, where Germany, Austria and France meet round the shores? And what on earth would an ocean yacht be used for on a lake where it would take a morning to go from end to end? (A waste of a thoroughbred).

A double check then found a surprising fact: this magnificent yacht is actually yet another copy with the same name, Tioga. It was built in Radolfzell on the Bodensee recently, in 2013, and is for sale for €1.35mn, against a paltry €450,000 for the sea-going 1988 Tioga, which has been cruising the Baltic after crossing from the US.

The question remains: are they really going to sail this lovely wooden yacht just on the Bodensee? If not, how do they get it down the Rhine to the sea? Or do they just stick it on a low loader?
We were actually in Germany on a land yacht of sorts – son Will’s campervan, which had broken down in Austria, and we were on the way home after volunteering to collect it after the lengthy repair. It was fascinating to see how close all the domestic equipment is – including hot and cold water pumps, cooker and gas supply, 12 V wiring, diesel heater, lavatory, shower and bunks – to what you find on a modern cruising yacht.
For Spring Fever, not much happened apart from a decision to winter her ashore from mid-December at the Kingston yard in East Cowes, in reaction to rising costs at our usual Cowes Yacht Haven, which is specialising in the dry sailing of incredibly expensive looking racing boats, whose owners can’t bear dirty bottoms.

We decommissioned Spring Fever on her river pontoon and took the sails, lifejackets etc home, so she is ready to go ashore on 16 December.

This winter we’ve focused so far mainly on sewage! We will finally put in a holding tank after being shamed into it by a massive correspondence on the Cruising Association’s Biscay Forum: I simply posted to ask whether we’d need one for Atlantic Spain, and for some reason it seems yacht owners get more excited in the winter about sewage disposal than any topic other than Brexit. A recent arrival from the US expressed shock and horror to find so many  British boats don’t have tanks. Others deluged us with legal and technical advice.

Tony is boat plumber (I’m electrician) and has visited Tek Tank for a discussion and estimate. We’re finally going to be nice to swim near when we’re anchored in a bay.

Studies in blue

We had an opportunity to study blue in all its forms and shades on the way back from the Scillies to Cowes.

Apart from a nice breeze round the Lizard, and a few interludes when the wind lazily stirred itself into action for an hour or two, it was motor-sailing most of the way on a flat and sometimes glassy sea.

In a perverse way I find this a great pleasure, though we might as well be in a motorboat. Hours of staring at brilliant blues above and below, with the occasional seabird or dolphin to intrude, induces an almost trance like state of calm mind on a calm sea, where time passes quickly and it takes an effort of will to do routine watchkeeping tasks.

Off watch down below, the thrum of an engine on low revs, the swish of water along the sides of the boat and the gentle rocking are just what’s needed for a good doze.

A glance out the window

From St Agnes we sailed in our only decent breeze to Penzance, arriving at 2pm a few minutes before the harbour gates were due to close after high tide. We passed close to St Michael’s Mount on one of our tacks.

St Michael’s Mount

No marina, but a berth rafted up to a beautiful old gaffer along the harbour wall and a rickety steel ladder to climb. Next along the wall was an engineless 100 year old Looe lugger, which has sailed to Brazil, Cape Town and the West Indies, its only auxiliary power a pair of sweeps.

The famous Looe lugger, front, and behind a raft of three boats, Spring Fever in the middle

The town seen across the harbour

Penzance is an interesting town, with winding old streets and some decent looking restaurants – we dined in a nice Polish cafe.

A trawler comes in

The boat was in a real, if run down, harbour. Outside the gate, the Scillonian berthed, and inside was an assortment of old craft, some yachts, trawlers – most of which are in neighbouring Newlyn – and the Scilly Islands cargo ship. We spent two nights there, the second dining well on board on fish bought at Newlyn, a 20 minute walk away.

Next, we mainly motor sailed round the Lizard to anchor with one other yacht close to St Anthony’s Head lighthouse opposite Falmouth – St Mawes, our original destination, was packed with anchored yachts.

St Anthony’s after moonrise, from our anchorage

From there we went back to Dartmouth for the next night, refuelled with diesel, and headed out early across a limpid, glass-like Lyme Bay to pass south of the Portland Race and then well out from St Albans Head, clear of the army firing range. The coastguard announced in one of their regular brosdcasts that there would be firing that evening. We could hear the booms.

Our destination was Studland Bay, near Poole, where we anchored as dark was falling.

Tired and ready for a rest we noticed that there was a half moon and thought we were going slightly crazy – we were almost at spring tides so the moon should be full or new. Half moons were for neaps. Or were we just misreading the tide tables?

The penny dropped with a WhatsApp message from Chris asking whether we were getting a good view of the partial eclipse! No wonder the ancients were anxious about eclipses and saw them as portents: until prompted to remember, we were quite rattled by it.

Next morning, on a sea with barely a ripple, we motor-sailed to Cowes, catching the flood tide up through the Needles and arriving just in time to see a fleet of beautiful classic yachts racing. Last but biggest in the fleet was a restored Sceptre, a 1950s America’s Cup contestant which Chris and I last saw many years ago ashore at Glasson Dock in Lancashire, in a near derelict state. Years of restoration don’t seem to have helped her go any faster.

Third time to the Scillies, and it was definitely the best cruise yet round the islands themselves, thanks to a long period of settled weather. We logged just short of 500 nautical miles there and back, and the new engine was a treat: smell and smoke free, more powerful and thus easier to manoeuvre, and far better fuel economy.

Is your chart relying on an 1860 survey?

Footnote to cruising the Scillies: piloting there is a reminder of the importance of proper Admiralty charts, because they show the age of the surveys on which they are based, unlike any of the proprietary ‘vector’ charts available on chartplotters.

The Scillies is a mixed area from this point of view. Some of the surveys of the area were last done in 1860 – 1904 by lead line, probably from boats carried on naval survey ships and rowed up and down in straight lines quite a long way apart, so rocks could easily be missed. Other parts of the islands were surveyed at a range of different dates in the 20th century.

The little diagram showing which area of the Scillies was surveyed when is very instructive, and is a warning that in certain places extra care is needed. Interestingly, one small but vital area, the ferry route in and out of Hugh Town, was surveyed in 2012-14, by the Duchy of Cornwall, the landowners. At least we should be able to rely on that route.

This does not mean you have to stick with paper. We would have spent at least £5,000 in recent years if we had bought all paper charts for our cruises. UKHO (in other words Admiralty) charts for the whole of the UK and Ireland, complete with all the supplementary information, can be bought as a single package for very reasonable prices online from the Cowes firm visitmyharbour.com, and combined with the excellent Marine Navigator chartplotting app they make a fine tablet chartplotter as backup to the main system. What you are looking at then is a computer image of an official UKHO chart (technically, a raster rather than a vector electronic chart). In fact, the UKHO charts are now printed from electronic files anyway, so it is exactly the same image.

The popular yacht chart systems such as Navionics, Garmin and C-Map, leave out vital information such as survey age. They are not images of official charts but combine the data in their own proprietary way. They also contain potential traps because they are organised in layers, and as you click from one to another you get more or less detail. If you are on the wrong level you may miss something important. To have the UKHO charts as backup on a tablet is reassuring.

Furthermore, we have seen a number of examples over the years where Navionics has missed out features altogether or got information wrong. There was one example in Tean Sound, where Navionics showed one power cable crossing the sound under water. The UKHO chart, and to its credit C-Map, showed all four.

Round the islands

Below is the UKHO large scale chart of the Scillies, with green showing where the bottom is exposed at low spring tides. With careful tide calculations it is straightforward moving between the islands, though you have to be mindful of dangerous rocks scattered around the flats.

The old pilot books for the Scillies, one of which we have, give many complicated bearing lines for finding your way around using pairs of landmarks, which are still very useful to know.

A chartplotter helps nowadays, up to a point. Our main plotter uses C-Map, which has proved extremely accurate in two cruises around England, Ireland and Scotland, so we have confidence in it (much less so in our backup Navionics). But as a rule of thumb, we don’t rely on it when the accuracy required – eg between two reefs – is better than plus or minus a hundred meters or so, just in case the underlying charts are wrong, a rock has been missed on them or there are problems with satellite signals.

In the Scillies, we used a combination of plotter, compass bearings and leading lines and especially good old fashioned eyeballing, to move around; wherever there were doubts about the position of rocks, someone went up to the bow and kept watch, because the water is clear and shallow, and rocks show themselves through changes in colour and disturbances in the tide.

Regular visitors find and use all sorts of obscure anchorages around the Scillies, but it takes time to learn them and we were pleased enough to visit six good ones after we left the main harbour at Hugh Town, and stay overnight in four of them. Caution and inexperience of the islands dictated that we moved around about two hours before high tide to just after high tide, not wanting to risk getting stuck on a falling tide, though it was neaps so the range was small and the currents relatively slow.

We arrived from Plymouth from the east, entering by St Mary’s Sound and then round to the north-west side of the island, the biggest, where the main harbour, Hugh Town, is found. We found a vacant visitor’s buoy in St Mary’s Pool.

The drying part of Hugh Town harbour. The deepwater moorings are further out, in the Pool.

The Scillonian, the ferry from Penzance

From Hugh Town, we found our way across Tresco Flats to New Grimsby Harbour for a night, a much less intimidating route than it looks on the chart, with two helpful beacons marking the most dangerous obstacles. Then ashore to spend time walking around the island.

The next day we went through New Grimsby Sound, then round the north end of Tresco into Old Grimsby Sound and its Harbour, and we spent more time walking, eating and shopping for supplies ashore in the well-stocked Coop.

The blue view south from our Old Grimsby mooring

St Helen’s Pool

After a night on a buoy, we moved south-east, past Peashopper Island, and turned east through a gap and north-west around the reefs to St Helen’s Pool, a relatively safe and deep water anchorage south of the island of the same name. Sailing ships used to shelter here from storms.

Deciding not to stop there, we went through St Helen’s Gap and past the north side of Tean island and down into Tean Sound, between Tean and St Martin’s, where we anchored for the night in a strong current. By luck, we found a sandy patch, though the pilot book warns that there are a lot of rocks and holding can be bad. We used our largest scale charts and signs on the shore to keep away from the multiple power cables that cross there.

Tean Sound, Spring Fever third boat from left

The next day we retraced our movements to St Helen’s Pool, but decided not to anchor for lunch and instead motored south across the flats towards St Mary’s. We tried to use the line across the flats (Man-a-Vaur island lined up with the St Helen’s landing cairn, as in the chart) but could not see the cairn even with binoculars. We relied instead in a good look out and the chartplotter.

We then turned west to St Agnes, crossing the shallow Crow Bar – since it was high tide – and went through St Mary’s Road to St Agnes, where we initially went to the north-facing anchorage, Porth Conger, because south-west winds were forecast.

Looking out for rocks

However, we found an Atlantic swell, originating probably a long way away, was refracting round the north of the island into the mouth of the bay, so we motored round the island of Gugh – connected to St Agnes by a sandbar that dries at low tide – where we found a good anchorage for the night in The Cove, which is between the two islands. We went ashore for a walk and dinner in the Old Turks Head.

Do not, by the way, ever try landing your dinghy on the sandy beach by the Boat House beacon, though it looks nearer – you’ll never get off it at low tide because by then it is then just a mess of big boulders. Always go up to the sand bar in your dinghy.

Porth Conger, the north anchorage at St Helen’s, the swell gone by the time this photo was taken

The Cove, the south anchorage at St Agnes, just before we left next morning, Gugh island on the right and the sandbar linking it to St Agnes just visible

The Old Turks Head

The Cove at night in the rain

That was the only cold, damp evening we experienced in the Scillies. St Agnes, the smallest inhabited island, is very pretty but did not look its best. At least the sun came back the next morning before we left for Penzance.

Three times lucky

The Scillies are beautiful, but they take much effort to visit, even by public transport, because the air and sea links are from Penzance, right at the far end of Cornwall.

I’ve tried to sail to the Scillies half a dozen times, but only managed to arrive after three of those attempts because of bad weather, which makes the islands a rather precarious place to be: there is no all-weather shelter, and it is an area prone to gales and huge swells. Once, the weather forecast was so bad we gave up trying to go west by the time we got to Dartmouth. (I’ve also passed close by the Scillies quite a few times on races without attempting to go there).

This time everything was in our favour, with beautiful settled weather for several weeks, good enough to spend the best part of a week pottering around various anchorages in the islands before we headed home.

We set off on the day of the Round the Island Race, a spectacular sight, with 1,500 yachts marshalled in a succession of morning starts over a line out from the Royal Yacht Squadron building. We waited till near the last two starts so as not to get caught up in the fleet, and then motor sailed on the north side of the Solent, leaving the fleets to battle it out on the south side.

Tail end of the Round the Island fleet in the distance

On the way we called at Weymouth, with its delightful harbour and beach, though sadly it all remains a bit rundown. (The local paper reported while we were there that it was the least socially mobile town in the UK.)

We rounded the end of Portland Bill inside the ferocious tide race, and made several long tacks across Lyme Bay in a pleasant Force 3 to 4 wind, thoughat times it was hard work, because at Spring Fever’s 6 knots the aparent wind over the deck was up to Force 5.

Dartmouth, our destination, is always a delight after the steep-sided estuary entrance opens to view in the cliffs.

Castle guarding Dartmouth entrance

Paddle steamer passing in front of the town

After a night on a pontoon – not one conected to the shore – we motored up the River Dart to Dittisham, where we found the Anchorstone Cafe, a lunchtime fish restaurant with splendid food at reasonable prices, then walked up the hill behind the village.

Above Dittisham

Spring Fever moored at Dittisham

Peter F and Tony on the way up river

Leaving Dartmouth

After a night at Dittisham, we left Dartmouth for Salcombe, another beautiful harbour, with a spectacular entrance, waiting at anchor just outside at Starehole Bay for the tide to rise over the bar, carefully avoiding the underwater remains of the Herzogin Cecile, a four-masted sailing ship which went ashore there in 1936.

Salcombe at night

Starehole Bay

We briefly visited Newton Ferrers, tucked away up a creek so it is almost invisible until you round up to enter it, before spending three nights in Plymouth, where Peter F left the crew to head for the Cricket World Cup. We had dinner with Tony’s Plymouth friends.

Plymouth’s Barbican, the old wall of Sutton Harbour in the foreground.

Plymouth is where Peter R’s father lived as a boy, and he used to tell tales of jumping in to the sea from the wall of Sutton Harbour with his friends on summer days in the 1920s.

Finally we sailed overnight to Hugh Town, St Mary’s, in the Scillies, where we picked up a mooring buoy in the crowded harbour.

Sunset on the way

Hugh Town as we arrived soon after dawn. The main harbour is over the hill on other side of the town

Scillies Vineyard

The island of St Martin’s in the Scillies used to specialise in the growing of spring bulbs and flowers. As the old business has shrunk, a new use has been found for some of the tiny fields with tall hedges that protected the plants from Atlantic storms: England’s remotest vineyard and winery.

The winery

St Martin’s Vineyard was founded in 1996 when the offspring of the owner of the bulb farm came back to the island looking for a challenge. Father, in his 90s now, still grows some bulbs, but half a dozen of his little fields are taken up by vines of a number of varieties including Orion, Reichensteiner, Schonberger and Ziegerrebe (the latter in a polytunnel because it will not fruit properly in the Scillies otherwise).

Viniculturalists will probably know why these varieties thrive in the salty storm winds of the island.Production is small – only 3,600 bottles a year – but they make it all themselves, and sell it entirely within the islands. We tried two wines and bought one, and they were very pleasant to drink, though at prices of £13.50 a bottle and upwards they would not compete on price now with mainland English wines, except as a curious rarity, well worth trying if you are offered a bottle in the Scillies.

As vineyards go, it is in a spectacular location and visitors are welcome.Here is the nearby beach:

St Martins has a delightful pub, a village shop and a small, upmarket and expensive hotel called the Karma Resort, which had staff rushing around with customers’ baggage from a speedboat cum ferry when we looked inside.Below are two other residents of the island: