Jonathan Footerman is skippering a 21-foot mini-yacht solo around the UK. And it’s the most dangerous, exhausting and near-disastrous thing he has ever done.
(Taken from the eighth chapter of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman. Read more of Jonathon’s journey in The Rising Tide: Part One, Part Two and Part Three.)
US Admiral Hyman Rickover presented a plaque to JFK which ornamented the Oval office and is now in the JFK museum: “O God, Thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small,” from a Breton Fishermen’s prayer recited as they passed the Point du Raz at the tip of Brittany, bound for the Atlantic. The words often ran through my mind when the water was unbroken to the horizon, or when high seas made me feel like a punch-bag as I skippered Elektra, a 21-foot mini-yacht, solo around the UK. (Helming the US ship of state around the Bay of Pigs must have felt much the same.) The boat was damaged crossing the Thames to the Essex coast, and was lifted out of the Colne estuary for fibreglass work over the long winter of 2009-10. The estuary is the muddy home to one of the world’s most expensive species of oyster, round and smooth-shelled. Examples stick out at low tide but nobody helps themselves, accustomed like me to their ancient role of hunter-gatherers only behind a supermarket trolley. As I used one to provision the boat in May 2010, I was given a framed print of the Breton prayer which adorned the little boat all the way round, the ink fading away as the journey ended. Perhaps it will reappear if the boat is sailed the other way, who knows?
For 130 miles from the Colne Estuary, the coast curves smoothly around the bulge of East Anglia to the Wash, an inlet about 10 miles wide which I would ignore, continuing another 35 miles up the Lincolnshire coast to make Grimsby in the Humber Estuary in about a week, I hoped. Soon after I set sail, a current swept Elektra to the outside of the Gunfleet Sands wind farm, adding 60 minutes to my journey. Irritated at my failure to spot it in time, I crossed back tentatively between the wind-vanes in about 8 foot of water, where the boat was suddenly tagged by an inner current that added 3 knots to her speed and swept her well ahead of schedule to Felixstowe. It is Britain’s largest container port, and since I had time in hand before the tide would prevent further progress, I continued to a pretty, protected anchorage in the mouth of the Deben River where there is reputedly a great fish and chip shop. I tied up to a buoy, but the evening was so idyllic I could not bring myself to leave the cockpit. The twilight greyed gently from lilac and blue to charcoal as the star-shine grew brilliant on the water, disturbed only by the occasional inflatable retracing its erratic path from the pub to its mother-ship at anchor. I sat out for a long time in those soft evening colours, until a night chill finally drove me to my berth beneath the cockpit.
Suffolk land barely rises above sea level at the coast. ‘Longshore drift’ topples houses into the sea in some places and builds spits in others like Orford Ness: 10 miles of shingle bank separated from the mainland by the river Alde. From Elektra’s cockpit, it was a low, featureless, pebbly profile against the sky, broken here and there by incomprehensible structures: Ministry of Defence devices from the early days of radar and nuclear research which are strewn along it like the toys of an alien child. Another weird landscape after the giants of the Thames Estuary. But I had no time to photograph it. One mechanical problem followed another as the boat settled down after the work-free winter, ending with the sudden loss of the tiller. The boatyard had reassembled it after repairing the rudder housing, but a large brass bolt in the tiller handle failed to grip the rudder stock. Mere spanners were inadequate to the task. I put the force of outsized adjustable pliers onto it and it has not budged since: if you decide to be self-sufficient, take the tools with you.
I was heading for Lowestoft at the most easterly point of East Anglia, but stopped 12 miles short at Southwold, a charming town with a quality of light that has attracted artists such as Turner since the nineteenth century. In a designated area of outstanding natural beauty, it was listed in the Doomsday book a thousand years ago, and was the point of departure in the 17th Century of puritans under the Rev. Young bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Yachts can tie up in the Blythe River down which the ebb-tide blasts at a speed that Elektra cannot oppose, along a straight mile into the sea–I entered on a rising tide. The banks are full of boats, nets, baskets, trailers, crates, rope and chain, wooden fishermen’s sheds, chandlers’ dens, and huts selling fish and succulent samphire harvested wild in the salt marshes. The buzz of activity and the can-do atmosphere attract tourists like a miniature Cannery Row. As I walked onward to the sea, skylarks sang above the fields in one ear and scavenging gulls squawked above the river in the other. On the beach, in English holiday tradition, children in swim-wear splashed and squealed in water as cold as their ice-creams, while their parents sat bundled up on a bright day against the wind.
The river is lined with wooden staging over wide muddy banks. Heavy ropes anchored ashore run down through the mud and slime, with steel loops whipped into the loose ends and hung strategically on the staging for mooring boats to pick up–the ropes will hold them securely against the stanchions even with the river in flood. Unfortunately, a trio of luxury motor launches ignored them. Their own lines were strung along the staging awkwardly criss-crossing Elektra’s cockpit when I returned, and one had looped under the outboard and was hoisting up the stern as the tide fell, about to rip the motor from the transom. None of the crew drinking on board three yards away had noticed–they had to be interrupted to re-tie their lines with ill grace. I caught the early tide and tacked satisfyingly up-wind to Lowestoft, but as I entered the port, the three shot close past me, indifferent to the effect of their bow waves, to raft up where the harbour-master had just directed me on the VHF. He found me another berth, but I cannot be the first yachtsman to wish that those with little interest in the sea or in others on it would stay ashore.
I blogged that “…all my joints seem to be hurting at the moment, and my hands are so stiff it is lucky I am typing this.” I was adjusting after an idle winter, like the boat. In trepidation, I faced a 65 mile trip to Wells, near the Wash, with no practical shelter in between: 13 hours if I could sustain an optimistic 4-knot average (which I had never made without motoring–I carried fuel for double the distance). Wells is a mile up a winding river full of moored boats, which I would be mad to try to navigate for the first time in the dark. So I studied the tides and left at 4:30 p.m. intending to arrive at dawn. I need not have worried, it was a fabulous sail, the best of the circumnavigation. On a clear, cool night, the moon rose at 1 a.m. and the sun at 4 a.m., and I had the sea to myself but for the occasional invisible dolphin, betrayed by a whisper of breath and a phosphorescent line fading in the water. An on-shore wind put me on a fast ‘beam reach’ northwards, and as I curved west over the top of Norfolk, it veered to the south and gathered to a brisk 20 MPH. Elektra flew along like a thoroughbred, the water under her hull a thrilling hiss in the crystalline night air, rarely interrupted by the buzz of the auto-helm as she held her line under balanced sails. She brought me to the river entrance shortly after 5 a.m., 3 hours too early since I would not try to enter without the Harbour Master on a low and falling tide. I hove to at the safe water mark, allowed the boat to drift away from it for 25 minutes while I made a cup of coffee, sailed back and repeated the process a few times, making breakfast and practising manoeuvres in the morning calm until the HM came down and led me in.
Writing my log on the deck of an old cutter moored as a floating bar, terns were diving for sand-eels on one side while excited children on the other lowered muslin bags of bacon bits from the quay, to pull back up with crabs attached. The crabs went back into the water further down (if they were lucky), but seemed to like to humour the kids by sidling back for another go. After a delightful dinner with a generous family from Ireland on the neighbouring yacht, I studied the tides and forecast for another 60 mile trip to Grimsby, to begin the next afternoon. A bilge-keeled boat (two keels) can settle on the sand, but my fin-keeled Corribee had nowhere to stop along the unbroken Lincolnshire coast before the Humber Estuary. It is an easy route to plan: head north by north-west directly out to sea, and keep going into the blue yonder. Eventually land reappears to port, and whilst there is no glory in navigating precisely to your destination with a GPS chart-plotter, there is satisfaction as the buoy appears in the binoculars right on time. Although it was windless as I motored off, it did not remain so and I was happy to be able cover the last part on the sails without the outboard. Once again, I was alone on an unbroken seascape, but only in port did I feel the need for company, disappointed if there were no gregarious souls to be found. In the cockpit, there is quiet pleasure in possessing the water as far as the eye can see. You only hold a short lease liable to be rescinded without notice, but when conditions allow, you can sip your tea and dwell in the lengthening moment, enjoying the light, smelling the breeze, and reflecting as deeply or lightly as the mood inclines you.
I arrived at Grimsby in the early hours, unconcerned about navigating at night in a famous port, and the difficulty was only to distinguish the correct harbour markers from the myriad of other shore lights, without being misdirected by red and green road traffic lights. It is a great old port that died with the North Sea fishing industry when the UK joined the Common Market and lost control of her coastal waters. I found the lock into the Fish Dock, one of several docks for different industries, and passed through into an inner basin which shelters the marina. Half a dozen fishing boats were eclipsed in the vast outer basin that once served a thousand trawlers, and the entire area is a dismal wreckage of old wharves and crumbling infrastructure, a testament to the cultural and commercial costs of the EU. I was a child of the 1950s when fishmongers on every high street brimmed with herring and haddock, far cheaper than a chicken. The few tiny herring I now see should have been thrown back in, and the succulent breakfast kipper of memory has yielded to the dry fillet with a knob of butter in a plastic packet. But the marina is a bright spot, built by the physical efforts of its club members who are justifiably proud of it. A few arrived as I was investigating the silent club-house the next day, and with a telephone call it was opened and we enjoyed a pint together.
Friendly as the Humber Cruising Association members were, they could not help me with the fog. Trapped for two more days, I could measure its depth by the lock out of sight across the outer basin, and the large horns sounding in the Humber. In the end, I decided to take advantage of a short clear period to get to an anchorage at the Humber mouth, from where I could leave on an early morning tide for the last of three 60-mile journeys in succession, this one to Bridlington in Yorkshire. Once out of the busy Humber, I had little to fear from fog. That did not go for the other elements. It would be the most dangerous, exhausting and near-disastrous journey I have ever made.