Spring 2019 – the first leg

Wednesday 27 March – Wednesday 3 April: Gosport to Plymouth

Overnight stops in Beaulieu River, Keyhaven, Poole (2), Weymouth, Brixham (2); total mileage 165

Our latest start date yet for the new season’s cruising, we finally departed Royal Clarence Marina in Gosport, Portsmouth Harbour at 1430 on Wednesday afternoon.  We decided to make a series of shortish day sails to Plymouth, to give us a chance to check everything is back where it should be, and to allow us to acclimatise to the cold and find our sea legs.

With high pressure and no wind, we motored sedately up the Solent, recognising all the familiar landmarks, and enjoying the lift of a favourable tide.  Past Cowes we slipped into the mouth of the Beaulieu River, and dropped anchor in our favourite spot amongst oystercatchers, sandpipers, gulls and the occasional curlew.

By sheer fluke, we’ve chosen a good week to go Westwards, with High Waters in the early morning and the ebb to aid us on our way, so we were up for an 0645 departure to leave the lovely river and head for the fort at Hurst Point, just opposite the Needles.  Behind the lighthouse is a channel that leads to the small town of Keyhaven, and we practised our rusty navigational skills (and followed the line on the chart plotter) to meander carefully in to anchor just out of the channel – with our rudders nudging a sand bank.  After only nine miles we enjoyed a relaxed brunch, and spent the day dealing with online shopping orders.

On Friday we weighed the anchor for another early start, and followed yesterday’s route on the chart plotter screen to regain the main channel, as we were surrounded by thick fog.  A local fishing vessel followed us out: I only hope he was as surprised to find us in front of him as we were to find him behind us.  Fortunately, we have a number of tools at our disposal for ‘sailing blind’, including AIS and radar, which show us most everything around us in overlays on the chart plotter.  New since our Polish morning fog experiences last season, Skipper has fitted a foghorn that sounds automatically every two minutes with the Morse signal commonly known as ‘lame duck’: -.. which we learned in RYA lessons as “lame quack quack”.

The sun was trying to break through and burn off the fog as we passed Christchurch, and we had a partial view of the high rise towers of Bournemouth’s clifftop perch, but a stubborn fug remained over Poole harbour, and it was with great relief that Mate recognised the hulk of the chain ferry making its way across the entrance ahead of us.  Visibility improved gradually as we approached the ‘town quay’ – actually a very expensive marina, and we tied up in the same slot as last visit, without any drama, well before lunchtime.

We spent a delightful evening at the Urban Reef in Boscombe, catching up with old friends from Teddington school gate days, comparing notes on our suddenly grown up offspring and their doings, and discussing what us oldies might be planning now the more demanding parenting days seem to be behind us all.

We both endured some unavoidable shopping in Poole town centre on Saturday morning, before slipping the lines to wander across the harbour, amidst the hardy early season water sports enthusiasts, to anchor in Blood Alley Lake, just South of Brownsea Island.  For the second time in three days, we managed to anchor on a sandbank, and with only a few centimetres of tidal rise here, it didn’t look like we were likely to be able to just float off, so Skipper came up with the ingenious solution of letting out more anchor chain, motoring onto it and off in a different direction.  Eventually we managed to wiggle ourselves free, by which time it was late enough that the day trippers had all gone home, and we felt safe anchored in mid-channel, with our anchor light clearly marking the spot – from 21 metres up.

We marked Mothering Sunday with a fabulous day’s sailing to Weymouth, one of our favourite ports in this part of the world.  We set off early once again, cleared Old Harry and Studland Bay’s seahorses in some residual haze and a bit of chop, and by 0915 we were enjoying a lovely fast very broad reach under just a first-reefed mainsail.  Clearing St Alban’s Head with almost no tidal overfalls, we unrolled the staysail to improve the balance of the boat, and were soon revelling at 7.5 knots in 20 knots of wind, and sunshine.

After providing a brief respite for a number of passing warblers, we played a brief game of cat and mouse through a dinghy racing fleet outside the entrance to Weymouth harbour, where we needed to drop sails, before preparing lines and fenders and finding a whole pontoon to ourselves, all in time for afternoon tea.

Monday morning, 1 April – April Fool’s Day – brought us back down to earth with a bit of a bump (not literally).  The reality of cruising is that no two days are ever the same, and it’s still true for us that the best outweigh the more difficult, but days like this one certainly give Mate cause to wonder…

Another early start saw us leave Weymouth to churn through a lumpy sea towards Portland Bill.  We timed it well, rounding the point in the inshore channel half an hour before slack water, and settled back with the mainsail still at first reef, and the staysail.  Unfortunately, the weather gods had not bothered to check the meteorologists’ instructions, and instead of giving us a nice steady Northerly F4, we got a disappointing ESE 1-2: not enough to do anything with, especially in a swell created overnight that rolled us around most uncomfortably.

We had a near miss with a motor boat coming straight at us at nearly eight knots, with apparently nobody on the bridge or keeping any kind of lookout or radio watch.  We managed to stay clear, and reported the incident in some detail to Solent Coastguard.  When they finally raised that ‘skipper’ (I hesitate to use the word), after a warship on local operations had offered to intervene, it was evident that he had no more idea of how to manage a vessel responsibly than fly to the moon: he was cheeky, offhand, disrespectful and thoroughly unrepentant.  I would guess he was met at the end of his day’s passage by unimpressed officialdom, and encouraged to see the error of his ways.  Such examples make me wonder why boat ownership is not regulated by at least minimum tests for competence, in the way that driving a road vehicle necessitates.

After a period attempting to motor sail, by which time Mate had thoroughly succumbed to regular visits to the Jimmy bucket, the sails were dropped and we motored directly around the Mewstone and across Torbay to Brixham.  Once in the relative shelter of the bay, conditions improved marginally, and preparations were made by both crew for tying up in the marina.  Luckily, Skipper was on fender application duty, as the lower starboard guard rail (lifeline) parted company from the turnbuckle securing it to the stanchion, and only his quick reaction stopped us losing at least two fenders over the side: Mate was still not really up to an unscheduled MOB practice.

The MDL marina in Brixham was frighteningly expensive, but the staff were welcoming and the facilities pleasant.  After a fragile evening on board, and a quiet morning still recovering, we managed to dodge the cold showers (of rain and hail) to take a late afternoon stroll around this historic fishing port and seaside town.

As always when cruising, our main concern is the weather forecast – we prefer to choose days more likely to be pleasant, with cooperative winds, where possible.  Consequently, we were unable to linger in Weymouth a second day, as we had wished, and on Tuesday decided to press on for Plymouth, rather than pausing in Salcombe en route.  We have been there on a camping trip of mixed outcome in pre-boat-owning days, and sailed our previous yacht in there on the way home from the Northwest, where her previous owner kept her, but l’escale has not yet been introduced to this pretty harbour.

After checking with the marina staff for local knowledge of tidal issues around our next waypoints, Start Point and Prawle Point, we set off on time again on Wednesday morning, into a sea now calmed by yesterday’s change in wind direction.  Before long, we were set with full main and genoa, and any initial apprehension from Mate’s still fragile state was soon dissipated.  We made good progress Southwest, with things only becoming difficult when we reached Bolt Head and saw a heavy squall approaching.  We’d already changed down to the staysail, and Mate didn’t expect the wind to increase as much as it did, in spite of the forecast of F7 gusts.  Things became challenging for a short period as icy rain accompanied the fluctuating direction of the wind as the squall passed through.

A couple of messy tacks and the worst was over, for now, and a reef was judiciously taken in the mainsail, in preparation for what was surely still to come.  Interestingly, in trying to sail 40˚ off the wind as it backed, we were heading into Bigbury Bay and the next tack gave us a good clean course for the Mewstone (a different one, this at the mouth of the River Yealm, just East of Plymouth; there are at least three on this stretch of coast, with another off Dartmouth).  We hung on through winds between 11 and 28 knots, and several dousing of rain and hail, sometimes lurching at only 2-3 knots, but mostly with at least some tide with us.  Rounding that Mewstone at last and lining up for the end of the breakwater into Plymouth Sound at last, we furled the staysail and pulled the main hard in to try to flatten the boat as we were now almost exactly into the wind.  The waves started to ease gradually as we came into some shelter behind Rame Head, and both crew relaxed at last as we picked up the channel for Smeaton’s Tower and around Drake Island. We received a warm welcome from familiar faces as we tied up gratefully in Mayflower Marina at last, and Mate got the kettle on for a much-needed cup of tea.  We’ll be here for about six weeks, while some more projects are completed, and are looking forward to sailing with our Alu-Club friends at Easter.