Having just spent the past 22 months refitting our boat Aremiti, the time has come for the challenge we have been promising ourselves for many years - a circumnavigation of Britain. We want to see our own country, from the outside looking in. In fact, it won't really be a circumnavigation, as we're planning to end up in London, rather than completing the circle. We're not looking to break any records - the record for a circumnavigation of Britain is apparently 7 days and 4 hours (in a large well crewed racing yacht without stopping) - we have 3 1/2 months - so it should be fairly relaxed - though we're likely to get weather-bound along the way - given the typical British summer. The basic plan is to get up to Scotland as reasonably quickly as possible, then to slow down for a 'holiday' phase cruising around the Scottish islands, before finally setting off over to the east coast by the beginning of September to head south for London.
However, just to complicate things, although we have finished all the wiring, plumbing, scrubbing, sanding, varnishing, fitting, etc. etc., none of our new equipment and instrumentation has been tested. This will be our shake-down cruise and we must expect teething problems and things generally not to go exactly as planned. Furthermore, we have hardly sailed this boat before and done very little sailing at all over the past few years - so the voyage will be a test for us as well as the boat. Hopefully it is not too foolhardy a venture. At least we are around our own coast and the natives will speak English if things go wrong - which they inevitably will. So fingers crossed!
As someone told us, there are only three types of wind for sailors - too strong, too weak and in the wrong direction. We have experienced all of these during our first two weeks out of Bristol. The first leg was to get out of the Bristol Channel. We decided it was important, psychologically, to get this done by any means possible, not wanting to wait for what could be a very long time for the almost invariable westerlies to go easterly. Frustratingly, the winds had been easterly for a rare 2-3 week period just before we were ready (enough) to leave - so this summer's ration has probably already been used up.
Our first glitch occurred as we approached Bristol locks on departure, when the main VHF refused to work and at the same time the alternator failed. A loose alternator connection was quickly fixed and we switched to the hand-held VHF. All psyched up to leave, we made the snap decision to carry on out of Bristol on the basis that we could stop at Portishead, or Cardiff, or anywhere - to fix these problems. So, having locked out at midday and chugged down the River Avon, we turned west into the Severn straight into 20 knots on the nose. Not terribly welcoming - though not unexpected - and we managed to get motor-sailing in the typically lumpy and stopping brown chop that is the River Severn. The second mishap occurred as we approached the islands of Steepholm and Flatholm, when the topping lift came adrift and managed to wrap itself inextricably around the wind generator at the top of the mizzen mast. With a forecast of stronger adverse winds for the next day, we decided to press on and to sort it and the VHF out later, rather than to divert into Cardiff. Once through the Holms, the seas died down a bit and the water started to look a bit less brown. While the skies over the English side looked very murky indeed, in Wales the sun was shining and we kept on motor-sailing for the rest of the day, past the limestone cliffs of Nash Point and on to the Gower, where we anchored in tranquil Oxwich Bay just after midnight.
Next morning while the 5.30 Inshore Waters Forecast predicted stronger SW winds later, the reality was a clear blue sky and no wind at all. We decided to continue on to Milford Haven. It would have been nice to be sailing, but it was at least comforting to experience the engine reliably purring away hour after hour. It was all very pleasant and peaceful in the hot sunshine - wild-life all around - Chris twittering, shearwaters rafting, and dolphins leaping. We were just admiring and photographing the dolphins criss-crossing our bow when we were approached by a fast patrol vessel - indicating he wanted to speak on the VHF (nice to see dolphins playing around their bow too!). It turned out that we were about to stray into an expanded military firing range and were required to alter course to stay outside - which added a good couple of hours to the passage, getting us into Dale - at the head of Milford Haven sound by about 4.30, where we picked up a buoy. Celebrated our first leg with bottle of our favourite NZ sauvignon blanc - 126 miles from Bristol - and out of the dread Bristol Channel!
By next morning, the strong south westerlies had arrived with blustery rain. Obviously not enticing for sailing to Skomer, we decided to go into the marina at Milford Haven to sort out the VHF and topping lift. This was an absolutely horrid 5 mile trip with steep breaking seas broadside on to us as we passed across the entrance to the sound. However, the day improved and having sorted out the VHF aerial, we got Chris up the mizzen mast to unwrap the topping lift from the Aerogen. Jobs done, we went off for a stroll in Milford Haven - a stereotypical British seaside town, dominated incongruously by its mighty oil terminal installations. The following day was blustery and wet again and still not conducive to a trip over to the island of Skomer, so we returned to our mooring buoy in Dale, where we spent the afternoon getting seriously to grips with the passage planning up to the Menai Strait, as the Aerogen, released from its entanglement whirred away, whacking impressive power into the boat.
Having been working so hard on getting the boat refit finished (the radar wiring was only completed two days before we left), we hadn't looked seriously at the navigational details of this voyage before we left. We hadn't quite appreciated the navigational implications of the strong tides in the Irish Sea which fills and empties itself with great gusto twice a day. Working out the correct tidal timings is crucial, both for rounding islands and headlands where dangerous overfalls occur and also for ensuring that we are travelling with rather than against the tides as much as possible.
The following day was still breezy, but bright, so we set off for Skomer - sailing at last. With our destination right on the nose, this provided us with useful tacking practice. We anchored in South Haven on Skomer for lunch and an idyllic afternoon and evening. Skomer is a riot of bird life - vast numbers of puffins, guillemots, shearwaters and gulls. Seals popped their heads up from time to time to have a look at us - but were distinctly camera shy.
The following morning we were up at 3.30 ready for our next long leg, after an extremely rolly night at anchor. Departing about an hour after slack water, we quickly realised we had totally underestimated the overfalls between Skomer and Skockholm - scarily steep mountains and valleys of water. However, the boat coped with this in a gratifyingly seakindly way, though we later discovered that the anchor had been thrown out of its place and gouged out a piece of deck edge. With a forecast of north westerlies, we motored out to South Bishop Rock straight into the wind to get ourselves as much westing as possible, where we encountered more nasty overfalls. However, once we turned on to our course we got sailing, storming along at 8-9 knots over ground with the tide. We were pleasantly surprised at the boat's sailing performance - helped no doubt by our new mainsail and feathering prop. However, by afternoon the tide inevitably started running against us and then the wind started dropping off too. Eventually we had to start motoring, with Bardsey Island in sight 17 miles away. Our original plan to anchor off Bardsey was not feasible, given the critical tidal timing needed to move on from there, so we carried on around the Lleyn Peninsular for another 3 hours to a fairly shallow and open anchorage at Porth Dinllaen arriving at around 8pm, having clocked up another 88 miles.
Our next navigational challenge was the Caernarfon Bar - much to be feared according to the pilot books: "The route through the sands moves with every storm, sometimes changing dramatically as the sea breaks through in one place or the gap closes in another". We had checked out the latest route on the internet. Tension mounted as we checked and rechecked our tide times - needing to set off on this tricky 5 mile passage just before high water. The weather was extremely calm and windless - so easy conditions, but visibility was poor. All went without a hitch - basically buoy hopping in strongly swirling water between sandbanks, and we arrived safely into Caernarfon.
The first impression of Caernarfon is of a quaint and picturesque walled town dominated by the huge castle. The castle, one of the 'Iron Ring' of castles around Snowdon built in the thirteenth century by Edward I, is everything a castle should be - battlements, turrets, winding passages and all on a very impressive scale. Sadly the town itself seems to have fallen on hard times, with streets of closed and boarded up shops and an air of desolation.
The tourist trade is in full fling with ice cream and souvenir shops doing good trade - but the proliferation on the streets of aged people on coach tours and teenage Mums seems to sum the place up. The only thing that seems alive and well is the Welsh language, spoken everywhere by young and old alike.
By now, the fact that the country was basking in a heatwave, meant windless conditions for us, so we stayed on an extra day to 'do' Snowdon - and in particular the much hyped Visitor Centre, opened only a couple of weeks before, to replace the cafe described by Prince Charles as "the highest slum in Wales." We went up on the train, a quite fascinating experience in itself. The Visitor Centre seemed a rather severe piece of architecture, self-consciously trying to fit into the landscape. The summit was incongruously crowded with people all photographing each other at the top of the mountain - obviously the Visitor Centre has proved a very popular attraction.
With still windless conditions, we next had to tackle the 'Swellies' - the stretch of the Menai Strait between the road and rail bridges between the mainland and Anglesey. Here, the tide runs at speed through the rock strewn narrows - at one point of the tide the speed can increase by a knot every 10 minutes because of the difference in the times of high water at each end of the strait, reaching 8 knots at springs. We were on springs - making it pretty crucial to get the timing right for this. The passage proved far less fearsome than hyped and we were through in about 20 minutes, though it was slightly unnerving to encounter a fleet of yachts coming the other way, all trying to keep on the same transits as us.
After a peaceful night anchored at Menai Bridge, we set off on our next long passage, to the Isle of Man. We had found it hard to choose our next destination - either Liverpool and the Isle of Man, and rather hoped the wind would make the decision for us. However, winds were forecast to be light and equally suitable for either destination. Having decided on the Isle of Man, we threaded our way through the sandbanks on the eastern end of the strait and headed north to find a glassy sea with no wind at all. Visibility was very poor indeed - so not heading into the busy port of Liverpool was probably a good choice as it turned out. We arrived and anchored off Castletown, in the south of the Isle of Man after 10 hours - again a very good performance by the engine - and also the radar. The sun finally came out to give us a lovely evening, though the tide was so low that we were thwarted in our attempts to get ashore by dinghy.
The following day we made the 10 mile passage to the capital - Douglas - where we set ourselves the task of making a whistle-stop tour of the island in one day, using as many means of public transport as possible. Using our finely honed navigational skills - checking and rechecking the timetables - we came up with an itinerary, which involved a steam train, several buses, the Manx Electric Railway, the Snaefell Mountain Railway and a horse drawn tram. Two days hardly qualifies us to say much about the island, but our first impressions were of a sleepy atmosphere stuck in a '50s time warp - except probably for the TT races, evidenced by the bales of straw still attached to walls and trees on the road sides. Pretty countryside with plenty of quaint cottages, but unfortunately also some small 1930s housing estates featuring too much pebbledash.
Our final leg this month was to Whitehaven, at the edge of the Lake District, which we were keen to visit to meet friends and also because Julia lived in the area for a few years over 30 years ago. The 40 mile passage did not get off to a promising start - out into a glassy sea and tide against us. Chris tinkered with the AIS and got it working, while Julia attempted to photograph jelly fish - not as easy as you might think, though they appeared around us in huge numbers. However, to our joy, a wind began to flicker and we enjoyed a brilliant sail, making 3 knots in only 5 knots of wind, then 4 knots in 8 knots of wind gradually building to a peak of 6.5 knots at just under 15 knots. The warm sunshine and a flat sea were not at all how we had imagined the northern Irish Sea would be - but we weren't complaining. We finally arrived into the locked harbour at around 5pm, having waited outside for an hour in the queue of fishing boats entering and leaving.
Whitehaven was a great stop - just two days. Our berth gave us a full view of the sea lock and fishing boat activities. This is evidently a very active fishing port with boats coming and going the whole time. We met up with our friends and went off for a very luxurious night at their home, taking in a mini tour of the northern Lakes along the way.
So far so good - 373 miles in 16 days. Our efforts over the past couple of years seem to have been rewarded by a boat we really enjoy sailing, and equipment that works well - with few hitches so far. Next stop Scotland!