Designer: Cpt. John H. Illingworth
25th January 2015
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Trip South

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Voyage to Portsmouth

The last time I did any coastal navigation was, I think, for my Yacht Master in 1998, since then it has been big boats, big oceans and GPS.  I was, then, a little out of practice, which became apparent as we headed up the river Deben.  I had not paid porper attention to the small notes on the chart at the mouth of the river, warning not to exit on an ebbing tide.  Neptune intervened in the shape of a phone call from the gentleman who had been so generous to give us the charts in the first place.  He was dining in a pub on the banks of the river when we came trundling past and thought it wise to warn us of the dangers ahead.  This made the decision to either pick up a mooring or keep going much easier and quicker.

On heading out the next morning at high tide, it became apparent that we would have been thrown out uncontrollably by the tide over several banks and shingles marking the mouth of the river.  So thanks for that.  It served me an icy slap in the face, which was obviously needed.  We still had the Thames Estuary to negotiate and remember kids, complacency has no place at sea.  Next was a good stomp down to Burnham on Crouch with the wind on the beam until we turned into the river and had a fantastic run, goose winging with poled out genoa, dropping sail at the marina entrance, nice.  Without wanting to blow one’s own trumpet, I have sailed Creole, a 215 foot, wooden, three masted, staysail schooner, low and aloft (full sail) in 25knts across the decks, on a fetch up the Sardinian coast and the J-class Ranger across the Atlantic in late January, with full main all the way and this was the best sail of my life to date.

 

We were trucking at hull speed with sails pressed and pulling, going where we wanted, when we wanted and not a chamois or polishing cloth in sight.  I realised that since us pontoon staff used to take the Janeaux 36’s out during the winter re-fit at Sunsail back in 1997, this was the first time I had gone cruising of my own accord, un-work-related, in a ten year consant stretch on yachts.  With Orque tied up and put to bed, we sat on the dock and stared at her with sails harbour stowed and all rinsed off, ready to go again early next morning.  That night we got drunk.

 

The first night was spent in Harwich after a particularly satisfying shakedown leg from the Deben.  Close hauled for the most part, then a reach past all the impressive industry that lines the shores there.  Heading upwind on my own, proper, little wooden boat after an obsessive amount of hours, over more than a decade spent contemplating that very thing, was a good moment.  That night we got drunk.

Next was a good stomp down to Burnham on Crouch with the wind on the beam until we turned into the river and had a fantastic run, goose winging with poled out genoa, dropping sail at the marina entrance, nice.  Without wanting to blow one’s own trumpet, I have sailed Creole, a 215 foot, wooden, three masted, staysail schooner, low and aloft (full sail) in 25knts across the decks, on a fetch up the Sardinian coast and the J-class Ranger across the Atlantic in late January, with full main all the way and this was the best sail of my life to date.

 

We were trucking at hull speed with sails pressed and pulling, going where we wanted, when we wanted and not a chamois or polishing cloth in sight.  I realised that since us pontoon staff used to take the Janeaux 36’s out during the winter re-fit at Sunsail back in 1997, this was the first time I had gone cruising of my own accord, un-work-related, in a ten year consant stretch on yachts.  With Orque tied up and put to bed, we sat on the dock and stared at her with sails harbour stowed and all rinsed off, ready to go again early next morning.  That night we got drunk.

From Burnham on Crouch we prepared to cross the Estuary.  We made a full passage plan from buoy to buoy, and at four in the morning we departed under a clear sky to coast silently up the river with the help of the moon .  As planned we came to the mouth of the Crouch at sunrise.  The higher the sun got the more steady the wind became so across we went.  My carefully considered passage plan was very quickly out of the window as, in order to avoid that concentration of traffic unexpected course changes are required, especially in such a small boat with strong tides.  I had, however, carefully studied the charts this time and in doing so could alter our route as and when we needed, which was a lot.  

I don’t mind admitting to being a little nervous to start with.  This wasn’t helped much by the fact that the batteries had dropped slightly overnight, then not having enough charge to transmit on the VHF until the solar panel topped them up. The perfect example for the importance of a radio check, ON CH68, in the safety of the harbour.  No comm’s is a rubbish situation in the middle of what must be one of the busiest shipping lanes around.      

 

Still, there we were, not much we could do about it other than be accutely aware of the fact and navigate gingerly for the first couple of hours until we could again transmit.  After a reasonably uneventful but weavey crossing, heading upwind and into the last part of a tide to ferry glide across, then have the tide to lob us back out along past Herne Bay and Margatewere.  We were tied up in the impressive port of Ramsgate by around 18:00 and getting ready to leave again on the first favourable tide at 04:30.  Mutiny ensued, so we caught the following tide later the next evening after having a good look through town.  That night we had a curry, and got drunk.

Fully rested and alert we set off down the coast past Deal to see if we should put in at Dover or continue.  The weather was favourable and we manage to keep in with good tides, so on we pushed.  We had a good run all the way down to Dungeness, then we found we were suddenly rocking around in steep, confused seas.  The tide had turned and we were in the wrong place.  We had found the race at the end of the headland and so turned around to anchor off Lydd On Sea and wait for the tide to turn back.  It had taken us about 14 hours to get there so a hot meal and a couple of hours rest were more than welcome.

 

A beautiful sail along the South East coast, past Hastings, was made all the more enjoyable by the dawning of a beautiful, crisp, clear day.  We tacked well inshore to enjoy the view of the old seaside resort and made our way to Eastbourne where again, we put in to wait out the foul tide.  Three hours later we were on our way once more, having filled the tanks and our stomachs, only to find blustery conditions outside the breakwater.  A few boats that had left at the same time, most of which were double our size, were turning around and heading straight back to the harbour.  The wind was blowing a solid 20 knots over the top of a 4 knot tide, producing a very angry sea.

I was considering joining the bigger boats back in the harbour, but thought this a good opportunity to see if those Primrose and Illingworth chaps were all they were cracked up to be.  With the appropriate reefs in the main and our little spitfire headsail, we soared and plunged through the boiling confusion under the imposing cliffs of Beachy Head.  The cockpit sole being pretty much at water level, when sat, your head hight is perheps three feet above the water.  The waves were a clear four to five feet above our heads, perched, as were, on our little ship.  Determined not to become another statistic for the area, we kept our wits about us and coaxed Orque on and on, negotiating each wall of water as an individual obstacle to be overcome.  In true form to what I had read concerning these two masters of their trade, Orque handled spectacularly.  It seemed completely unreasonable that such a small boat would handle those seas, but handle them she certainly did as we beat to windward, tacking way out clear of the cliffs, but only making good on our course with the incoming tack.

 

I feel I should also mention the fact that Orque leaked from the deck almost as if it were not there at all.  Sometimes, when we were getting green water across her decks, it would rain inside, all the way along the forward end of the coach house.  We had a sturdy tarp permanently strapped in place, which worked well for the rain, and had done what we could reasonably do with putty, but there’s no stopping the sea with tarps and putty, not at all.

 

Safely clear of Beachy Head we were looking to go on to Brighton but a looming, dark cloud hanging over the land soon put pay to that idea, so we headed for Newhaven.  A passage from a book that every yacht owner / user should own, and one I wish I had owned then, explains Newhaven from a yachtsman’s perspective. The book is “The Yachtsman’s Weekend Book.” By Jonn Irving & Douglas Service, published by Seeley Service & Co. Ltd.

 

“….with a port under the lee after a hard day’s sail, the wind seems disposed to pipe up.                There is then a distinct human tendancy to seek the shelter of a weather shore for a night’s rest – and to see “what the weather’s going to do.”

     Newhaven, in particular, is a port of magnetic attraction in such circumstances: it is,indeed, for many a yachtsman, the Port of Lost Hopes.

     Bound West he tarries  there and is caught inside, when a few hours’ discomfort would have gained him the shelter of the Wight with some sailing at least.”

 

Well, I thought that Orque had seen enough discomfort for the day so we fell right into the trap.  Now Newhaven is a prime example of a town that’s had it’s day; what was a thriving fishing port is now definitely not.  Here we lay Orque to rest for a few days while some unfavourable weather came through.  It gave us the chance to rinse the interior with fresh water and generally square up ready for some family visits and what-have-you’s.  As John Irving rightly stated, we were stuck there for longer than we hoped.

 

We managed to escape Newhaven and move along to Brighton in order to meet M.J.B, who had helped getting her launched and ready for sea back in Woodbridge.  An excessive run ashore was deemed a fitting celebration of this, our final leg of the trip into the home stomping ground.      

 

Happily hung over and a little delicate, we slipped our lines, departed Brighton Marina, set her sails and clung on to a steady South Westerly all the way, almost as if the Solent knew I was coming home after all these years and miles at sea.  Perfect conditions ensued.  

 

All bias aside and with carefully considered forethought, the Solent IS the best sailing ground in the world.  This is not opinion, this is plain and simple fact.  Where else do you get the variety of all aspects of sailing and constant challenge in ever changing conditions than that of the Solent.  The variety of navigation lights alone; non-displacement craft including one of the only passenger hovercrafts in the world, tankers and containers, constantly criss-crossing, ferries, dredgers, tugs engaged in all manner of tows and assistance, pilots, submarines, outlaying gear, mine sweepers, frigates and destroyers, every form of fishing, submarine barriers, island forts, castles, shifting banks, an average 4 knots of tide, not to mention the biggest concentration of private craft you’ll see anywhere in the world and I couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the History of the place. 

 

Binoculars trained on the Dolphin Gap (the break in the submarine barrier guarding the Eastern end of the Solent), we pitted our way against the tide to head up into the Solent proper.  Then along the shore of Southsea, past Southsea Castle, Spit Sand Fort and dodging the multitude of commercial craft, including a blast from the steam driven paddle ship Waverly, as it all funnels into the narrow entrance, then finally between the Round Tower and HMS Dolphin to enter the mighty harbour itself.  We hung a left toward Gosport Marina, almost naturally drawn to the Light Ship bar and restaurant, where so many nights had been spent with friends and punters in my late teens.  A good friend from those earlier days is the dockmaster at the marina and so it was a nice touch to hand our lines to a familiar face after a great journey, and a fitting end to finally be back home, avec bateau.  We later completed the journey, as I wanted to, by sailing with just my brother and I up to the North end of the harbour, where the Norman / Roman castle at Portchester still impresses, to drop the kite and sail up to a pile mooring outside of Portsolent Marina where it all started sixteen years ago.

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