A Weekend Off parts I and II

The approach to Cowes can be busy!
I had a weekend off. Over the past few months I’ve been out on the water photographing everything from the stunningly beautiful classic yachts at the Panerai British Yacht Regatta in July, the magnificent collection of X One Designs at their Centenary during Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week and the superb skill and mastery of the crews challenging for places at next years’ Olympics, down at the ISAF event at Weymouth and Portland. Interspersed amongst this activity, the remaining weekends have been taken up with my Photography Workshops, including ‘Join Me’s for Round the Island and at Cowes week. So what did I do? You guessed it. When a friend asked if I’d like to join him for a weekend aboard his Contessa 32, I jumped at it – and no camera! (Well, only a little one.)

The plan? With a busy weekend in the Solent, we had pre booked a berth at Yarmouth for the Sunday, but had no where for Saturday. The weather was good for the day. Tide times not the best but are they ever? Speaking to the harbour master at Bucklers Hard, home port, before loading the tender, he said that space was at a premium everywhere. It was still early and a few calls later gave us a confirmed berth at Island Harbour, deep down the River Medina on the Isle of Wight. Island Harbour has a lock entry and drawing 1.56mtrs, we need to be there before 1pm – or after 6pm. We decided on the former allowing a morning sail, a relaxing afternoon and evening, when the girls (wives), would be joining us.

Well the first part started okay. Boat victualled, we headed out into a fair wind. The usual ‘Solent chop’ was in evidence but the beautiful shape of the ‘tessie bow cut through easily. As the tide turned, the wind increased and this same renowned design which made her the bench mark for which other yachts are measured, ensured a wet ride in the wind over tide sea state. Time does not wait however and all too soon we headed off to Cowes Roads. On approach it was busy as expected for a Bank Holiday weekend. Engine started in good time off Gurnard to assist the confused waters prevalent at the entrance with ferry and Red Jet hydrofoil entering and departing all too frequently, we made way. All was looking fine until the engine note changed. That monotonous low hum of the diesel engine just altering enough for the skipper and me to exchange glances. Our audible receptors were quickly augmented by the engine overheating warning buzzer – bugger!

Headsail out to give drive and steering; engine off and a quick inspection of the filter glass showed the inevitable blockage in the cooling system. Two choices: One, head back to Bucklers, but the thought of negotiating the bar in the falling tide and tacking up river between the poles and withies in the increasing headwind to reach our mooring was not relished. Two, we continue through the busy boat traffic of Cowes under sail and pick up a mooring in the quieter waters the other side of the chain ferry. Now, skipper and I are not what I would call experienced sailors. We’ve both completed the various RYA courses from Day Skipper through Coastal Skipper theory and practical and even Yachtmaster theory. We’ve both sailed across the channel in heavy winds and rough sea states at night and are building our mileage towards that empirical Yachtmaster practical certificate, but we were not experienced in that ‘nothing fazes you’ manner of someone who eats sea salt for breakfast while pulling a bite of rope with one hand, whipping a halyard with the other and steering the tiller with his foot in a force 8, kind of way! In reality we’d completed the exercises on these courses, and it was probably the amount of traffic that daunted us, but we were glad that we had at least been put to the test in practice previously.

I called up the harbour master on channel 69 to no avail, so the mobile sufficed. Duly alerted and offering assistance if we needed it, we threaded our way through, rolling inevitably off the Squadron as wake, wash, tide and wind all challenge for the right to take dominance. The chain ferry kindly waited for us to pass and our passage and consternation abated a little once upstream of this iconic transport. Now we were optimistic. Could we reach Island Harbour in time to get us over the sill? It was going to be tight. Out of the busy channel we didn’t need the help of the Harbour Master but it would have been easier with a tow. Calls were fruitless however as everyone was either too busy or gone to enjoy their own weekend. In the lee of the wind however, and against the falling tide, our depth window was pushing it. We needed to find wind and we did so, sufficient for us to make the lock with enough water under us. Phew. Checking the filter bowl again we gingerly started the engine which duly produced a fitful spit of water out the exhaust, sufficient for us to motor onto our berth without any maladies to the engine. Tied up with a cup of rosy lee, we planned the investigation. Searching through every locker on the boat, we could not find the key spanner to open the filter bowl. Doesn’t it always work out this way? A blistered palm proved that we needed it. Richardson’s chandlery provided the necessary tool and with the filter removed, the offending stalk of weed plus other detritus was vanquished to provide a good clean throughput of cooling nectar. Lessons learnt on day one of the weekend? Know where your tools are and do the training. The sailing courses show you how, so that when you need to call on them for real, at least you have a chance. What would we learn the following day? Time will tell and so will I – later.

A Weekend Off part II

With the raw water coolant filter now sparkling and a good throughput of sea water keeping the engine cool ,our pre booked berth at Yarmouth beckoned. The weather forecast had been changing like the guard at Buckingham Palace. A confusion of three weather fronts was causing a right old muddle. As we sat on the mooring drinking tea, the forecasts varied from force 3 – 6 with added gusts depending upon which forecast you read. All however indicated that the wind would drop to a F3 by the end of the day. We didn’t want to go against wind and tide so chose a wind over tide. The girls were going shopping and meeting us at Yarmouth, so my skipper and I ventured out from Island Harbour under a warm blue sky with 12-16 knots showing. The wind was westerly veering to northwest so our plan was to head north towards the Beaulieu River entrance to give us a good run down to Yarmouth.

In the Medina we raised sail and avoiding the departing ferry and its turbulent wake, headed off on course. The unconstrained wind off Gurnard increased the numbers on the anemometer to 18-24 apparent. (That’s the wind apparently felt by the boat. Actual wind speed varies according to the direction the boat is travelling in relation to the wind.) The chop was there again as per the previous day and after a short time the 18-24 rose to 19-26. Add in the increasing out flowing tide and I just knew I’d have to wash the crusted salt from my hair when we got in! Looking west, the cause of the increase in wind was obvious. A dark shower was imminent, pushing towards us and pushing the air beneath it towards us too. Beyond that, there was blue sky and fluffy white jobbies, so we stayed with it.

The moon phase was nearing springs with a range above the mean average so the tidal flow was definitely in our favour, making us nearly 8 knots over ground even though we were transverse the flow on our current course. Given the wind increase however, we contemplated the plan. Should we drop into Beaulieu and pick up our mooring or another buoy for a few hours to see if the conditions subsided? If we did that, we should gain from the calmer conditions forecast, but against that, we would be against wind and tide increasing the travelling time. Add to this we ‘knew’ what was causing the increase, that damned shower and we could see that moving through.

Whilst deliberating, the wind speeds dropped to 15-19 and well within our comfort zone. As mentioned in part I of these musings, skipper and I weren’t novice, but we also were/are not experienced in the true sense of the word. Which decision was right? I’ll give my thoughts later. Given favourable tide and the current sit.rep. regarding the wind speed and that damned shower, we ventured forth towards Yarmouth. The wind veered then backed but the overall movement was veering in our favour.

As is normal, through the central flow of the Solent where the waters run deepest and fastest, the waves were steeper and higher. We were reefed mainsail and headsail, nicely balanced and not over powered. Now on this tack we were making in excess of 8 knots over ground so Yarmouth was less than an hour and a half away. However, the blue sky turned darker with the clouds scudding in towards us pushing the air ever faster and in greater quantities! Apparent wind speed increased to 22-26, then 24-28 but the good old Contessa drove through brilliantly. Just east of Saltmead the wind backed so we had to put in a tack and heading out into the full flow stream again, we didn’t want to ride in the choppier waters of the main current. Wimps you may say, okay, I’ll take that, I’m not proud, but now the lower numbers being seen were 28 and 29 knots so we engaged in a series of tacks to keep us out of the heavier waves and reduced sail a little more whilst maintaining drive and balance. Despite that we took a biggie!

Skipper, an erstwhile windsurfer saw it coming. I was looking out at the course and sat high on the stern quarter tracking approaching yachts also concentrating on their course beating close hauled and heeled. We had already seen a couple of dramatic heading ups and a broach so despite right of way we didn’t want to play chicken in these conditions. When the skipper warned of the biggie, I thought he meant a big wave. No problem. We’d had our fair share of these this morning. Wedged tightly in I braced my position.

“Bloody hell where did that come from!” From my high alter position the Contessa leant on the water harshly, no doubt added by the short, sharp waves pounding her sides. Water, (cascaded sounds such a nice word, - this wasn’t, so:) spewed into the cockpit, over the coach roof and over us. When the heeling becomes perpendicular, one’s tendency is to look down, presumable at how far we have to fall. For my part, looking through the hatchway, this automatism enabled me to see the saloon windows sink below water level, being visually submerged in the green marine waters of the Solent. Tessie quickly rounded up, gave a shake of her gunwales and drove forward. I have never witnessed that sudden a gust before and pleased that David Sadler had designed such a formidable and capable sea machine. Phew.

Wind speeds were now constantly showing above 30knots. Our short tacking regime to supposedly avoid the worst of the Solent chop was keeping me and the skipper very busy, particularly around Hamstead Ledge where the groove in which we were travelling was very tight. No sooner had we tacked one way then we had to do it all over again. The wind speed was also making communication more difficult. Something you don’t think about ordinarily. Verbal communications were now shouts even though we were only a couple of feet apart, but both of us communicated the sight of the – I use the term loosely –shower approaching. It was one of those showers where the sky closes in and the horizon recedes within a curtain of dark strakes of rain moving ever closer. We had been counting down the decimals on the trip to our waypoint and as the counter clicked, (do LED ‘s click?), over to 1.9 miles this encroachment of our sea by this torrential downpour made us start the iron sail.

As we took in the headsail another vicious gust caught and cracked one of the sheets, whipping it violently against the spray hood, ripping out the yarn and the plastic window in the process. Keeping our mainsail just filled, we drove to the entrance to Yarmouth. The weather was now even more atrocious than it had been. Wind howling and still showing up to 36 knots when we were looking, goodness knows what the numbers were when we weren’t. Yes I know this is ‘apparent wind’ speed but it was still blowing a good F7 in anyone’s language. It was not comfortable. With less than 0.4 to go, I clipped on and strode forward. We dropped the main and lashed it to the boom in the most untidy but functional fashion possible, before returning to the cockpit.

As we stood off Yarmouth, the ubiquitous ferry was just about to come out. Yachts were stacking up at the entrance waiting their turn to enter. In this wind, we didn’t particularly relish the thought of trying to manoeuvre tessie in amongst the piles and other yachts moored five deep so we patiently waited our turn, riding the waves and watching as other yachts, anxious for some respite of the wind, tried to convince the harbour master that they needed the safe haven of Yarmouth.

Unfortunately the HM couldn’t make a quart out of a pint pot, so the sailors forlorn faces as they beat out back into the weather was telling of the need to book a berth on a bank holiday weekend! Thank fully we had. I even waved the confirmation receipt at the master as we approached. Why I don’t know. Within seconds it was sodden and what chance did he have of reading 10 point Times New Roman from 20 feet in driving rain in any case! He drove round, read our name and motioned us with typical polite regard into the harbour. Suitable berthed, we were knackered!

In retrospect should we have continued from the mouth of the Beaulieu River? Having tidied up our sails and assessed the damage to the spray hood over a cup of tea, the wind did die down to the forecast F3 and the sun came out to produce a beautiful late afternoon and evening. If we had waited on a mooring on the Beaulieu River we may have avoided the worst of the weather. We may have managed to still get some tide in our favour but I doubt it. Although the wind had dropped, the sea state had not reduced commensurably so we would have had an equally uncomfortable passage against wind and tide. As it was, our passage including tacks was 14 miles which against the tide would have meant a much longer trip. We could of course have stayed on the home mooring in Beaulieu River, but then wouldn’t have been able to savour the delights of the fish pie in the Bugle accompanied by a pint or three of Flowers real ale, so no contest there!

Prudence would say that we should have stayed in Beaulieu. We made a wrong call with the weather but we were in a boat more than capable in the conditions. We could have turned back if we wanted to explore the downwind roll of the Contessa against the tide but we chose not to. We took precautions being clipped on when necessary and wearing life jackets. We were ultra cautious of other yachts and adjusted our course as best we could. We made good progress minimising our time in the conditions but did not over power the boat. I suppose I’m trying to convince myself that we did okay. Well I suppose we did and increase our experience of the sea, something to be valued.

The run back to Beaulieu the following morning was flat calm and 12-16 knots down wind. We were back on the mooring in super quick time, a pleasurable sail. So benefits there as well. And don’t forget the Flowers! If you think we should have handled the situation differently, email me here , I’d be pleased for your views.

Ian Badley