Jonathan Footerman takes his longest leg at sea yet, on his quest to circumnavigate the UK on a mini-yacht.
(Author’s Note: 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.)
Nobody wants to be cornered by a bore. An infamous one runs up the Severn at the eastern corner of the Bristol Channel if the range exceeds 26 foot at the Bridge; which probably needs some explanation (not to be a bore).
I was cornered by the weather in Milford Haven on the Pembrokeshire coast, a bore after sailing solo around three-quarters of the UK mainland. It is inland water on the north side of the Bristol Channel entered a few miles east of St. Anne’s Head. I was waiting for a weather window for the longest journey of my circumnavigation, to Cornwall, but I would have liked to sail east. There is a lot of beautiful coastline on the way to Bristol, ports like Swansea and Cardiff and pretty spots on the south side, and I like to photograph great bridges from underneath. The problem is the second highest tidal range in the world, up to 48 foot in the Bristol Channel. Tidal range is the difference between high and low tide height, greatest at new or a full moon and known as ‘springs’. The range, as high as a 3-storey house, indicates the quantity of water funnelling into the Bristol Channel. When the ebb has ended at the Atlantic, the tide is still falling at the Severn River Bridge end. So when the flood arrives near the bridge, the rise is so sudden that a man walking on the wet sands beneath can be knocked off his feet and washed up river. That is how to get cornered by a deadly bore, the wave which leads the spring tide up the Severn.
In the main channel, the tide creates shifting sandbanks, and necessity mothered the invention of the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter in the 19th Century, accredited by a contemporary global sailor, Tom Cunliffe, as the best-designed sailing boat of the wind-power era. Typically over 40-foot long, it was light enough for two people to handle, capable of sailing in any weather, and very fast for the race to be first at the client ship. With flaxen sails for strength in winter but cotton in the summer, it could make 10 knots. Unfortunately, Elektra is only half the length, and inexorable mathematics relates the maximum speed to the length of hull in the water. So Elektra will not exceed 5 knots, inadequate to beat the Bristol Channel tides. The difficulty is coming out. On the Devon and Cornish coasts, ports dry below half tide. The 40 or 50 miles between them is more than Elektra can make between tides, and without a spot to anchor, she will be swept back towards her starting point. Small yachts do not go east of Lundy, an island about 40 miles south-east of Milford Haven. I could make for Padstow, a pretty destination 80 miles south with a small marina mostly full due to the lack of alternatives, a risky option after 20 hours sailing. Ilfracombe is a drying port 60 miles away, east of Lundy: I would have another 60 mile sail to Padstow, with the same risk. The anchorage in the Barnstaple estuary half the distance from Padstow but I would have to stay aboard or get the dinghy out. Putting it all together, I thought I might do better to continue without a break around Lands End to Penzance, where Newlyn and Mousehole (pronounced Mowzel) lie very near – no lack of berths and it would save days. It was over 120 miles, up to 36 hours, but not necessarily more tiring than other overnighters since I try to stay up until the following evening. It depended on how long a break in the weather I would get: I was not going to risk the rocks of Lands End in stormy conditions. Despite tuneful assurances from Mandel and Altman, suicide ain’t that painless.
Arriving in Milford Haven on 4th September, I planned to go three days later but had to abandon it. The days became a week, and then another as cyclone after cyclone brought in gale-force winds. A promising gap loomed at the end of the first week and an experienced skipper and crewman bound for La Coruña in a 33-footer decided to try. After three days, he was back looking beaten up: never had a moment of calm from the instant he left. And that was what I feared. It was very windy off shore and the sea never settled; just as it was in Dover at the same season the year before. For such a long journey, I had an eye to the swell. Averse to many hours in the sort of sea I met south of Skokholm, I was even more concerned that if my average four knots was reduced by the surface state, the journey could very easily extend by 8 hours and put me in the way of the next storm. I needed calm for twelve hours before setting off to allow the swell to drop, and ideally a margin at the end in case of a low average speed. But gauging the surface conditions was difficult from the protected water of the Haven.
My time was not completely wasted. I discovered the beautiful Pembrokeshire coastal walk, and found myself climbing the steps up the cliff face behind the marina to lawyers in order to sell myself my own property. In London I have an upstairs maisonette (realtors’ idiotology for an apartment with its own street door), the land title co-owned with the downstairs occupants who decided to sell while I was away. Until recently, no legal mechanism existed to share title in England. Properties were split by Emphyteusis, Roman law doubtless brought by the Normans a thousand years ago. Wikipedia defines it as the ‘disbursement of a usus, fructus, and abusus to an emphyteutic lessee’, at least four words of which the spell-checker does not recognise, and ‘akin to a system of serfdom’. The lessee buys the property for 99 years and pays upkeep, improvement and a nominal ground rent, but it reverts to the seller (historically aristocratic) in year 100, enabling his family to re-sell it every generation or two. A ludicrous implementation of new laws for sharing meant that I had to sign the transfer of the title from myself-and-X to myself-and-Y. Clearly time well spent. I am surprised I did not have to sign for receipt of the property, and certify that I was genuinely me.
Back at sea level, a nondescript brown bird like the lawyer was nesting in the wall near the boat, and caught my attention by its unusual behaviour and flighty shyness. It was a rock pipit, a first for my list, attracted to holes in the dressed stone of the sea wall. It seemed to be the only one to have discovered the maisonette opportunity, conceivably a bird realtor and probably lonely. Gavin Maxwell was content to flee his species and befriend otters, but I decided that a rock pipit was pushing the limits, and I had better spend more time in the pub.
A weather window finally appeared but I had to leave a day early to avoid lock repairs, picking up a buoy in Dale by the Haven entrance. Much of the petroleum imported into the UK is pumped off in Milford Haven. As I left, the VHF was announcing the arrival of a large, deep-draft tanker, and a pilot came by to tell me which side of the water to stay on. The tanker advanced at funereal pace with a tug at the front, another at the back, a third on standby, and a flotilla of green pilot vessel outriders. It reminded me of a cortège I saw advancing down Chiswick High Street as if to bury the old Queen Mary, a top-hatted stroller leading with a silver-capped black cane, and an ornate coffin which cost about the same as the tanker cargo. The tug’s funnel looked like the hat, but missing from the tanker was a wreath on the side spelling out ‘Dad’, or perhaps ‘Gulf Oil’, in white roses.
Dale is tucked into some high ground. I tied to a buoy well in under its shadow, and cooked up a large stew to re-heat the following evening on the water. A thermos would not keep it hot enough, so I would have to use the stove at sea. I left it in the saucepan, taped the lid on and taped the pan into a plastic bag since it might easily end up on the floor during the sail (where I put it when I set off). In the darkening twilight, I ate a portion in the cockpit. It was a mild evening with the barometer up, the land looming blackly 100 yards to the South, and I lingered until it was too dark to move around without a torch. A line of tiny green and red lights snaked slowly into the anchorage like coloured candles on paper boats. They passed close by, sea-kayaks in convoy with port and starboard LEDs, their paddles too quiet to disturb the silence as they arrived but their voices clear as chimes in the night air as they began a roll call, announcing themselves from one to twelve to ensure that everyone was present. I was impressed.
The sun did not breast the high ground until 7:30 a.m., by which time a vigorous, splashy morning rise of fish was over. I could not make out what they were sucking from the shadowed surface, but soon the terns were squealing in excitement and diving all around the boat. It only lasted for ten minutes, but it was nature ‘red in beak and craw’. One tern settled in my cockpit, imperturbably watching me as I cleared breakfast away in the cabin, probably in hope of a crust for a sandwich with the fish he had just gobbled up.
I decided to make for Newlyn. Once out of the entrance, it was 105 miles on a bearing of 193° to a waypoint north of St. Ives on the neck of Lands End, over 26 hours during which the cross-tide would switch four times and cancel out. Three quarters of the way down, I would be swinging into a south-westerly ebb and get a shunt. Two and a half hours to the Longships rocks off Lands End, and the same around the bottom inside the Runnel Stone Lighthouse to Carn Du, made a journey of about thirty hours. My stomach felt queasy as I cast off at 8 a.m., whether due to nervousness or two weeks on land I cannot tell. I had taken extra care with the food since a gippy tummy on such a trip is worse than inconvenient. Once again the VHF was issuing warnings, this time to stay clear of a coastal firing range. I had a visit from the rangers’ boat to make sure I knew where to go, but my route across the extreme western corner went twenty miles east of the action. It is remarkable how many boats sail without listening in on VHF, or without charts, or without looking at them or taking note, or checking up on the schedules with the coastguard or the rangers. For hours I heard calls to vessels heading straight through the danger area. I don’t know why the coastguard bothers. A shell a few hundred metres off or a round through the sails and it is miraculous how quickly the airwaves would fill with requests for directions.
For journeys along the coast, it seemed superfluous to register my departure and ETA with the coastguard. This time, I checked in and took instructions to contact Falmouth when I arrived. It was sunny weather, with less than four foot of swell and a force 3 behind me on the starboard quarter, a little west of north. It carried a chill, and without the shelter of the spray hood, I doubled up on tee-shirts. At 9 a.m., I was making four knots on the jib alone. The mainsail stabilises, but it overshadows the jib with the wind behind. Without it I could hold my course; whereas deploying it, I would sail 10° further off the wind and gybe. The rolling made my early queasiness worse in the cabin, so I stayed in the cockpit well wrapped up until it disappeared after an early lunch and some hot drinks. Had the mast-head block been in better condition, it would have been a great day to hoist the cruising chute, and I would likely have shaved some hours off the journey time. Perhaps I should have risked it. Most of the leg was under sail, the motor supplementing periods of low wind or on tick-over to keep the battery topped up: the roll made the auto-helm work hard, but I needed a full charge for navigation lights and so on overnight.
A large pod of Common Dolphins joined me and stayed until mid-day, leaving to feed on fish shoals that I could spot from the sea-bird activity, then returning to have another game with the boat. There were a lot of mother-and-child pairs, swimming close up to each other. They would surf inside the wave crests as they came up behind the boat, and at times a wave would disgorge four dolphins swimming in sync. But I never felt the lightest touch to the boat. I like watching them, but I knew that the stream around the hull was the attraction; I was just the non-swimmer stuck on top.
The swell lengthened in deeper water, and at midday when wind swung west, I pulled out the main to get a few hours of fast, comfortable sailing. By 4 p.m. the wind was back in the North and light, and the swell grew to over five feet but with a fetch long enough not to be menacing. From time to time, Elektra would slide off the back of a steeper wave and twist off course, and I would have to get on the tiller until the sea settled down again. The tide was not turning, and I studied the surface to work it out. The main swell was from the northerly wind and Irish Sea to the northwest, with another from the Atlantic. The westerly component would grow from time to time and create a criss-cross with the main swell for a stretch. It was probably due to channelling between sand banks.
The wind faltered in the early evening, and I had to run the motor at higher revs. The clear day was drawing to an end with a starry night, but not cold. There was shipping out after the gales, so I kept a strict look-out. Cruisers and cargo vessels present no problem going point to point, but trawlers go back and forth unpredictably, with the customary escort of sea-birds. A Fulmar flew over, another first for me. Like a gull at first glance, it is a type of petrel, ocean birds not often seen near the land, with a different flight and behavioural pattern. It made a graceful sweep around the boat like a WWII troop spotter, to see if she was the kind which left a trail of fish bits, giving me a perfect view of its markings, and then flew off in disgust. I was logging every event and an hourly position, and checking every twenty minutes for other vessels. Later, I warmed up my stew and began to eat it after noting two distant trawlers. Half-way through I came up to check and they were still far off, and I went back to finish my meal, but on the last mouthful I leapt out of the cabin as light flooded in from one of the trawlers which had come straight at me in less than fifteen minutes and now lay very close off my stern. I suspect they did it in mischief!
Even after the moon went down, the night was bright. At 4 a.m. I was 12 miles north of St.Ives with the lights of Newquay on my port beam, on the lookout for a charted wave recorder. It had been moved elsewhere, but nearby was a brightly lit marine exploration platform. I watched it for about forty minutes from the cockpit because there was a lot of shipping about, so I was sure of Elektra’s position when the plotter suddenly began to describe a strange track, three 90° turns to port for a few hundred yards then a slow curve back on course. I knew it was not the boat, and it threw a different light on the U-turn near the Calf of Man. I have no idea if it is a bug, or due to external factors relating to the GPS system. I have since discovered that signal jammers can be purchased for the price of a USB memory dongle to plug into a 12V socket. In trials off Flamborough Head (by Bridlington), a boat GPS showed it travelling ten miles inland at aeroplane speeds. Perhaps a submarine caused it – we always suspect them just because we cannot see them. It used to be the Russians, but they have probably sold the technology to China, whose machines work in unexpected ways. I once had a very effective Chinese alarm clock which wound up anti-clockwise. The low pressure cyclones that spiral across the Atlantic spin anti-clockwise. Everything in this hemisphere goes anti-clockwise except the clocks, and of course road traffic on British roundabouts (gyratory intersections). Perhaps the Chinese have got it right.
At 5:40 a.m., I was ahead of schedule at St. Ives, 5 miles across the land from Penzance but 35 for me around Lands End. The wind was very light, the sea was smooth, the swell from the North had virtually disappeared leaving a barely perceptible roll from the West, and a clear dawn was on the way. A strong current helped me and I turned south around the rocks off Cape Cornwall just before the sun rose over the land, motoring on around Land’s End on a glassy sea at low water, with the mist still hanging on the rocks. I could not have hoped for a softer passage, and I snapped away with the camera as I passed inside the Longships rocks at a safe distance from the Armoured Knight rock on the coast. Now ahead of plan and the turn of the tide, I made slow speed to the Runnel Stone, but I arrived in Newlyn at 11 a.m. after 27 hours, calling Falmouth coastguard as I entered the Bay of Penzance.
To announce its arrival, the propeller picked up some rope and weed, but it did not spoil my pleasure to be at the start of the last and in some ways prettiest leg of the trip, the south-west coast. The weather would no longer stop me because there was plenty of shelter by which I could work my way home. I could relax and enjoy it.
Next week: Food and Water from Newlyn to Falmouth
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)