September and October 2009 : Peterhead to London



Greetings from Aremiti - now in London, and Chris and Julia back to Bristol and normal life. It certainly feels very strange to be writing this letter at the kitchen table, already missing the constant checking of the weather.

We started September in Peterhead, just south of the Moray Firth in Scotland, 450 miles from our final destination of London. The east coast of Britain was completely unknown territory to either of us - by land or by sea. We had done no preparatory planning and not even bought the necessary charts and pilot books before we left, being not entirely confident that we would actually get to this point! The coastline looks innocent and uncomplicated on a map - in comparison with the chaos of the coast and islands of western Scotland - but we were to discover that in many ways this was to be the most daunting phase of the voyage. Once we started the preliminary planning, we were disconcerted to discover the scarcity of harbours available to us in comparison to the myriad possible destinations on the west coast. The east coast would demand far longer and far more exposed passages, but in shorter days as autumn was now upon us. There are no natural harbours and the next all-tide port after Peterhead would be Lowestoft - 350 miles south.

We hardly dared to think about the weather. The majority of east coast harbours become too dangerous to enter in easterly winds. We hadn't had easterly winds so far during the voyage so prayed for another month without them. On the other hand, we did want a change from southerly to northerly winds to speed our progress southwards. For this final phase we were under some time pressure, needing to get back to work in late September.

We spent two days in Peterhead - one to have a look at what goes on there and the other waiting for strong adverse winds to die down a bit - too much to hope they'd actually start going in our favour! Peterhead is one of the few remaining industrial scale fishing ports left in Scotland and there is nothing remotely picturesque about the huge complex of docks and associated services - ice-making, boat repair sheds, engineering, etc. - although we did spy a crew hand mending their nets. The boats were huge, including 3 absolute juggernauts - Quantas, Pathway and Polar Bay - capable of netting 500 tons in one catch. Far from treating us dilettante yachties with scorn, we found people very keen to chat to us about their industry - a complete stranger even took us on a little tour of the harbour and town. However, it was difficult to understand what was really going on. On the one hand we could see for ourselves that the port was in a state of constant and no doubt expensive development and improvement, and we were told of the vast sums to be earned in fishing. However, there was constant talk of the shrinking industry having been sold down the river by various governments. All rather too complex to get to the bottom of in such a short visit.

With wind still directly against us, but decreasing, we had to move on - this time with some new friends. At last we had met another yacht doing the same as ourselves. We first encountered Christina as we were crossing the Pentland Firth from Orkney, finding it reassuring to see another yacht there at the same time as us, apparently confirming that the weather and timing for that crucial passage were right. When we met them face to face in Wick, they said they had thought the same about us! We had spent time together in Wick and then made the stressful passage to Peterhead with them. The 39 mile passage to Stonehaven provided a great opportunity for some mutual photography of each other at sea - though it was disappointing that we were both motorsailing at the time and so didn't look our best. The trip itself was uneventful. We had fun with our AIS (the gizmo which identifies merchant ships, their course, speed and destination) checking out the mass of shipping around Aberdeen - very useful to discover that ships we had thought were on collision course with us were in fact at anchor! We arrived safely mid-afternoon and rafted up to a Dutch yacht on the harbour wall. This tiny and quaint little harbour could hardly have been a greater contrast with Peterhead.

This was a very fleeting visit. After a rolly night and a morning forecast of gales 'later' (in Met Office speak, 'later' = in 12 hours' time), which would make Stonehaven uncomfortable if not untenable, we decided to hightail it as soon as possible - as did the Dutch boat, although sadly not Christina. Ironically we then had no wind at all for most of the 6 hour passage, though the sea was rolling abominably. The mizzen sail seemed to help lessen the motion somewhat. At 11am the Coastguard broadcast a 'securité' warning of galeforce winds now expected in our area 'soon' (in 6 hours). This was somewhat surreal given the complete absence of wind at the time, but unnerving, although we expected to be safely in Arbroath within the timescale. About half an hour before we arrived, the gale duly started to make its presence felt with winds very quickly up to over 20 knots and torrential rain, making it difficult to identify the leading marks into the harbour which has a rather rock-strewn entrance. The sea was surging into the harbour and we surfed in with it, made a couple of quick turns through the small inner docks, and into a welcoming marina. We then stayed snug on board as the wind and deluge continued at full spate all day and all night, causing flooding in that part of Scotland which made the national news.

Arbroath is another picturesque little fishing port - more of a working harbour than Stonehaven, but on a very small scale. The marina is situated in a dock in the heart of the town reminding us of Padstow. For Rick Stein, substitute 'Arbroath Smokies'. We visited a couple of the little smokeries situated in the harbour where individual fishmongers smoke and sell haddock.

The next move was to Eyemouth - another 46 miles south, across the Forths of Tay and Forth (our 4th and 5th firths!). We left with a forecast of SW 4-5, occasionally 6. Given a southeasterly course this seemed fine, our only problem being that we couldn't leave Arbroath until after midday when the lock gates opened shortly before high water - a later departure than we'd have liked for a passage of this length. Immediately we left the harbour it was obvious that the boisterous sea state and wind strength were more than forecast and for most of the trip we experienced winds of force 7-8 - a full gale. As we crossed the 2 firths, the wind built up big seas, making this passage a hairy experience - but this is what memories are made of - and it was a good bonding experience for us with the boat which coped admirably in the conditions. The saving grace was that the trip was completed much faster than expected at an average of over 7 knots for the whole trip - in retrospect an exhilarating sail. The entrance into Eyemouth has rocks on each side - but excellent leading marks. We surged in dramatically between these rocks with the sea furiously crashing on to them sending up huge plumes of spray seemingly only yards away, and then into the harbour between the long high walls known locally as the 'canyon'.

Eyemouth is a working fishing harbour - not on a scale to match Peterhead, but nonetheless very active and busy by virtue of its entrepreneurial harbour authority, keen to attract business. We found it difficult to find anywhere deep enough to moor and ended up rafted to a fishing boat, right next to the Lifeboat - which we used to get on and off the boat which was rather novel - luckily there was no call out while we were there! The constant activity of the harbour was fascinating to observe - typical of others we had visited, with little groups of laughing Philipino crewmen, and the harbour seals - constantly on the look out for any 'spare' fish coming their way.

However, after a day's rest, we had to move on - again ahead of a gale expected the following day - this was all getting a bit fast and furious. We had hoped to fit in a day at Lindisfarne - Holy Island, but it would not have been a safe anchorage in a gale, so we confined ourselves to a lunch-time stop. Having crossed the border into England as we passed Berwick on Tweed, we continued on past Bamburgh Castle and the Farne Islands with the coastline looking perceptibly more 'English' with every mile - gentle hills, small fields, trees - all very pretty - not wild. Home.

We arrived into Amble in Northumberland early evening after a good day's sailing, a bit dispirited to find a derelict looking port with a vast and soulless marina - rather a culture shock after the quaint and intimate little harbours we were more used to. However, it proved a friendly enough place and the next day the gale duly arrived, with 35 knots in the marina and goodness knows what out at sea. Despite the wind, it was dry, sunny and surprisingly warm for a very pleasant walk a mile or so up the Coquet River to the village of Warkworth - a quintessentially English Cotswold type village, dominated by an impressive castle. We celebrated our arrival in England with a traditionally English pub lunch, involving beef and ale.

On the following day everything had calmed down completely. We left at high water through the marina lock and enjoyed an idyllic sail in ideal sailing wind - the perfect reminder of why we like sailing. The coastline of Tyneside and Teeside - South Shields, Sunderland, Middlesborough, Hartlepool, etc. had an uninviting pall of smog hanging over it and we continued on until this flat and industrial coastline finally gave way to the grandeur of the North Yorkshire moors, before finally arriving into Whitby - a passage of 64 very enjoyable miles.

We had a good 2 day break in Whitby - which reminded us slightly of Dartmouth with the town spread out and up each side of the river (Esk). Though the narrow medieval streets were horribly crowded during the day and lager louts in the evening, it was sunny and warm and for the first time in ages, we ate evening meals in the cockpit with a fabulous view as dusk fell and the lights coming on. Lots to do there - we focused mainly on the Captain Cook connection, a hero of ours since we followed in his wake - in the Pacific and Australian coast. We had a drink at the local Yacht Club finding quite a keen racing scene there, with yachts arriving from north and south for a weekend regatta. Our pilot book informed us laconically that 'Dracula came ashore here, as a large dog' - but though there were plenty of opportunities, we did not explore this aspect of Whitby.

Southwards from Whitby the list of possible destinations thins out considerably. Neither Scarborough or Bridlington have harbours deep enough for Aremiti and Filey does not have one at all. The next possible harbour is Grimsby, about 80 miles south, or Lowestoft 130 miles away - both would involve an overnight sail. We had avoided overnight sailing so far, because of hazards such as lobsters pots, generally tricky coastal navigation in unfamiliar waters with heavy shipping, and our desire actually to see the coast. We decided on a lunch stop anchored off Scarborough - enough to observe the beach in full British holiday swing complete with donkeys and trip boats zooming in and out - before an overnight anchorage at Filey. We walked along the promenade eating fish and chips in this very genteel old fashioned resort - notable also for its small fleet of cobles - traditional east coast beach-launched fishing craft - 'parked' alongside the amusements on the prom.

Unfortunately, although usually we love the peace of being at anchor, we had a very rolly and uncomfortable night in this rather open bay. By morning, the forecast which had been set for several more days of quiet and settled weather had been revised to a northerly 5-6 - extremely disappointing as we thought that an Indian Summer had finally arrived. The wind and sea built up perceptibly as we prepared to depart and the waves were almost breaking in the anchorage as we got away none too soon.

With the wind behind us, we made very fast progress as we passed Flamborough Head, anchored ships and oil platforms (one called 'Westernmost Rough' seemed appropriate!). This wind for this passage proved to be right at the top of the forecast range, and quickly built up big seas from behind us constantly slewing the boat around. We were having to helm by hand for this passage, fearing that neither wind-vane nor autohelm would cope with the conditions, and by early evening having made around 60 miles were too tired to contemplate continuing on through the night another 70 or so miles to Lowestoft. Instead, we made a course for the mouth of the Humber, passing another fleet of anchored merchant ships, waiting to be taken up river by pilots, as we buoy hopped our way along the edge of the big ship channel into this major river. AIS proved invaluable for sorting out which ships were on the move and which at anchor. We finally got into the anchorage at Spurn Head in pitch black, very disorientated as we sought to avoid the pilot boat pier and lifeboat situated there, while not going aground, unable to see anything much to position ourselves. The wind blowing hard all night seemed to confirm our decision not to continue on. After an interesting morning eavesdropping on the port operations radio and watching the launches Neptune, Saturn and Venus zooming off to deliver pilots to incoming merchant vessels, with no let up in the wind in sight we made our way 7 miles across the estuary and into Grimsby, where there is a very friendly Yacht Club marina.

Grimsby was not somewhere we would have chosen to be port-bound, but it was an opportunity to see an area new to us during another 3 days of strong winds. The first day we went off into town - through acres of the most derelict port area we have yet seen. Bizarrely, Grimsby has an enormous and relatively new fish market - but virtually no fishing fleet, nearly all the fish arriving (as well as departing) by road. We treated ourselves to a day's car hire and went off to explore further afield. First over the very impressive Humber Bridge - about a third again the size of the first Severn Bridge. Down through the industrial docks and ferryports of Hull and through to a landscape which foreshadowed East Anglia - flat with massive industrial sized farms - enormous fields and juggernaut tractors, and picturesque villages. Finally to Spurn Head, where we had spent the night a few days earlier. This is a rather fascinating area - the hook of land which forms the northern mouth of the River Humber. A fragile area of sand banks and shingle it is owned by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and is home not only to huge numbers of birds (and bird-watchers), but also to the only full time paid crew of an RNLI lifeboat in the UK, the considerable remains of World War II gun emplacements, and Humber VTS (Vessel Traffic Services) who are responsible for monitoring and regulating all navigation in the Humber. This is now the busiest port area of the country with a very great deal of commercial shipping coming in and out of the sandbank strewn estuary.

By the time the winds finally started to die down we had decided on a visit to Wells-next-the Sea on the north Norfolk coast, having heard enticing tales from members of the local yacht club of very a welcoming but navigationally difficult and risky destination - we couldn't resist! It was either that or a long overnight passage to Lowestoft in an area of sandbanks and busy shipping. We set off from Grimsby as soon as the lock gate opened, on a passage of 58 miles, needing to arrive at Wells at high water. The passage was unremarkable - a bit grey and dull - but sailing with full sail and the windvane doing a good job of the steering - the first time we had really got it going. The main point of interest was a huge windfarm in the mouth of the Wash.

Because Wells has such a tricky entrance we had telephoned the harbourmaster in advance to check tide times, depth, etc. and because a boat of our draft was on the borderline for entry into the harbour he offered to come out in his launch to pilot us in. We arrived at the fairway buoy about 2 hours before high water and anchored with some trepidation in the rolling sea, watching a few fishing boats which obviously needed less depth of water than we did, proceeding very slowly and carefully up the buoyed channel. It is worrying when even fishing boats are taking things so cautiously! Finally the harbourmaster called us up to report enough water for us to start coming in, so we made out way to the first pair of buoys, watching as the depth sounder showed us almost touching the bottom. The harbourmaster zoomed up and led us in the rest of the winding route, including one bend which took us to within what seemed like inches of a beach where holiday makers were frolicking, apparently unaware of what felt to us like our imminent shipwreck. However, we arrived safely into the harbour, where the deepest place was against a large and very interesting old Dutch barge - formerly a coaster, now operating as a bar and restaurant. Here we tied up, with curious customers watching as we attached a halyard from the mast to the barge to force us to lean against the barge as the water level dropped, rather than toppling outwards. Wells is the most idyllic and quintessentially English seaside town imaginable, but with the boat needing tending at low water every 12 hours our 36 hour visit was somewhat stressful and sleepless. It didn't help that while we were there, we received news that the Dutch yacht we had met earlier in the month had broken its mast while drying out on a harbour wall having slid out sideways. Not to bore you with the vagaries of the tidal regime, suffice it to say that it was very peculiar, irregular and unnerving.

Having walked alongside and reconnoitred the channel at low water to familiarise ourselves with its twists and turns we felt more confident about our departure, especially as we were expecting a very high tide. However, we woke on the morning of our departure dismayed to find a distinctly northerly wind blowing - the North Norfolk coast is unapproachable in a northerly wind and we had been banking on the continuation of calm weather for our short stay. However, staying put hardly seemed an option, so we had to go for it. Suffice it to say that we got out - but it was a nerve-wracking experience. Big seas and shallow waters are a bad combination. Every time the boat was thrown up by the waves we just had to hope that there was enough water beneath us to absorb the inevitable crashing down. The sense of relief on having made it out to the fairway buoy was probably the most intense of the whole voyage - perhaps because the stress had been self inflicted! Once we were well off the coast, the northerly wind was ideal for our progress around the great bulge around the north of East Anglia, passing Blakeney, Sherringham and Cromer. With excellent tide for the first half of the passage we made great progress but then inevitably it turned against us at a rate of nearly 3 knots. However, it was a warm and sunny day and we were sailing well - our progress felt fast, even though it wasn't. We took hours to pass the great windfarm on Scroby Shoal, quite mesmerised by it, finally arriving in Lowestoft into the marina of the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club after 12 hours. To our great pleasure and surprise, Christina - our circumnavigating friends who we had kept in touch with by email - were waiting for us, ready to take our lines! It was wonderful to see them again - especially as they immediately invited us to a meal on their boat! The perfect finale to a very good day.

That was our last passage for a while. After a day to explore Lowestoft - not a huge amount to see, except for the most easterly point of the UK - we had to return to Bristol and work, temporarily leaving our voyage just short of its intended destination. The weather then continued for nearly 2 weeks of a calm and settled Indian Summer!

Two weeks later, we set off again to Lowestoft to complete the voyage. We had chosen a period when the tides were good for morning departures southwards - but the weather was uncertain in an Octoberish sort of way. As it turned out, it could hardly have been better.

On the first day we left Lowestoft bound for Pin Mill nearly 50 miles away up the River Orwell between Harwich and Ipswich, and enjoyed a beautiful and peaceful sail in warm sunshine, past Southwold, Albeburgh and Orford Ness where we passed a traditional sailing barge. All very idyllic - and sandy. Into the Orwell, we passed Harwich to port and the huge container port of Felixstowe to starboard, before getting into the quiet pastoral scenery of this river. At Pin Mill we rendezvoused with yacht Tokomaru - friends we first met on the west coast of Spain at the start of our circumnavigation 10 years ago. They had just arrived back in their home waters after an 8 year circumnavigation and it was fantastic to see them - and to enjoy a very memorable experience of this lovely area.

At sunrise the next morning we set off down river in complete calm - which was quite quickly replaced by 20 knots on the nose by the time we reached the river mouth. However, once out and on to our course, we made excellent progress on a beam reach. This passage across the Thames estuary is a maze of sandbanks and channels to be threaded across - some quite scarily shallow 'passes' between the channels needing ultra precise navigation. All went extremely well and we arrived into Queenborough in the mouth of the River Medway at 3.30 just before the heavens opened - for several hours - causing us a quiet satisfaction. This was an anchorage of extraordinary ugliness, overlooked by the Isle of Grain power station - but is ideally placed to take the tide up into London.

The final passage of this voyage was as beautiful and brilliant as we could ever have hoped for. The weather cleared and although we had wind against us, this never kicked up problematic seas. We motored all the way, except for a short stretch just after the huge oil installations at Canvey Island. It's a long way up the Thames - passing a lot of very industrial, and some surprisingly rural scenery - Gravesend, Tilbury, the Queen Elizabeth II bridge and then excitingly towards the Thames Barrier - where family were waiting to see us through. Right into London now, past the Dome, Greenwich and astounding acres of plush apartment buildings in docklands. We had made such fast progress that we were too early in the tide to get into our marina at South Dock, and so continued the 2 1/2 miles further on up to Tower Bridge for a photo-shoot of this very memorable day!

Finally into Aremiti's new home for the winter - ecstatic! 1,626 nautical miles - mission accomplished!
Julia and Chris