August 2019 : Back to Blighty



Stormy weather – again – and patience rewarded….

As has become the norm this summer, we have been beset in August by adverse winds trying to stop us going where we wanted to go. Character forming no doubt – but this is supposed to be the summer!

The first challenge was to cross Biscay – a notoriously challenging passage of 3-4 days, prone to fast moving weather situations and rough water as the seas from the Atlantic pile up on reaching the shallower depths of the bay. A crossing in August should have been straightforward but, in the unstable conditions of this summer, we had to wait some time for a suitable weather window. This was the fifth time we’ve crossed Biscay and it doesn’t get any easier – in fact our first was the easiest when we left on the date we’d planned without any agonising over forecasts.

Sadly, as we were about to leave, our mate Chris who was looking forward to the Biscay crossing, finally had to accept that he was not in a fit state for the passage, having struggled over the previous two weeks with a couple of ailments. This was absolutely the right decision, but he was missed. We can’t pretend we didn’t feel a little apprehension at the prospect of making this potentially challenging crossing on our own. Our days of gadding across oceans were nearly 20 years ago and we no longer have the stamina we might need.

Our first attempt turned out to be a false start. Having had our eyes focussed on a series of lows coming into the Bay over the previous couple of weeks of very unstable weather, we were perhaps too eager to set off as soon as there were no lows in the forecast. As it turned out, the forecast of light north-easterlies at the start, proved to be stronger than predicted and also, in an updated forecast, set for a longer period. Sailing hard into the wind in a lumpy sea might be considered exhilarating by some - for a few hours – but not just the two of us for 36-48 hours – especially as we could not make anything like our proper course. It made no sense to exhaust ourselves while being driven out into the Atlantic so, reluctantly, we turned back towards the Spanish coast to wait for more realistic winds. We had previously visited Cedeira, a small Ria north east of A Coruna, so knew it would be a feasible place to wait a couple of days. Not only was this a delightful spot where we instantly relaxed, but it also had the virtue of reducing the distance to Newlyn by 20 miles.

Two days later we got off to a magnificent start, leaving the high Spanish coastline shrouded in murky cloud, romping along under blue skies in a steady 15 knots of wind on a broad reach in bouncy seas. Dolphins abounded and we sighted a number of faraway whale spouts, though only very distant glimpses of the whales making them. It couldn’t get better than that – and it didn’t! With just the two of us, we reverted back to our old 3 hour overnight watch system taking two watches each over the 12 hour period starting at 9pm. That night we had very little moon, but wonderful stars, as the wind gradually decreased to nothing. Our first 24 hour run was a very acceptable 130 n miles - given that we usually reckon on 120.

On the second day our Grib file forecast showed no change to what we were expecting – calm until later the next day, followed by some decent south-westerlies – and nothing ominous. Motoring on a flat sea, while lacking the exhilaration of the previous day, was undeniably restful and relaxing. It was hard to believe that only a few days earlier the same waters had been a seething mass of high winds and waves. The only disappointing note was that on checking whether we were yet within distance of long wave reception for Radio 4, we could just make out the faint but unmistakable voices of Test Match Special crackling over the airwaves – not an unmitigated joy! We made a slight course alteration in order to cross the anticipated line of shipping plying between the northwest tips of Spain and France in daylight hours. However, though this strategy appeared to work as we’d crossed a few ships moving in each direction, it turned out that we had significantly underestimated the width of the stream of shipping. During Chris’ first watch at 9pm, he was confronted by a veritable armada of approaching merchant ships on near reciprocal course – in drizzly conditions as dark descended. This was exactly what we had been trying to avoid and came as an unpleasant shock. By the time of Julia’s watch at midnight, the stream was even denser and needed both of us on watch - so not a very restful night all round. The volume of shipping was significantly greater than we have encountered on previous crossings.

The third day dawned uneventfully. We were making excellent progress and it was looking increasingly likely that we would make landfall before a fourth night. Not so good was the gradual build up of seas – we were by now well into the banks of shallower water and by lunch time the rolling motion was so atrocious we could hardly eat. By the evening a wind more southerly (downwind) than forecast had kicked in, together with a pulse of big seas, making it difficult to sail our course. The autohelm was not able to keep the boat on track as she was being violently swirled around by big seas from the port quarter. Downwind tacking did not help and after some hours of quite strenuous hand helming we realised that just the two of us – already somewhat sleep deprived - would not be able to keep it up all night. We reluctantly decided to call on our 3rd and 4th crew members – the autohelm and engine to take some of the strain which, in combination, were able to hold a reasonable course.

The passage ended, as it had started, on a high. The seas had died down a little by daybreak and we resumed sailing - enjoying an excellent and exhilarating sail all morning as conditions continued to improve. This was considerably enlivened by finding ourselves crossing paths with some of the leading contenders in the Fastnet Race! Being on port tack as one of them approached, we gave way as Jethou, in hot pursuit of Sorcha, tore past us at 15 knots, less than 50 metres off! (We later learned that they had come 15th and 10th respectively).

We arrived into Newlyn at lunch time on the fourth day. This was not without a near drama as, in our weary condition, we nearly attempted entry into Mousehole harbour, mistaking it momentarily for Newlyn! One of the perils of becoming over-tired at sea. Until recently Newlyn – an industrial scale fishing port - was closed to yachts. A small space is now available for visiting yachts and it is a gem of a destination – if a bit rough and ready. We quickly realised there would be plenty to do there – which was just as well. We had planned on moving on quickly to the Scilly Isles, but there were already a few ‘fugitive’ yachts just arrived from there, in anticipation of an unusually deep low due in the next few days. We had begun to wonder if we were doing something to attract these conditions …..

Being held up in Newlyn was no hardship at all. We were fascinated by the fishing operations in the busy harbour – home to beam trawlers, long liners, crabbers and small open boats used for hand-lining for mackerel in Mount Bay. The Fish Market, revamped very recently, is constantly busy receiving catches to be sorted ready for auction. Many of the boats fish in French waters and sell to Europe – so why, one wonders, do they support Brexit? The town itself is delightful - an attractive higgledy piggledy warren of grey stone and whitewashed cottages along roads and alleys climbing up around the harbour with their cottage garden flowers – very pretty. There is an arty feel to the place dating from the time of the Newlyn School of artists. A highlight for us was the Newlyn Filmhouse – very reminiscent of the Watershed in Bristol with a café/bar and similar choice of films. We enjoyed our own mini film festival, taking in four films in four days! For physical activity we walked a stretch of the Coast Path from Lamorna Cove, through Mousehole back to Newlyn. The harbour began to fill with yachts as the anticipated low started to roll in. The storm itself was not particularly impressive in the snug harbour, but we knew it must be seriously nasty outside as the fishing boats did not go out for 24 hours, and the Scillonian - ferry to the Scillies - was cancelled.

We then went into an all too familiar agony of indecision over our long anticipated visit to Scilly - one of this summer’s aims. While we were loathe to be thwarted yet again, forecasts for the coming week predicted yet more unstable windy and wet weather which, while not actually making the Scilly Islands untenable, would not make them an enjoyable experience. It was time to leave - lovely though it was, we didn’t want to be stranded in Newlyn forever. The decision was made to head around Lands End to Padstow, and so we left early into a murky morning to sneak round the inshore route inside Long Ships, passing the tin mines up on the coast, St Ives, Portreath, Perranporth and Newquay – 60 miles of coast without any ports of refuge.

To enter Padstow harbour in August is to enter a bygone era of British holidaymaking. It was quite a culture shock, after the 60 mile passage around the wild coast from Newlyn, to be directed to a berth alongside a harbour wall lined by kids crabbing with buckets and nets on lines – their parents chomping on fish and chips/pasties/ice creams – all sitting with their legs dangling over the edge. Chris’ made one of his more perfect manoeuvres to squeeze us into the very tight space between other yachts under the very close scrutiny of this audience!

We hadn’t been to Padstow for 16 years, but apart from a pontoon in the middle of the harbour it hadn’t changed a bit – fish and chips, pasties, a couple of coastal walks, brass bands, Rick Stein’s café, deli and patisserie – and little kids from some of the visiting yachts playing around very competently in true Swallows and Amazons style in dinghies the harbour - lovely to watch.

All wholesome old fashioned pleasures. We look forward to the whole country basking in such gloriously cosy Britishness after Brexit! It did rain quite a lot though ….

Finally, the stormy weather began to abate and more stable weather was forecast. We decided we had enough time for another go at the Scillies. Having waited a day for the seas to die down, we thought we’d get a good start for the 70 mile passage by leaving the harbour the evening before, to anchor in a cove tucked in behind Trevose Head to the west of Padstow. This would enable us to leave earlier than the Padstow harbour 7am lock opening the following morning, and also get us five miles on our way. However, this cunning plan proved something of a mixed blessing as while it achieved the desired objectives, it backfired in leaving us seriously sleep deprived after a night of abominable rocking and rolling in a significantly rougher than forecast sea, with the boat being constantly bashed by the mooring buoy we had tied to - not the ideal start for a 65 mile passage. At 5.30 the next morning we decided the forecasts still looked good enough to go, so we’d go out and look at the actuality. We had anticipated a dismal slog into light winds and boisterous seas – but what we got was a gloriously sunny beam reach for over half the passage. The final leg, between Lands End and Scilly was indeed a bit of a slog against the tide – but then we were there – anchored safely in Watermill Cove!

The Scilly Isles are a random scattering of islands, islets, rocks and sandbanks – strewn over an area of 8 x 8 miles - low lying and beautiful with clear turquoise water and white beaches. Distances are tiny, but navigationally challenging - Brittany on speed. Rife with unmarked dangers – each route needs careful planning beforehand – which, for newcomers to the islands can take longer than the passages themselves. Many routes can only be made on a rising tide towards high water. Extensive use is made of transits – though identification of specific rocks and landmarks presented some difficulty!

We enjoyed a delightful week moving between anchorages off St Mary’s, Tresco, St Agnes and Great Ganilly - pinching ourselves that we’d finally achieved at least one of our goals for the summer – in fine weather. The islands are sparsely inhabited – one small town and some tiny harbours and hamlets of grey stone houses. Wandering around their winding little lanes is reminiscent of any gentle English rural scene - supplemented by great banks of agapanthus and the odd palm tree. Heather in full flower, smelling of honey, adorns the wilder more rugged areas.

After a week we had to tear ourselves away from this idyll for the homeward passage – 185 miles to Bristol in four legs, via Trevose Head, Porlock Bay, Portishead marina and the fourth to be made into Bristol in a week’s time. It was to our great joy that after a summer of difficult weather, we enjoyed a final stretch of more settled and sunny weather - in British waters. A good omen for next year??

After 1,647 miles this year – and 14,746 since we left Bristol 10 years ago – Aremiti will be home! This is likely to be the last of our ‘big’ adventures – we certainly won’t be crossing Biscay again! We’re hoping for lots more little adventures in future, which won’t be worthy of reporting – so here endeth our final newsletter.