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Sunday July 29: The great Boulogne cabaret

50.44.58N 01.34.10E

 As threatened, the Dutchmen inside us were up and about soon after 0500 and we had no option but to get dressed and get moving, untying Brave to allow them to leave. Yet another lovely sunny morning, and quite a number of boats were already on the move.

Being the first of the boats knocked off the rafts, but looking to stay, we had first choice of the newly vacated berths, and were soon safely installed alongside our own private finger, watching the “cabaret” as some boats set off for other ports, and others  scrambled to bag the best of the resultant spaces.

At this time of year, Boulogne, a vital passage port, is notoriously crowded. What soon became clear is that you have to be here by early morning if you want to avoid having to raft. All the fingers were full by about 0800, but the hammerheads were now clear, ready for later arrivals.

Being Sunday, we weren’t sure whether we’d be able do the by now overdue supermarket sweep. The hypermarket was closed, but fortunately the smaller Spar, closer to the harbour, opened briefly in the morning, enabling us to restock with essentials.

We’re planning to eat ashore tonight, and then to stay another day tomorrow, for more shopping and more tourism. It may not be Belgium, or the Netherlands, but we like it here!  

Saturday July 28: We’re in Boulogne, not Belgium

50.44.58N 01.34.10E

 In the late 70s, in the days before Decca or GPS, there was a member of our yacht club who owned an Iroquois catamaran, very fast and powerful, on which he loved to charge across the North Sea to the near continent.

Navigation was not his strongest point, and he cheerfully admitted that he always took French, Belgian and Dutch courtesy flags and currency, and waited until he got to the other side to see which he needed.

I have been thinking of him this weekend because yesterday we were supposed to be racing to Ostend, in Belgium, planning to head on into Holland for a few days’ holiday afterwards – and here we are in Boulogne, flying a French courtesy  flag. At least these days there’s only one currency to worry about!

So what went wrong? Having been blown to pieces in the Triangle race last month, yesterday we had absolutely the opposite problem: not enough wind to get the boat moving. The Haven Series Stroombank race starts at 07.30 in the hope of getting everybody to Ostend by bedtime. Given a reasonable breeze, we expect the 78-mile trip to take about ten or 12 hours.

However, after working really hard for seven and a half hours, we had more than 60 miles still to go. The tide had turned against us, and even with the spinnaker more or less full, we found we were going backwards.

We could have dropped the anchor, and waited in hope of better things, but realising we were going to be out all night, unless the breeze filled in spectacularly – and there was absolutely no sign of that happening ­– we, along with the majority of the fleet, retired. (Congratulations to Cosmic Dancer and Rainbow, the only two to stick it out to the finish).

We then started the engine, and, with the tide now underneath us, retraced our steps in about a quarter of the time it had taken us to get there. We weren’t altogether despondent. Although deeply frustrating, it had actually been quite an enjoyable day.

It was sunny, for one thing – a rare event this summer. And struggling to keep the spinnaker full and to squeeze every ounce of power out of the feeble breeze stopped us getting bored. We even managed a number of two-handed gybes, in one case gaining places on fully-crewed boats.

The only problem really was what to do next. If we weren’t going to Ostend, carrying on up to Holland wasn’t really an option. In fact we’d already  been questioning the wisdom of that, as the wind direction for the next few days is forecast to be south-westerly, strong at times, which might make getting home from the Netherlands problematic.

So, to cut a long story short, having swapped our racing pennant for the cruising ensign, we headed up the Walton Backwaters, instead of returning to the marina at Levington, and anchored for the night in Hamford Water. It was a lovely evening.

Then it was “early shipping forecast and go” routine once again, setting off across the Thames Estuary. It was another lovely sunny morning, and once again not enough wind to sail. But the forecast was for the breeze to fill in from the south-west – Force 4-6, increasing 6 later.

We decided we’d head towards Boulogne, but be prepared to stop at either Ramsgate or Dover, depending on what the weather was doing and how we were feeling.

The tide was propelling us swiftly past Ramsgate, so it seemed silly to stop. By the time we had to decide whether to turn right to Dover or go straight on to cross the Channel, there was still no sign of that SW breeze.

We did think that turning to cross the Traffic Separation Zone in the Dover Straits at right angles, as required, might give us a “slant” on the persisting gentle northerly that would enable us to sail at last, but not so – the wind chose this moment to die completely – probably marking the forecast change in direction.

So we motored on, across the Dover Straits, past Cap Gris Nez, and down what we always think is a very attractive stretch of coastline, towards Boulogne. We could see the harbour entrance clearly in the evening sunlight. It was just four miles away when the breeze began to fill in from the SW as forecast.

By the time we reached the outer piers, it was blowing 15 knots. By the time we reached the inner piers, it was nearer 20, but we didn’t mind: the mainsail was stowed by then and we were safe and sound in well-sheltered Boulogne. The only problem: so were lots and lots of other boats, this being the height of the summer holidays.

We rafted on to four other yachts, all Dutch, on the outside of a hammerhead. We gave up the idea of eating ashore as planned, and stayed on board. It was no hardship. It was another lovely summer evening, and we had just enough food and wine left to get by, despite missing the expected shopping frenzy in Ostend.

Tomorrow, we hope to find a finger berth, with electricity, once a proportion of the visitors move on, as they undoubtedly will. In fact, the boat inside us has already warned us that he plans to leave at 0600 Continental time (that’s 0500 Brit), so it will be another early start, even though we plan to stay put for a couple of days, now that we’ve finally reached France.

Thursday July 5: Back home to Levington
50.59.54N 01.16.06E 

The forecast was once again light winds, thundery showers and fog, but there was bright sunshine in Ramsgate. As we left the pier ends, we could see a fog bank stretching from South Foreland towards France, and there was a spectacular thunderhead way inland, but nothing but clear blue skies the way we were going. 

There was even a nice sailing breeze, for the first few miles, and once again we were scudding along in flat water and T-shirt order. We didn’t know whether to feel happy about it – or sad that we were heading home, and it was all nearly over. 

Anyway, when we reached North Foreland and bore away northwards, the apparent wind died, and it was time to burn diesel again. There was another fog bank visible, mercifully obscuring about half of the new London Array wind farm, but again posing no threat to visibility the way we were heading (diverted through Fisherman’s Gat as favoured Foulger’s Gat remains in the wind farm construction exclusion zone.) 

The sun shone, the sea sparkled, the visibility was fine – the Gunfleet wind farm, the flats at Frinton and then the cranes at Felixstowe, the expected signposts, all appearing at about ten miles off. It was the easiest and least stressful passage of the month-plus we have been away, a gentle conclusion to an adventure that has been anything but. 

The only consolation is that everybody who has been early-season sailing this summer has been in the same boat, so to speak. Reaching the marina we met friends who had arrived back the day before, having aborted their planned cruise to the Baltic in the Freisian Islands, so fed-up were they with the relentlessly wet and windy weather. At least we got to Ireland, if not to France! 

Now we’re home for a month to catch up with real life. But we’re hoping to be leaving again sometime in August for another adventure. And before that, we’ll maybe do a couple of weekend passage races. There will be updates on this blog. 

In the meantime, it’s raining again and it’s time to head home with a lot of dirty washing, and put the dehumidifier on the boat. Some serious drying out is in order….   

Wednesday July 4: Carrying the tide to Ramsgate
51.19.51N 01.25.50E

It was “Shipping Forecast and go” again this morning, to make the most of the east-going tide. The only snag was that meant locking out of Eastbourne at low water springs and we weren’t sure whether there would be enough water in the entrance channel to accommodate our draft.

The water level in the lock went down like an express lift (we think they let it out as fiercely as they dare, to keep the entrance channel scoured) and there was only 0.2m under the keel in the lock when it stopped. Gulp.

However, it seems the scouring theory works, because it was deeper immediately outside the lock, though some of the channel marker buoys were high and dry! Another nasty moment between the pier heads, where there were signs of a muddy “bar” – but we had half a metre to spare. We started to breathe again.

All the signs were that it was going to be another day like yesterday. The forecast was still promising thundery showers and fog patches, and there were plenty of grey and threatening-looking clouds around. Visibility was not great. But once again we were sailing nicely in flat water, making good, tide-assisted progress.

Ten miles out, the wind dropped, and we had to start motoring (a feature of this holiday has been how little we have used the engine, as there has been so much wind. We still have more than half a tank of diesel left, having last refilled at Yarmouth on the way out to Ireland.)

The compensation was that the black cloud which seemed to have our names on it stopped hovering over us and melted away inland, and the sky began to brighten and the visibility began to lift. The power stations at Dungeness appeared on the horizon, ten miles away. The sun became visible, behind a veil of thin, high cloud.

And eventually, as we passed Dungeness, that veil melted away too – the sun was out, and for the first time since before we left home, we were in T-shirt order, no need for thermals, fleeces, or waterproofs!

We’d actually forgotten what it feels like to have warmth on your skin! It turned into an absolutely brilliant afternoon. We could see as far as France on the other side of the Channel, and the white cliffs of Dover positively sparkled in the sunshine.

We rode the tide on up the Gull Stream (between Kent and the Goodwin Sands) to Ramsgate – back on the East Coast. Rarely have we had an easier 60-mile passage.

It was an absolutely stunning evening. At last there were the perfect conditions for basking in the cockpit – something we have really missed out on this trip.
 
Eventually we went ashore (still not needing fleeces) for supper at the Alexandra Ristorante Italiano, an end of holiday ritual. The ornate, Italianate façade of this seafront landmark building is currently shrouded in scaffolding and polythene. We look forward to coming back to see what it looks like when the renovation is complete.

There seems to be quite a lot of improvement work going on in Ramsgate at the moment, which is good news, as it has looked a little faded and forlorn for a few years. It seems the offshore windfarm construction industry, which has brought a great deal of extra traffic into the harbour, is giving a boost to the local economy.

We’d like to think that some of this money will be reinvested in dredging the visitors’ marina, which used to promise three metres throughout, but where now our 2.15 keel is hard aground at low water. Fortunately, tomorrow we want to leave towards high tide, not at low water, to make best use of the flow through the Thames Estuary. 

Tuesday July 3: Swiftly but wetly back to Eastbourne
50.47.34N 00.19.90E

Yesterday it rained all day in Yarmouth. We’ve had a lot of rain during this “holiday” but this was the wettest day so far, by a distance. We woke to the sound of it stair-rodding down on the forehatch and it did not stop all day. So our plan for some shoreside exploration went out of the window.

We stayed below with the washboard firmly in place for most of the day. At least it meant catching up with the housework. The fridge and cooker were given overdue “birthdays.”

In the evening it was still raining when we ventured ashore to the King’s Head for supper with the Pegasus crew. We had mussels cooked in cider and cream which were so good they almost made up for the fact that we never got to France!

However, the weather somewhat dampened our enthusiasm for holidaymaking on the Isle of Wight, or anywhere else for that matter, so this morning it was back to “Shipping Forecast and go” routine. To make best use of the tide we should really have left at 0400 but we felt that was a step too far.
 
We cleared Yarmouth Pier by 0600 and we’d calculated that gave us enough tide to get out of the Solent and through the Looe Channel before it turned, and so it proved. So there we were, whizzing along at about ten knots over the ground, flat water, unreefed sails for once – everything just perfect?

Well, not quite, because guess what? It was raining. And when it wasn’t raining it was drizzling, and there was very limited visibility. We’ve stopped talking about what we’re going to do with the rest of this holiday. Now we just want to get home. So we didn’t stop at Brighton, as we might have done, but kept going round Beachy Head, even though the tide was setting against us.

The skipper even talked about carrying on to Dover (another 50-odd miles) but the mate felt that 80-odd miles to Eastbourne was enough for one day, especially in such damp and depressing conditions, and fortunately the skipper didn’t take too much persuading.

So we locked in at teatime, and the sun almost came out for a few minutes in the evening. We have now fatalistically accepted that summer is due to start as soon as we get home!

Sunday July 1: A happy meeting in Yarmouth
50.42.42N 01.30.05W

Another day, another iffy forecast. With 80-odd miles to go to get to the Solent, we set the alarm for the 05.20 forecast, quite prepared to go back to bed if we didn’t like it. Once again there was a Seven in the Shipping Forecast, but the inshore waters forecast promised west or south-west, five or six, decreasing four for a time, and with the barometer rising confidently, we decided to go.

It was another lovely sunny day – the second in a row. And although once again the forecast was for showers, there was no sign of them as we sped across Lyme Bay towards Portland Bill with the wind right behind us. Once again there was a reef in our lovely new mainsail. It’s hardly been hoisted without one.

The visibility was again fantastic. We could see land all round the northern and western horizon. At 20 miles out, exactly half way across the bay, we picked out the unmistakable wedge shape of Portland Bill, 20 miles to the east.

The only snag to our fast progress was that we were beating the passage plan. We’d expected to reach this most notorious of headlands when the foul tide was dying. In fact we reached it with the tide still going full bore (about four knots) in our faces. And although we’d stood off the recommended five miles, the combination of fearsome tide and very strong wind (it was still blowing six, no sign at all of that moderating four) meant there was a hideous wind-over-tide sea state.

Brave surfed off one particularly fearsome standing wave at nearly 12 knots, which was more scary than exciting. (Same shortened sail as yesterday – reefed main and the heavy weather jib rolled down to storm sail proportions). But at least the raw speed meant we weren’t in the worst of the tide race for long.

As with yesterday the potential problem was gybing. In such a rolly sea state, we couldn’t safely sail dead down wind, so were heading slightly south of east, rather than slightly north of east, as we needed to, to reach the Needles Channel. We weren’t convinced we’d be able to lay the course up the Needles Channel, on the other gybe, and as we’d timed the passage to get fair tide up the west Solent, where it runs really fast, that was going to be a bit critical.

In the event, after we gybed we found ourselves on a course leading straight for North Head, the buoy that marks the alternative route into the Solent, missing out the Shingles Bank and the horrible overfalls at Bridge Buoy. Instead it takes you over relatively shallow water (which holds no fear for East Coasters like us) to Hurst Castle, where you rejoin the Solent - in another set of spectacular overfalls.

The water was absolutely boiling as we popped out of the shallows at Hurst Castle, but the tide was so strong that we did not have to make the expected gybe to clear Sconce buoy and lay the course for Yarmouth Pier – the tide swept us obligingly sideways past it.

We still had to make one final gybe, to turn upwind and take down the sail. Again, it was a bit of a battle. We’re looking forward to refitting the lazyjacks when we get home.

Brave is a fairly rare breed. There aren’t many Grand Soleil 40s in UK waters, but we do have a sister ship that also lives in Levington, Pegasus. We knew Peter and Rosie had been taking part in yesterday’s Round the Island Race, so we texted them as we were approaching the Solent to see if they were still about.

They said yes, they were in Yarmouth – and invited us to supper. Yes, please!

Yarmouth is normally packed to the rafters in July, but in the current horrible weather the harbour is surprisingly quiet. We were able to berth right alongside Pegasus, and Peter and Rosie were waiting on the pontoon to take our warps. It was great to see them, in every sense!

It was sunny enough for a glass or two in the cockpit before we moved below for supper. After a fairly demanding 85-mile passage, we probably weren’t very entertaining company, but it was a great treat for us.

Pegasus is now waiting for a change in the relentless strong westerlies so that they can head west into the cruising grounds we have just left. We will be awarding ourselves a day or two’s rest on the Isle of Wight.

We’ve still got a week  before we need to be home, and now we’re on the Solent it’s in comfortable reach. It just remains to be seen if the weather will allow to include a brief visit to France in the itinerary, or if we’ll go on playing grandmother’s footsteps with the gales!

Saturday June 30: Bright and breezy to Brixham
50.24.31N 03.30.85W

The wind still had a seriously antisocial moan to it when we woke. Go or stay? Mayflower’s excellent free wifi meant we could look at the latest weather forecasts, to help make the decision.

The Shipping Forecast still had a Seven in it. The inshore forecast was “only” a Six. What persuaded us to go was that a) it was from the south-west, a good direction for the way we wanted to go, and b) the “outlook” for tomorrow had another Seven in it. 

However, as it had been blowing hard for several days, we knew it was going to be rough, so it was oilies and boots on before we left. We felt we were leaving before a party because it was Armed Forces Day and big celebrations were planned for Plymouth.

The three warships anchored inside the breakwater  were dressed overall, and there was to be an air show including the Red Arrows. It would have been tempting to stay, but after three days we were already in danger of harbour rot.

Sure enough, once beyond the breakwater it was rough. And it was very windy. We’d opted for a single reef in the main, as we were off the wind, but soon found it necessary to wind away some of the heavy weather jib as well.

There were two saving graces: firstly, with the wind on the beam, heading south-east towards Salcombe, we were making fantastic progress. And secondly, for the first time in ages, it was SUNNY.

The forecast was still for showers and rain, but none crossed our path. We were charging along, the skipper grinning all over his face as he span the wheel to catch the waves and surf off them at speed (max of the day 11.5 knots, with lots of ten -plus surges – not bad under such shortened sail. )

So we didn’t mind too much waving goodbye to the Yealm, Salcombe and Dartmouth as we flashed past them without stopping. The good news was that, after those frustrating days when the magnificent scenery of the West Country was lost in the fog, today we could appreciate the cliffs and coves in all their stunning glory.
 
We knew the gybe off Start Point was going to be hairy, and finding a suitable simultaneous lull in both wind and sea state might be tricky. So when an opportunity presented itself, we grabbed it, only to find we’d gone a few hundred metres too soon, so had to gybe out again and in again. In fact we made “wheelbarrow turns” (tacking right round) in all three cases, as it reduces the strain on the gear, rather than whacking the boom across with the wind astern.

We were marvelling at how quickly, and enjoyably, we’d reached Berry Head, where we could see the welcome sight of Brixham’s harbour pier only another mile or so to windward. It wasn’t until we turned upwind, to head that way, and take down the mainsail, that we properly appreciated just how windy it was.

And because we’re in racing mode, there are no lazyjacks to catch the sail. It took a bit of effort from both of us to get it safely tied down before we could enter harbour. And there’s another potential hazard with being out in a lot of weather – actually parking the boat in an unfamiliar berth.

We were allocated quite a tight spot, but to our great relief a mooring party (two harbour staff and three volunteers from nearby boats) appeared like magic on the finger to take our warps. Phew!

It was still sunny. There was time for a brief walk into town to collect fresh bread and newspapers, though sadly not the hoped-for crab – all the stalls had shut. We opted for supper on board, as it was such a nice evening, but the wind still made it too cool to dine al fresco.

It’s July tomorrow. Perhaps things will get better.

Friday June 29: A brief re-visit to Cornwall
50.21.60N 04.09.80W

From our berth in Mayflower Marina we can see the foot ferry which makes half-hourly crossings to Cremyll, or the other side of the Tamar – in Cornwall, in fact, whereas Plymouth is in Devon.

So this morning we decided to go and see why so many people were so keen to get to the other side. It proved to be an extremely enjoyable excursion. The big attraction is Mount Edgecombe, the high hill which provides excellent shelter to this part of Plymouth’s wonderful harbour.

The Mount actually forms a park round a rather grand pile, Edgecombe House. You have to pay to visit the house, which in fact was in use as a wedding venue today, but access to the grounds is free.

Our walk started in the formal gardens, where there is a magnificent orangery, and then progressed into less formal parkland, where we followed the south-west coast path around the foot of the hill, taking in great views over Plymouth Sound. It is still rather windy, and waves were breaking over the breakwater.

The coast path climbed steadily as groomed parkland gave way to the rather wilder deer park. Eventually we turned away from the coast, and climbed right to the top of the hill. The “mount” designation might seem a bit fanciful, but that is certainly what it seemed like to our legs, used to the much gentler slopes of East Anglia.

The climb might have left us a bit breathless but the effort was well worthwhile. The views from the top were fantastic. Unfortunately once again the visibility was rather misty and murky, but we could see for miles and miles.

Also, once we began descending, we were on the other side of the hill, looking down into Devonport, rather than out across Plymouth Sound.
 
We then enjoyed a beer  – it was warm enough to sit outside, so long as you were out of the still considerable breeze ­– at the Edgecombe Arms pub before taking the ferry back to the Admiral’s Hard, and walking the mile or so back to the boat at Mayflower Marina.

The weather forecast for tomorrow is still rather windier than might be considered ideal for relaxed holiday cruising, but after three days here we’re starting to run out of time. So we’re reluctantly abandoning plans to stop in all the pretty places (the Yealm, Salcombe, Dartmouth) and expecting to set off for Brixham in the morning.

 

Thursday June 28: Still foggy in Plymouth
50.21.60N 04.09.80W

We woke in the middle of the night to hear the wind howling again. We thought about the Triangle competitors, who’d be on the final leg of the race, overnight from Treguier to Torquay. We were quite glad to be safely tied up in a nice calm harbour.

We looked at the results this morning, and are absolutely delighted to discover that our clubmates Paul and Jan won the final leg overall in Ninjod. They were second overall in the very windy second leg too. An absolutely stunning performance. We take our hats off to them.

Meanwhile, our cruising holiday seems dogged with about as much success as our racing performance. We’d decided to have a day ashore today, and to follow the coastal walkway from Mayflower Marina, round the Milbay Docks and the Hoe, to the Barbican, taking in all Plymouth’s historic waterfront landmarks.

Only snag: fog so thick you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. The only consolation was that we were glad we were not out at sea in such conditions. But we did rather wonder why we were undertaking such a pointless exercise when we could see so little of the sights we were supposed to be enjoying!

Walking along the path that skirts the seaward edge of the Hoe, we could see neither the grassland above us nor anything out to sea. There was no sign at all of the iconic landmark of Smeaton’s Tower, or the huge London Eye-style wheel which now towers above and beside it. We could hear some powerful marine engines, which made us think warships were probably passing quite close by, but we saw nothing of them.

We were able to take in the seafront architecture – all rather sadly past its magnificent prime. The colonnade and lido, where there are pictures of packed crowds of happy holidaymakers thronging the facilities in the Fifties, were eerily deserted.
 
The visibility only began to lift when we reached the Barbican – remembered from a couple of long ago regattas. There were even slight hints of blue sky as we walked back, crossing the top of the Hoe and now able to see the warships emerging from the mist, although things remained pretty foggy beyond the breakwater.

We stopped for a restorative pint at the bar in the marina complex, and for a few minutes the sun came out and we were able to sit outside in the sunshine, pretending it was summer. It didn’t last long. The wind is once again howling, the forecast is horrible, and we’re wondering if we’ll be staying here for another day (or two).

We went out for supper ashore, seeking consolation. We’re beginning to understand why so many of our friends have taken their boats to the Mediterranean in search of more guaranteed cruising weather.  

Wednesday June 27: Foggy trip to Plymouth
50.21.60N 04.09.80W

We woke to find fog so thick we could not see the harbour entrance at Fowey. We’d had an unexpectedly bumpy night on the visitors’ pontoon, so we weren’t keen to stay, but in these conditions we weren’t too keen to leave either.

By the time we’d had our wake-up cuppas, the gloom had lifted slightly. It was still very grey and murky, but setting off no longer looked suicidal. So we decided to move on.

We were glad of the efforts we’d put into tuning the radar the day before, because now for the first time it was being used in anger. We were relieved that when the scanner picked up a fishing boat at a mile and a half we could just about make it out through the gloom – a mile and a half is a reasonable safety margin.

There was absolutely no wind, so we didn’t bother to hoist the mainsail. We motored along in the drizzle with water dripping off the sail’s folds. Once again a spectacular stretch of coastline was shrouded in mist, and we were missing out on a visual treat.

Bizarrely, even when the visibility cleared out to sea, the fog still sat firmly on the clifftops inshore: you could see the base of the cliffs, but nothing else. In such conditions, judging distances can be very deceptive, and we were glad of the chartplotter’s reassurance that we were far enough offshore.

The fog – and rain – came and went until we reached Rame Head, where we turned into Plymouth Sound. We could see the next mark, a red buoy called the Draystone, and then it vanished into the gloom – a little worrying as we had already seen a number of warships manoeuvring in the vicinity.

But then, to our great relief, the visibility cleared completely, like a curtain lifting, and we could see the breakwater and the Hoe beyond it – and those warships, coming towards us.

We opted to go to Mayflower Marina, on the west or Devonport side of town. It has happy associations, as it is where our Sigma was launched in 1989.

We crossed through the Bridge, the shallow shortcut inside Drake’s Island, which we have never done before. It was high water, so we knew there was nothing to be afraid of. In fact the echo sounder never dropped below 4.7 under the keel – 0.1m above the predicted height of tide, so presumably we could get through at low water, but we won’t be putting that to the test!

We were made very welcome at Mayflower, where, unusually for British marinas although it was the norm in Spain last year, a member of staff was despatched to take our warps when we reached our designated berth.

Also (unlike Spain) there’s free wi-fi included in the price – and it actually works!

The sun nearly came out this evening, but it’s still ridiculously chilly for the time of year. We didn‘t stay out in the cockpit for long. The forecast for tomorrow is yet again wet and windy. We’ve decided to stay in Plymouth for the day to do some exploring ashore. It must turn into summer soon, surely?  

Tuesday June 26: Glad to be back in Fowey
50.19.65N 04.38.54W

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, so the saying goes, and the gale that blew us out of the Triangle has given us the chance to visit all the places that we would have dashed past without stopping if we had still been in the race.

One we are delighted to revisit is Fowey. If only it had been sunny, instead of misty and drizzly, today would have been a perfect day’s cruise. It was so foggy when we woke on the Helford River that for a while we questioned the wisdom of leaving. But by the time early morning cuppas had been consumed, the visibility had lifted enough for safety’s sake, and we made our farewells to Leading Wind, and headed out to sea.

This is a spectacular piece of coastline, all cliffs and headlands, and it was a pity that such great scenery was little more than a grey blur on the horizon for much of the time, but mostly the rain held off, and we could see as far as we needed to.

We also took the opportunity to get used to our new digital radar, which seems to do a great job. (The combination of the coastal cliffs and the anchored ships off Falmouth presented an ideal tuning opportunity). The addition of AIS to radar is an unexpected benefit. The little blue AIS arrows clearly identify which radar targets are ships, and give more instant information about their speed, direction etc than “old-fashioned” radar.

With only 20-odd miles to go, there was no pressure to go fast, and we sailed very gently downwind in a light south westerly, rediscovering sailing as relaxation.

We have only been to Fowey once before, in the mid 90s, and we liked it so much then that we were almost afraid returning might be a disappointment. Not a bit of it. It is a truly spectacular harbour, with houses climbing up the hill sides on either side.

As we reached the entrance, and took in the view, the skipper said: “This really is a special place.” And, compared to last time we were here, it was also very quiet. Perhaps it is because it is still early in the season. Perhaps it is because the weather has been so discouraging, but there seem to be relatively few yachts on the move, even in such a honeypot place as this.

We were able to head straight on to the Albert Quay, where yachts are allowed to moor for just two hours, to get ashore in the centre of town. A quick shopping trip (newspapers, bread, a giant cooked crab) and then we crossed to one of the visitors’ pontoons on the other side of the river for the evening.

For a tantalising interlude the sun actually appeared, giving the impression that it might just turn into summer here for a while. We did have our crab salad supper in the cockpit, which was a real treat. But long before sun set the mist rolled in again, closing off the stunning surroundings.

More light winds and drizzle are forecast for tomorrow, and then it’s expected to blow hard again over the weekend. So we’ll be heading for the shelter of Plymouth – another “old favourite” that we’re happy to have the opportunity to return to.

Monday June 25: Helford River
50.05.83N 05.07.80W

Today’s voyage was just over seven miles. There was no wind at all, so we didn’t even bother to take the cover off the mainsail. We motored from the marina at Falmouth, where we have spent a very agreeable couple of nights catching up with our sleep, to one of the visitors’ buoys in Helford River, renowned as one of the most attractive cruising destinations in Britain. Unfortunately, it was raining and visibility was very limited. The undoubtedly beautiful scenery was hiding behind a veil of drizzly mist.

It was great to meet up with David and Gill on Leading Wind when we reached Falmouth.  Yesterday evening they treated us to supper on board, and for a little while the sun came out and we drank wine in the cockpit, reminded just how good summer cruising in the West Country can be.

So we agreed to set out for Helford River together, and here we are, rafted on a visitors’ buoy. We went ashore in Leading Wind’s dinghy, and all agreed that on a sunny day achingly picturesque Helford would be heaven on earth. Unfortunately, at the moment it’s definitely “out of season.” The yacht club, where the pilot book recommended us to eat this evening, turns out to be closed for the night. All the summer tourists are cowering under umbrellas.
 
We liked the look of the Shipwright’s Arms (small, thatched, under new and ambitious management), which turned out to be booked solid. Fortunately the accommodating young landlord took pity on us and squeezed us in for an early supper on condition we were off the table in time for his 8pm party.

We were very pleased with the arrangement. We had a brilliant supper, during which the rain absolutely tipped down. Steaks and fish stew were voted equal triumphs, and the ginger parkin with clotted cream for dessert (no calories there) is well worth going back for. Then the rain obligingly stopped at 8 pm, allowing us to dinghy back to the boats in comparative comfort.

There was time for a nightcap on Brave, while the evening took another turn for the worse, before we parted, agreeing to meet up in Levington in a few weeks’ time. Tomorrow Brave will start heading towards home, while David and Gill are hoping for better weather for more adventures in the West Country before turning east in a couple of weeks.

Sunday June 24: Falmouth (not Treguier)

50.08.61N 05.01.48W

 From the time we arrived in Kinsale, we knew the weather forecast for the second leg of the race, the 270-miler to Treguier, was not good. Everybody was obsessively studying developments online by the hour – so much so that the marina wifi kept crashing from overuse.

At one time it looked as if there would be a severe gale force nine to contend with and a couple of crews took out brand new storm jibs and practised fitting them, in case they were needed in anger. We did not join in as a) we have fitted our storm jib before and b) we had absolutely no intention of setting out if there was a forecast that suggested we might need to use it.

Force nine is boat breaking conditions. There is a risk that people will be hurt. There is also a chance that you might need to call on the emergency services, putting other people at risk, too. You have to remember that you are doing these things for fun, and if it is not going to be fun, what’s the point?

So we discussed alternatives, like staying in Kinsale for a few extra days (no hardship at all) until there was a better weather window, and then maybe stopping again in the Scilly Isles, which we love and would like to know better, and then on home in easy stages.

Others too were considering “wimping out” strategies. It began to look as if only the diehard short- handed racers – those who have done the AZAB (Azores and Back) and the Ostar (single-handed transatlantic) and braved the worst the Atlantic has to offer, and are therefore unfazed by a mere Channel gale –  might be starting the race.

But in the event, the forecast for the race day moderated. It was still going to be lively at the start – W to SW 5-7 ­– but off the wind, so it would be fast, and the wind strength was forecast to moderate by nightfall. All the indications were for a swift, demanding but not dangerous, passage. Everybody decided to start.

And it was just as we expected – sunny, rough, and incredibly fast. Brave was charging towards the Bishop Rock, 133 miles from the start, at an average of more than eight knots, with two reefs in the main, and the heavy-weather jib rolled down to storm jib size. It was exciting, once we’d established that the autopilot could cope if it had to. The boat was magnificent. But we kept the spray-hood up (very non-racy) and were glad of its shelter, as a few nasty breaking waves came aboard.

Despite that cruising concession, we were actually doing quite well in the race. Not surprising, really: heavy weather is where Brave really comes into her own. A lot of the lighter, racier craft would have been very wet indeed, and nothing like as stable. It might sound unlikely, but we were really rather enjoying ourselves. The skipper summed it up: “A bit scary, but we’re doing phenomenal numbers!”

The first downer came with the tea-time Shipping Forecast. There was no longer talk of a gentler 4-5 once we rounded the Bishop Rock (the big lighthouse on the corner of the Isles of Scilly – the only mark of the course on this leg of the race) and moved from the hostile Celtic Sea into the English Channel. Sea area Plymouth was now promised the same SW 5-7 as Lundy and Fastnet. Our course would be a bit freer though – we’d be turning 30 degrees further off the wind at the Bishop, which ought to make life easier.

But then, shortly before we reached the lighthouse (or rather the GPS waypoint that kept us a safe distance from the rocky reef it marks) came the 0048 forecast, which now included a warning of a southerly gale.

It was not due until “later” – more than 12 hours, in Shipping Forecast speak – by when we’d be right out in the middle of the Channel, as far as possible from any port of refuge. And although we’d enjoyed the hairy sailing so far, it would be an understatement to say that we were feeling a bit weary. The thought of a second night at sea, in a full gale, had absolutely no appeal. For all the reasons mentioned earlier, we decided that the sensible thing – for us – would be to retire.

We actually thought of going into St Mary’s, the biggest of the Scilly Islands.  But it’s a challenging approach in daylight, never mind dark, and at this moment the GPS decided to throw a complete wobbler, its very aggravating alarm bleating repeatedly that it had lost its position fix. So that didn’t look very sensible. On mature reflection, going into St Mary’s in that much wind and sea, even in broad daylight and with a reliable GPS, wouldn’t have been at all sensible.

We considered Newlyn, just “round the corner” from Land’s End, but we’ve never been there before, and pilot books warn that it’s a place where fishing vessels have priority and yachts aren’t particularly welcome. So we decided to head on to Falmouth, one of the best sheltered natural harbours in the world – and a nice place to be holed up for a few days, if we have to be.

It was frustrating, because it was a beautiful morning, and as we bore away on the course for the Lizard, we could see the boats still racing that had been behind us all the way from Ireland gradually overtaking. But we didn’t envy them.

It is a fundamental rule of yacht racing that “The responsibility for a boat’s decision to race or to continue racing is hers alone.” The Offshore Special Regulations state: “The safety of a boat and her crew is the sole and inescapable responsibility of the person in charge.”

Perhaps, as the only husband and wife team in the race (our much younger clubmates and fellow competitors Paul and Jan are engaged) we are more conscious of each other’s safety. Perhaps it’s simply that we’re getting old, and we were well aware of how tired we already were. Whatever. We knew that retiring, rather than facing that southerly gale, was the right thing for us.

We felt the decision was completely vindicated when a new gale warning, broadcast by the Coastguards on VHF, upgraded the threat from “later” to “soon” (six hours). We’d just be nicely tied up in Falmouth before it hit!

Morale was further boosted when, once in mobile phone range off the coast, we received a text from clubmates Gill and David, who we knew were cruising somewhere in the West Country, saying they were already in Falmouth. We arranged to meet. They were on the pontoon to help us moor and hand over “welcome to Cornwall” hot pasties when we reached the marina – moments before it started to rain!

It blew very hard all night. From the comfort of our securely moored boat we thought about our fellow competitors, still at sea. We hope they are all OK and by now safely arrived in Treguier. We hope they enjoy the parties their and the wonderful hospitality of the town that helps to make the Triangle the great event it is. They deserve to.

We’re sorry not to be there, sharing the fun, of course we are. But we’re not sorry we retired when we did and why we did. And now we’re looking forward to a couple of weeks’ cruising holiday, getting the boat home in much more gentle stages than so far!

This morning it will start with those two essential ingredients of every cruising holiday: a visit to the launderette and a trip to the supermarket!

Wednesday June 20: It’s great to be back in Kinsale
51.40.80N 08.30.00W

We actually reached Kinsale yesterday morning, but we were so short of sleep after two nights at sea, and there seemed to be so much to do, in terms of tidying the boat up and then meeting fellow competitors for endless post mortems (suitably lubricated with Murphys at the yacht club) that there was never a chance to put finger to keyboard.

Now, after an epic night’s sleep, it’s time to catch up with the blog.

The 250-mile first leg of the Triangle, from Torquay to Kinsale, turned out to contain a bit of everything, from struggling to keep the boat moving in not enough wind, to flying along in far too much!

It started innocently enough, in sunny Torbay, on Sunday morning. As the forecasters promised, the storms of the previous three days miraculously vanished during the night and we set out on that very rare thing so far this year: a perfect summer morning.

The forecast was for light and variable winds, all the way to Ireland, with west or south-west the predominant direction: it would be a beat to Land’s End and then, with luck, a spinnaker reach all the way to Kinsale.

Sailing hard on the wind is a bit of a bore from the living point of view, because of the angle of heel, but our boat just loves going to windward, and we made great progress, heading out south to clear Start Point and then tacking west to aim for the Lizard, Britain’s most southerly point, some 70 miles further down the track.

The day stayed sunny, the sea was surprisingly flat, considering how rough it had been for the last few days, we were doing reasonably well against the boats we could see all around us, and altogether we were having a good time. Unfortunately we made a bit of a tactical bloomer.

We know that veteran offshore racers say you should stay south of the line between the headlands along the south coast after the Isle of Wight, but somehow we’d lost track of the fact, and instead of tacking offshore again, as we should have done, we followed the flock going inshore towards Falmouth. And of course, once surrounded by the high land in the bay (though we were by no means so far in as to be under the cliffs) we ran out of wind.

There followed a rather frustrating interlude, while we clawed our way out round the Lizard, only to see boats which had stayed offshore come zooming in on much better breeze. At this point we were overtaken by our Class Three teammate Ruffian. We were delighted to see them doing so well, but rather miffed as we knew we could still have been ahead of them!

Then, as so often happens during the summer, overnight the wind died away, and an absolutely beautiful, but rather too calm, dawn saw a gaggle of boats struggling to make against the tide to clear the Runnelstone buoy (marking a rocky reef just south of Land’s End) – the only compulsory mark of the course between Torquay and Kinsale. At one point it was exactly a mile away, and the GPS was estimating the time to reach it as 23 minutes! So frustrating.

The “time to go” function can start to get on your nerves on a race of this duration. From the Runnelstone it’s about 130 miles on a straight bearing of 315 to get to Kinsale, and at this point the TTG was more than six days!
 
However, the Shipping Forecast promised south-westerly winds of force four or five, which could hardly be better: enough to make good progress, not too much to be uncomfortable. And gradually the breeze filled in as forecast, and soon we were bowling along, very happily indeed - bright sunshine, flat water, spinnaker set, making a steady seven knots-plus towards Kinsale.

This is about as good as short-handed offshore racing gets.

“This is what we came for!” we gloated, smugly. It didn’t last very long. Soon the wind was building, which made steering with the spinnaker up hard work: good fun if you’re doing a short inshore race, but daunting if there’s another 24 hours ahead of you. Also, it was heading, which meant we could no longer quite lay the course we wanted. So we took down the kite (easy now we have given into advancing maturity and invested in snuffers) and went back to plain sail.

We were back on course, going very nearly as fast, and the sun was still shining. But then, under a line of innocuous-looking cloud, it suddenly began to really blow. The boat alongside us went straight for a reef. “No need for that. It’s not going to last,” declared the skipper confidently. But it did. And not many moments later, we too were reefing – going straight for the second one, and also rolling away most of the genoa.

There was still absolutely no clue about where this sudden wind (more six to seven than the forecast four to five) had come from. But there was no let up. And the seas were starting to build – the odd one breaking into the cockpit.

We still had 90 miles to go, and another whole night at sea. The prospect of spending it in these conditions was to say the least not enticing – particularly as the wind was also continuing to head as well as build. Instead of running in a moderate breeze, we’d be beating into a near-gale: nobody’s idea of fun!

But the tea-time Shipping Forecast still insisted that we should have south-westerly four to five, and gave no hint of where all this wind had come from, or how long it was likely to last. We prepared ourselves for a fairly demanding night at sea. The conditions weren’t dangerous. There was nothing to be afraid of really. But it was going to be rather wearing.

In fact, after a while the sea began to flatten out, and the wind speed was dropping gradually, the lulls between the heaviest gusts getting longer. Eventually, we were able to take out one of the reefs and unroll a little of the headsail. The wind direction freed again, mercifully.

Once again we were speeding towards Kinsale, secure in the knowledge that the suffering was not going to last too long. Our ETA was about 7 am. We could put up with being short of sleep and food, knowing we would soon be able to make up for both.

The two brightly lit gas platforms, about 30 miles off Kinsale, were a welcome sign that the end was approaching. The wind was still dropping. The final reef came out, and the rest of the genoa was unfurled. The sea was flatter now and everything was looking very good. But fate still had one final trick to play on us.

Again, it was a stunningly beautiful dawn. The sun rose on the spectacular coastline of southern Ireland, now just eight miles away – a little over an hour at our current rate of progress. And then the wind died completely.

So near, yet so far. A procession of boats with crews of two who had worked so hard all night were now left wallowing helplessly in an oily calm.

We were very hungry, not having eaten much the night before, and, with no prospect of reaching Kinsale by breakfast time, decided to eat the cottage pie intended for last night’s supper. “It might cheer us up!” suggested the skipper, morosely.

We made about a mile of progress during the hour it took to heat in the oven, and yes, it really was a morale booster. But you probably do have to spend two nights at sea to appreciate cottage pie for breakfast at 0630!

Little zephyrs of breeze picked up first one boat and then another – tantalisingly avoiding Brave completely. At last it was our turn, and we crept towards Kinsale at about three knots, in three knots of breeze. We crossed the finish line at just after 0900 – 48 hours and four minutes after the race start at Torquay. The last eight miles had taken four hours – cancelling all the effort we had put in during the early stages of the race.


So our result was, to say the least, disappointing – tenth in class and 20th overall, in a race with 29 finishers. But we had finished. And this is an event where that in itself is an achievement you’re entitled to be proud of.

We took down the sails, hoisted the battle flags, and motored into the marina at Kinsale, much in need of a hot shower, a long sleep, and a celebratory beer. And we enjoyed a sociable day swapping stories with fellow competitors.

We all felt extremely sad for the boat which had not finished – having lost its rudder at the height of the unforecast heavy weather. A fishing boat had taken it under tow, but in the rather rough sea state this proved impossible. Fortunately help came from a nearby warship: two engineers were put on board the yacht, and managed to rig a jury rudder, which allowed the boat to head for Milford Haven under its own propulsion.

The rest of us raised a sympathetic glass, as we gathered in Kinsale YC to watch England’s victory over Ukraine in the Euro 2012 football championships. Another good omen?

Today (Wednesday) has been a day of relaxation. We did some shopping, went for a walk, and plan a meal out at one of Kinsale’s renowned gourmet seafood restaurants tonight.

Tomorrow (Thursday) we will go to the briefing for the next leg, from Kinsale to Treguier, which starts on Friday. At the moment, the forecast isn’t looking too good. We’ll wait and see….

Saturday June 16: Gale-lashed in Torquay
50.27.45N 03.31.73W

We knew there was bad weather forecast for the end of this week. That is why we made so much effort to arrive in Torquay by Wednesday evening. I don’t think we realised quite how bad it was going to be!

For the third day running, the wind is howling and the boat is leaping and lurching as a really nasty scend comes into the harbour, defying the wave-break, which we are moored inside.

It is very wearing, and more than a few of our fellow competitors have abandoned their boats and decamped into nearby guest houses  – Torquay must have more of those  to the square mile than anywhere else on the planet.

Somehow it just didn’t occur to us to do that. It would seem disloyal to leave Brave in such circumstances. But the weather does mean that some of our plans (like giving the boat a good clean and polish) have fallen by the wayside, as for most of the time we have simply been sheltering below.

On Thursday it rained torrentially and we hardly left the cabin. Yesterday the rain cleared and we did take the opportunity to go for a long walk, but it was still extremely breezy, with large breakers rolling into the bay. All the tripper boats stayed firmly on their moorings.

Yesterday, too, saw the first social event of the race, when crews gathered in the Royal Torbay YC bar to renew acquaintances and to watch the England v Sweden football match on the big screen there. It was a good game, with a victory for England – a cheering omen for the days ahead?

The really good news is that there is a very encouraging weather forecast for the next three days. It’s still blowing hard today, but the wind is forecast to die away overnight, in time for the race start at 9 am tomorrow.

So today is to be spent doing the last minute provisioning, and then heading to the race briefing and reception this evening. Hopefully, the next update to this blog will come from Kinsale, in two or three days’ time.

Wednesday June 13: Yarmouth to Torquay
50.27.45N 03.31.73W

The forecast led us to believe that this would be a day of motoring in no wind – the calm before the storm. Once again there were rain clouds all round as we headed out of the Needles Channel, unable to enjoy the spectacular scenery because it was shrouded in drizzly mist.

It was the “early shipping forecast and go” routine, and we were under way well before six o’clock, but feeling surprisingly fresh – after our long day at sea yesterday we’d slept extremely well! And for once, the weather gods were on our side.

The forecast was for very light south-easterlies, and as we’d be running away from them, we did not expect any help, but soon after we cleared the Needles and turned west, the breeze filled in just enough to sail. With the full main and only the heavy weather jib (our weapon of choice for relaxed cruising), we were making really good progress.

So much for the fill-up of diesel in Yarmouth the night before! We’d grabbed the chance to refuel, afraid that if we had to motor all the way to Torquay, we’d probably be running on fumes by the time we arrived. But as it was we barely used a pint, so we’ll be starting the race with the weight handicap of a full tank.

Never mind, if buying the diesel was the price of a really great day’s sail, it was worth it. For the clouds melted away, the sun came out, the sea was flat, and progress was excellent. We swept past the iconic headlands of St Albans Head and Portland Bill with fair tide underneath us.

It was a little worrying that three warships were conducting live-firing exercises in the area, issuing repeated warnings on VHF, though we were not sure exactly how we were supposed to stay out of their way, when their “ten-mile safety radius” actually took in large areas of England, never mind the sea corridor we were following.

Every now and then we heard the bump-bump-bump of heavy guns firing, but fortunately they missed us! No doubt they could see where we were, thanks to our AIS transmission. And speaking of AIS, part of the fun of the day was that we could see we were cruising in company with two fellow Triangle competitors. When we eventually reached Torquay, we found we’d all been monitoring each other.

Even more spookily, when the race director David Rayment welcomed us to Torquay, finding us a berth and taking our lines, he told us that he’d been tracking our progress all the way from the East Coast, and knew we’d stopped off in Eastbourne and Yarmouth!

It’s good to be back in the familiar surroundings of the Town Dock in Torquay and enjoying the hospitable welcome of the Royal Torbay Yacht Club. We now have a couple of days off to get the boat ready and catch up on our rest before the race briefing and reception on Saturday and the race start on Sunday. It promises to be a highly sociable interlude!

Tuesday June 12: Eastbourne to Yarmouth
50.42.42N 01.30.05W

Sovereign Harbour is two or three miles outside Eastbourne proper and we enjoyed our free bus passes yesterday when we went into town for some exploring. It was yet another largely grey day, but the scenery in these parts is magnificent – and the view from the top deck of the bus was great.
 
Back at the marina we visited the frighteningly large ASDA next door, did some reprovisioning, and then, as the sun finally came out in late afternoon, abandoned our plan to head for the waterside eateries, and self-catered in the cockpit instead.

It was now clear that some really bad weather is due at the end of the week, so we made plans for two long-day trips, to get to Torquay before the storm – and then had an early night, ready for an early start.

This morning, as we prepared to leave, we saw what we took to be members of the lifeboat crew sprinting towards the lock. When we locked through a short time later, the all-weather lifeboat was still on her mooring outside, but we could see a rescue helicopter hovering over the cliffs just east of Beachy Head, and the AIS told us that the ILB (inshore lifeboat – a very fast RIB - rigid inflatable boat – sorry for all the TLAs - three letter acronyms) was creeping along the beach beneath it.

By the time we had hoisted sail (one reef in the main, in deference to the forecast, although at this stage things didn’t look too bad) and set course to clear Beachy Head, we could see the lifeboatmen on the beach, helping the helicopter winchman to secure a casualty into a stretcher which was then hoisted into the helicopter, which headed off over the town, presumably to the hospital. It was all achieved with impressive speed.

Beachy Head has never been our favourite place, and even with an offshore wind and flat seas, it sprang an unpleasant surprise, in the form of vicious down-draught gusts, which soon had us tucking in the second reef and rolling away much of the heavy weather jib, back down to storm sail proportions.
 
The forecast was north-easterly five to seven, decreasing three to four. When we’d poked our heads out of Eastbourne, it looked as if the wind had already moderated, but it turned out not to be so! The wind stayed heavy and gusty all morning, and the sea was quite rough. It rained most of the time, too. No matter. The wind, though strong, was behind us, and progress was extremely rapid, which was just what we wanted.

Selsey Bill, the next headland, at the entrance to the Solent, is the boundary between two inshore forecast areas, and the forecast from Selsey Bill to Lyme Regis was slightly kinder than the forecast from North Foreland to Selsey Bill. So we joked that things would get better once we reached Selsey – and amazingly enough, they did.

As we popped out between the two buoys that mark the narrow exit from the Looe Channel, the wind dropped dramatically, and the water flattened just as noticeably. Soon we were shaking out the reefs and unrolling the rest of the headsail. It was like entering a different country.

The sun was even trying to come out as we sailed past Cowes and down the Western Solent. And thanks to the hectic conditions of the morning, we arrived in Yarmouth a couple of hours earlier than expected – in time to go ashore for a well-earned evening meal at the renowned King’s Head.

An enormous amount of money has been spent by the harbour commissioners, turning Yarmouth into “a giant marina,” which traditionalists deplore. But we were delighted by the improvements, finding a finger berth with electricity, where it used to be a matter of rafting on piles. And although the Almanac had led us to expect to pay a high price for the new facilities, it turns out that there are reduced rates midweek. So all in all, a result!

Sunday June 10: Levington to Eastbourne
50.47.34N 00.19.90E

We set the alarm for 0400. It was, just as forecast, a stunning morning, with a clear blue sky and no wind at all. What a difference a day makes! We were already on our way down the river as the sun rose, spectacularly.
 
But we knew we had to make the most of the conditions, as already another low is making its way up the Channel, and rain – squally, thundery showers even – and stronger winds are forecast “later” – and already there was an ominous-looking line of cloud forming on the far horizon.

We were determined to get as far as we reasonably could. The trip across the Thames Estuary was as easy as it gets. There was wonderful visibility – we could see both Kent and Essex when we were half way across, which is quite rare. We also saw a couple of porpoises, which is always cheering.

And we’d managed to get the tide dead right down the Gull Stream, where it flows extremely fast, squeezed between east Kent and the Goodwin Sands, so we absolutely flew past Ramsgate and Dover. No thought of stopping at either. But we did our sums and realised we would not get to Brighton until midnight at the earliest, probably too late as we would be very tired and the weather would certainly be deteriorating by then.

So that left Eastbourne, 20 miles nearer, and that is where we shaped our course. It was getting cloudier, and the wind was gradually filling in from the east, as forecast, but as we were travelling west, running away from it, there wasn’t enough to sail, at least not at the speed we needed to achieve. So the motor kept chugging away, carrying us towards Dungeness – still with fair tide.


And we kept seeing porpoises – ten in all, including two mums with calves  – a record for a single voyage. We were really quite enjoying ourselves, until just after Dungeness, still with 25 miles to go to Eastbourne, when it started to rain, and the visibility shut right down. The wind was getting up too. It was turning into a filthy night, just as forecast.

The only saving grace was that the tide never set against us, as we had been expecting. Perhaps because it’s neaps at the moment, perhaps because the following wind was giving us a little help, with the mainsail set, we continued to make excellent progress, and reached Eastbourne at 1900, rather earlier than we’d been expecting.

Turning upwind to take the sail down was a bit of a struggle. (As we’re in “racing mode” we don’t have the stack pack and lazy jacks that make light of this process when cruising normally.)  And once we were in the lock at Eastbourne it started to rain in real earnest.
By the time we were moored it had turned into a very unpleasant evening indeed. The wind was once again howling in the rigging.

“Thank goodness we’re not off Beachy Head on our way to Brighton!” said the skipper with some feeling. The mate heartily agreed. We metaphorically pulled up the drawbridge, delighted to have crossed 90 miles off the distance to Torquay. It’s still two long day sails away, but we’re back on schedule to get there in time to start the race. In fact, we’re going to award ourselves a day’s holiday in Eastbourne tomorrow.

We’ve popped into this conveniently-placed harbour a couple of times before, just to grab a night’s sleep on passage. But we’ve never stopped long enough to explore beyond the marina gates. We feel it’s time to make good that omission!

Saturday June 9: Levington to – Levington
51.59.54N 01.16.06E

We’d hoped to leave on Thursday, the first day we were free of other commitments, so that we could have a gentle, holiday-type cruise to Torquay in easy stages, to be ready for the start of the Triangle Race.

Unfortunately, unseasonally bad weather was forecast. Thursday was bad enough – cold, wet and windy as so much of this year has been so far. Yesterday (Friday) was worse.

Freak gales caused the cancellation of the second day of the Suffolk Show for the first time in its 180-odd year history – marquees were blowing down, and the site was deemed unsafe. It certainly wasn’t a day to think about going sailing. You could hardly stand up on the yacht harbour pontoons. But the forecast was that today the wind would drop right away to nothing.

Anxious to be making progress, we decided to wait for the lunchtime forecast, and if it was at all encouraging, to get started, going at least the 30-odd miles to Ramsgate, and further – Dover, or even overnight to Brighton, if it really did calm right down, as the forecast suggested.

The lunchtime forecast was encouraging: still SW 4-7, but dropping 3-4 and turning easterly – an ideal direction for heading down Channel. We felt we ought to have a go. It was fine in the river. With one reef in the main and the heavy weather jib, the boat was flying very comfortably, just off the wind. It was nothing like as windy as our trip back from Ostend last week.

But as we headed out towards the harbour, we were soon rolling away part of the jib, reducing it to almost storm-sail proportions.
Tantalisingly, the breeze seemed to be dropping as forecast, with longer lulls between the fiercest gusts. We were encouraged to continue heading out to sea.

But it soon became clear that the lulls had been a false dawn. The breeze was back with a vengeance. If our route had been all off the wind (like coming back from Ostend last week) we wouldn’t have minded. But part of the route across the sandbanks of the Thames estuary would be straight upwind. And the sea, perhaps left over from the storm conditions of the day before, was decidedly rough.

An extra fierce gust blew through.
“We really need the second reef,” said the skipper. “Or shall we just turn round?”
“Turn round,” replied the mate, without hesitation. So we did. We rolled away the jib completely, and were still scudding back into Harwich harbour at more than seven knots. Far from dropping as forecast, the wind seemed to be building.

Getting back into our berth in the marina was going to be tricky.
So, to avoid any risk of damaging the boat, we picked up a mooring buoy off the entrance, and spent the afternoon altering the passage plan for departure the following day – and waiting for the wind to drop, which eventually it did – rather later than forecast.

We’d been right to turn back. It was still blowing hard at the time we would have been beating up the Black Deep.
It turned into a lovely evening, eventually. We returned safely to our marina berth, and had an early night, ready for a dawn departure in what now looked like motoring conditions.

But we’re already three days behind schedule. The hoped-for leisurely cruise is now starting to look like a rather rushed delivery trip – especially as the weather outlook for the week ahead continues to be decidedly unsettled.

Sunday June 3: Not looking forward to the journey home!
50.59.54N 01.16.06E

 

Saturday was sunny, as it always seems to be in Ostend. We spent the morning laying in stores, delighted to discover that the weakness of the euro means that wine is still relatively inexpensive there. The same sadly is no longer true of restaurants, which seem to have hiked their prices by up to 100 per cent since our last visit a couple of years ago. So instead of treating ourselves to a meal out, as planned, we bought some fresh seafood (crab claws and tasty brown shrimps) and opted to eat on board.

 

There was a nice surprise at the prizegiving, when we discovered that, even though we hadn’t done very well in the race (eighth out of 11 finishers – once you’re going slowly the smaller boats are always going to beat the bigger boats on handicap) – we got a special prize for being the only two-handed entry.

 

That was the good news. The bad news was that the weather forecast had taken an unexpected turn for the worse. We’d all been confidently expecting a gentle motor back in very little wind. Now suddenly a lot of wind was forecast. But at least it was from a good direction. So we took off the big racing headsail, put on the heavy weather jib, and awarded ourselves a sensible early night in readiness for what we knew was going to be a rough crossing.

 

When the alarm went at 04.30 not only was the wind howling menacingly, but it was raining extremely hard, too. For two pins, we’d have gone back to bed, but the two boats we’d agreed to cross in company with were getting ready to leave. And the wind direction was good. We could have stayed for another day, in hope of lighter winds, but the forecast said they would be from a far less helpful direction. We decided we might as well go. At least it was going to be quick!

 

It hurt to do it, but we put two reefs in our brand new racing mainsail, unfurled the heavy jib, and set off like a rocket. As someone on one of the other boats said later, if only the sun had been shining, it would have been one of those trips that stays in your memory as one of the best ever.

 

As it was, the rain and the cold dampened our enthusiasm somewhat (rather like all those people watching the Jubilee pageant on the Thames at the same time.) But if we didn’t like the conditions, the boat absolutely loved them. She was making incredible speed on the waves kicked up by the “thick Six” easterly, and the skipper was grinning all over his face as he span the wheel, encouraging her to plane down them.

 

We covered the 56 miles from Ostend to Longsand in just seven hours – an average of eight knots. It was as painless as it could be, really. Especially when we got the lunchtime Shipping Forecast, and instead of promising moderating conditions as forecasts had in the morning (that was what persuaded us to go) it was now talking of winds increasing to force seven, possibly eight, later!

 

Were we ever glad we’d decided to go. How depressed we’d have been if we’d still been in Ostend!

 

But why is it that this so often happens? On Friday, we raced to Ostend, and it took us 14 hours to get there. Today we cruised back, and it took just ten. Never mind, all in all it’s been a great weekend. All we need now is a (much) better forecast later in the week, to head off down to Torquay.

 

Friday June 1:  Mercator Race to Ostend
51.14.35N 02.55.09E

 

What a disappointing spring it’s been. I haven’t minded being indoors, chained to the computer, working on the magazine, rather than being out there sailing, because the weather seems to have been endlessly cold, wet and windy.

 

But there was a deadline. Not only had the magazine to be finished by the end of May, but I had to be ready to take part in the Mercator Race, on Friday June 1. Run by the Haven Series (or organisation representing the combined clubs of the rivers Deben, Orwell and Stour, and Walton Backwaters), this 78-miler goes from Harwich to Ostend.

 

We’ve been regular competitors in it, firstly crewing in other people’s boats, and then since 1984 in our own boats, for some 30-odd years. In fact last year was the first for decades when we hadn’t done the annual Ostend jolly, and somehow it didn’t feel quite right – even though we enjoyed enormously our cruise to Spain, which took us away for the whole summer.

 

So this year we decided going to Ostend was a must, and even though this is normally a fully-crewed race, we opted to do it two-handed, as a dress rehearsal for the Triangle.

 

It seemed like a nice day, as we motored down to Harwich for the 07.30 start, and there was a good forecast, not only for the race, but also for the return trip on Sunday. But as all seasoned sailors know, it’s dangerous to put too much faith in forecasts!

 

The first leg was a spinnaker run, and we made a conservative start, not wanting to get mixed up with any other boats while we got the kite up and pulling. But all went well, until it came to the gybe at the first mark, Medusa. The problem there was not our sail handling (although it was a bit rusty) but the fact that the wind was dying. Soon we were wallowing about, going nowhere, except drifting (fortunately vaguely in the direction we wanted to go) on the fierce spring tide.

 

At North East Gunfleet, the next mark, what little wind there was went from behind to ahead. We peeled to plain sail and found ourselves on a dead beat, where neither tack pointed the way we wanted to go. We were already hours behind schedule – unlikely to reach Ostend before closing time at the Royal North Sea Yacht Club. And already a couple of boats near us had started their engines and retired – one to dash on over the horizon heading for Belgium, another to head back home, disappointed.

 

I think every other boat in the fleet watched them and wondered if that wasn’t the right thing to do. There’s not much fun in racing when the log is reading 0 knots. But just as our resolve was weakening (at Long Sand Head, where you start the 56-mile leg across the North Sea to Ostend) we caught sight of one of the “slower” boats, steaming up from way behind, spinnaker pulling beautifully, charging towards us on new wind.

 

And soon after we’d drifted past the buoy, the new wind reached us too. And from a two-handed perspective, it couldn’t have been better. It was a two-sail reach, just cracked off – the fastest, and least demanding point of sailing there is.

 

Brave was charging towards Ostend at seven knots plus, and although we weren’t going to be there in time for a drink at the yacht club, we weren’t going to be out all night, as had been looking so likely. All thoughts of retirement forgotten, we enjoyed a brilliant afternoon and evening on the water.

 

All in all it proved an excellent rehearsal for the Triangle, reminding us just how rusty some of our racing skills had become, but supplying useful revision. And we really enjoyed the new electronics we’ve had fitted this winter (his'n'hers Raymarine e-7 touch-screen chart-plotters, HD digital radar and AIS transponder).

 

As everybody who has already had it has been telling us, AIS (automatic identification system) is a wonderful tool. Every ship (and some yachts) broadcasts its position, and the plotter screen can tell you at a glance whether a ship is on a collision course, or passing at a safe distance.

 

This is going to be invaluable, once we’re out there in the Western Approaches!

 

Wednesday February 29: Leap Year plans
51.59.54N 01.16.06E

 

The theory was that editing a quarterly magazine would mean working extremely hard for one month in three, to complete an issue, and then having two months off to go sailing, before starting work on the next edition.

 

Having just completed the March issue of Cruising, my first, I can confirm that it does take a month of extremely hard work. But it's enjoyable, too! So now can we look forward to two months to play on the boat? Not quite.

 

For one thing, she’s not due to be launched for a couple of weeks. For another, various other commitments seem to be creeping into the picture, which will complicate getting away for the whole of June and July (after the June issue of Cruising goes to press, and before work on the September one starts).

 

So we abandoned our plans for a lightning visit to the Baltic (it was going to be a bit of a rush, even with two months available. With six weeks or less, which is what we’re looking at now, it’s an absolute no-no). And we started to look at what we could realistically fit into the time available.

 

The answer seemed to be the Royal Torbay YC’s Triangle Race, this year once again sponsored by Yachting Monthly. We have competed in this “double-handed 620-mile challenge” twice before, in 1990, in the original Brave, a Sigma 33 OOD, and in 2008, in the current Brave.

 

One both occasions, we enjoyed the event immensely, although neither running was without its “beam me up” moments! The race starts in Torquay, and the first leg – 200 miles or so, involving at least a night at sea ­– takes competitors (there are 34 boats taking part this year) to Kinsale in southern Ireland, one of our favourite places.

 

The second leg goes from Kinsale to Treguier in northern Brittany, another favourite, where Les Triangleurs, as we are known, receive an amazing welcome, including a civic reception in the cathedral cloisters, following a procession from the marina, led by the town band. This is the longest leg, at just under 300 miles, probably involving two nights at sea.

 

And then the final leg is a 100-mile “squirt” back to Torquay. After the two longer legs, it seems to take no time at all, although it is specially timed to be another overnighter.

 

It might seem like shocking hard work, and on one level it is, but what makes this an event that people keep coming back to (and we’ll be meeting old friends from 1990 as well as from 2008) is the social programme, as much as the sailing.

 

The Triangle was devised by Andrew Bray, then editor of Yachting Monthly, to enable people with limited free time to get a taste of long-distance racing, and the shore-parties that go with it. It has proved an enduringly successful formula. This year’s will be the 26th running of the race.

 

It’s also perfectly timed to fit into our work and other commitments this summer. It runs from June 17-29 (the longest days of the summer, when the short nights help to make the overnighters as easy as possible). And that means we have two weeks to get to Torquay, after the June edition of the magazine is put to bed, and time to get home again afterwards – weather always permitting.

 

It will be a different challenge from the leisurely, live-aboard cruising we’ve enjoyed for the last three seasons. But it will be interesting to see if the lessons we’ve learned from those recent, epic passages have helped to hone our racing skills, too. We can’t wait to find out.