Last weekend Dad and I drove down to the boat in Plymouth Thursday evening after I’d finished work. Dad’s recently retired, so had already finished work back at the end of March; Nik, sadly, had to work through the holiday weekend so wouldn’t be able to join us.
The forecast suggested the best wind would be Friday, an easterly F4 to 5, fading as the day wore one. Saturday and Sunday had the wind falling off to an F2 or 3, staying in the east, maybe with a bit more south in it. The plan was an early start Friday morning, ride the wind the 40 nautical miles downhill to Falmouth, and split the journey back home over the rest of the long Easter weekend into 20 mile chunks with stopovers in Fowey and the Yealm. Then arrive back in Plymouth early Monday and get on the road as quickly as possible to try and avoid the worst of the bank holiday traffic.
Friday 19th April : Plymouth to Falmouth
(40.5 nautical miles, 7 hours 8 minutes underway)
Friday morning, up at 0530 to hit the marina showers then ready the boat to cast off for 0730, half an hour later than I’d planned. I don’t take two hours to shower and go, but Dad moves at his own pace these days and time nor tide have little dominion. Did I mention he’s quite enjoying his retirement?
If we’d been slow at the off, the weather had clearly blown through earlier than expected. By 0800 we were clearing the Western Entrance, Cawsands off our starboard beam, and the hoped for easterly breeze was exceptionally light. With 40 miles to cover, and deadlines to meet (the primary one being the need for me to be back at work on Tuesday) we continued to motor-sail under the main. With a spring tide running fair for the first couple of hours of morning, we were making very good progress without needing to labour the engine, or our patience with it.
Around 1100, about 6 miles offshore, Fowey and Gribbin Head in the hazy distance off our starboard beam, a pair of dolphins joined us.
Dad spotted them first, he’d been trying to make out the distant day mark atop Gribbin Head and had seen one broach about 500 meters yards away. They disappeared briefly, and I quelled my disappointment at having missed the sight, before they reappeared again right beside us, lacing through the water, arcing and twisting as they played back and forth across Calstar’s slight bow-wave. Dad reckons there were three, I counted two, but they were lovely and kept company with us for about five minutes. They quite made up for the lack of wind.
By 1400 we rounded St Anthony’s Head and entered the Carrick Roads outside Falmouth. Predictably, the wind began to fill in, but by now Dad was eager to land somewhere for the night and get ashore to stretch his legs. We made directly for the Falmouth Yacht Haven, and made safe alongside the pontoon just before 1500; a shade over 40 miles behind us and slightly over 7 hours underway. All of it sadly with the assistance of the engine.
I say sadly, but it would've been sadder had the engine failed us; the weather was gorgeously warm and it was a delight just to be afloat.
We dined Friday night on the balcony of a Falmouth restaurant called Amanzi. The view and the food were both lovely.
Saturday 20th April : Falmouth to Fowey
(23.4 nautical miles, 6 hours 29 minutes underway)
We cast off from Falmouth at 0930, flagrantly late on the tide, and further delayed our departure by queuing an hour for the fuel barge. By 1000 we were properly on our way, but with only an hour of fair tide left to exploit.
Expecting a F2 - 3 from the east for most of the day, my plan was to stand off from the shore once we were clear of the Carrick Roads then tack and beat along the coast. By 1030 we’d cleared the headland and cut the engine, but over the next fifteen minutes saw what little wind we’d started with die off and the tide begin to turn foul.
We scrapped my originally optimistic plan of sailing, restarted the engine, and turning towards Fowey 20 miles distant, furled the headsail, resigning ourselves to motor-sailing under the main again for the next few hours.
We spent the day basking in the Easter sunshine, reading, jellyfish spotting and keeping a weather eye out for more dolphins. The Cornish waters were thick (I exaggerate, but only a little) with barrel jellyfish. The size of dustbin lids, they are surreal, otherworldly, harmless creatures, gently pulsing as they ghosted through the clear smooth waters just beneath the surface, feasting on the invisible spring plankton bloom.
A little while after rounding Dodman Point at 1300, just off picturesque Gorran Haven, a sea breeze began to fill in from astern. We cut the engine and gently tricked along for a while, sails goose-winged with the boat on a dead run, but made little headway across St Austell’s Bay despite the grip of the foul tide easing as the hours wore on into the afternoon.
An hour and a half later, with only a mile and a half covered in the time and Gorran Haven still very visible over our port quarter, the seas turned glassy, the tease of a wind finally ceased and we once more started the engine. We were comforted by the brief sighting of a pod of porpoises about 50 meters off our port bow, but the shy creatures came no closer.
We landed in Fowey just before 1630, a little more than 23 miles of travel behind us and a relatively slow passage time just shy of 7 hours; we’d covered almost twice the distance in that time on our passage to Falmouth the day before. The tides on this coast are so slight compared to our old home waters in the Bristol Channel that the temptation to disregard them is always there; but our passage time to Fowey was a stark indication, as if any were needed, of the difference between a fair tide and a foul, even in these waters.
The wait for a table at my favourite Fowey restaurant Sams was over an hour by the time we finally got there. Dad had the casting vote, so we avoided the queue and headed over to the Galleon instead where we enjoyed a perfectly respectable cod and chips on their veranda overlooking the bustle of the harbour. We called in for a pint at the Fowey Gallants Sailing Club on our way back to the boat. Their beer is unfailingly good and their clubhouse bar has the best view of any sailing club I know.
Sunday 21st April : Fowey to The Yealm
(26.6 nautical miles, 7 hours 26 minutes underway)
The forecast for wind on Sunday wasn’t promising at all, slightly more south in it but no stronger than the day before. Low water Plymouth was expected 1418, so to make the most of the fair tide we got up early and cast off from Fowey just after 0730.
As we were preparing to cast off, a Cornish Crabber 22 called “Chocolat” motored past us on her way out of the harbour which put a smile on my face. Back in the summer of 2014 Dad and I had brought our old Drascombe Lugger “Ondine” down to Fowey for the weekend. On the pontoons upriver at Penmarlam, a lady from a neighbouring boat had ambled over to remark on how lovely Drascombes were. B was the skipper of the Crabber 22 “Chocolat”, and ended up accompanying us in the Lugger for a day-sail over to Polperro and back.
Five years later and no longer with the Drascombe, there is no way she’d have recognised us aboard the Westerly as she cheerfully waved back whilst passing, but I recognised her, and was very pleased to see she was well and clearly still enjoying the delights of her lovely little yacht.
With no great hopes of a decent sailing wind, we motor-sailed with just the main set again, but keeping closer to the shore than for the first few miles, enjoying the sights of Polperro and Looe in the fine early morning light. Off Looe Island around 0900 the wind filled in enough to tempt us into stopping the engine. Over the next hour we covered a little more than a mile before the wind completely gave up the ghost and we fired the engine back up. The sea was a flat calm as we motored gently towards the slowing closing edifice of Rame Head.
By noon we were passing the headland; the Longroom in Plymouth reported the windspeed as 7 knots on the breakwater, and the tide had turned foul for us. Nonetheless, around 1230 enough of a sea breeze sprung up to tempt us into sailing once again. Only half an hour of very gentle beating before it failed once more and we returned to moto-rsailing. Off Wembury Bay an hour later we tried again, but within 20 minutes once more gave up the ghost.
We reached the mouth of the Yealm at low water, around 1430. At low tide there is only a meter of water in the narrow passage across the south end of the sand bar at the mouth of the river, clearly visible just beneath the surface with holiday makers paddling out across it in water no higher than their knees. Calstar only draws a meter, and the tide table said LW should still have 0.3m on top of chart datum, so we gently chanced entering; there really wasn’t much room between the end of the bar and the very visible, rocky foreshore on the other side of the passage, but as long as we stayed with the entrance passage we’d only ground on clean sand if we got it wrong.
It was a little nerve wracking, following the transits, avoiding swimmers, anchored boats and paddle boarders, and periodically silencing the shallow water warning alarm on our depth sounder before reaching the slightly deeper water of the river proper, and then picking our way up river through the crowded moorings to the visitor pontoons, but it passed without mishap.
The first pontoon was full, with boats rafted up to three abreast. We bleakly made our way further up river to the second, expecting the same, and half expecting to have to turn around and head back out, perhaps to anchor overnight in Wembury Bay or even head the rest of the way back to Plymouth, but to our surprise found the shore side half of the upriver visitor’s pontoon completely clear, which made for a very easy landing.
We made fast at 1504, just shy of 26 miles behind us and seven and a half hours underway; just over five hours of that had been on engine, but we’d managed to get a little more sailing in that on the previous days, so were not unhappy. We took the tender up the river to find a supper of whitebait at the Dolphin Inn in Newton Ferrers. A tidy little pub and very friendly, and even if the food was a little less than piping hot by the time they got it to us on their second attempt to find our table (don’t ask, I don’t know!) it was still delicious.
Half way back to the boat, the outboard ran out of fuel. A passing powerboat kindly offered us a tow, but the tide was still just in our favour, and we had oars, so Dad and I paddled the rest of the way back. I think Dad regretted relying on me to check the fuel levels in the outboard (I'd casually glanced in; there was fuel, just not as much as I’d thought), but personally I quite enjoyed the tranquillity of the river and the light exercise of paddling back with the flow.
Monday 22nd April : The Yealm to Plymouth
(7.5 nautical miles, 2 hours 8 minutes underway)
After three days of brilliant sunshine, Monday morning dawned overcast and grey. We cast off in the slack water just after high tide at 0835 and picked our way down river through the crowded moorings and anchorage, through the narrow channel around the river bar and out into the choppy waters of Wembury Bay in the company of a couple of other yachts.
And finally, there was wind.
At 0900, just outside the river mouth, we turned the boat back towards the bar, head to wind, raised the sails, stilled the engine, then turned away from the wind onto a deep reach to take us out of the bay. After ten or fifteen minutes of a southerly course, the yacht to leeward of us gybed and we did the same, to settle onto a broad starboard reach that would take us clear around the Mewstone and back into Plymouth.
By 1010 we entered the Sound via the Eastern Entrance, and wind dying in the lee of the eastern shore, doused the sails and kicked the engine in to life to motor gently up the Sound and back to the marina at Queen Anne’s Battery. By 1043 we were safe alongside our home berth, a short trip of seven and a half miles covered mostly under sail in just over a couple of hours.
Despite our best intentions to make haste, we still failed to get on the road before 1230, so got snarled up just a little in the homeward bound Bank Holiday traffic. A small price to pay for four very pleasant days aboard however; even if there wasn’t much actual sailing to be had, it’s always good just getting out on the water.