Nearing the end of his solo sailing journey around the UK in a mini-yacht, Jonathan Footerman is temporarily felled by fatigue, lack of stamina and an injury while battling a storm.
(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.)
On the last leg of my circumnavigation of the UK mainland, bound for my starting point at Gosport, I had sailed along the south coast via Newlyn, Falmouth and Plymouth to the Yealm estuary for a weekend with friends. My next stop was Salcombe, only 20 miles, on a sunny afternoon. In a lazy frame of mind, I cast off from my mooring facing downstream, giving the bow a good shove away from the pontoon. The river was running out fast, and in the time it took to reach the outboard, it had carried me on to the boat in front whose occupants had to fend off. It was a gentle bump, with no risk of damage, just ignominious. I engaged my brain and did what I should have done in the first place: reverse out into the stream where the flow would straighten up the boat, and then go. In the same slow vein, I knew the times of high and low water but had not examined the tidal streams since I had plenty of time to make my way. A light wind from the North would take me on a comfortable reach to the Salcombe estuary as soon as I left the Yealm.
I was half-dozing in the cockpit when the boat abruptly heeled over as the wind jumped past 20 MPH. I released the sheets and re-set the sails, but two minutes later it died down. The same thing happened an hour on, but by this time I had checked the chart and knew that it was just river estuaries channelling the wind. As Bolt Head at the Salcombe entrance appeared, a small yacht making good progress under sail further in-shore showed me that I must have been in a contrary current of about 2 knots. Had I checked the tidal streams, I would not have been so far out. Too late now, but I felt foolish for having abandoned the disciplines of good preparation. I motored in without incident, burning petrol that I need not have, picked up a mooring by the town and paid the harbour master. His launch doubles as the water taxi, but having all that I needed on board including a delicious dinner supplied by my friends, I preferred to enjoy the evening in the cockpit.
It is 9 miles from Salcombe to Start Point, then a north-east turn to follow the coast for 20 miles to Torbay, a bite into the west side of Lyme Bay which makes a long curve to Portland Bill. Brixham and Torquay face each other on each corner of Torbay. The ebb tide sweeps through Lyme Bay and back out at Start Point, a good 20 miles further south than the Bill, running fiercely across the main Channel flow just as it does at the Lizard (near Newlyn), and the springs were only two days off. The Start sea-bed is shallow and uneven with off-lying rocks, prompting good almanac advice to stay three miles out to avoid tidal races. As always, there is an inner passage hard against the cliffs. It would be best on the slack before the flood at 6:30 a.m., but I would have to be up two hours earlier to catch it. I was not. I did not cast off until after 7 a.m. with the tide already in mid-flood, the sun still hidden behind the land and the same force 2 northerly wind bringing down a chill. Still, by risking the inside passage, I reckoned to arrive in under six hours.
The early clue that I was underestimating the current was a forty minute slog out of the Salcombe estuary, under 2 miles – barely making 2 knots over ground against the rising tide despite the wind behind me. The brake came off as I turned east into the Channel, and Elektra put on her sailing shoes, riding smoothly along at almost four knots on a beam reach in a force 2. There was the ghost of a rolling swell from the Atlantic, but the wind was off the land, without the length of water to raise a chop. In no time I was approaching Start Point. The sun had risen, it was a beautiful clear day, but the east-going flood was in full set and my speed was building rapidly. At seven knots over ground, I had second thoughts about coming in close to the cliffs – I would make eight knots at the most dangerous point, and if I dropped all sail I would still be doing four with no steering way at all. Exciting? No, very silly, not knowing the rocks. I swung south on a broad reach that would take me two miles off the point over some of the races, but I would be safe enough. The current did not let up. Bumping across light overfalls, I was at 7.8 knots, as fast as I had gone through the Dorus Mhor, as fast as I have ever done in Elektra without being towed. The inshore passage speed would have been a knot more. Until I bumped into something.
Heading north-east into Lyme Bay, I was now three miles off shore in a current gradually easing after the point. Being carried forward by the flood, my port bow headed into an ‘apparent’ northerly wind higher than F2, and I thought I might come onto a closer haul than usual and follow the coast without tacking. The sail must set to create pressure behind it, the curved foil shape catching higher pressure air in the belly. The closer to the wind, the flatter the foil must be to prevent the wind denting the belly, spilling the air and stalling the sail. The minimum angle off the wind, rarely less than 45°, depends on sail and hull design, not water movement. But there is lateral motion of the mast as the boat rolls and angular variation as she screws over waves which can stall the sail if balanced at the limit in light wind. With a stronger apparent wind, the sail sets harder and is less vulnerable, allowing a tighter angle. I put out the full sail and hauled the boom, back-stay and jib in very tightly so that the boat was heeling hard to starboard and sailing precariously along a line on which she would normally stall. The dinghy and battery in the starboard berth were tending to dip her starboard side, and I had to stay well back on the port side and helm manually to hold the boat in balance, with the gunwales skimming along the surface. It was fun, but it put me out in the chilly wind (no hunkering down behind the spray hood). Generally, yachts sail better upright, but the mast over the starboard side tends to push the boat upwind keeping the angle tight, so I did not take in sail as I normally would to sit her up a bit. Although I did have to put in one short tack, I managed to stay approximately parallel to the coast all the way past Dartmouth, where it came out to only a mile away on the port side. Now the wind was dying, I had done my duty and was cold enough, and took the boat the last two miles into Brixham on the motor. Despite a detour to go deep that must have added miles to the journey, I was berthed six hours after I cast off, and happy with the way I had sailed. I took care to tie up facing north to keep the cold out of the cabin. It was already in my joints.
To warm up, I settled in the Prince William pub and caused havoc by ordering the daily special. They could not take payment because “the code had not been entered into the computer” and nobody knew what to do, utterly disempowered by the system. I had already eaten the special, and made excellent suggestions which they did not seem to like much; but the stew was very nice and added piquancy to my contributions. Perhaps I should have been more sympathetic, even in Fawlty Towers country. It is ill-advised to be well-fed and supercilious at the sight of people scratching their heads over how to take payment, however absurd a theatre it makes. If somebody gets accidentally shot, you are likely to find your behaviour held against you as the outsider, like Camus’s Meursault failing to cry at his mother’s funeral. For the record, I did so fail, although it only takes a few notes of Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix from Samson and Delilah to reduce me to a boneless puddle. What would Camus make of that? Fortunately for my continued life, things fell short of the pass at which it might have been cut off. Somebody found a work-around. Nice to know they can hack it, in computer-ese.
‘Real life’ did not stop, and some tax accounting work needed to be done which would keep me a day more in Brixham. I did not do it when I had time in Milford Haven, and wonder how many others pursue rigour in their professional lives but cannot do their own administration until the eleventh hour. Fate was unaccountably on my side as the next day was blowy and unpleasant, and Brixham marina is well equipped with the usual facilities and a computer work area for clients. Perfect! It is ontologically encouraging that when I sailed into Portavadie with a boatful of damp everything, I found myself in the only marina of my trip which had a warm room for drying clothes; and in Brixham, office facilities and bad weather just when I needed them. Funny how a convenient occurrence or two can wobble even the most uninterested agnostic! A friend sent the data down the line, and I did my double entry behind the double doors, with small rain lancing irritably across the windows. It was a day of grey light and grey activity.
The lateness of the season made itself felt with heavy dew in the morning and overcast as it was, the boat was slow to dry out. I called a cab for the petrol station which was delayed for 15 minutes, and per company policy the chauffeur did not charge me – just like they do in London when they are late, ha ha! The cause of the hold-up (of the taxi, not the gas station) was a new green rubbish sorting procedure, for which special crew had immigrated from Somerset to teach the less evolved Devonshires the right way to empty bins and sweep up afterwards; a matter of such consequence as to feature in the national newspapers. There must have been a dearth of tsunamis, plagues, crises, school massacres, rallies, celeb gaffes, drug raids, demos, wars, frauds and dead donkey stories. The chauffeur said that all the ‘greens lived in Totness’. He was clearly one of those well-informed people from odd walks of life who win Brain of Britain competitions. He bemoaned misinformation that underlies local council decisions like these, and we had a satisfying mutual grump in which I held up my end with tales of the untold diesel requirements of off-shore wind-farms.
It turned into a sunny day, but the next depression due at the end of the afternoon looked like a bad one on the synoptic charts. The ports around the north and east sides of Lyme Bay are small, drying at low tide, and attractive. Jane Austen observed that it was “a very strange stranger … who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme [Regis], to make him wish to know it better”, and Meryl Streep looking tragic on the Cobb as John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman, is an icon of cinema. But for a fin-keeled boat that cannot take the ground in the harbour, the outer moorings are inadequate storm shelter. It was 45 miles as the crow flies to Portland Bill and another eight into Weymouth on the other side of it, carrying an odds-on risk of being caught in the storm right at the Bill, the only dangerous part of the journey. The alternatives were to stay in Brixham for another two days, or head for West Bay, the sea-port for Bridport on the east side of the Lyme Bay, from which Chesil Beach runs 20 miles out to Portland Bill without a break. The Beach, made famous by Iain McEwan’s novel, is a natural shingle mole along the so-called Jurassic coast, named for the fossils easily found there, and drops away quite steeply into the water so that yachts can come in to chatting distance with the fisherman to be found on it. West Bay has light pontoons in the outer harbour which I thought might do, although they are really plastic dinghy pontoons; but at under 40 miles it was near enough. The low pressure system would bring in a south-westerly, and since the passage plan was a straight line north-east across the bay, the risk was that I might be blown there more quickly than planned.
I decided to go, leaving around 10 a.m. at the start of the flood tide. The rise and fall of the Lyme Bay tide is interrupted by a stand of an hour or so after the first ninety minutes, running fast on either side of it (all I know about the reason is that it is complicated). With no wind at the start, I made good speed on the tide, and when the wind rose in the afternoon, it took me up to six knots. When the tide slackened, the storm’s advance party came up with a nasty swell behind me, and swept me briskly into West Bay. The boat was rolling crazily, and it was a difficult business dropping the main when I arrived. But it was only a seven hour journey, five knots being a fast average in Elektra.
Within fifteen minutes of berthing near the only other yacht, I was told by the HM that his men were moving us into the inner harbour for better storm shelter. Fair enough. West Bay was eligible for an EU construction subsidy like many other ports, but hesitancy, connivance or parsimony resulted in a sea-wall that is a few metres too short to provide good defence against the prevailing south-westerly storms in the outer harbour. Stupid. The turbulence washes into the inner harbour to a degree which might not matter except that a river sluices into it as well, the interaction substantially reducing safety. Elektra was rafted to a fat trawler, lying well out into the centre where the depth would keep her afloat, and I did not recognise the risk or I would have asked the HM to think again.
Before the storm arrived in earnest, I had time to take off the rubbish, and tied a heavy rope from the ladder to the trawler to prevent it from drifting off while I did so, avoiding a repeat of the Bridlington dance. Then I went to dinner, wrote some emails, transferred some photos from the camera to the laptop, and shot out of my seat as I remembered that I had forgotten to release the heavy rope for the falling tide. Charging back to the quay with visions of the ladder ripped off the wall or the rope off the trawler, I was amazed to discover that there was no problem. The intermediate stand of the tide had saved me, and I was just in time before it dropped rapidly away. In fact, nobody would be the wiser if I could resist blabbing about it.
When I returned from the pub at 10:30 p.m., not only was the storm upon us in earnest but the conditions within the harbour were far worse than I had imagined, water sluicing heavily around it in driving sleet, and boats jerking madly about on their moorings. Elektra was being thrown about like a cork on the other side of the trawler which moved to a different rhythm on the waves, and I was keen to get on to her to put on extra lines and ease the existing ones—I had doubled up on lines, but they can fray through remarkably quickly with that much motion, as I had seen in Caernarfon. With no heavy rope to the ladder, the trawler was now lying three metres from the wall, impossible to board. I had taken the precaution of hanging the trawler’s boat hook from the ladder against such an eventuality, but I first set about pulling in the stern by means of the mooring rope. I had got it within a couple of feet of the wall when a police car tore up, doubtless imagining that I was trying to steal a trawler under cover of a force 8 gale. I explained the problem, and the officer kindly held onto the stern line while I went down the ladder and tried my utmost to drag in the rest of the trawler one-handed with the boat hook. I could not manage it. Hanging off the ladder at full arm’s stretch with the hook over a cleat amidships and only an inch or two of handle before it slipped from my grasp, I was beginning to lose my strength. From my suspended vantage point, I saw that a current was washing around the harbour in such a way as to catch the bow of the vessel and drag it out. I had to take a different tack, so to speak, and heave in the bow first with the help of the young policeman. I managed to disengage the hook, but as I did so, the foot carrying my weight finally slipped down two rungs of the iron ladder, bruising my inside leg more severely than I realised, from ankle to knee. I climbed back up and took stock: there was no sleeping on board in any event, and since it was now nearly 10:50 p.m., I realised that I had better start looking for a room before the pubs locked up. So I explained to the policeman and galloped off, ignoring the smarting in my leg.
The three pubs and one open hotel were all full up—two weddings the following day—and two B&Bs were locked up and dark. I found myself knocking vainly at the door of the last-chance B&B well after 11 p.m., getting no answer on its telephone, and wondering how uncomfortable the coir mat in the porch would be. I was pretty exhausted by now, and was not looking forward to the only remaining option of a couple of miles’ walk towards Bridport, or a cab to come from there if I could locate one, to take me looking for a 24-hour place like a Travelodge. But first, I thought the HM might be up and about, securing things against the storm, and called him to see if I could have another go, with his help, to get on to the boat. He was still up, and at that point the night-watchman for the B&B, who lived in an adjacent flat overlooking the porch, turned up to see what was going on. They all know one another in the little port, so I passed the telephone to the night-watchman and between them they sorted me out with the only remaining room in the B&B and an assurance that one of the assistant HMs would check the lines on the boat. The next day I discovered that one of his young assistants had scrambled aboard, put out more fenders from the trawler and had reattached one of the lines that had indeed frayed through. Bravo, job very well done! Nothing in my circumnavigation brought home to me more succinctly that I was no longer a young man. I simply did not have the agility that he took for granted; but so much more significant was the fact that I no longer thought like a young man, no longer had his unquestioning assumption of the ability to do it, or the lack of concern at the prospect of a night without a bed. I was tired, daunted by things to which I once gave not a second thought. Old!
By the morning, my knee had swollen up colourfully. It was stiff, and I was limping, but still mobile. Passing the time in a café overlooking the harbour as the storm continued to blow, I looked out of salt-stained windows at a grey desert, the wind vigorous enough to raise a chop on the road-side puddles, and feared that I might fall at the last hurdle. My stamina was low. It seemed as though my strength had dwindled far too quickly on the ladder; that all of a sudden I had found myself on the point of losing my grip, and that otherwise I would not have lost my footing. In any case, I would not be going anywhere until the following day, and I decided to do the rest of the journey in shorter hops than I might have done. I would stop at Weymouth rather than skip on to Poole, and make a stop on the Isle of Wight on the way up to Gosport. With that settled, I sent an email saying that the outlook was brighter than it appeared from the window, because a friend had recommended a restaurant and I had a booking for the evening. I limped around to have a word about staying, with the HM on the other side of the harbour, and he kindly waived the charges since I had not had access to the boat. I spent the rest of the day keeping the weight off my leg, dined on a daintily cooked and presented fish with half a bottle of Petit Chablis well chosen by the ‘patron’, and put myself to bed early.
Next week: The Bill, Old Harry and Poole
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)