After sailing round Portland Bill in gusts and swells, Jonathan Footerman settles into his 61st port on his quest to circumnavigate the UK in a mini-yacht.
(Author’s Note: Taken from the fifteenth chapter of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman.)
During my solo circumnavigation of the UK, I slept in a little berth under the cockpit floor of my 21-foot yacht into which I wriggled feet-first. It was snug and as comfortable as any camping environment on a thin sponge mattress, and I was soon accustomed to it, the only disadvantage that condensation would trickle down to the end and dampen the foot of my sleeping bag. I had of course passed the winter at home, a week at a friend’s house in Arran and a weekend with friends in Plymouth, but otherwise the only nights off the boat were when it was impossible to stay on it in Bridlington because it lay at an angle for lack of wall space, or impossible to board it at West Bay inner harbour during the storm. Having hurt my leg trying to get back onto Elektra there, I had passed a disturbed night at a B&B and I absolutely did not want to sail the next day, 2nd October. My leg had kept me awake, I felt fragile, and it was chilly and miserable; and there was a discouraging swell against which I would have to brace my knees around the boat. But there were no rooms to be had in West Bay that night, and another severe gale was coming in, 50 MPH winds forecast – I did not want to put Elektra through a second endurance trial of the West Bay sort if it could be avoided.
A sail of 30 miles would take me into Weymouth and a safe marina, six to seven hours, easy enough in the normal way, but I had to round Portland Bill which changed things. Tides cross at the Bill much as they do at the Lizard, except that since the English Channel is narrower, they run faster. The water remains deep close to the point, but then the bed rises rapidly from one hundred to only ten metres, driving the current upwards and creating overfalls and the Portland Tidal Races which can be deadly. They move from south to southwest of the Bill as the tides change. To the East are shallows across ‘The Ledge’ producing more turbulence, and a strong tide may force boats outside it. The inner passage is within a cable (200 yards) of the land, turning through 160° around the point, so that a passage two miles off shore is a five or six mile detour. Over coffee, I weighed up the pros and cons.
Pro: A west-bound current (on the ebb) across Lyme Bay generates a contrary eddy in shore. The effect along Chesil Beach which runs from West Bay to the point is a current towards the Bill for ten out of twelve hours of the tidal cycle. The ground drops away steeply off Chesil Beach and allows close-in sailing. Con: At the Bill, that eddy crosses the main current with predictably choppy results.
Pro: Plenty of time had passed since the gales blew out and the residual swell would ease off during the day. Con: There was still about 1.5 metres of swell outside the harbour. Sailing close in would make this worse, especially around the Bill, and I hesitated to put myself into a 2 metre chop which reduces manoeuvrability and rudder responsiveness, when sailing close in-shore.
Pro: You do not want a strong wind close into the Bill, and today it was only F3. It was a little west of southerly, which would enable a close haul along Chesil Beach. Con: I would have a lee shore around the Bill – meaning a wind driving onto the dangers of the shore.
Pro: Today was a neap tide, easy conditions. Con: There is always a chance that the bad weather will arrive early, although I would probably be around Portland Bill and in the lee by then.
I decided to go. For the east-bound yacht, a 4-hour window of favourable flow at Portland Bill starts 3 hours before high water, that day at 1 p.m. By the time I had checked weather and seen the HM about payment (he generously waived it), it was 10 a.m. as I cast off, cutting it a bit fine for the 20 miles to the Bill through a swell. I did not want to be late and had an anxious trip, unsure of the conditions I would find. Following the coast south-east to keep the wind in my sail, at times no more than seventy yards off in forty feet of water, I watched fishermen baiting hooks as I passed and decided that if I could make out what bait they were using without my spectacles, I was too close!
The swell was rolling in from west of south, much of the time above five foot, and my south-easterly course kept it up to 45° off the bow making Elektra screw but allowing her to maintain speed. The coastline bends gradually southwards but when I tried to cut the corner towards the Bill, I came too close to the wind and stalled, and Elektra started crashing more directly into the swell and slowing up. By keeping hard inshore, I made five knots in the eddy with the motor and jib together to the end of Chesil Beach. Less pressed and less sore, I would have hoisted the mainsail and cut the motor, and would have had a more comfortable trip with less bashing and screwing. But I made adequate progress, and with a delicate limb was happy enough not to have to clamber along the coach-roof to release the mainsail ties. As I turned south at the end of the beach, the wind swung more to the West and dropped very low, and the swell eased off – I furled the jib to have clear sight as I motored through the expected overfalls and arrived at the point about ten minutes before the flood began. It was all I needed. In the low wind, I found that I could stand on the seat and brace against the spray hood (I was clipped on because the boat was bouncing around), and spot the patches of bad water in time to steer the boat between them. There were points where the criss-cross swell was up at eye level, very threatening, but by working the tiller I managed to trace a route through the mess even closer to shore than I expected. I did not get it right every time and then the boat would get thrown around. But fifteen minutes later, I was on a calm sea on the other side of the Bill with a light F1 or F2 behind me, passing smoothly inside The Ledge on a favourable tide. The contrast was remarkable. I pulled out the jib again but left the motor running because there was not much wind, and chugged steadily past Portland Harbour. Created by a long breakwater with three entrances, it lies inside the tip of the Bill, with space for a full Navy to moor. No longer needed for large-scale military use, one corner has been occupied by a marina well positioned for walkers to enjoy the waders and wildlife around the point, or search for fossils in the Chesil Beach shingle. For once I was not interested, in no condition to walk far, preferring the town comforts of adjacent Weymouth.
I arrived at 3 p.m. but as the bridge over the river did not open for another thirty minutes, I glided smoothly to berth on the ‘waiting pontoon’ at the embankment and tied up with practised ease beneath the cameras of the tourists, cool as cucumber, with time to cross the road for a beer. I tried to look like a nimble-footed young sailor to suit the boat, difficult when limping, but managed not to stumble on the pontoon or the curb like a lesser President Ford. The tourists all looked a bit reticent, possibly because the Black Death is thought to have come to Britain exactly via that spot in Weymouth in the 14th Century, and they were not entirely sure about my limp. Three centuries later some townspeople emigrated to found a Weymouth in Massachusetts and another in Nova Scotia.
Nobody is allowed to ‘dive or enter the harbour’ from Town Bridge, proclaimed some uncompromising plaques at each end of it, a confusing bit of Local-Authority-speak when there is a marina upstream. The tone allowed the public to complete the injunction in the way the authors obviously intended: ‘on pain of death’. The bridge opens regularly, to the delight of visiting children and the young at heart, so that there is convenient access to the moorings all along the river. As it curves round and runs parallel to the shore for a distance, there are only one or two hundred yards to the beach beyond the buildings, and the town is blessed with frontages on to river or sea, harbour or strand to suit individual taste. For yachtsmen, the facilities are good: the showers are in little individual bathrooms, so I have to withdraw my comments on architects (well, they lasted this far), and aim them at the engineers, because the boiler broke down. What luck, a cold shower in October, indoors as well as out! The staff were apologetic and charged me a lower rate: they try their best.
I was soon enjoying the warmth of a pub, studying the weather forecasts. I stayed until two dozen men and women came in on a beano, the men in fake army outfits and the women in costumes conceived on the principal that ‘if you have it, flaunt it’ even if you haven’t, or more accurately, even if you have a bit too much. Determined to pay homage to the deity of slenderness, all the women tottered on immensely high stilettos while their satin or rayon outfits, minimalist with neither zen nor shoulder straps, creaked at the midriff and were periodically hauled towards the chin with a risky sort of wriggle like me squeezing into my sleeping berth. Hoping that they did not ave similar problems with humidity, I speculated on whether the pressure was greatest beneath the heel, the belt or the brassiere, but it was highest in the laryngeal turbines from which an indescribable noise issued, supercharged with alcohol. I fled before any containment vessels could fracture.
The forecast was difficult to assess because the various websites I consult did not agree. A gale would pass through overnight, but the Met Office seemed to be hedging its bets for the following day with a forecast wind of 3 MPH gusting to 45 MPH, scarcely likely. But the GRIB files (Gridded Binary data for meteorological purposes) from the USA showed very vigorous low pressure systems coming over slightly to the North and then moving up over West Scotland. This is typical (their path is influenced by the jet stream), but showed up the difficulty: everything depended on their latitude on arrival this side of the Atlantic, before being pushed north. It was evident that I would have to spend the following day in Weymouth, which was no hardship. In the event, there was a mild easterly wind along the Channel which was not at all as forecast. It was an oddity. Atlantic depressions – low pressure systems – spin anti-clockwise (while their equivalents below the equator spin clockwise), so that the wind on the southern edges blows from the West. Only if the jet stream is displaced around a thousand miles southwards do we get the northern edges across southern England, and when that happens, the depressions cross warmer waters and pick up correspondingly more moisture and energy, bringing in a lot of rain.
There are bars and eating places all along the river, beach and sea harbour, and many were still open but doing little business in this in-between season, one or two customers in each. Disappointing was the absence of cockle stalls. A paper pot of vinegary whelks would have been perfect on an almost deserted sea-front, watching the brave clutching their coats around them as the wind chased them along the sand. Some were walking their dogs or children, some lingered on promenade benches playing with i-devices, and a group of anoraks swung their metal detectors in patient, dedicated pace from one end of the beach to the other. I saw that there is a market for an ‘i-detector app’ that clips onto a walking stick, squealing if it is waved over Saxon treasure, a hidden spring, dog mess or a lost text message, or if your body temperature falls below a certain level while you concentrate on gaining the next gaming level. With that name, it might even reveal where you lost yourself.
In the morning, it was a lovely sunny day for sailing to Poole. I started out in good spirits with a full plan, way-points in the plotter, and a calm sea with little swell. There was a tidal constraint of course – this is the UK. It was at St Albans Head (or St Aldhelm’s) where there are races up to three miles south of the point due to a shallow sea-bed. The idea was to get there on the slack which lasts for thirty minutes before the east-going flood tide sets, and take an inside route that is tight into the head where the water is deep. I could leave Weymouth when the bridge opened at 10 a.m., which left me over four hours to cover the 17 miles to the point before the slack, although it meant a contrary tide going there. The wind had swung to the North and I was hoping for the forecast F3, which promised a nice fast beam reach and a safe off-shore breeze as I came in close to the cliff.
When plans look neat, have a care! The northerly started gently and weakened to imperceptible. The route crossed the Lulworth coastal firing ranges, so I called the coastguard to see if they were active, and sure enough they were. I had planned to stay inshore where there is a bit of an eddy against the main tidal stream, but no such luck, I had to go at least 3 miles offshore into the teeth of the tide. I had just set the new course when the Range Patrol boat came up to me and gave specific directions which matched those I had just plotted, then went off to the other yachts and fishermen out there with me. The current was running hard and I had the motor on high revs to make only 2.5 knots at times. As ever, I would not have minded if there had been an exciting smell of cordite on the wind, the whistle of shells and the occasional ker-sploosh half a mile off the bow, but there was nothing, not even a boom reporting from the distance. The reason might be guessed as the fact that nobody shoots ships cannon anymore; missiles just do not have the same appeal, and cost far too much to be wasted on practice – use a simulator instead. But that is all wrong. The real reason is that these firing ranges are the sea areas where on-shore military practice takes place, and the danger is of stray bullets which can carry for two or three miles off the cliffs. No romance in that.
I was due a bit of fun. Some wind came up un-forecast from the South-West and gave me a shunt about forty minutes before I made it to the point, so I did not arrive too late. I closed to about twenty yards off where it felt as if I could reach out and touch the cliff face, and the wind was deflected along the line of the cliffs and followed me. I ‘goose-winged’ the sails with the boom over the port side and the jib over the starboard. It is an unstable configuration because the mainsail is not on its ‘natural’ side with the jib, and it is liable to gybe if the boat swings off the line of the dead run, causing the boom to slam across to the other side and take with it any heads in the way, sometimes tearing off blocks and so on. A good precaution is to tie the boom back with a rope that runs forward from its end. This time, with the lack of swell and the particular effect of the wind channelling fast and steady along the cliffs, the boat seemed to pick up the configuration by herself and stay with it without a flinch, charging along at six and a half knots until I deliberately turned her off it four miles further on as she passed Anvil Point, south of Swanage. The success was a little sweeter by the presence of two 40-footers which had come out after me from Weymouth but had decided not to risk the inside passage. Unfortunately, they were too far off to see me nonchalantly inspecting my finger-nails. Of course, they might simply have stood off to go straight on to the Solent, but why spoil the triumph?
From the other side of Anvil Point, the westerly gradually picked up strength and I powered northwards to the Poole approach channel on a beam reach with the sails looking their best as I moved into the busy yachting area. The stretch of coast north of Swanage is without doubt one of the most photographed of the British coastline, and I made a little collection of my own. The chalk cliffs were part of a band which once extended 15 miles across Poole and Christchurch Bays but has been carved away by the sea, leaving chalk pillars at Handfast Point near Poole called the Old Harry Rocks, and similar stacks at the other end off the Isle of Wight called the Needles.
Poole harbour is a large inland water with a quarter-mile entrance crossed by a chain ferry, and the water sluices in and out at up to three knots. The staff at the Boat Haven told me that there are one hundred miles of inland coastline to explore. Yachts can sail safely to one side of a buoyed approach channel for large vessels, and I followed a large Brittany ferry along it, then turned off to furl the mainsail before entering. As I neared the entrance, the chain ferry left its mooring – it has a flashing light to indicate movement, and a big cog wheel that engages with a heavy chain lying along the sea-bed from shore to shore. It is exactly as manoeuvrable as the chain itself, and so tops the priority list. There was plenty of time to go through before it arrived, until my propeller picked up a clump of sea-weed and progress ceased just as I crossed over the chain. I dashed back and turned the throttle up to full, and the boat moved painfully slowly out of the way – after which it was easy enough to pull up the outboard and free it with the boat hook.
The seaweed snared me right above the chain, and of a traditional disposition, I was bound to conclude that the Gods must be at work: but which ones? Too far south for the Norse sea gods, and north for the Mediterraneans, I never had enough draw for Scottish females for it to be Selkies, and on a day to day basis the Celtic gods stay in the western extremities. But it might have been the fault of St. Winwaloe to whom church dedications are to be found in Devon, Cornwall and Brittany: due to his priapic reputation, Breton girls invoke him to find a partner. His wife Gwen Teirbron was a sixth century holy woman, also invoked for fertility for her fifty percent extra womanhood: her name means ‘triple-breasted’. The relevance to my story was their patron King Gradlon of Cornouaille, builder of the city of Ys, the most beautiful city in the world, musical inspiration of Lalo and Debussy. He pillaged in the North and ran off with Queen Malgven after the murder of her husband, whose ‘sword was rusty’ as she put it. Ys was built west of Brittany for their wicked daughter Dahut, behind a dyke with a bronze gate for ships at low water, but became a city of orgies after which she killed her lovers. Drunk on one stormy night, she stole Gradlon’s key and opened the gate so that a great wave came in and drowned the city – Breton fishermen report seeing it from time to time beneath the waves. Gradlon rode away with her on Malgven’s sea-horse, but Saint Winwaloe had converted him and now persuaded him to dump the devil behind him. So he pushed her off and she became a mermaid or ‘morgen’, one of the eternally young Breton sirens who comb their long hair and lure sailors to their death with visions of beautiful underwater cities. She possibly rode the wash behind the Brittany ferry, and curious about the Breton Fisherman’s prayer in my cabin window, she got her hair tangled up in my propeller. A lucky escape for me – or perhaps like the Selkies, she was just not that interested.
Once inside the entrance it is a few miles to Poole between enough moored yachts to surpass the Fal estuary. On a bright day, I may have had more sun than was good for me, because after a drink on board a neighbouring yacht, I fell asleep without finishing my usual email. The next day I felt as if I had run a marathon, another indicator that my energy had fallen very low. But I had planned a day ashore to walk about the town, which proved surprisingly un-enchanting. Pubs and eateries are shoulder to shoulder along the front, some very pleasant, but it does not raise the spirits. One near the marina was called ‘Fishy Fishy’, worthy of the Ardrossan tea shop ‘O Really’ in the art of nomenclature, prompting me to wonder if it shared the management of a Chinese buffet above it. In recklessness I went upstairs. I believe it was the worst gustatory decision in the 61 ports of my trip!
Next week: Home! The Last Word.
My ports of call:
- Gosport, Haslar marina, the start and end of the voyage.
- Eastbourne (Sovereign marina)
- Felixstowe Ferry (River Deben)
- Wells-next-the Sea
- Grimsby & Spurn Head
- West Hartlepool
- Low Newton-by-the-Sea
- Muir Town Basin (Caledonian Canal)
- Dochgarroch (Caledonian Canal)
- Fort Augustus (Caledonian Canal)
- Gairlochy (Caledonian Canal)
- Corpach (Caledonian Canal exit)
- Crinan (Canal entrance)
- Ardrishaig (Crinan Canal exit)
- Lochranza (Arran)
- Bangor (Belfast Lough)
- Peel (Isle of Man)
- Port St.Mary
- Milford Haven & Dale
- Newlyn (Lands End)
- Newton Ferrers (to visit friends)
- West Bay (Bridport)
- Yarmouth (Isle of Wight)
(From there back to Gosport)