Jonathan Footerman only has one questions left after circumnavigation the UK on a mini-yacht: What’s Next?
Author’s Note: Taken from the sixteenth and last chapters of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman.
It is usual to take between 3 and 4 months to single-handedly circumnavigate the UK mainland – usual since it became a proof-of-competence endeavour for teenaged sailors after Ellen McArthur led the way. But I took much longer. I picked up Elektra at the end of August 2009 just as the stormy September weather arrived, and I was held up for weeks in Eastbourne and Dover by gales on the stretch up the Channel from Gosport to the Thames Estuary and across it to Brightlingsea in Essex. The protracted cold winter of 2009-10 prevented repairs, and I started out again on 1 June, held up even for the one last night of May despite promising myself to go by then. It was now early October, after a journey that was slowed by unseasonal weather on the east coast and was no better on the west, the same September gales a year later locking me up for 2 weeks in Milford Haven. So I had taken over 5 months for the whole journey, and not for lack of resolve to brave the conditions. They had simply been adverse too much of the time, not infrequent in these islands, and others attempting it should not rely on their ‘normal’ estimates.
I must admit that I felt worn down. Thrilling and invigorating as a fine sail can be, too many grey skies and choppy seas become a trial of attrition. Wearied by an injury in West Bay, I found myself looking forward to the end of the journey, only a good day’s sail away from my berth in Poole Harbour – unless I decided to break it at one of the many attractive ports on the way to and up the Solent, the stretch of water separating the Isle of Wight and leading to Portsmouth Harbour and Gosport from where I started.
It is 18 miles from the Poole harbour exit to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, but in the UK there is always a tidal gate and this is one of the most famous: The Needles at the western extremity of Wight. The Solent is wide there but filled with sandy shallows through which there are two channels, one in-shore to the mainland coast and the other by the Needles themselves. The water flows through them fast enough to halt my boat, so I had to go through on the flood with enough tide left to take me up to Yarmouth. I left at midday in a westerly force 4 wind bringing in a five foot swell past the Anvil Point to the South-West. I had chosen the south channel to pass close to the Needles which I wanted to see. With the wind and the swell on my starboard quarter (three-quarters of the way back to the right), it was another ride in the tumble drier on a sunny day as Elektra rolled along without the mainsail as a damper, which I was not deploying because my leg was very tender and it involved bracing knees and shins against the cabin roof or the mast. I switched off the motor as soon as I was out (it is compulsory in Poole harbour which is so populated that a yachtsman overrating his skill with the sails will not get away with it) and made good time running on the jib with the wind behind me although I had to helm manually – my speed never came below two and a half knots against the tide. But the tide turned about four miles from the Needles and the swell settled down as both wind and tide ran together, choppy as the sea-bed rose towards the Solent entrance but smoothing out as I entered. With the mainsail I‘d have made speed on a broad reach with less roll, but with both wind and tide in my favour, I’d soon arrive even with no sail at all.
At the Needles buoy I was doing five knots on a quiet sea, but had to make a 90° turn to avoid a large trawler coming out of the Solent that only had to hold its course for another few minutes to pass behind me. To my surprise, he tightened his course towards the buoy to pass in front of me so that we both arrived at it together. No harm done but miffed, I turned back onto my course up the channel and felt the tide take me as the ground speed clocked up steadily. I took some photographs of the Needles as I passed on the north side, trying to time the click with the boat’s roll but getting mostly blurred sky or cabin floor until I got the process right. The wind rose as it was channelled up the Western Solent, and soon my GPS speed hit 7.7 knots – I was not expecting that kind of performance, but the elements carried the boat along very fast, with the unhelpful southerly component of the swell cut off by the Isle of Wight. My impeller showed a speed through the water of 2.8 knots suggesting a tidal current of nearly 5 knots. Once into the Solent, I moved over to starboard tight along the north coast of Wight so as to turn into Yarmouth, but was belting along at such a lick that I missed it. I started the motor as I approached, but by the time I had properly identified the entrance west of a docked ferry, I was about fifty yards too far on. Top revs on the outboard took me into the lighter flow shore and I was able to work back at about one knot right across the berthed ferry’s stern, hoping its ‘leaving -harbour’ lamp would not start to flash just then.
Yarmouth is a pleasant little town but I only intended an overnight stop. Fortunately there are nice pubs to alleviate the hardship and deprivation of unplanned days there, for in the morning I had a full fever, dizzy and shivering. I spent the day keeping warm but have had ‘flu often enough to think that this was something different, connected with the pretty colours in my leg from knee to ankle. The next day I was no better, and decided to go to a medical centre in Freshwater. As I was waiting in the bus shelter, the fever seemed to break all of a sudden and my head cleared. I limped over to the harbour wall to look at the state of the water. It was approaching springs and the current outside had set westwards and was piling along at nearly five knots once again. I had never seen tide running so fast at a harbour entrance. Mooring buoys were identifiable only by the bow-waves washing over them. The current swept into the harbour under the boats, but I had pointed Elektra into the wind to keep the cold out, which was also into the current, and she was comfortably settled. The wind had gone to the East where it was forecast to stay for a couple of weeks. There was no way to sail up it against the ebb. I would have to leave on the flood at 6 a.m., or again 12 hours later. I decided to give myself another evening off, and if I felt up to it, I would leave the next morning for Gosport, when the flood tides would begin an hour later.
To my disappointment, I was weak and jittery when I awoke in the morning, but I cast off at 7.45. Barely out of the harbour, the instruments were showing a ground speed of over seven knots – only three from the motor at medium revs. The jib helped on a close haul into the easterly F3, the apparent wind a full measure higher due to the speed of the tide against it, and I was impressed as two crewed yachts passed me taking advantage of the conditions to tack perfectly up the wind while I chugged along. A good example is always motivating, and I would have relished a go rather than staying on the motor; but I was trying to keep warm and to cover the 20 miles to Gosport with as little effort as possible, and chickened out. Into the wind at Cowes, the jib was doing no good anymore and I furled it, and chugged on regretfully as dozens of yachts emerged under lively sail from Southampton Water to cut across my bow and stern, making me feel like a leaky old fishing boat surrounded by Fastnet racers. A hoped-for glimpse of the new Queen Elizabeth at berth in Southampton was lost in a mist, but a wedding cake of a P&O ferry came out instead which I followed in safety until I turned north into the Portsmouth harbour entry channel. With the large tidal range that day, there was no risk cutting the corner across sandy shallows, a no-brainer as I followed in the wake of one of the Isle of Wight ferries doing the same. Now at the season’s end, a choice of visitors’ berths was available in Gosport, and I tied up with no difficulty, three and a half hours after I cast off.
I sat in the cockpit for a long time, looking around with the euphoric sense of pleasure and anti-climax that all must experience after a long challenge. I felt ridiculously weak. Now as I review the journey, I recognise how long my fitness had been fading, but I had done what I set out to do and did not mind, I was happy! Eventually, I made my way to the reception to register, then to the bar where I had last sat buying the boat, to make a few phone calls, send a last email to the list, and eat some lunch. And that was that! Good! So what’s next?
A last word:
When Milton lost a friend to the storms in the Irish Sea which rolled my yacht about so much, his homily was the poem Lycidas in which he observed that “Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise… To scorn delights, and live laborious days.” No doubt it is a genuine spur for some to risk their comfort and routine in exploits which impress us even if we do not quite understand. Others, fewer, shun the glory but are driven by an unquiet spirit. However, the rest of us strive with responsibility to secure our future welfare and, up to a point, so did I. Latterly, I was tempted to believe that if I had kept myself fit, I might never have stepped away from a life in which security was the motive. But it is not so. Much truer for me is Steinbeck’s pithy remark: “We spend our time searching for security, and hate it when we get it.”
I was ever restless, leaving home for “fresh woods and pastures new” (from the same Milton poem), changing jobs frequently, a sabbatical year when I qualified, leaving for France a few years later… With marital responsibilities, I might have remained longer in harness, so I was interested to learn that the frequency of a man’s marital responsibility was prescribed in Biblical times by his occupation: every day for a man of means; weekly for a mule driver away on deliveries; for a camel driver absent across the sands, once in thirty days; but for a sailor, only once in six months, which may be the real reason that Jonah went to sea, and possibly why a whale was sent to get him.
I saw no whales on my trip unfortunately, and am no more in search of glory than was Jonah. But I gave up financial security to find a different way of life of which this UK circumnavigation is only the start. I am just as uncertain about the future as I was when I stopped consulting work in 2008. But if my soul was ever really fettered to the office stool, it was only by force of habit. I have broken the habit, given up the managerial weed, and it is great! No nicotine substitutes, just breathing freely again and coming back to life. I have more optimism, more daily joie de vivre and more certainty in myself than I have felt in so many years that I refuse to count. Whatever qualms and practical issues remain to be sorted out, without those ingredients, the prospect of a secure future is not enough. Nevertheless, the end of the trip is the moment to take stock.
After a lot of work to physically prepare, I was more robust when I set out than I had been in decades, and happy with the fresh air: not exactly renewed youth, but something like it. Robustness was needed for the time in the cockpit in all weathers with the inevitability of getting wet. Some strength was required, whether for hanging on to the mast in a swell, releasing a sheet knotted onto the winch, manipulating the sails with unexpected wind in them, heaving the dinghy about or hauling up anchors. I had to be limber to climb dock ladders, scramble across rafted-up vessels, or clamber in and out of the lazarette to make repairs; even to go to bed, because on a Corribee, it is always a climb, scramble, clamber or squeeze. Routine re-established itself as the days passed and I have written of how I lost form: yachting will not suffice without a little more scorn of delights and living of laborious days. But that is not hard to address in good spirits, and I slept good nights in a hard berth at the end, compared with cursed, crippling, disastrous sleeplessness two years earlier.
However, the amount of idle, unplanned time in port was a waste from any point of view. I did some tourism and had enough maintenance to do to make use of my time on the east coast. As the trip went on, I did less with my shore time even though I had more of it, although the boat arrived back in better repair than it started out. I am no tourist by preference. Sight-seeing and a dose of history is an occasional leisure distraction, not welcome daily fare. I have spent a lot of my life away from home, but settled long enough know each locality as an inhabitant, albeit a transient one. I am used to taking my home with me, but that was not the case on Elektra which is too small to be organised as a home – everything had to be carefully stowed in waterproof bags, and books and music were inaccessible and unused. I spent little time on board when berthed except to sleep, something to note in the fit-out of any boat as a genuine, longer-term home.
A related matter is individual self-sufficiency, the amount of contact with other people, my most intangible concern in solo long-distance yachting. I am used to my own company, and the man in the mirror has few mysteries; certainly not a true ‘loner’, needing a balance between time alone and with others. My coastal adventure was not the test that solo trans-oceanic sailing is, but the obvious solution of sailing with crew has plenty to be said for and against, about which this trip brings no insight. So I have no ‘answer’, thank goodness. It is one of the uncertainties in throwing over a conventional career for a more unpredictable life. Perhaps the next challenge will clarify it.
However, introspection is not the activity by which the hours and months are passed at sea. My account is full of the practical issues which become the day to day concern of the yachtsman. Yet I hope that the reader has also seen through my eyes and words how a grey sky on a restless sea restores the soul as richly as a blue lagoon under the afternoon sun; how the starlight of nights without sight of life or land remains brilliant in the ordinary matter of memory; how the thought of a sharp breeze in the cockpit, spray on the air and hot tea on the tongue causes the nostrils to flare even in the fug of the coffee shop, and puts a fidget into the seat that does not go away until I do.
I have no better conclusion to offer than the sheer joy of it. My story is from the waterside… and the tide is still rising.
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)