Swansea to Eddystone and back, alone.
Single handed sailing is not for everyone. For me, it fills a need to be self-sufficient. Being alone on a boat at sea is undoubtedly a hazardous past time. All very well when all is going well, but .. Be warned.
Preparing for the trip was a pleasure. Much of sailing is in the preparation and planning. Deciding a route is foremost. Timings with respect to tides come next. I do this with certain knowledge that a wind in the wrong direction will blow my planning apart, so plans can take on a weird absence of reality.
Modern technology has given all of us the foresight of weather to come. A five day horizon is quite realistic now. Plugging away on the internet, I could see weather system upon weather system piling in on the weather map. I nervously watched all this data arrive, was it going to be feasible to run the Devon and Cornish coast alone for 24 hours?
To be honest, I chickened out at the last minute. On the weather map, I saw a low coming in. The butterflies in my stomach got the better of me. I called it off. Not for long though. My partner challenged me. Man or mouse was the question. Well, if I looked more carefully at the weather forecast, the front was fairly weak, and with a modicum of luck, I would be in a safe port before it arrived.
My voyage from Swansea to Falmouth passed through several problem areas. Firstly, was the 120 miles to Lands End. Once embarked on that journey, 24 hours duration, I was committed. Padstow was a possible port of refuge, but not in bad weather. Then there is Lands End, a focal point for the world's grumpy seas. Following Lands End the Lizzard has a better than average chance of being a tricky bit of sea with its overfalls and strong currents.
At times I wondered what the hell was I doing? Was I learning to run before I walked? To sail the course with a crew would have been an achievement enough
The night before departure, I slept on the boat. Up at six, through a free-flow at seven. Eilidh motored across the Bristol Channel at six knots, in calm seas and windless skies. Padstow was abeam by seven in the evening. By now I was feeling a little weary. I took a ten-minute sleep. This was enough to keep me going for a while. Lobster pots kept my concentration up. By five o'clock, I had spoken to Joan on the mobile phone. The telephones usefulness was limited to several spots around the coast, off Bude was one of them. My morale was boosted.
Darkness began when the sun set at 21:17. The marine twilight lasted for many hours. I was constantly looking out for leading lights. Padstow, Newquay, Godvery Island were ticked off. Several trawlers were fishing ahead of me, enough to stop me having a sleep. They zigzagged across my course, I suspected they were several miles ahead, and eventually I succumbed to a ten minute sleep. Pendeen Light showed, at last I was near the tricky bit. Lands End was part of the trip I was not looking forward to. But the seas were calm and oily. I had reefed the main, just in case. As it was the wind was negligible. Tiredness was beginning to creep in. My morale dipped. I asked myself what was I doing here. I was dozing in an uncomfortable place, not daring to sleep properly, half of me on constant alert, the other half very tired.
Morning came early at five o'clock. There was some traffic around, I was overtaken by a small freighter. The fishing boats seemed to disappear. I could see Longships several miles off. Another freighter came towards me, passing the Longships quite closely. A ten minute sleep, breakfast, coffee, and the sun arose. Bloody marvellous, it was all worth it. The world was calm, I felt refreshed by the gentle sea breeze. A basking shark nearly collided with the boat, a huge bank of cloud hung on the sea several miles ahead.
Longships at dawn
Past the Longships, past Lands End, turned into Mounts Bay, heading for the Lizzard. Lots of shipping was streaming past, and now the occasional yacht. Soon it was midday, and I was within a mile or two of the Lizzard. Lots of yachts were taking what seemed to be an inner passage, so I followed suit. The sea was so calm, just light airs. As I passed the Lizzard, I could see the upwellings from the rocks below, the sea was calm, as if sleeping. A note was made to avoid such a place in any tricky weather. More basking sharks were trawling for plankton, whow, what a privilege to see this different world so closely.
A moment of excitement. A German yacht, Jasmus, was ahead of me. I put up my genoa. He did the same. In the very light winds, we race for a couple of miles. He called me on the radio, but before I could answer, a patrol vessel hailed him. It launched an inflatable with several marines. They boarded him, and I stole past, feeling slightly guilty. What would they think of us, hardly a welcome to our shores?
Manacles came into sight. Sailed into Falmouth Bay, with the certain knowledge that my ordeal would be soon over. Into the Falmouth harbour, past St Mawes, Mylor, intrigued by the huge change of depths as I criss-crossed the main channel. Up the river, passed the haunted ocean going ships, up to Bar Creek, my first destination. At six in the evening, Joan was waving to me, as I turned the corner into Tresilian creek. She had rented a cottage on the waterfront. My first thirty-six hour voyage was over.
I had made it. I felt good. A sound nights sleep, and all was well again
We spent a week in the cottage. Eilidh was only used once, to sail to Helston. We had lunch and then sailed back to Bar Creek.
View of Bar Creek from our holiday cottage
The week in the cottage was soon over. I had to make plans. I wanted to visit Fowey, and possibly the Eddystone. The Scillies Isles had been on my places to visit for several years.
I set off from Bar creek with a brisk wind. I had to hurry to catch the fuel barge before it closed. As it happened, the barge now stayed open all day on Saturday. Then sails up, out to St Anthony Head, and a spirited sail towards Dodman Point. The prospect of the week was exciting. I was about to achieve some personnel goals. The journey to Fowey provided several thrilling moments, with winds up to f5.
The entrance to Fowey harbour was difficult to see from the sea (!), but a persistent procession of boats going showed where the harbour entrance was. I soon had my sail down, and motored into Fowey harbour. I toured the harbour, looking for a mooring, it was full up! I spoke to the harbour master on the radio. He guided me to a mooring where I could raft up to another sailing boat. Having moored up alongside him, I relaxed, listening to the weather forecast.
Sail Training vessel Leader leaving Fowey harbour
A gale was due, in the next twenty-four hours. A f7 was approaching. I was glad to have a secure mooring for the next couple of days. My partner on the mooring made his decision to run for Plymouth the next day. On the Sunday morning, I helped to caste him off, and wished him a safe journey. Sunday was hot, and a nice gentle wind cooled the boats swinging in the deep harbour.
The gale raged for a day. I stayed on in Fowey for three nights. I carried out repairs on an old engine problem, visited several pubs, and bought provisions for the forthcoming passage. Soon I wanted to be off. I had several hours to work out a passage plan for the next day.
The next morning, I left Fowey bound for the Eddystone. As a Bass fisherman of old, the Eddystone was a Mecca. The wind was behind me. I had a terrific sail for several hours. I passed over the Hands Deep shoal, the echo sounder never registering less than 50 metres. A small fishing boat was anchored in the western reach on the lighthouse. By the time I got the genoa down, I was passed the Eddystone. The working jib was hoisted, as Eilidh and I faced into a f4, on passage to the Scillies.
For several hours the wind was on the nose. As darkness fell, the wind calmed enough for me to cook a meal, a bag of rice and a sauce, enough to feed me for the next twelve hours. A lobster buoy missed me by five yards startling me. It shook my confidence. I stayed awake for several hours. Off the Lizzard, I was able to call Joan on the mobile. She had told me to call anytime. Two o'clock in the morning fitted that bill, and she did not seem to mind. I felt much better for the contact.
As time went by, I saw and missed several fishing boats. They seemed to be speaking Spanish, though all I could make out was a series of grunts, made with the gravely voice of Lee Marvin. The controller from Ocean Control dominated the VHF. He would speak in statako, a deluge of words, which when understood were his call sign. When heard for the first time, it was quite amusing. Second and third time, it was mildly irritating. After that the jangle of words grated like fingernails being dragged across a blackboard. As the day began, there were few a ships and fishing boats in sight. Lee Marvin was trawling across my bows. I called him on the VHF to ask if it was safe to cross his stern. No answer. Too busy I guess!
I turned the radio off. Now, all was quiet, I was enjoying then sail. There was a gentle swell, rising to six feet or so. I saw a pair of small sharks, probably Tope. The surface of the sea was oily. All I could see was acres and acres of water. But I was being selfish. I switched the wretched VHF back on, and continued my radio watch. For the next few hours, I listened to Channel 16, to all the foreign chatter, to weather forecasts from the coast guards at Falmouth, Brixham and Swansea!
At last the Scillies were in sight. A tack to the northeast put Eilidh in position to sail into the St Mary's Sound. As I sailed close to Porth Cressa, I dropped the sails, and followed the pilot instructions into St Mary's. I caught a mooring buoy, in St Mary's Pool, amid a navy of posh sailing boats. I was definitely a poor relation. Eilidh's 25 years was apparent. Never mind, at least I spoke the language. I was soon cooking a meal, and relaxing. After the meal, I fell asleep. Several hours later, I was ready to go ashore to pay my dues to the Royal Duchy of Cornwall. I made a phone call to Joan. She was relieved that I had arrived safely. Hugh Town had a Co-op! Home from home. Provisions were bought, a pint was had, then back to Eilidh. An early night called for.
St Mary's Pool
What a beautiful collection of islands the Scillies are. The white sand beaches, the blue sea, and the green islands calmly whispered Paradise. I spent two days there, walking St Marys, and relaxing in the sun.
But soon, I had to go. The holiday was nearing an end. Back to reality. Weather forecast was safe, light wind, calm seas. I expected the trip back to Swansea would take some 30 hours. So an early morning departure was planned.
St Mary at dusk
At six am the next day, the mooring rope was untied. We were off. The sea was calm, and there was no wind. There was slight cloud cover, but the day was beautiful. The boat and I motored out into St Mary's sound. Once clear of that we headed towards the Seven Stone lighthouse. Within an hour, three aeroplanes, and one helicopter had landed and taken off from the aerodrome. And I thought that I had started early!
I saw a huge basking shark swimming across my bows. The autopilot, as if having a death wish, steered towards the shark, now only a few feet in front of Eilidh. It turned away, just in time. For a brief second, I saw the shark on the beam of the boat, its huge mouth agape, sieving plankton, then it was gone.
The hours passed. The VHF was once again squawking a crescendo of noise. A light breeze sprung up, Eilidh and I motor sailed towards home.
The GPS counted the distance down to Swansea. With the tide against, we only reduced the distance by 3.5nm. With the tide with us, the distance shot down by 6.5nm. A yacht crossed my stern a couple of miles away. He later turned, and headed back to shore. Once again, lobster pots were abundant, ensuring my constant attention.
At 20:56, the sun set. Several coasters passed me by. They would soon be home. The darkness came, the voyage was hard work motoring up the Cornish coast. The miles went by very slowly. Off Bude, the mobile worked again and a call home broke the monotony.
With the morning, came a grey cover of cloud. The Bristol Channel did not look very welcoming. Lundy and Hartland now came into sight. With a foul tide, it seemed to take ages before any progress was made. Bull point and its light looked far away. It was cool, and I was very tired. I had several 10 minute dozes to try to revive myself. A wash, and breakfast got me working again.
Once again the VHF was being a nuisance. Half way across the channel, someone was whistling continuously on channel 16. This went on for at least a couple of hours. To avoid this cacophony, I tuned into channel 67.
Swansea came into sight. I past the Ledge buoy, and the Swigg. The wind at last decided to blow, and a f4 took me the last couple of miles. Its always the way is it not!
Inevitably, I had to wait for the barrage lock to open, then it was back to the berth, tidy the boat up, and off for a quick pint. I was glad that journey was over. It had been very hard work.
During the fortnight, Eilidh and I had sailed some 482nm. Three of the trips took over 30 hours of continuous sailing. I found that I was able to cope with this period of time without sound sleep. Several 10-minute catnaps were enough to see me through. There were times in the middle of the night when morale dipped. I found that I was able to draw on an inner strength to cope with these fairly short periods. I was very fortunate in not having any serious crisis to cope with. Would I do it again?