The train journey from Cornwall to Southampton is not an easy one. I suppose it is because in the past it was easier to transport goods between the two places by sea! We changed at Westbury and then again at Salisbury onto a rail replacement bus service to Romsey where, after getting very confused about why all the trains scheduled to leave Romsey Station were going to Romsey (they were circular routes), finally boarded our last train to Southampton Central.
The previous owner had very kindly offered to collect us from the station to save us getting a taxi to the marina. Unfortunately one of my jobs on arrival was to climb the mast to see if replacing the bulbs would solve the issue of non-functioning tricoulour and steaming light. The system had been assessed by Greenham Regis Marine Electricians the previous week who had concluded that, with an open circuit up the mast, it was probably blown bulbs that were to blame. Well… once up the mast I found both bulbs to have intact filaments and no voltage detected at the terminals. ‘We’ll just have to live without’ I decided – maybe I’d have time to look at it once we were underway in the morning. After I had descended to deck level we found Ceri and Carol to return their bosun’s chair and hitched a lift to the local Tesco Express where we stocked up on the fresh victuals I hadn’t yet brought on board. We then decided that, rather than cook aboard and make a mess, a Pizza Express dinner would be a much more sensible option! After filling ourselves up we walked back to the boat and, after consulting the forecast for a final time (F6 SW), put our heads down in preparation for an early start.
0530hrs 29th January 2018
The alarm sounded. It would have woken me if I hadn’t had been half awake already. I made my way on deck with my washing bag and towel trying to ignore the bitter air biting at my exposed skin. I huddled tighter into the collar of my jacket as I made my way up the deserted pontoons to the shower block to ablute. A long, hot shower later and I was ready to bid adieu to the Shamrock Quay Marina staff in reception and (chivvied by Sammy) we slipped lines at 0720hrs.
Leaving The Itchen
It was very pleasant motoring down the River Itchen towards the dockhead where it meets the River Test. We hoisted the main and unfurled the genoa in anticipation of the predicted westerly wind. Sammy then took the helm as I programmed the GPS with our waypoints for the day. The tide with us now we made great progress down Southampton Water past Fawley Oil Terminal using the port lateral marks as a breadcrumb trail. The wind was fresh and the boat was heeling nicely until we reached the Calshot Spit Lightvessel (disappointingly now just a glorified buoy with pontoons!) and turned west into the Solent when we were hit by the full 27kts of wind. We hastily took in the sails and started motoring into the building swell. It was quite choppy with a short wavelength but nothing too much to worry about. Certainly Mandarin was quite happy ploughing along! The distance between port hand marks lengthened from around 0.3nm-0.5nm to more like 2nm-4nm as the strait widened. About two hours after rounding Calshot Spit we sighted North East Shingles east cardinal mark which indicated the start of the needles channel.
The Needles Channel
The monoliths off needles point appeared around the headland as we made our way towards ‘Shingles Elbow’ port lateral mark – our next waypoint. We were exposed to the swell now so the wave heights started to increase but Mandarin continued to press on valiantly. We could see the horizon ahead of us changing shape a lot more now indicating that the swell was only going to get worse.
It wasn’t until we passed ‘Bridge’ west cardinal mark at the end of the needles that things suddenly changed. The first large wave came and went – “I don’t like this” I said to Sammy. We climbed up the face of the second and suddenly the water that was underneath us disappeared! The bow fell and we heard the slap as the hull reunited itself with the water. The boat at its now ‘bow down’ angle then went ‘through’ the next wave rather than over it with water cascading back along the side decks before being smartly directed overboard by the thankfully high combings saving the cockpit (and us!) from the deluge.
“Yes, lets go back” agreed Sammy. I felt a moment of relief before our next challenge dawned on us – how to turn around without being caught beam on to the waves. A wave and a half later and Sammy found her moment.
“Hold on!” she said as she put the tiller hard over. We both took a deep breath as Mandarin started to turn. It wasn’t until she had come all the way round and was squarely stern on to the waves that we breathed a sigh of relief. The trial wasn’t over yet though as each wave threatened to swing us sideways again!
“Can you check my course” Sammy asked as she was having to look backwards to monitor the angle of each wave. I used the buoys and coastline as reference points to keep us re-tracing our track back up the middle of the channel.
Having checked the almanac for details and hazards we started to make for Lymington River, keeping close to the shallows on the north bank to try to find calmer water. We saw a Wightlink ferry traverse the Solent from Cowes and navigate the narrow channel between the mud banks. ‘Well, if he can do it!’ we thought to ourselves. It was still quite unnerving as we threaded ourselves between the regular lateral posts with Navionics in hand for reassurance, and mud less than 20m away on either side!
The very friendly man on the end of the phone had been more than happy to offer us a berth for a few hours or overnight if we required, and it was with great relief as I stepped onto the pontoon having completed my first marina docking manoeuvre.
Having spoken to the marina staff and looked at the weather we decided that we were just too exhausted to attempt a night passage that evening, and we planned to leave early the next morning having fuelled up bound for Portland.
A New Dawn
Tuesday 30th January, 0630hrs, 0°C
The decks slippy with ice as I step ashore for my shower. Frost everywhere, I have to be particularly careful on the marina ramp. It crosses my mind that a broken ankle, or worse, would put paid to any and all plans for getting to Cornwall.
A careful trip around to the fuel berth together with some forced close quarters manoeuvring experience and we left the marina basin at 0730hrs. With the tide a couple of hours before high the mud had vanished and glassy water stretched before us as we motored down the channel to a stunning sunrise.
The swell gone, fog was our next challenge as banks of it rolled across the water. “Horn” I warned Sammy who was making hot chocolate in the galley. I blew into the fog horn again, the reply of ferries further east echoing back to us. The fog lifted as we re-entered the Needles Channel – the scene a polar opposite of the one only 18 hours earlier. We smiled to ourselves as we gently cruised past the ‘Bridge’ west cardinal now sitting stock still on the surface. Our morale high, we raised sails as a light breeze filled in from the North East. Having taught many a powerboat student the meaning and appearance of a safe water mark it was with much excitement that I got to see one in ‘real life’!
Our next adversary came in the form of the Lulworth Firing Range. I had checked the Gunfacts that morning and we had plotted a course to skirt the inner range accordingly. On our approach however, we noticed an unusual concentration of around 8-10 small boats to seaward of our intended course. It was impossible to tell through binoculars whether they were fishing boats or patrol boats so I looked up the number for range control to be on the safe side. The friendly voice on the other end confirmed our position and that he could see us before giving us a course of 270° until abeam Lulworth Cove. Reassured, we luffed up slightly to obey and continued onwards, still flinching slightly when we heard the report of the guns.
“How far off are we?” Sammy asked as we identified Portland Breakwater in the distance.
“About an hour” I replied to which Sammy suggested we light the oven and put some potatoes in to bake (an idea given to us by Carol – Thanks Carol!). This was a good decision as, after having dutifully stuck to the marina channel across the harbour and found our berth we were pretty famished!
Sammy had arranged a taxi from the marina to take her to the station in Weymouth, as she was due to fly out to Malta on the Friday. With three days of adverse weather coming in, Mandarin wasn’t going anywhere soon. Having seen her off, I was assisted by Hayden – one of the extremely helpful and friendly marina staff – to warp Mandarin round into a free adjacent berth to point the bows into the expected wind – a decision that made my stay infinitely more comfortable. A long look at the Grib files and every other forecast I could set my eyes on and I put in a call to Pete – another instructor friend of mine – asking if he would be interested in helping Mandarin and me complete our journey. After discussing our options he agreed to come up on a train on the Saturday in time for the weather window on the Sunday.
So followed my four days in Portland. Much of my time I managed to fill with jobs on board. One of which was the faulty navigation lights. After another spate of checking contacts with my multimeter with no joy, I touched both probes to the same terminal in the deck plug expecting to hear the beep of continuity to prove that the meter was in fact working correctly. No beep… ‘But it’s the same bit of metal!’ I thought to myself. A bit of scratching at the surface later and I got the tone from the meter. I went on a search for some wire wool still in disbelief that a qualified marine electrician had missed the surface corrosion on the contacts, and charged me for the privilege! Fixing the Nav lights was a big boost to my moral!
Pete arrived mid-afternoon on Saturday and after topping off the tank at the fuel berth we had a great meal at The Cove House Inn (recommended by Hayden) and were ready for the next part of our voyage.
A weather window in February is a relative thing. In our case it meant Force 6 NW and 3-4m waves rather than F7-8 SW. First however, as the tides didn’t allow for us making the inshore passage around Portland Bill, we had to travel east around The Shambles before heading south west to our waypoint 3NM south of the Bill to clear the race. The first five hours were tough. The sea was on the beam for the leg out to East Shambles ECM and we kept the engine on to try and keep our speed up. As we rounded the ECM the seas built to 4-5m with 2m wind waves 30° off the swell direction. Several of these caught us out and the boat rolled sharply. Luckily though with the wavelength of the main swell much longer than in the Needles Channel, and being astern, the boat handled them very well.
Our original intention had been to try and make Salcombe but with the wind so far astern the genoa flogged in the main’s shadow. Dartmouth seemed like a better plan and a call to Darthaven Marina secured our berth. It was a long 12 hours across Lyme Bay and it was dark by the time we were approaching the mouth of the river. Luckily all the buoys were in position and well lit and the sectored lights were wonderfully reassuring. We located the visitors pontoon on our starboard side as we rounded the last bend in the approach and, after dodging the Dartmouth – Kingswear ferry, we pulled alongside at 1830. After a hot shower and chilli onboard we put our heads down for some well deserved rest.
Dartmouth – Falmouth
Leaving a port in daylight having entered it in the dark the previous evening is a strange feeling. On the one hand it is quite scary to see the lobster pot buoys that you had missed more by luck than judgement, and on the other you know that the pilotage is okay as you achieved it in much more challenging conditions coming in.
Rounding Start Point was a much easier ride than Portland Bill with the slackening tide allowing us to make good headway.
Our original destination was Fowey but with fair wind and an average speed of 6 knots we decided to press on to Falmouth. Four dolphin sightings boosted our moral and passing close to Eddystone Lighthouse broke the monotony.
Entering Falmouth in the dark should have been a straightforward affair as I know the waters well. However with the abundance of navigable water the lit navigation marks are actually quite hard to identify. Lobster pot buoys are also a particular hazard and when marked only by a black flag would likely not be seen until too late. Indeed on our approach I didn’t see one until it was 10m off our starboard beam! Mooring on Falmouth Haven’s visitor pontoon was straightforward and it was lovely to be met by my family and treated to a pub meal after our long voyage.
Falmouth – Helford
The next morning held our final task – a breeze compared to our recent exploits. The wind had completely died off, although some swell remained so we left the sails furled and trekked across the bay under engine. Pete came to assist again and we were just commenting on what we had achieved as we entered the mouth of the river when it started to snow!
A magical touch of irony to cap a huge adventure.
After unloading the boat and landing the tender at the Helford River Sailing Club pontoon we took Mandarin up river to her winter mooring in Port Navas Creek where she would weather ‘The Beast From The East’ and ‘Storm Emma’ the following month whilst I was away on tour with bgroup.
Since then I have resisted the urge to complete long passages. I did however trip round to Mullion for an overnight stay and to Plymouth for the 40th Anniversary celebration of the Sadler and Starlight Owners Association. Both times the weather has been less than kind to me and I have learnt a lot about the reliability of forecasting! Short trips for the rest of the year I think, but I have my sights set on a Scillys trip next year!
Cheers for now,