This post comes after the rest of the Spain trip but while information is still fresh in our heads I thought it was best to post it first. I am back in the UK and we fly back to the British Virgin Islands next Wednesday to start work. It will be strange working after 18 months off but we both need a challenge and as the weather begins to take a turn for the worst it is probably the right time for us to find the sun.
I had been asked by my friend Tim to help sail his 30 foot yacht from Chichester to St Katharine’s. Of course I was eager to re-live sailing on the south coast and agreed to assist, plus Tim is a great friend and we both looked forward to a few drinks in Ramsgate. I do not think I have feared for my life twice in any week but our trip proved to be challenging in many ways. Many lessons were learnt. Tim has completed is log and thoughts about the trip, which I include here.
Last week myself and a good friend Oliver planned to take Excalibur up to London for the winter, however the forces of nature did it’s best to scupper our plans.
We learned many lessons last week and experienced some some pretty awful conditions. I thought I would write up our trip mainly to keep a record for myself, and perhaps it will be of interest to others. Certainly there are many things we will both do differently in the future.
Our plan was to break the journey up into 3 legs. Chichester to Brighton, Brighton to Dover, and then Dover to London with a stop in Ramsgate if time allowed.
Chichester to Brighton
We left Birdham Pool Tuesday evening on a clear starry night, and stayed on the visitors pontoon at the Itchenor as we planned to make the most of tide the next morning to Brighton.
We left Wednesday morning at 5:30am, and due to the early start we left before making a cup of tea or having breakfast. The weather forecast was a force 4-5 South Westerly which would give us a nice downwind sail to Brighton, and comfortable conditions to get a brew on etc on the way. There was barely a breath of air as we motored towards the entrance of Chichester Harbour.
By the time we got out of Chichester Harbour and to West Pole the wind had picked up to 30-35 knots, it then became apparent that the wind was infact coming from a South Easterly direction, meaning the wind was on our nose and we would have to motor to Brighton. We let a bit of genoa out to steady Excalibur and continued to motor on. We discussed whether or not to head through the looe channel to save time, and although it was wind against tide we decided that the sea would not have picked up sufficiently by the time we reached the channel.
Although uncomfortable, the looe channel wasn’t too bad and once we passed it we thought the biggest challenge was over. Soon after Oliver became uncharacteristically sea sick, to the point that he was incapacitated and had to lay on his back in the cabin to try and quell it.
I spent the next 4 hours or so helming, no water, no tea no food, big mistake. I was unable to leave the cockpit and thus couldn’t make a brew or more importantly any log entries. I took a good few waves in the face and Excalibur slammed spectacular over some waves on the way to Brighton which probably sounded 10 times worst down below.
I generally felt safe in Excalibur but found she was wetter than I expected. Having covered quite a few miles as crew onboard Oliver’s Rival 32, I hadn’t experienced as many waves into the cockpit as I did in Excalibur. Perhaps the point of sail was to blame, but I was surprised nonetheless and a litte bit disappointed. The wind was a steady 30-35 knots and gusted to 42 knots a few times.
The scene that unveiled as we approached Brighton Marina was enough to bring Oliver out of his sea sickness, and for my jaw to hit the floor. The waves were rolling in from the South East and crashing up against the long concrete breakwater, rising straight up into the air and being blown over the wall into the marina behind. The tops of the waves were being blown off and the wind was gusting to about 35 knots. The concrete high walls are pretty imposing, and even more so as we watched wave after wave ride straight up the face of the walls.
The pilot book warned us against entering Brighton in a South Easterly, but by the time we had entered through the looe channel we were short of options and the only other choice now was to carry on to Dover, an unpleasant thought given the rough passage we had already been through.
I took Excalibur in closer so we could have a look at the entrance. Oliver said to turn around as we saw a large wave roll past us. A brief quell urged us to have a go, so I started to head for the entrance, Oliver then took over incase I broached the boat (Oliver being the more experienced, I didn’t argue). As we rode the waves in, our worst fear was to broach the boat as you have a large concrete breakwater to port and a sandbank marked by green buoys to starboard. For what seemed like an eternity we eventually got around the buoys and motored into the safety of the marina.
Needless to say we needed a strong drink afterwards.
Things we learn’t or were reminded of
- Weather forecasts are not gospel, and can have serious consequences (ok so first point is not rocket science)
- Always prepare a flask of tea before setting sail, whatever the weather
- For longer passages prepare lunch beforehand, it was impossible to make any food once we realised the wind had shifted.
- Seasickness tablets are a must, it was lovely and serene in Chichester Harbour and we expected a nice downwind sail, but before we knew it the conditions had changed and we could have both done with topping up.
- Most importantly take heed of the pilot book! We knew it wouldn’t be pleasant by the time we arrived at Brighton, but our main focus was getting through the looe Channel. After 4 hours of a force 7-8, the seas around Brighton were in full swing. Now we know to take more notice of the pilot books, we wouldn’t have attempted it otherwise.
- Most people talk about bolt holes, ie where to tuck in if you can’t make your final destination. But what if you can’t get into your intended destination? do you have a plan B? It would have been a good idea to have continued the passage plan to Dover incase we couldn’t get into Brighton.
Brighton to Dover
The next day we readied ourselves for the next leg of the journey, but this time we would be ready. 1 flask of tea, 4 pre-prepared wraps and 4 hand held flasks pre-filled with tea bags and sugar!
Our plan was to sail through the night and arrive at Dover early the next morning. Oliver’s theory was that it’s better to arrive somewhere as it’s getting light than the other way around.
HW @ Dover was at 23:11 BST, which meant we had to leave at 6pm. With a quick stop at the fuel pontoon we started to make our way out of the marina. Earlier we met David Wheatley in the marina, as we motored past he was there to wave us off and very kindly relayed that he would follow us on AIS. The AIS transmitter has been a good investment, aside from the obvious additional safety benefits, giving friends and family the opportunity to follow us online has been a great reassurance. For those wishing to follow me in the future, the site you need is http://www.marinetraffic.com/ais/ and you will have to select the general area that I will be sailing in to avoid picking up boats with similar names in the states.
There was an air of apprehension as we drew closer to the entrance. Spray was still appearing at the top of the wall and blowing over, but of course we were inside the marina so gauging what the conditions were outside would not become apparent until we got out there. The sea state turned out to be perfectly fine and apart from wrestling with my halyards and my mast steps (a reoccurring theme here), we got the main up and with a WSW wind blowing at 16 knots we started to head to Dover downwind.
We had a lovely quiet sail, clear skies and nearly a full moon. The white cliffs seemed almost luminescent in the dark, and every so often a seemingly innocent lobster pot would drift past. The areas around Brighton are full of lobster pots as per the pilot books states. We passed a few fishing trawlers, giving us a chance to refresh out lights, though from a distance they just seemed like something out of close encounters of the third kind.
Eventually the wind died at 23:00, so we reluctantly put the engine on, and Oliver went down for a kip.
The above pretty much sums up how I felt. I have never come across such challenging conditions entering any harbour. I will certainly never attempt to enter Brighton in a force 8 from a southerly direction. Our choices were limited and I do believe that entering Brighton was my only option, but it does make you realise how dangerous the waters are around the South Coast of England.
I am sure Tim has more to add on this trip but we both did not expect to have another close call the day after. The next step was to sail from Chichester to Dover. We left in the evening setting off from Brighton around 19:00. We had a great sail under main past Beachy Head and into the darkness beyond. Upon reaching the Royal Sovereign buoy the wind decreased and we had to motor. We motored into thick fog but this seemed to lift as we approached Dover. It is nice to see that some lobster pots around were now lit, displaying a red and blue flashing LED light; I wish this was standard practice for all lobster pots.
We came into Dover around 05:00 and settled in to the Tidal Harbour. The trip was a success and we settled into a lovely sleep before preparing for the sail from Dover to London.
We departed Dover at 23:00. We had timed it so that we had a great spring tide running North East, which would push us up to North Foreland through Goodwin Sands at great speed. The wind was forecasted to be no more than 25 knots from the South, which would give us a nice broad reach up to the Thames. All was set in our favour and so we set off expecting to reach London at 13:00 the next day.
What greeted us outside Dover was sheer hell on earth. We strapped ourselves in when we saw a few white crests but then we approached unbelievable conditions. The wind had suddenly increased to force 8. With a fast ripping tide moving North East and a Southerly Wind the water was a cauldron of confusion. Excalibur was tossed side to side, listing as far as her windows. The engine would rev higher after a bout of tossing. We were both worried. We decided to head out further to try and escape the confused seas but this was no good. We could not see where the next wave was coming from and all we could here down below was the smashing of items. Then the big one got us. A wave crashed over the port stern quarter. The shock of it was enough. I had water up to my knees. Was I scared; yes. We turned excalibur to make a run for port. I called Dover Port Control to advise that we were in difficulty and making our way back. By this time we were hitting a tide against us so now were only making 1.5 knots. It was horrendous. Then Navigation Lights then decided to go down, so this only helped us agree that going back was the right decision.
We made it back into Dover 30 minutes later. We were both in shock. It took 3 bottles of wine to calm us down and send us to sleep without nightmares. Unfortunately we were unable to complete the voyage to London and Excalibur remains in Dover. You never stop learning and the sea can test some of the most experienced sailors. I still agree that crossing an ocean is sometimes easier and less dangerous than trying to navigate ports in poor weather.
I believe we made the right decisions but there are numerous questions to answer not to mention why we did not expect the conditions to be so poor outside Dover. Anyway, the boat, Tim and I survived with some interesting memories to take with us.
Thank you Tim and thank you Excalibur