Jonathan Footerman is sailing a mini-yacht solo around the UK. It’s him against the elements. Along with the occasional stuck anchor.
Author’s Note: Taken from the ninth chapter of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman.
“I’ll make me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.” So said Johnny in Ray Bradbury’s story of The Fog Horn. I was at anchor in fog in the Humber Estuary on the North Sea, aboard the 21-foot mini-yacht Elektra which I was sailing solo around the UK. I had a piercing horn on a compressed air can, but the tanker horns in the estuary boomed with gut-wrenching weight that bellowed of the briefness of life if I got in the way. I had sailed a few miles from Grimsby to the anchorage for a safe exit in the morning to start the 60 miles to Bridlington, in Yorkshire. And I was worried about more than fog: pressure charts suggested that the weather could turn nasty if the fronts moved ahead of forecast.
The current ran hard behind Spurn Head, a 3-mile spit across the estuary with an anchorage in the lee of a lifeboat station, and I put out two anchors. The swell made sleep intermittent and I was tired when I prepared to go at 5 a.m. I felt the forecast was not holding good, but I was eager to get out of the Humber fog trap. I raised the first anchor, set the autopilot to hold the boat over the second, and went forward to pull it up. It would not budge. So I pulled harder. No joy. I threw all my weight into it. No good. For 45 minutes, I went back and forth re-setting the autopilot, running forward to heave up the anchor before the bow drifted off, and failing. Desperate, I gave it one last sustained heave with everything I had left. It did not budge. I was pouring with sweat, and I sat down in the cockpit without an idea in my head. It never occurred to me to loop a rope around the anchor chain and use a sail winch, so the brain-clutch was clearly slipping a bit.
With my left hand, I scratched my right ear and mused: I could always catch fish as the days passed. I watched crew board a lifeboat 200 yards away, and wondered what reaction I might get if I waved them over for help. Very short, I supposed. Elektra was dancing a bit on the surface, and a lurch rolled the mental penny until it dropped. When the autopilot failed to hold the boat over the anchor, she drifted off under power and the anchor bit in exactly as it was supposed to. Tugging was futile. But why did I need the autopilot anyway? Pulling chain at the bow, the boat would automatically lie along the current to the point of anchorage. All I had to do was switch it off, so I did. The chain came sweetly up through the guide and the anchor rose without a protest. Huh! Blame it on lack of sleep!
I had lost time, and Bridlington begins to dry two hours after high water. I wanted to be in by about 6 p.m. to be sure that I could berth. So I decided to have breakfast en route, and filled the thermos flask. The fog thickened as I approached the head. I slowed to a crawl and rounded it tight in between the lane and the land, then headed across the Binks shallows well clear of the lane. So did a ship cutting the corner into the Humber, looming suddenly out of the gloom above me. Collision Regulations are clear (with ifs and buts): power gives way to sail. Try telling anything with a prow as high as my mast in visibility less than the ship’s length. I rammed the tiller over and got out of the way. I don’t think she ever saw me, but I wonder what she was doing there if not bumping barnacles off her spotty bottom.
A north-easterly wind for a few days had built up a heavy swell down the length of the North Sea. Now it picked up again and the fog dissolved. I followed the coast northwest towards Bridlington on a ‘close reach’ with the sails pulled in tight, two reefs in the mainsail putting only half its area to an 18 MPH wind, the same on the jib. The ebb carried me up the coast but forced a choppy surface against the wind, and I crashed through steep waves making good if not smooth progress until low tide around 11 a.m. Time for breakfast. I re-engaged the autopilot and… nothing. I had the spare ram within reach and dragged it out. Nothing. I tried a spare socket, checked the wiring inside the lazarette (stern storage accessed from the deck), and still nothing. I would have to follow it to the battery under the cockpit. I could heave to, or drop anchor in-shore, but I would miss my Bridlington window. There was nothing for it but to keep going on a manual tiller, a familiar fate. When it is my turn to cross the Styx to Hades, Charon will be incommoded and I’ll be stuck on the tiller.
There is no ‘plan B’ in a 4-knot boat with 60 miles between ports: you make your destination or you go back. My log stops at 10 a.m., I was too busy on the tiller. By midday, half the journey was behind me but the wind was backing to the North, raising a 6-foot swell and justifying my fears. I could not tack up it with the tide against me. Going back would be easy enough, but all the way to Grimsby to resolve the electrical problems and recharge the battery was too disheartening. I thought I had an ace, a favourable eddy I hoped to find close in-shore due to the curve of the coast to Flamborough Head, and decided to continue on the motor.
Anticipating a cold trip, I had put on long-johns, pants and waterproof over-trousers tucked into sea-boots. It all had to go down to my knees for the simplest relief making it impossible to balance at the edge, which half the population may find no sympathy with. The wind was a steady force 5, well over 20 MPH, and driven spray ran down inside my waist band to gather in my boots. I needed warming up and might have reached the thermos-flask despite the heavy seas, but I’d never have got the soup powder into my non-spill baby mug and would have scalded myself. The soaking was making other needs urgent. I had a toilet seat on folding legs stowed beneath the cockpit with a removable inner rim that could clamp a plastic bag in place, or the sensitive skin of the careless! I had discovered its weight limit when a contented moment ended suddenly with a splat. A tough old rubber bucket was less trouble at sea. The tiller was demanding a lot of effort, and leaning into the cabin to find it with the tiller extension at full stretch, I accidentally triggered my life-jacket inflator. No more acrobatics after that as I was fully occupied holding the boat steady in a wind gusting high.
Now an old problem reappeared: the steep swell slapping the starboard began to knock the outboard off centre and swing the boat. I would have to fling myself full stretch across the lazarette and yank the handle to the middle while steadying the tiller as best I could with my feet. There was no time to think about anything else as the situation began to slip out of my grasp, and then it got worse as another full-stretch dive brought me to the limit of my self-control. I managed to grab the end of a long cord attached to the bucket handle, dragged it from the cabin with the previous day’s newspaper in it, and bracing between the cockpit seats, contrived to deal with my needs and helm at the same time. The ceaseless flow of spray streaming into the cockpit was a help in the circumstances, and I was soon comfortable and clean but soaked from head to toe. I have kept a roll of kitchen towel at the cabin entrance ever since–nothing softer would withstand the elements.
In the winter, the motor was serviced and a band replaced which grips the shaft to prevent it from swivelling. It had to be tightened. I reduced the power, released the mainsheet in case the sail took wind, clipped my safety belt to a shroud and leant out over the transom to reach the knurled hand-screw behind the prop shaft. Try as I might, I could not tighten it any more. And then the stern bucked and swung, and threw me bodily over the port side. I found myself on my back above the water, calves on the handrail, lucky to have my left arm in the mainsheet with the boom beside me, and my safety belt tight under my right thigh. I held on until the next lurch threw me back onto the boat, staying down as the boom smacked across above me. There was no time for counting blessings as I grabbed the tiller, but there would be no more ventures over the transom.
With about 6 miles to go, I headed in-shore to see if I could catch the eddy current. All I caught were breakers threatening to sweep me onto the sand, and headed back out in a hurry; so that ace was a joker with a poor sense of humour. The mainsail, winched taught on the centre line, shivered in the wind making the boom hum like an organ pipe. Even without my anemometer, I knew the wind was heading for 30 MPH which bends trees and whistles in telephone wires. There was a risk of a gale and I wanted to put in a third reef. The sail was not rigged for it–it looked so small on two that I had not put in a third cord which would make it stiffer to hoist. So it could not be reefed from the cockpit: manually at the boom, yes, but I had visions of the outboard knocked sideways while I was on the cabin roof, the boat blown flat, taking on water through the hatch, or the mast or a shroud snapping. One risk could be reduced. I memorised the port layout on the plotter, fetched the VHF handset, put up the cabin door and sealed the hatch, with myself outside ready for the storm.
Sea conditions settled as Flamborough Head blocked the swell, and gave me a little relief at the tiller. But it was growing stormy-dark, with electricity in the air, a menacing buzz in the rigging and streams of stinging spray ripped from the surface by the wind. If I came slightly off line, the boat would heel through 40° in the time it took to straighten up. It was unmanageable and I had left it too late to be climbing onto the cabin roof. I was clipped on behind the spray-hood and staying there, so I dropped the sail as far as I could from the cockpit, tying it off on the boom above the cockpit but leaving the rest to flog. A shimmer in the air blurred out detail as I approached Bridlington, spray blinded my binoculars, and in the half-light I could not locate the approach channel or the port entrance lights. I went back and forth without success, buffeted as I turned through the wind. I raised the watch officer on VHF for instructions, but could barely hear over the wind noise. Eventually I saw a fishing vessel making its way along the shore, swung over and found the channel, and was soon in the harbour. It was 7:15 p.m., 14 hours without a break since Spurn Head.
It was not over. Dredging in the harbour had forced local vessels off their buoys to raft up against the walls, with not an inch to spare. I tried to make the inner harbour but grounded–the tide was in free-fall. The watch officer tried too late to guide me to a patch behind the dredger barge and I grounded again. I had to raft temporarily to the barge itself, clambering to the quay in a poor state, trembling, my trousers and boots full of water. The watch officer took one look at me and led me straight to the office where he gave me a cup of tea and an overall and hung my clothes to dry by the heaters. A very kind man. The office instruments were registering a 35 MPH wind, force 7, a ‘near gale’, and it was still rising. I was very lucky to be in, and hoped no one else was overdue.
I needed a hot shower and dinner, so I went back on board for a wash bag and clean clothes. By the time I scrambled back to the quay-side, the barge had drifted off and I could not disembark. I hauled on the barge ropes for a bit as hope triumphed over common sense (with five-inch-diameter lines, and half the seabed in its hold, I might as well have tried to drag a 4-8-4 loco from Santa Fé). Nothing for it but to call the watch officer again, who brought wood to lay across the gap. Things grew farcical as the barge drifted even further off, beyond the plank length, and it was back to square one. I cast off and tied to a raft of three smelly fishing vessels, crossing decks full of shellfish remains and gull mess: Elektra would get a scrub when I had the chance–I just had to keep the mess out of the cabin.
In the morning, the harbour master found me a place on a drying pontoon–there is a photo of Elektra trying to hide under it in the mud. Like other Yorkshire ports I would stop at, Bridlington is a resort and fun to visit. I stayed several days recuperating, enjoying the town, fixing the electrics, the outboard and other problems, and blockaded by stormy weather, before moving on along the attractive Yorkshire and Northumberland coasts. All that in the next episode.
Photos of Electra in Bridlington Harbor, courtesy of author.