Wednesday 29 August 2018

Calstar: go east young man

The original plan had been to book the week commencing 20th August off work. With no gigs either the weekend before or the bank holiday weekend after, I figured that would give us ten days away with the boat. I told Nik. She booked the week commencing 20th off work as well. What I hadn’t factored in is that she works evenings and weekends, so I should’ve told her to book off from the evening of Friday 17th, which is when my own leave began. She didn’t, and had a Sunday shift to cover before we could make a break for the boat.

So Dad and I went down to the boat Friday night and spent Saturday exploring Devonport, the River Tamar and the picturesque Lynher River. No sailing, although there was room Dad gets understandably nervous in “confined” and busy waters, but a day’s pleasant pottering. He and I ate at Suphas in Plymouth Saturday night and I spent the remainder of the evening pouring over the charts and pilot books planning the following week’s intended adventures to the east once Nik could join us; east is new territory for all of us.

In the end, Nik’s fumbled planning worked out for the best as I had to be back in work for Monday 20th to complete a project sign-off and hand-over, something that we knew was always going to be a risk when I originally booked the holiday. Dad and I drove back to Gloucester Sunday morning to pick up Nik. We got back in time for the second race at Frampton so I distracted myself waiting for Nik to finish work by racing the Laser. Monday I headed back into the office to tie up the outstanding loose ends, and by late Monday afternoon the three of us were heading back down to Plymouth, weather and tides looking very promising for the trip we had in mind.

Tuesday 21st August 2018 : Plymouth to Salcombe
(20.0 miles, 5 hours 39 minutes under way)

Tuesday morning was a lazy start. The tide runs fair for the east for three hours before and after high water, expected for 1452 that afternoon, so we had breakfast at our favourite Plymouth café Sound Bites, cast off a little before 1000 to top up with diesel from the fuel barge, and then were underway for 0955, early on the tide. Forecast was F2 to 3 from the west backing into the southwest as the day went on, the sky was grey and the temperature (predictably now we had time off) lower than it had been in recent weeks, not expected to make 20c.

With little wind to begin with, we motor-sailed across the Sound and out through the Eastern Entrance, before stilling the engine and hauling up full sail to turn off onto a starboard beam reach, making about 3.0 knots over the ground. We passed Wembury Bay and the mouth of the Yealm off our port beam around 1130, with the light wind beginning to fail, and by noon had furled the headsail and restarted the engine, the dying wind giving us no real headway even though the tide was beginning to run fair.

Salcombe has a fairly notorious sand bar at the mouth of the river; back at the beginning of the last century it rolled an RNLI lifeboat returning in a gale with the loss of 13 of the 15 hands aboard. It has some pretty specific instructions for crossing it, including the advice not to if you can see breakers and the warning that it becomes dangerous on an ebb tide in a strong southerly. With a neap tide and fairly settled conditions from the west I didn’t harbour any concerns, but was still keen to time our arrival for high water around 1500, especially as it was our first time in.

Across the next hour as we crossed Bigbury Bay, then grey sky began to lift and the wind filled back in. By 1300 we cut the engine and relaxed back into the peace and quiet of sailing once more, with the help of the tide making an easy 4 knots over the ground as we passed Erme Head. Over the next hour and a half the wind continued to build steadily and the sun burned through, clearing the sky of cloud and lifting everybody’s already quite content spirits. We turned around Bolt Head a little before 1500, arriving at the mouth of Salcombe Harbour a little before high water. The sand bar was quiet, invisible beneath 4 meters of tide, but we followed the transit in religiously in any case.

We called up the harbour master on channel 14 and he directed us to a vacant visitors buoy close to the town. We listed to lots of larger yachts arriving at the same time being instructed to raft up, but had the lighter 9m limited mooring to ourselves; sometimes being a little less than 8m is a definite advantage even if it does mean you have to stay friendly with the rest of the crew.

Salcombe was one of the prettiest harbours we’ve stayed in so far, rivalling even Cornish Fowey to the west. The harbour staff were friendly and welcoming, the shower block clean and convenient, although the rest of the shore facilities were shared with the public and so correspondingly grim. The town had lots of little boutique type shops, some gorgeous views out over the harbour and wasn’t horrifically crowded with tourists. We enjoyed a good pint sat in the sunshine in the garden of the Ferry Inn, looking out over the water where we could see Calstar bobbing contentedly on her mooring.

The café and restaurant prices were a little brutal. Of the two cafes on the quayside, the one charged £12.50 a head for a full breakfast and the other was asking £15. The food was good but the sausages were hardly gold plated; the equivalent start to the day at Sound Bites back in Plymouth would’ve been almost half the price.

Wednesday 22nd August 2018 : Salcombe to Dartmouth
(17.7 miles, 5 hours 48 minutes under way)

High water was creeping further into the afternoon, with 3.9m expected at 1614. The forecast was expected to build to F4 from the southwest by 1600, but get no worse. We showered ashore and had (a non gold-plated) breakfast in Salcombe, then deflated the tender and lashed it to the coach-roof, casting off a little before 1130 and making our way down towards the harbour mouth in the company of a number of other boats evidently with the same idea.

Transiting the bar on half tide presented no difficulty in the still light conditions and by 1150 we cleared the harbour, cut the engine and had our sails up, making 3.1 knots over the ground on a comfortable starboard beam reach, heading out towards Prawle Point in bright sunshine, leaving Salcombe astern. Gannets gracefully plummeted from the sky around us, dive-bombing their unsuspecting lunch. We rounded the point in the company of a very elegant Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 41 towing her tender astern, watching with a wry smile as the yacht’s skipper patiently taught one of his crew the intricacies of tying a bowline as their yacht drifted along on a deep run, headsail collapsing in the shadow of the main.

We rigged a preventer to our own boom to hold our mainsail to port and guard against an accidental gybe, and set the pole to goose the headsail out into the clean air to starboard as we cleared the headland and turned onto a dead run. We gradually eased away from the Jeanneau, leaving her well astern as we closed with the next headland at Start Point. The wind gradually built as the sky greyed over, the sun now a wistful memory departed with the morning.

By 1400 we cleared Start Point, running at a shade over 4 knots over the ground. A glance at the tidal atlas suggested Start Point could at times be formidable, with up to 3 knots of tide running past it each way at certain times of day and overfalls reaching up to two miles out from the headland. There is an inner passage inside the overfalls, which the pilot notes suggest should only be attempted with local knowledge. A neap tide and a relatively calm wind running with it made for flat seas however, so we ignored the overfalls altogether and sailed straight through. The only evidence of their menace were over-boils, swirls and eddies in the water that I’ve admittedly seen nowhere else on the south coast until now, but seemed ever so tame compared to the silted turmoil of the Shoots that run up to and beneath the Severn Crossing that spans the upper Bristol Channel above Avonmouth and Portishead.

We kept to the outside of the Skerries sandbank on the other side of Start Point, sails still goosed but the headsail now flying contentedly by the lee on a deep broad reach as the afternoon wound on and the wind continued to build and back into the southwest. A little after 1500 we cleared the port lateral buoy marking the end of the Skerries, dropped the pole and gybed onto a port reach, taking us in towards the mouth of the distant River Dart. The sea was beginning to get a little more lively, the wind now the upper end of a F3, our speed over the ground touching 5 knots at times.

At 1550 we started the engine, turned head to wind and dropped sail at the mouth of the River Dart before entering and making our way up the river towards Dartmouth. The river was wide, clearly marked and with plenty of water, so presented no complications other than the ferries crossing between Dartmouth and Kingswear. We called up “Dart Nav” on channel 11 and were directed to raft up alongside a yacht called “Cedilla” on the Yacht Club Pontoon. We found the pontoon and our unsuspecting neighbour easily enough. Our call over for permission to come alongside was initially greeted with a welcome and a friendly smile, before the chap then paused and asked if we’d have gone away again if he’d said no. With a grin I suggested it was probably better not to distract Dad with a change of plan now that he was committed and had our bows pointed straight at them.

Dartmouth is a very pretty town, picturesque, spacious and relatively quiet. We ate ashore at the Cherub Inn with good food, friendly service and fine beer. And prices much kinder than those of Salcombe.

Thursday 23rd August 2018 : Dartmouth to Torquay
(12.1 miles, 3 hours 20 minutes under way)

We cast off from Dartmouth at 0836 the following morning. Although it meant pushing into a foul tide, the intended passage to Torquay was shorter than that of the previous two days’ sailing, and the tidal streams less significant towards the shelter of Torbay than they were further back to the west and the forecast was expected to build into F5 blow from the NW by 1600, which would be bang on our nose as we turned into Torbay. The kinder weather was in the morning.

I’d also spoken to Torquay Marina the previous evening and they hadn’t been able to commit to having a berth available because they were so busy with Bank Holiday bookings, but had advised I call back at 0700 the following morning. The second conversation was more fruitful, and I managed to persuade the marina office to sneak us onto the bookings list. Torquay is run by MDL, the same company that owns Queen Anne’s Battery, and we get free reciprocal berthing at any MDL marina. It was also Dad’s first choice of a south coast home for Calstar, albeit we eventually decided in favour of QAB because it was more conveniently located. But Dad had liked Torquay when we’d originally visited by road at the end of last year (or was it the beginning of this one) and had been particularly impressed with the marina and the friendliness of the staff.

Add to this the last couple of nights of slumming it on a mooring and then a harbour pontoon, Dad was particularly keen to return to the luxury of a marina berth and a shore-power hook-up for his iPad. All of this contributed to a certain amount of pressure to make Torquay in good time and ensure they were able to fit us in.

One day I’ll get to sail without watching the clock and being slave to the chart plotter’s ETA.

At 0900 we passed the Mewstone outside the River Dart; by way of an aside, every river and harbour around here appears to have a “Mewstone”, but I guess only Plymouth has a “Great” one? Motorsailing under main, we were pushing 5.0 knots over the ground with a light wind on our port beam. Ahead we were closing up on an old, traditional gaff rigger. As we drew alongside, I cut the engine and set full sail. Our progress dropped to 2.1 knots, the wind now close hauled on port. But in the refreshing silence that came with the stilling of the engine, nobody complained. It seemed somehow disrespectful to just brazenly power past the old gaffer.

Over the next hour, the wind built and our course lifted, until we were covering 3.6 knots over the ground, the sun breaking through and the wind now a playful, gusty F3 on a port close reach. At 1021 the wind dropped as we closed with Berry Head. I furled the headsail and restarted the engine, turning into the shelter of Torbay. Clear of the headland the wind built back up again but dead on the nose so we continued to motorsail under main alone towards Torquay Marina, enslaved to the chartplotter’s ETA.

By 1156 we were alongside a berth in Torquay, Dad restored to the comfort of shore-power and debating where to have lunch.

Friday 24th August 2018 : Torquay stop-over

The previous afternoon we’d finally settled on lunch at the local Rockfish. The fish had been delicious as usual but the chips, to our surprise, had been inedible, clearly left warming on the side for too long. The waiter was mortified, and when we turned down his offer to replace the chips with fresh, knocked 10% off our bill by way of apology.

The next morning we had a mug of tea and a bacon roll for breakfast, sat outside a harbour-side café. Nik and Dad had so far sailed for three days consecutively without complaint, so I’d agreed to stop ashore for a day to give Nik a chance to shop and Dad a chance to explore Torquay. My original plan had been to sail back to Salcombe on Saturday and then the Yealm on Sunday to put us in range of a short hop back to QAB on the Monday morning and then the long drive home to Gloucester, however the weather forecast wasn’t playing ball.

We caught the ferry across the bay to Brixham at lunchtime, and spent a pleasant few hours ambling about over there. The weather out in the bay was wet and squally, so we were glad of the shelter of the town. Dad and I left Nik to go off and browse the various gift and craft shops whilst we paid a visit to the local museum. Back in Torquay we had a late lunch at The Green Ginger, a chain restaurant that originally mistakenly thought was a Weatherspoons, before discovering to my pleasure that it was not, and that the Weatherspoons was in fact upstairs. The restaurant was spacious, the service friendly and the food unremarkable, but fairly priced.

Sunday’s weather forecast was looking exceptionally grim. I’d been hoping it would mitigate as the week wore on, but was now consistently predicting F8 from the southwest with heavy rain, coming in at around 0700 and lasting through the day. We needed to be home by end of day Monday, and Dad was very clear he didn’t want a five hour sail Monday morning followed directly by a two and a half hour drive or more, with the usual bank holiday traffic we could expect. I’d offer to drive, but his driving doesn’t scare me enough yet to offset the anxiety he clearly feels when I'm at the wheel.

In contrast to Sunday, once Friday’s heavy winds blew through by the evening, Saturday’s forecast was looking very fair, with sunshine and a F3 to 4 from the northwest, albeit with the temperature much cooler and not expected to top 17c.

I briefly considered sailing back to the Yealm, sheltering there through Sunday before making the final short hop around the corner and back to QAB on Monday morning, but pretty as the Yealm is, it only has so much distraction to offer in the two villages there, and the pontoons require tender access, which would have to be carefully considered in view of the F8 forecast. Although it would be perfectly secure on Sunday once we were within the shelter of the river, being stormbound in Plymouth seemed far preferable, so after a thoughtful discussion with Dad and Nik we decided to bolt the full 40 odd miles back to Plymouth on Saturday before Sunday’s weather closed in.

Saturday 25th August 2018 : Torquay to Plymouth
(43.0 miles, 9 hours 24 minutes under way)

High water Saturday morning was expected for 0557 at 4.9m, only a couple of days shy of springs. Sunrise wasn’t expected until about 0615, but the pre-dawn would be plenty bright enough to spot any lobster pots or other unexpected snares in our path once we cast off at our intended 0600. I woke a few minutes before my alarm was due to go off at 0430, carefully rolled out of my bunk so as not to wake Nikki then woke Dad. We set about preparing the boat for departure in the impending dawn’s twilight.

At 0546 we slipped our lines and motored out across Torbay. The gloaming sky was clear, the air very light, no more than a F2 from astern. Clear of the harbour I set the headsail, but it barely managed to draw. The sky was lightening as we slid out to sea, touching the listless sail with the barest hint of gold. Dad and I tried not to be too distracted by the gradually blossoming spectacle of the sunrise and to keep at least half an eye ahead for lobster pots. The sun gradually crept up into the sky, bathing the sea, our sails, the approaching Berry Head and Brixham shore with a gorgeous, warm amber light. At 0646, rounding Berry Head, we could see small, individual plumes of water exploding as gannets dropped sleekly into the sea in search of breakfast, and then the dolphins joined us, crossing beneath the boat before turning to follow, playfully broaching through our slight wake.

They stayed with us directly for only a minute or two, but in the amber saturated light of the dawn the moment was exquisite. By the time Nikki emerged from below to join us, they’d left their play with go compete with the dive-bombing birds for their share of breakfast. For the next half hour or so they’d occasionally breach, backs and fins gracefully arching through the surface of the slight sea as they surfaced and dived again looking for food.

For the next three hours we made good time crossing Start Bay, the tide slowly slackening. Every so often the wind would seem to build and I’d optimistically silence the engine, then it would fail, teasingly, again and the engine would be started once more. At 0955 beneath a hazy blue sky we entered the overfalls off Start Point. Definitely livelier than the previous day, with a stronger tide beginning to turn now against the albeit still light wind, the sea was rolling but not breaking so rather than put the extra distance in to sail around or inside it, we simply sailed through. A couple of jet-skis shot past, the stern most waving a cheerful greeting as they bounced from wave to wave in their respective balls of spray.

Clearing the overfalls of Start Point, I tried again to cut the engine, but the speed fell back off, the tide not yet fully with us and the wind not yet filled in. Before Dad could get too anxious over the swiftly receding ETA, I put the engine back on. We cleared Salcombe to starboard a little after 1100, motorsailing under main with a F3 directly on the nose. A stream of other boats were emerging from Salcombe Harbour across the bar, clearly intent on making the best of the one good day’s weather of the weekend.

At 1151, off the eastern end of Bigbury Bay, I finally cut the engine again, the wind having backed around further to the south. Close hauled on port tack, we were covering 6.0 knots over the ground with the help of the now running tide, not laying clear of the far side of the bay, but that was a couple of hours away yet. We were finally sailing, and the little yacht heeled joyfully to it.

Across the next couple of hours, the wind steadily increased and lifted our course, until it became certain that we were going to clear the headland on the western side of the bay. The sky gradually choked up with cumulus, and the wind continued to build, tripping us along at a steady 5 knots, the yacht digging her lee rail in as some of the more lively gusts sent spray crashing over our bows.

It was a cracking sail. Outside Wembury Bay it looked briefly as if we were going to clear the Mewstone, but a heavy set of gusts headed us and laid us hard over. Her sweet-spot up wind seems to be about 20 degrees of heel. Beyond that, she’s still in no danger of rounding up, but loses grip and begins to slip off to leeward. We’d already put the first roll into her headsail a little while back, stiffening her up nicely but hardly losing any speed, so I pulled the first reef into the mainsail before we hardened back up, and then tacked to gain the necessary sea room to round the Mewstone.

Some twenty minutes later we’d tacked again, a second roll now in the headsail, but the speed over ground still over 5 knots as we finally bore away to take a line for the Easter Entrance of Plymouth Breakwater. We heard Plymouth Longroom report on channel 14 to some inbound shipping that the wind was 16 knots from the southwest at the breakwater.

At 1455 we furled the headsail outside Jenny Bay in Plymouth Sound, put the engine on and turned her head to wind to drop the mainsail. Fifteen minutes later we were back alongside our berth in QAB. The boat secured and tidy, we headed up to the Marina bar for a beer.

Sunday 26th August 2018 : Plymouth

Four sailing days, 24 hours and 11 minutes underway, 92.8 nautical miles covered, I figured that Dad and Nik had earnt another day ashore. And the weather on Sunday came in exactly as forecast, brutally hard and wet from the southwest. Calstar, in company with everybody else, was thrown about in her berth. The wave screen gives some shelter, but the wind was pushing the sea straight up the entrance fairway. But she was secure, well fendered and her mooring lines cushioned as usual with heavy rubber snubbers. She was far from uncomfortable.

We ambled up into town to find me some trainers; I’d come away with nothing for my feet but sandals and sea boots. It was too cold and wet for sandals, and I didn’t want to wear out my sea boats wandering about on shore, and then spend the rest of the day, seemingly with everybody else in Plymouth, avoiding the weather exploring the National Marine Aquarium that neighbours the marina. Dad had never visited, Nik was happy to do anything to keep out of the rain, and I take particular delight at any aquarium where I don’t have to worry about the toil of water changes or cleaning and servicing the filters.

We ate that night at The Village Restaurant in the Plymouth Barbican, a Greek seafood restaurant, and the scallops were delicious, possibly one of the best meals of the week.

Monday morning we secured the hatches, closed the sea-cocks and left early to avoid the worst of the home-bound bank holiday traffic, making it back safe to Gloucester in good time with fortuitously few delays from traffic and roadworks on the motorway.