September 2002 : Homecoming


As I write this on the last day of September, it is almost impossible to believe that just four weeks ago we were anchored amongst a fleet of brightly coloured fishing boats in the precarious little harbour of Finisterre in north-western Spain, focused on sea conditions and the concerns of our impending crossing of the Bay of Biscay – a very familiar sort of scenario for us over the past three years. Now back home in Bristol – our big adventure completed – our world could not be more different, both physically and mentally, as we get to grips with a life that has become rather unfamiliar to us. It has been quite a month.

The Bay of Biscay has a fearsome reputation. The typical picture at these latitudes is of depressions tracking eastwards across the Atlantic, which can build up dangerously rough seas over the shallow waters of the continental shelf. We were looking for a ‘window’ of a few days clear of depressions - but having left it rather late in the summer, dared not wait around too long. We were undecided, not to say somewhat spooked, as we avidly monitored the weather forecasts from a variety of sources over several days – five day forecasts on the internet, all manner of forecasts by faxes routinely broadcast by the British Navy from Northwood, plus radio forecasts from local coastal stations. It was hard to keep up with the changing scenarios, and we realised that we would probably never feel entirely confident of having identified the perfect moment to leave – if in fact it existed. Testing the waters, we nudged our way further up the coast – the dread ‘Costa da Morte’ - from Muros to Finisterre and then from Finisterre to Camarinas – both short legs but very hard against the wind. Beating into 25+ knots seemed definitely not a good start to a 500 mile passage, and it was easy to decide against that. Then came the day when the pattern suddenly changed, and we made the decision to eat ashore early that evening and to leave at sunset – around 8pm – whereupon a dense fog came rolling in!

The next morning we were on our way, and in the event of course, all went very well. Our departure was into dank, dismal and distinctly chilly conditions – a foretaste we feared of the English climate. Our last sight of foreign parts – the jagged outline of Cabo Villano – faded mistily from view quite soon, and that was that. We spent the day motoring in a flat sea – the most exciting event a visit from a large troupe of mildly enthusiastic dolphins en route apparently to something more interesting than us elsewhere. On day two a breeze kicked in rather fitfully which we put to good use to get across the busy shipping lane – or rather motorway - on the direct route between Finisterre and Ushant. An attempt to strike up a radio friendship with a tall ship we had been shadowing all night failed through lack of interest on their part, in us - a mere yacht. Day three was bright and sunny with a good sailing wind. Event of the day was the return to our airwaves of BBC Radio 4 – Shipping Forecasts and The Archers – not to mention Test Match Special. Forecasts we could really trust – which would have been even more heartwarming had it not brought news of nastiness brewing in sea area Lundy, just when we anticipated we might get there! As we passed from the ocean depths over the banks of the continental shelf, we encountered strange and wayward currents – and a patch as far as the torch beam could reach of tiny leaping fishes. The pace was increasing and Day four was fast and furious with 30 knots blowing from behind. In sparkling sunshine this was marvellously exhilarating and felt like a welcoming nudge homewards. As the seas built all day we spent the afternoon glued to the VHF radio listening to rescue operations for an Irish yacht which had lost its rudder – no fun at all in such conditions. A large merchant vessel was on the scene, somewhat reluctantly standing by, pending the arrival of the British warship ‘Anglesey’ which, together with Falmouth Coastguard took the situation in hand, organising a tow for the yacht from a fishing boat. When we realised the incident was only 12 miles from our position we chipped in with an offer of help – but somewhat to our relief this was not required! It was greatly heartwarming hearing these lovely familiar English accents over the radio – the imperturbable coastguard, the professional British Navy and the Cornish fisherman brimming with competence. The crew of the Irish yacht, overwhelmed by gratitude for their salvation were fulsome in their thanks to ‘Anglesey’ – to which the laconic response was "Our commanding officer comes from Cork, so we had no choice"! Comforting to know, after over 30,000 miles mostly on our own, that such help was at hand – especially when the merchant vessel, having left the scene, then nearly ploughed into us ten minutes later, apparently not having noticed this second yacht, causing us to take last minute evasive action in quite difficult conditions!

We were by now closing the Cornish coast at nightfall, and it was clear that we would not make it around to Padstow in time for the early morning tidal gate opening. In the increasingly boisterous conditions we wondered what to do with a spare eight hours – before the next gate opening. We toyed with putting into Newlyn for a short stop, but with a less threatening new forecast obtained from the coastguard, and the tide turning against us, we decided to press on around Land’s End and to drift gently up the Bristol Channel during the next day. We barely took in the significance of our first sight of English shorelights, so busy is the area with the beams of myriad lighthouses – a couple looming out from the Scillies to the west, Wolf Rock and Long Ships ahead of us, and Tater Du and Lizard Point around to the east – familiar and evocative names indeed. The area is fraught with navigational challenge – a treacherously rocky lee shore, strong tidal currents, and no less than three traffic separation schemes in the vicinity. Once round and into the Bristol Channel things quietened down navigationally. No gentle drifting though - wind and tide now both started strongly going with us and roared us up towards Padstow at great speed – but just in time to miss the morning opening. This was the biggest tide of the year - in an area of big tides – and when it turned against us, the wind over tide situation was very rough indeed. It was hard to imagine there could be anywhere for us to stop for the hours until the harbour would re-open – but we found a miraculous little spot. Rounding a dramatic rocky headland, against all hope was a bay of flat blue water, surrounded by cliffs, coves and little beaches plus a spectacular lifeboat ramp – a truly world-class anchorage! After a celebratory brunch of bacon and eggs we promptly fell fast asleep. We duly made our way around to Padstow on the next high tide, and once tied up on the harbour wall in a prime location overlooking harbour and town, popped the champagne and dug into pasties (from Rick Stein’s deli) and tinned peaches (from our grab bag – on the basis that should we sink between Padstow and Bristol, starvation would not be the main problem!).

Padstow was the perfect landfall – sunny weather, the picturesque little harbour and town snugly surrounding us, happy relaxed holidaymakers strolling around, a brass band in the background – and stupendous food. We have enjoyed many exotic and delightful cuisines all over the world, but when all is said and done, Cornish pasties, fish and chips, cream teas and Cornish ice cream take a lot of beating! We were in heaven. Padstow was just exactly as we had fondly remembered it – our time there had a dreamlike quality to it. Were we really back again after our great adventure – had we really ever been away at all? We have to admit we rather relished answering the questions of passers-by – "How far out do you go?", "Have you come all the way from Bristol?" – and basking in the ensuing amazed admiration! It was a very good time and space in which to prolong our happy anticipation of the real homecoming to family, friends and Bristol, but without having to face up to some of the more worrying realities ahead of us.

Padstow to Bristol is a mere 120 miles – not obviously too much of a challenge. However, the Bristol Channel is something else. With the second greatest tidal range in the world the current can run up to 7 knots. Such tides cannot be bucked so it’s a question of progressing in stages – moving with the flood and waiting out the ebb. Where to wait is tricky since all the harbours on either side of the channel dry out at low water or have tidal lock gates which are only open for a couple of hours each side of high water. Suitable anchorages are few and far between. We had planned our first anchoring stop at Lundy Island – somewhere we’d always wanted to visit but been thwarted on the two previous occasions we’d been passing by. However, this was not third time lucky. By the time we left Padstow the wind had inconveniently changed against us which not only slowed our progress, but exposed the Lundy anchorage making it too dangerous to stop there. Never mind – it’s probably a good thing to have a few unfulfilled ambitions. It will probably now form the focus of our cruising aspirations over the next few years!

It would be nice to report that our final full day’s sail had been an enjoyable one – but it wasn’t particularly! We set off at 5am having anchored for six hours waiting out the ebb off Porlock, with 38 miles to the next stop, to be done in one tide. The wind was by now blowing at 25 knots against us in opposition to the 3 – 4 knots of tide washing us upstream. This combination of wind and tide set up a remarkably nasty chop with serious stopping power – a very strange sensation to be battling hard for every inch of progress through the water, whilst actually moving along, according to the GPS, at 7 knots or so! The water was as muddy as a Borneo river and almost as full of vegetation, including a couple of logs which hit us. These waters are undoubtedly a world class sailing challenge! However, we made it up to Portishead, just outside the River Avon with perfect timing, and safely locked into the marina there. Not a very exciting location by any standards – but perfect for our purposes which were a serious sprucing up of Perdika and a big family reunion. After a day’s cleaning and polishing, my brother David arrived next morning, in his boat having sailed over from Cardiff with a couple of friends - all very wet from similar conditions to those we had experienced! My parents then arrived bearing bottles of champagne, and the party continued with Sarah and Kate who arrived en masse with their respective families to help with the celebrations – a fabulous afternoon which passed in something of a daze – used as we had been for quite some time only to our own company!

The following day we made our grand entry back into our home port of Bristol – a couple of miles from the marina at Portishead to the mouth of the River Avon and then a gentle and very pretty five miles up the river to the great lock gates of the Bristol floating harbour. Arriving into Bristol always makes one feel pretty important at any time, involving as it does the operation of a large and high lock and the swinging of two busy road bridges stopping the traffic. However our arrival exceeded all expectations we could possibly have had. An advance party of friends was waiting at the lock to see us in, which was a most heart-warming and welcoming sight. Once through, we set off up the harbour – colourful and sparkling in the sunshine. It was a surreal experience - doing for real something we had very frequently envisaged ourselves doing – heading up the harbour with the flags of every country we had visited flying, hoping someone might be there to wave us in. We were not disappointed! A crowd of about 60 was waiting with a champagne welcome – the most perfect ending our voyage could possibly have had – the best ever surprise party - we even had coverage from the local press and TV. Thank you so much to everyone who came – it was a fabulous and utterly memorable day for us.

Since then – now that we have finally ground to a halt? The first ten days or so were spent in a more or less euphoric state, basking in the glow of our welcome and sense of achievement, catching up with family and friends. On the day after our return into Bristol, we found ourselves all over the front page of the Bristol Evening Post, following a slot on the local TV news the evening before and a radio interview that morning – we became celebrities! We even overheard ourselves regularly being pointed out as a sight on one of the boat trips around the harbour! The pinnacle of our celebrity status was when, waiting at a bus stop one evening, a car drew up and the driver, who had recognised us, offered us a lift home! The weather in England since our arrival has been fabulous – sunny warm and dry, like September here often is – which has been a great lift to our rehabilitation. Inevitably though, subsequently a slight sense of anti-climax has begun to descend as we have become bogged down in the practicalities of re-organising ourselves and Perdika for a shorebased life over a British winter – frighteningly different to the carefree tropical existence we have become used to. We will be staying on board Perdika for the next few months, to give ourselves time to regroup and decide on future options. However, we were greatly relieved to find our house looking very presentable and to meet our new tenants – a group of four young men who seemed very pleased with the house and quite amenable to our descending on it with car loads of spare boat equipment to be swapped for winter clothes and bedding. It seems they’ll also be happy for us to tackle the garden for them – and we’ll certainly be happy for them to carry on paying our mortgage! House prices in the UK have risen to unimaginable heights in our absence so we’re more than glad we didn’t sell up. Not surprisingly, our income position is less solid, and overall of course, our great voyage has done our career prospects no good at all – but then we knew that when we left. However, Chris has immediately found himself back at his old workplace – now as a ‘Visiting Lecturer’ – which sounds rather more grand than it actually is – but is a useful start. He is suffering from a severe dose of culture shock. I am reasonably hopeful of a research post back in my old department due to start in mid-October. Currently, our existence is a confused and slightly unsettling one – not yet properly back into the mainstream of a shorebased life, but not carefree cruisers either. Many of our concerns are still cruising-based – where to get gas refills, where to do the laundry and shopping, finding out about local transport, etc., but now running alongside the work and family pleasures and responsibilities which have been absent from our lives for the past three years.

We are very happy to be in Bristol. From the moment we came through the harbour on our return it seemed to us colourful, thriving and active, and we love our location right in the heart of the city. Yesterday – Sunday - we woke to the usual warm bright sunshine, and the joyful sound of church bells. Across the harbour exotic banners with Chinese characters were flying and teams were arriving for the Dragon Boat Championships taking place in the harbour. A hot air balloon was being prepared for take-off nearby. It’s all go – and on that cheerful note, here endeth this final letter from Perdika!