Jonathan Footerman has sea fever. And if you’re on a quest to circumnavigate the UK solo in a mini-yacht, it’s just the right fever to have.
A tale of changing a life, by Jonathan Footerman: Taken from the fourteenth chapter of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman.
Thank heavens that water voles breed like rabbits. To my generation, brought up on ‘Wind in the Willows’, it is reassuring because the later release of the American mink into the UK almost wiped them out, adding one predator too many to the owls, weasels et alia. We might have lost Ratty, the vole in Kenneth Grahame’s book who best voiced the attraction of boats:
“Nice? It is the ONLY thing….there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
Sailing has something more, the half-mystical triumph of risking and borrowing from the elements to travel freely anywhere on Earth. The voice of the Siren drew me at 56 from an office life during which I never set foot on a yacht, into a single-handed circumnavigation of the UK. I was now in Wales having sailed up the East to Scotland and down the West via Ulster and the Isle of Man. And I was in thrall to the rawness and romance, conjured so evocatively by John Masefield in ‘Sea Fever’ that it is more parodied than any other poem in the language. Often sailing overnight in stormy UK weather, I know the elation but cannot colour the experience better than he does, for example in his second couplet:
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
My boat was less than 21 foot long with a tiller rather than a wheel, not often found in boats longer than about 32 foot because the rudder weight demands the ratios of a transmission system. But a tiller conducts the movement of the water directly to the helmsman’s hand, and it allows him to hunker forward into the shelter of the spray hood for those long periods alone in the cockpit that are the life, the satisfaction and the narcosis of the solo sailor. For he does not really borrow, he steals his progress from the wind by the cunning offset of his keel in the water: the cunning evaporates and romance begins to die as he starts the motor. One parody of Masefield says it all, on the Panbo Marine Electronics website, (with apologies to Masefield, author unknown); I quote a verse:
I must go down to the sea again, to the autopilot’s ways,
And all I ask is a GPS, and a radar, and displays,
And a cell phone, and a weatherfax, and a shortwave radio,
And compact disks, computer games and TV videos.
In a packed marina in Caernarfon, I was the fourth against a raft of two powerful motorboats just so equipped, and a 24-foot yacht sailed by Graham and John. Drinking tea on board Graham’s May Rose, we considered our onward journey for 35 miles along the Lleyn peninsula, the North coast of Wales. Off the end is Bardsey Island, a navigable but tricky sound separating it from the mainland. The confluence of three tides, along the peninsula on the North, from Cardigan Bay on the South, and up and down the Irish Sea, can set up a standing wave in the sound in adverse conditions – it is best to pass at the low tide, expected between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. in the next two days. One motorboat had just come from there and we asked about it. The wife shrugged and said that she thought the engine note might have changed a fraction as they came through. Some people miss the Siren’s voice behind the diesel growl, but some just don’t know what you are talking about.
The only shelter on the North of the peninsula is at Porth Dinllaen, about 14 miles from Caernarfon, a bay created by a half-mile promontory. We could moor there for a short night and leave at 4 a.m. for Bardsey Sound 18 miles on, with the rest of the day to make our destinations before the next low tide locked us out of the sandy Welsh ports. From Bardsey it is 20 miles back to Pwllheli, the nearest port on the south side, or 30 miles to Barmouth on the main coast where Graham was bound. My plan had been to visit Portmeirion in the ‘armpit’ of the peninsula, well known from the TV series The Prisoner, and work my way down the coast for the pleasure of the beautiful ports and beaches – I imagined a balmy August anchoring off the best holiday beaches in the UK. No chance. I was under the cosh of stormy cyclones lining up across the Atlantic, which I had been dodging for 6 weeks. Now at the start of September, I had to make distance south while the going was good, and decided to aim for Aberystwyth, about 38 miles south-east of Bardsey, near enough to reach by half-tide.
Leaving Caernarfon was like arriving at Conwy: a large expanse of shallow sand at the entrance to the Menai Straits must be navigated through a buoyed channel. Great rollers were sweeping in and breaking on shallows in the centre of the bay, warning enough as we left on a fine breezy afternoon. I allowed Electra to wander away from the channel while I messed about with the camera batteries until Graham became concerned and yelled at me. A pod of dolphins joined me and seemed to shepherd me back on course as I tried to snap them, with mixed results: there is little time to aim before they dive again.
The winds were from the North, and picking up our mooring buoys in Dinllaen was a bouncy affair since the bay is open in that direction. John had to leave us, collected by his better half, but he did it in style—a competitive swimmer in the armed forces, he swam ashore in combat order while Graham rowed us over for a pub dinner. The breeze went south during the evening and the water flattened out, allowing us two or three hours rest before a pre-dawn departure with a fair wind pushing us at 6.5 knots with the ebb. We turned into the sound shortly before low water, and the current took us cleanly through on a surface as smooth as silk, motoring now—I do not have the confidence to negotiate such straits under sail because if you find you need the motor, there is no time if it won’t start at the first attempt. I don’t have the confidence with the sails to tack against the wind through a narrow channel. It is the sort of precision skill that dinghy sailors learn, but my one dinghy session with a training school a year before taught me that my knees were not up to dinghy sailing. I’ll be a Yogi before I try that again.
The tide was in my favour in Cardigan Bay, the crescent formed by the coast from Bardsey Island in the North to St. David’s Head, the south-west tip of Wales. But it was running against the wind, and that set up a short chop which bounced the outboard out of the water on my heading: I found myself tacking just to keep the prop wet – a disadvantage of outboards compared with a prop beneath the hull. Since I had to beat upwind, I thought I might as well do so under sail with a whole day ahead of me, but it did not work. With a bit of speed I should have made adequate progress over waves of about 1.5 metres, but the fetch was too short and the wind too light, and Elektra kept smacking the next peak on the down-pitch and losing her speed. By the time I had moved east of the tide and the sea smoothed out, the wind had fallen away. But it was a nice sunny day, with intermittent gusts when I would pull out the sails. I arrived at 5 p.m. with cloud taking the brightness off the afternoon and the wind now in the East, and noted that in twenty-four hours, it had swung around the compass, which simply meant that I was at the edge of changing pressure systems. I berthed with an evening to relax, but I was very tired, even the next morning. I had lost condition and felt the effects more than usual of a night with little sleep.
The circumnavigation was becoming a battle of attrition against unsuitable weather and poor sailing; not much fun. For a 7-day forecast, an American site called Grib is useful for the UK yachtsman, providing animated charts of low pressure systems spiralling across the Atlantic from Canada. I could see that a lot of trouble was on the way, no time for sight-seeing. All the ports are drying down to St David’s Head, or not good shelter. The best was Fishguard, a ferry port 50 miles away where I could moor in the outer harbour, but only a port of passage for yachts. Beyond that, the nearest protected harbour is Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, another 50 miles around St. David’s and St. Anne’s Heads to the south coast of Wales.
I spent my day in Aberystwyth doing some serious planning, and concluded from the tides and forecasts over 7 days that I ought to leave that very night to squeeze into Milford Haven before a series of stormy cyclones arrived. Unwelcome news. I wanted to loiter for a day or two, reading papers and dozing. Instead, still tired, I had to leave at 2 a.m., sail overnight to Fishguard, and set out again the next evening for Milford Haven on the following midday. A great disappointment. The Pembrokeshire coast is ruggedly magnetic to all whose memories of childhood beach holidays consist of exploring the rocks, pools and caves. The treeless cliff-tops wear a fine coat of turf and moss, and hide many inviting inlets. Immediately off St. David’s Head lies Ramsey Island, with exciting crannies, rocky arches over the water, sea caves and stone ruins, defended westward by the rocky archipelago of the ‘Bishops and Clerks’. St Anne’s Head has its own off-lying subordinates, the islands of Skomer, Skokholm and Grassholm, and between the two heads, St. Bride’s Bay holds a mix of shallow sandy beaches and rocky coves. I would not be able to enjoy any of it. There is a sound inside Ramsey Island navigable ‘with local knowledge’ as pilot books love to say (I thought I bought the book for local knowledge!), and from an anchorage in the bay, I could explore it in the dinghy; a tremendous summer holiday plan, but not in September with the jet stream bringing in cyclones.
I left as planned on the first 10-hour leg to Fishguard, labouring against the flood at the start, hugging the coast to catch any eddies on a smooth sea with light wind, then riding the ebb for six hours to harbour. It was a bright night and I had no difficulty confirming my position as I passed Aberaeron. A bright moon lifts the spirits of all creatures of the night, even those on solid food. I enjoyed the calm waters without another vessel in sight, alerted by lumpiness to the turning tide, until the sun rose behind me. It does not matter how often you see it or how spectacular it is or isn’t, the half hour of sunrise is a time of transcendence, as restoring as a morning shower. It brought a south-easterly with it, on my port beam, and with the sails out I made good speed, energetic sailing in a breeze broken up by the uneven landscape. It was enjoyable but not easy going, and I was glad to enter Fishguard early at 10:30 a.m., very weary.
After battling so many south-westerlies, I found myself with difficulty in the swell from an easterly wind in a port protected from every quarter except that one. Trying to tie to a ladder so that I could climb to the quay with lines, the swell was knocking Elektra against the uneven wall hard enough to threaten damage, and I had trouble getting my planks across some fenders to make a proper buffer. Close by was a dredger-like vessel that laid targets for military exercises in the off-shore firing range, and its sides were lined with rubber tyres. The crewmen invited me to tie to it, bringing out their smallest fenders which were almost as big as Elektra herself. It was a great help, and one of them kindly drove me to the supermarket to top up with petrol – I was keeping at least 150 miles-worth on board in case I got blown away. When I got back, the boat was bouncing uneasily off the large vessel, and one of the crew pointed out a mooring in the centre of the harbour as a better alternative, belonging to a trawler he knew to be absent. Even the short pick-up line was too thick to fit into Elektra’s fairleads, but tied to it she was able to float freely in comfort.
For the second leg, a midnight start against the tide would take me to the Bishops for the ebb at 5 a.m. It was bound to be hard to St. Anne’s Head with cross-currents just as at the end of the Lleyn peninsula. A broken-up sea-bed with overfalls was evident in the number of off-lying rocks and islands, but the ebb would run for 6 hours allowing me to take a wide course. The chart showed tidal races to avoid west of Skomer and Skokholm, and in the half-light of dawn there was no question of threading the Ramsey Sound and a rocky ledge called The Bitches, or the channels between Ramsey and the Bishops. I was going outside them all.
Another beautiful, windless night fell with the Milky Way sugaring the canopy. Moonrise was visible, the disk stretched into a large, unfamiliar shape by atmospheric refraction until it had risen 15° above the horizon. An hour out of Fishguard, turbulence slowed me around the Strumble Head, but my speed returned once past it despite frequent overfalls down to St. David’s Head. Dawn broke at 6 a.m. and a chilly south-easterly cropped up as the stream bent around North Bishop rock, and continued southwards around Ramsey. Under full sail, Elektra cut down past Skomer at a snappy pace. The swell climbed to four feet, but the wind remained firm and she cut through cleanly on a close reach. The current sweeps out of the bottom of St. Bride’s Bay across the Isle of Skomer creating turbulence as it rejoins the main stream; negligible compared with the cross-tides south-west of Skokholm, about two miles south of Skomer, where the westbound ebb from the Bristol Channel meets the south flow from the Irish Sea. South-west of Skokholm at 8 a.m., I turned east against the wind and ebb tide. My speed dropped, and fifteen minutes later, out of the lee of the island, with 5-foot waves coming at me from more than one direction, I was helming energetically to zig-zag the boat and maintain steering way. There were still two hours of ebb, the wind set to strengthen, so I turned up the revs but made barely 2 knots over the six remaining miles to the Milford Haven entrance, by which time the wind was at force 5, about 25 MPH. I might have left later to get a turn of the tide at this stage, but the current would have been against the wind, shortening the fetch and steepening the swell. There are times when a favourable tide is not favourable at all.
Milford Haven is a 10-mile stretch of water with a mile-wide entrance in the south Pembrokeshire coast, a perfect natural harbour. I turned north into it around the marker buoy, pulled out the jib and let out the boom. With the F5 wind on the starboard and on flat, protected water, Elektra flew up the entrance channel like a racer finally allowed her head. It only lasted fifteen minutes until I had to turn into the wind again for the last four miles within the Haven, but it cheered me up. The wind was whistling in my face gusting to F6. A large cutter tacking in front of me had so much sail up that she was heeling past 45° most of the time, doubtless side-slipping a lot and making by my estimate barely 65° to the wind, an object lesson on how not to do it. Watching him make slow progress, I was tempted to try my hand against a strong wind by reefing the mainsail hard, hauling the jib in tight and hardening the backstay. However, there are buoys everywhere, large ships at anchor, long piers and staging where tankers pump off their cargoes, some shallows, not to mention other boats and yachts, and I did not have a spotter on board. I had been sailing for 14 hours after a 10-hour night sail into Fishguard with little rest in between, still tired after a similar journey from Caernarfon to Aberystwyth. I knew that I was a little euphoric, not thinking clearly, and prudence won over valour: I stayed on the motor.
Careful reading of the almanac revealed that the Milford town marina lock had its own VHF channel rather than the general Haven channel. Try as I might I could not raise the lock keeper on it, so I simply entered the lock, only to find him gesticulating angrily from the pier-head. I received shouted instructions to switch to the general VHF channel, berthed where he told me and walked back to the office to register, put out to have followed the rules to no avail. The channel had caused too much confusion with people not reading carefully, and had been abolished seven years before, but notices to update the almanac had not had any effect. I had conscientiously re-checked the almanac when I could not get an answer but never thought to try the general channel, an almost autistic lack of mental flexibility indicating a tired mind. Worse, I had not observed the giant notice painted on the end of the lock pier, legible from hundreds of metres away, stating which VHF channel to call before entering. You can keep going with familiar routines in growing fatigue, while your mind resigns more and more from the effort of extraneous input, until you can barely notice the unexpected, or project cause and effect beyond your own nose; but you will be lucky if you do no more than bump it as a result.
I would have time to recover. The storms arrived one after another, locking me up for two whole weeks. I needed a long window for the journey across the Bristol Channel to Cornwall, and thence the south coast, the last leg of the circumnavigation.
Next week: The Bristol Channel and Lands End to Newlyn
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
- Newton Ferrers (to visit friends)
- West Bay (Bridport)
- Yarmouth (Isle of Wight)
(From there back to Gosport)