June – tide turning

It looks as if we’ll be free to go cruising on Spring Fever from 4 July, the day the renewed easing of Covid-19 controls starts. While we will not be ready for early July, at least we can now plan a sail, possibly to the Essex and Suffolk rivers.

Pin Mill, near Woolverstone, Suffolk

Following the end of the ban on overnight stays on boats, Cowes, where we are at the moment, has reopened to visiting boats that book a berth in advance.

Weymouth will have a booking system for visiting yachts two weeks ahead with no refunds or cancellations because of weather. Normally, in good summer weather, Weymouth visitors raft out up to 6 deep from the town quay but rafting will be banned to make social distancing easier and reduce visitor numbers. Cowes has adopted the same policy. Further afield, St Mary’s in the Scillies, which we visited last year, has just emailed urging us to visit again, so harbours and marinas seem keen to make up for lost revenue.

In case we go east this year, I checked Ramsgate, where we usually stop, and it is not requiring advance bookings. There are no restrictions other than closing half the showers so users are further apart. Ramsgate usually has plenty of room for visitors , especially if continental yachts on passage cannot show up because of quarantine. Our likeliest destination will be Woolverstone on the River Orwell in Suffolk, where the marina has confirmed that Spring Fever can have a visitor mooring.

There is still work to be done on the boat: three new seacocks have been commissioned and are yet to be finished; we will break the custom of a lifetime and pay someone to antifoul the boat to cut back on our travel to Cowes; and there’s a large amount of gear including sails to get there. Time, however, to think about booking a launch date.

We will still have to be exceptionally careful, because of extra vulnerability at our – umh – rather older than average age. We have even discussed paying someone to bring the boat over to a mainland harbour to avoid having to go on the Isle of Wight ferry in the summer. We can, however, stay in the car when crossing to load the gear, though that’s not much help when leaving for a cruise, because we cannot go by car unless we leave it there for weeks. These are problems we will solve.

At home, the new text for Pass Your Yachtmaster has been delivered to Adlard Coles. Researching it, I am more than ever convinced that it is a mistake to rely completely on electronics for navigation, and that having a portfolio of traditional and modern techniques will always be the sensible approach. I am now reading The Ultimate Navigation Manual by Lyle Brotherton, about land-based techniques, and he makes exactly the same point. The traditional skills involved are far more interesting and sophisticated than I had realised – he teaches desert and mountain navigation to the military among other roles – and he urges people not to over-rely on their GNSS at the expense of their knowledge of other methods.

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.