Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Calstar: Fowey & The Yealm

I had a couple of weekends at the end of September with no gigs to worry about.

Dad and I had originally planned to head down to the boat for the weekend of the 22nd & 23rd, but I’d been working away for three days of the week leading up to it down in Folkestone, so Nik was understandably reticent about the idea of me dropping home for just a night or two before shooting off down to the boat without her for a weekend.

In the end, the weather made the decision easy and the weekend saw the country pretty much storm-bound. I actually had a whole weekend at home, no sailing, not even at the lake. It felt very strange. Kind of hollow. Nik was working most of the weekend anyway, so I was at something of a loose end about the house, weather too grim to even cut the overdue grass out back. Not the kind of weekend I'd care to repeat.

So instead, I took the following Friday 28th off work and made a long weekend out of that one.

Dad and I headed down to the boat after I finished work on Thursday evening. An easy drive down the motorway, we arrived at a very quiet Queen Anne’s Battery in Plymouth at little after 2100, just as the marina bar was deciding to close early for lack of any interest. Fortunately, I had a bottle of wine in my bag, so we retired to the boat to relax and plan for the weekend to come.

Full moon and spring tides, high water was expected Friday morning for 0836. The forecast was originally F4 gusting to 5 from the northeast and had held pretty steady through the week, but by the time we were settled into the boat Thursday evening, it was suggesting 5 gusting 6 Friday morning, before reluctantly dropping back to a 4/5 and veering into the east for the afternoon. The Saturday forecast was for less, but hard in the east, whereas Sunday suggested the wind would ease further still and back around to the north or northwest.

With an eye to tide and forecast, I’d settled on Fowey as our first destination quite early in the week. At just over 20 miles, it’s a five hour trip if all goes well. The tide wasn’t due to turn fair for the west until three hours after high water, so with a 6 in the forecast for the morning the plan was confirmed for a late start, if we went at all.

Friday 28th September 2018 : Plymouth to Fowey
(23.5 miles, 5 hours 33 minutes under way)

Friday morning. I woke expecting to hear the boat rattling in the wind, but the weather seemed unexpectedly calm, the view out across the Sound sunny and benign. We had breakfast at Sound Bites Café. The Windfinder Pro app on my phone was still adamant it was gusting to 6 out there, but there was no sign of it ashore, in the lee of Plymouth. Faint traces of wispy cloud scudded across an otherwise blue sky, but not exactly at an alarming pace.

By noon, we’d topped up with diesel from the fuel berth and cast off, committed to our passage west. With a slightly paranoid double roll in the genoa and both reefs in the main, we were on a port reach across the Sound heading towards the Western Entrance, the waters of the harbour blown flat by the fresh, off-shore wind.

To try and get a good angle on the wind, we held a southerly course out of Plymouth until I could see Looe appearing beyond Rame Head. My decision to bear away and gybe was delayed by an incoming warship, but once she passed, we turned west, gybing the boom onto a deep starboard reach and trying to get the headsail to set. The wind was blowing with the tide and the running sea wasn’t high, but flecked with white, low waves breaking regularly, picking Calstar up and twisting her about as it bowled along beneath us. With the sails reefed down hard however, the movement was nothing the auto-helm couldn’t handle on its own.

Unable to get the headsail to set in the shadow of the main on anything like the rhumb line for Fowey, I gave up, set a preventer on the boom and poled the genoa out in a goose-wing with the whisker-pole. Calstar settled, still rolling with the sea, but comfortable in herself, trotting along on a dead run at a very respectable 5.8 knots. The sky greyed over, and the wind continued to build for a while, but there wasn’t much to do except hold on and enjoy the ride, just occasionally tweaking the course on the autohelm to prevent the main from sailing by the lee.

The winds were at their strongest as we passed pretty Polperro, nestled in her craggy cove, the sky dark and the grey sea flecked with foam. But then it began to ease. By 1600, with 20 miles now behind us, I’d shaken out both reefs from the main and unfurled the headsail, but the sails were now slatting as the rolling sea knocked the little remaining wind out of them.

By 1630 we were just passed Lantic Bay and on the final approach to Fowey. With little wind left to drive us, we furled the sails and started the engine to motor the last couple of miles into harbour.


We moored up alongside Berril’s Yard pontoon, so Dad had the luxury of shore power and an easy walk to shore. We called in at the Gallants Sailing Club to say hello and have a quick pint, had another swift pint at The Galleon for old time’s sake, and then headed down the road to Sam’s for supper. Two very fixed opinions I’ve formed since we moved Calstar to the south coast: Sound Bites in Plymouth serves the best breakfast within a hundred miles or more, and Sam’s on Fore Street in Fowey serves, undoubtedly, the best fish supper to be found on the South Cornish or Devonshire coast.

After supper, we dropped back into the Gallants for a night cap. Dad only stayed for the one before heading back to the boat, but by happy coincidence a couple of friends, Suzy and Andy, happened to be in Fowey (they have a flat there) so I took the opportunity to catch up with them over another before they walked me back to the boat.

I’d been in some debate as to the plans for Saturday and Sunday. The forecast was for F3 to 4 from the east for Saturday, but expected to drop somewhat and back around to the northwest for Sunday, suggesting Sunday would be a much easier day for sailing back to Plymouth. However, Dad wasn’t altogether taken with the idea of a six hour sail back followed by a three hour drive home, and I had no choice but to be back at work for Monday.

On the other hand, with the wind in the east the Yealm seemed very inviting for Saturday night, if we could just get there, and it felt like we hadn’t had a proper upwind thrash since we’d left the Bristol Channel behind us the previous year.

Saturday 29th September 2018 : Fowey to The Yealm
(32.6 miles, 10 hours 40 minutes under way)

So a little after 0700 Saturday morning we cast off from the Berril’s Yard Pontoon and motored out of the harbour. The harbour waters were still in the wolf-light of the dawn, the gradually lightening sky hazed with high altitude cirrus. As we pushed out of the harbour mouth in the company of another yacht, I was a little surprised at quite how lumpy the sea was. Off Polruan we hauled up the sails and set our course close hauled back towards the east on a port tack, waves frequently crashing over the bows. The wind was stiffer than expected, a good F4+ frequently pushing the little yacht over to 25 degrees and making the autohelm work hard for its breakfast. A roll into the headsail stiffened her up nicely and barely touched the boat speed.

The wind was cold. Friday had seen temperatures get up close to 18c, but the most the forecast was expecting for Saturday was a humble 8 at best. But no rain, and the skies were a chilly blue where they weren’t dyed a rich golden hue in the east by the rising sun. I was shamefully hung-over, and a hang-over and lumpen seas hard on the nose do not make happy companions. The little yacht was getting flung about all over the place, all at about 20 degrees of heel. I elected to skip breakfast, settled for a bottle of cabin temperature water, and settled down, feet braced across the cockpit to enjoy the gorgeous amber cast of a boisterous sea glowing in the reflected sunrise. It went no small way towards easing my self-inflicted misery.

We held a close hauled port tack for 13 miles, out past Polperro and Looe to the relative shallows of the Hand Deeps, the Eddystone Lighthouse on our nose, growing ever closer. The skies stayed blue, the air cold, the sea lumpy, frequently crashing over our ducking bows. The wind held in the east, blowing a good F4 against the tide, occasionally gusting to 5, heeling Calstar hard over and knocking white caps off the tops of the tumbling waves. The rugged little boat kept her feet comfortably though as we beat on with a full main and just a single roll in the headsail.

We tacked back towards land a little before 1100, and held a starboard tack in to shore, not quite laying Rame Head, despite the course lifting significantly as we closed land. A porpoise briefly breached off our beam, arching between waves about a boat length away, but then disappeared as swiftly as she’d come. About us gannets plummeted into the water, harassing shoals of fish for their lunch, but we saw no other sign of dolphin or porpoise.

Another short tack to clear the headland, then tacking back towards land again, this time with every chance of clearing Penlee Point. But the tide had turned foul, and the wind was dropping. For an hour off Rame Head our course continued to lift as the land bent the easterly wind in our favour and we crept out of the worst of the tide closer to shore, but our speed over ground dropped off to little more than a knot at times.

Crossing Plymouth Sound, the Great Mewstone Rock marking the corner of Wembury Bay and the entrance to the Yealm was teasingly close, yet seemed ever distant. With Dad beginning to chafe in impatience and a slight concern we wouldn’t make the Yealm before dark, around 1500 I was on the cusp of starting the engine when the wind, blissfully, began to fill again.

The Yealm headland was bending the easterly wind significantly to the south as we crossed outside the Sound, but as it built back up again, it began to head us, until it became apparent we weren’t going to clear the Mewstone. We’d spent most of the long day sailing in our own company, but now we were crowded with other boats, including a bigger Westerly Konsort with distinctive blue sails beating her way out of Plymouth, everybody seeming to have the same destination in mind.

It took a series of four short tacks to beat our way around the Mewstone, the Konsort crossing ahead of us for the first few as she did the same, and then finally dropping astern on the last tack as we pulled ahead and entered the Bay. It wasn’t a race, and they gave us a cheery wave back as we passed, but I couldn’t help but smile as Calstar beat her bigger sister into the Yealm.

The day was fading as we entered the river. The Yealm was as picturesque as ever, ever so pretty in the low slanting light. We carefully picked our way in on the rising tide, careful to keep to the channel and avoid the shallows. The flow was pushing very hard upriver with the flood. Both visitor pontoons and the buoys were crowded, with boats rafted up two or three abreast. We took the inside of the first visitors pontoon, presuming to raft up next to a slightly longer ketch of similar vintage to Calstar. We would have asked before inviting ourselves alongside, but her skipper was absent. We had been aiming for the next boat along, a pretty Jeannau with her crew stood ready to take our lines, but the river’s hard flow pushed Dad prematurely onto the ketch, a soft, well fendered landing however unintentional, so we all smiled, pretended that had been our intentional all along and made ourselves fast to her. Some things are meant to be.

We paid our dues to the harbour master, the man swift to come alongside to collect as soon as we were made fast, then inflated the tender made for the pub, a pretty little run up the creek to the village Noss Mayo in the fading twilight. We ate at The Ship Inn, a friendly service, good beer and nice enough food and good enough to accommodate us at a table inside without a booking with only the briefest wait at the bar despite being pretty busy on the evening.

Sunday 30th September 2018 : The Yealm to Plymouth
(6.6 miles, 1 hours 52 minutes under way)

The following morning could’ve been a lie-in, except we were rafted up outside a boat that wanted to leave at 0730, so we rose cheerfully enough at 0630 and cast off a little before. With home just around the corner, breakfast at Sound Bites and the luxury of the showers at Queen Anne’s Battery were too much to resist. 

A grey morning gave a drab excuse of a sunrise as we rounded the Mewstone in the company of a small clutter of yachts also heading back into Plymouth Sound with similar ideas. The wind was fickle, light and sat on our nose in the north, so with the lure of breakfast pulling us, we motored the finally six miles home to our berth.

It was a fine weekend. Five hours of running wing on wing, ten hours of hard beating back up wind. Great sailing, lively enough to keep us on our toes and stretch us just a little. And it’s good to stretch occasionally. 62.7 nautical miles covered in 18 hours and 5 minutes underway, of which we spent 4 hours and 36 minutes under power, most of that navigating the confines of the Yealm looking for a berth or returning from there to Plymouth the following morning before the wind had much of a chance to fill in.

Calstar comes out of the water in a few days. There is some bubbling in the gel coat just above the waterline that is inconsequential but Dad is fixated on getting sorted out. er" finally happens. 

The heads need to be replaced, after a misguided effort to service the pump; perhaps it could be fixed, but Dad is fixed on an upgrade. And we might have found somebody to replace the head-lining, which really does beg tending to, and is the last thing left over from the list of things to be tended to that we made when we first bought the boat.

So I rather suspect that’s our cruising season done until the new year. A little earlier a finish than originally intended, but so be it. I still have a Laser to go play with through the winter and a lake to play with it on. I’m quite looking forward to the winter’s racing, the first race of which series starts in a couple of Sundays time.

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