The Delivery Trip - the rejected article
I wrote this article about my delivery trip of my Tiki 31 during th Summer of 08, but was told it was too long to read, let alone publish. Let me know what you think.
A Cat of Nine Tales
I’d like to tell you a story about obsession; a sailing obsession.
Everyone who sails has dreams about boats and about sailing. The content varies but all our minds are full of fantasies. They sustain us through the long wet winters. They motivate us to repair and maintain, to paint and polish. Some of us dream about what we already have, reliving joys and anticipating activity. For some of us the dreams are about changing what we have and of chasing the horizon.
For me the dreams over the last few years have become increasingly focussed on catamarans, and more specifically Wharram cats.
If you don’t know Wharrams, look them up and you’ll love them. Essentially a series of designs from James Wharram, intended for home construction and made mostly of plywood and epoxy. The underlying shapes are based on 3,000 year old pre-Polynesian designs which excite the eye and appeal to my romantic soul. They are wonderfully organic and seem to sit on the sea and drift over its surface like a travelling albatross. Not for me the over powered smashing through waves with perilously tall masts above and inconceivably heavy weights below.
Accommodation and sail plans vary hugely on these boats, but the essence is always on simplicity, flexibility, stability and safety.
Read the accounts of Wharram sailors and you will be amazed by the audacious spirit expressed by seemingly ordinary and softly spoken people. Measure a person by their dreams and their deeds, not by their appearance. The list of long distance journeys made by these low tech ethnic catamarans is breathtaking.
This article is about how I became obsessed with the idea of owning and sailing one of these cats; and how I finally realised my dream. It is an account of the difficulties and the joy of a simple boat on the sea. A short trip which has extended my horizons.
Over the last 4 years I have read about Wharrams, I’ve talked to Wharram owners, I’ve scoured the internet for information; and then this year I decided to get off the sofa.
I have spent a lot of hours and energy searching for a boat that would meet all of my requirements: to sleep on comfortably, to be fast and fun for short trips, take enough provisions for long trips, be safe for the family, and -inevitably - be affordable. The old adage is that boats can be fast, safe, or affordable; if you’re lucky you can get 2 of the 3, but rarely all 3.
I looked at all sorts of boats: some needed too much work, some were too far away, some were too big, some too small, and most too expensive.
In the end I settled on a Tiki 31 located in La Rochelle on the Western coast of France, half way down the Bay of Biscay.
5.3 m wide,
1.4 tonnes (according to the designs not the crane driver),
2 masts, and a reported top speed of 18 kts.
Construction material – plywood and epoxy
Builder – unknown: home built
Age: circa 1990
The challenge was to fix the boat up, get her in the water, and sail her back to the Exe estuary (Devon) all during August. Delivery trips are never straight forward and rarely run to schedule. I wasn’t expecting everything to be problem free and was fully prepared to have to jury rig solutions to breakages and failures during the trip.
I asked a fellow Wharram cat sailor, Nick, to come with me. I chose him because of his experience with cats, his ability to fix boats and engines, and because as a fellow teacher he was flexible in terms of timings over the summer.
I had changed the name of the boat to Bell ‘Acqua. I know it’s meant to be bad luck to change a boats name, but the previous owners name was very specific to him and had no relevance to me. The name Bell ‘Acqua conjured up images of far away beautiful seas, peaceful anchorages, and crystal clear waters. I was careful to make an offering to Poseidon, asking for his protection and benevolence. Let’s hope it worked.
Sailing trips always seem to be about choices and compromises; you can never have everything that you want. My ideal trip would involve a beam reach the whole way, doing day trips between beautiful Brittany towns and islands. Unfortunately, from a planning point of view the prevailing winds are W and SW, making the whole coast a lee shore. The further we went North, into the NE coast of Southern Brittany, the harder it would be to get out and around the NW lump of France. The safest route would therefore probably be away from the shore and out into the Bay of Biscay, putting us far from help in the event of breakages.
We’d just have to see how it went.
I spent ages researching weather, routes, and ports. I borrowed charts for those areas that we would be whistling through – turned out to be 1983 non-GPS charts, hmmm. I bought kit that I knew we’d need, gathered tools, checked inflating lifejackets; my Mother also insisted on an EPIRB (nice to have). August came, our flights worked out well, car hire worked. We followed directions and found the boat. She was located in a town called Marans, a 45 minute drive from La Rochelle, and 10M from the sea along a canal.
We then had 5 days of working on the boat, checking every system. I had paid for a professional survey and already felt comfortable about the basic structure of the boat, but also knew what wasn’t up to scratch. We still had to replace worn parts, tighten loose ones, and buy supplies – loads of time. An added complication was that the nearest Ships Chandlery was back in La Rochelle meaning we had to plan our requirements carefully. The seller was also an hour and a half a way and was in the process of packing up his house for a move to Thailand.
La Rochelle was great. It is one of those old French ports made out of yellow stone. It feels solid, planted, cultural. Inside the old town is a maze of old streets hiding expensive restaurants, bars, hotels, museums, and very classy private houses. The old port has a ring of tourist bars and restaurants, ranging in quality and price. We had some great beers and meals. It’s always nice to sit in the sun, drinking cold beer, watching the world stroll by.
Outside the older parts of town there is a huge series of ports and marine businesses. The scale is difficult to comprehend. There were areas with enormous racing yachts, open 60s, racing cats and tris. There were other areas with private yachts – white plastic as far as the eye could see. The area is called les Minimes and hosts around 3,500 boats, the largest marina in Europe.
There’s also a marine chandlery business supporting all of these boats which was invaluable to us. We managed to get everything we needed at short notice, I spent far more than I planned on what seemed like essentials.
Early on it became obvious that the electrical system wasn’t very good. Like a number of bits on the boat it was the sum of the added parts of the previous 5 owners. No one had taken anything out, just put in another junction box. The 2 110ah batteries were un-saveable despite a couple of days on charge. I disconnected everything electrical, leaving only the navigation lights linked to the new battery.
It was at this point of the trip that we started relying heavily on the kindness of strangers. In the same yard as my boat there was a couple, Robert and Martine, who were getting their Wharram – a Tangaroa Mk IV (36ft) – ready for a trip to Australia. Robert had managed to remove the tips of 3 of his fingers with a plane on the day of our arrival, but as soon as he got back from hospital he came to our aid. He lent us equipment, offered advice, acted as a chauffer, but most importantly showered us with enthusiasm and positive encouragement. We wouldn’t have started the trip without him and will always be grateful.
This was typical of the positivity we encountered throughout our voyage. Wharrams seem to attract friendly curiosity and generous offers.
Everything about the boat is a little unusual, not least the launching. The yard where the boat was stored was about half a mile from the water. In order to launch her she was first jacked up unto a rolling trailer, then towed by tractor down a road, with traffic building up behind us. On arrival at the canal she was then picked up by a fixed crane and gently dropped into the water. After a few cautious minutes waiting to see if the bilges would fill up with water, she was released to float on her own. Fantastic feeling!
One of the previous owners had built some large square grey tents, one on each hull, to provide dry standing room. They were certainly very useful during infrequent rain, but looked awful, ruining the beautiful curves intended by the designer. I’m sure these were one of the reasons the boat hadn’t been sold quickly on the internet. One of the first things I did was remove the fabric, but I paused before dismantling the structural supports. In building the tents some of the boats water exclusion integrity had been compromised. I could fix this but it would take time and mean epoxy and marine ply. If I didn’t fix it and we encountered heavy weather, the likelihood is that we would take on more water than was safe. In the end I re-installed the tents, ugly but safe. This turned out to be a good move.
Our single biggest problem before setting off was the engines. The boat is powered by two 9.9hp 2 stroke engines. I was assured that they were good runners and had recently been serviced. I wasn’t expecting any problems. However, when we got the boat in the water, we couldn’t get either engine to run. No engines meant no trip, and we called in everyone we could think of. At the peak we had Robert, the previous owner, 2 mechanics from the boat yard, and ourselves working on them. We had already replaced the old fuel – ever tried to get rid of 88 litres of tainted 2 stroke fuel? We changed the spark plugs, cleaned the carburettors (about 5 times), and replaced a number of worn gaskets.
After 3 hours we had one engine running semi-smoothly. The mechanics told us we should wait 3 days for spares to see if that would help the second engine. Nick wouldn’t give in and managed to repair a hole in the fuel primer with silicon sealant. A couple of hours after everyone else had gone home, the second engine started and ran. We celebrated with steak and wine in a restaurant by the canal. It tuned out to be a locals’ place with simple but good food. The staff were friendly and hospitable, and we found ourselves drinking cognac, pastis and coffee into the early hours. The 60 year old owner showed us pictures of his beautiful 25 year old wife, who was still in Cambodia waiting for the French citizenship papers to work out. He was proud and patient.
The town of Marans had really grown on us. It was a very old market port, on the edge of the Vendee. Huge areas of flat marshy fields criss-crossed by miles of rivers and canals. Marans was populated by an eclectic mix of boats ranging from Manu on a converted tug boat, to circumnavigating steel sailing yachts. Some used it as a good place to winter, others as their permanent live aboard home. Everyone we met was gentle, friendly and helpful. One evening we entertained 7 guests on our cat, treating them to our bottomless supply of Vin de Table.
On our last day in Marans there was the monthly Sunday flea market. Set up along the cobblestone streets of the market area were stalls run by locals for locals. My favourite was the wine stall, where a glass of Kir was 50c, which I drank sitting at a trestle table in the main square. Around me people wandered, greeted, hugged and kissed. Gentle dignified local community.
A very nice town, Marans.
We had reached decision time. I had been carefully following the weather on the internet. On that last Sunday in Marans we had a high pressure system producing very low winds, but settled weather. The following day, Monday, would be light W. Tuesday and Wednesday – variable, very light. The key issue however was that Thursday through to Sunday offered the front edge of an approaching low pressure system. The further North we got before the low arrived the more likely the winds would favour us getting through the Raz de Sein and then across the Channel.
We had spent 5 days sorting out the boat; and we were well provisioned. French supermarkets stock the best range of tinned food I’ve seen anywhere. Everything they do comes in either the standard size or a larger family (or two men) can. The choice covered the expected Ravioli, Spaghetti, and soups; but also included sausages and sauerkraut, and cassoulet with duck. We made sure we had food that tasted good whether we could heat it up or cold if eaten straight from the can. Our water supply consisted of the cheapest 2 litre bottles or water we could find. Less convenient than having a built in water tank but it would be far easier to keep an eye on stocks and we could be sure of the quality.
The electrics were minimised but still functional; the rigging as sound as it was going to get; the weather looked favourable. The only issue I was concerned about was the engines. We could probably make it with one, but 2 would be better.
It is impossible to predict the future. It is also impossible to completely eliminate risk. Many things can change and most things are beyond our control. This is doubly true about going to sea. I was determined to get the boat back to the UK within 2 weeks.
We decided, as we would a number of times, to go and see how we’d get on.
Leaving Marans isn’t straight forward. The town is 10M from the sea; 6M along a broad straight canal with a lock and a lifting bridge to get through, followed by a further 4M of narrow channel through shell fish beds. The lock and the bridge only open 1 hour before HW, and only if you call ahead to the lock keeper.
Sunday, after the flea market, HW at 7pm. We called ahead to the lock and fired up the engines. Both started! We cast off, waved goodbye to the good friends we had made and to Marans. Such strong memories after only 5 days.
We pottered up to the lock, along a seemingly endless canal, lined with tall trees and fields of sunflowers. We did our best to avoid the lines of fishermen and waved to the evening picnickers. We eventually tied up to a wall, half an hour early, plenty of time for photos. Bang on schedule the hydraulics started pumping, gears started grinding, and the lock gates slowly swung open. We started the engines again and motored into the lock, tying up again to a floating pontoon. There was only the one pontoon and a huge motor boat came in and rafted up to us, which was a little worrying given our fragile nature. I think I spent most of the trip thinking of the cat as a delicate fragile toy, but throughout she proved herself to be robust and resilient. Eventually the outer lock opens, water begins to rush in and we get a waft of salty air – the sea! We untie and motor slowly out into the beginning of the estuary. The lifting bridge was another mile away and our progress into the wind was so slow I was convinced the lock keeper would lower the bridge before we got there. I could see the traffic backing up on both sides and I could imagine their frustration. As it was there was no rush, other boats were making the reverse journey, and most of the car drivers were out of their cars taking photos of us. After we were through we found a visitors mooring, tied up and relaxed.
Salt water, tides, sea air – we had started. We toasted the journey and went to bed happy, wondering what tomorrow would bring.
The following morning, Monday, started with weather which was definitely not what we had ordered. Spitting and blustery, the cold wet morning was not the August expected, and I was sorely tempted to stay in bed. But losing momentum at this stage was unthinkable. We had strong coffee, girded our loins, fired up the engines and motored out to see what was there.
We spent an hour and a half motoring into the wind with the tide behind us creating a steep sharp chop.
The Wharram has an exaggerated fore and aft rocking motion, much more pronounced than a monohull. This is actually part of her superb sea handling ability, but it creates issues for the engines. Mounted near the stern they rise and fall with each wave, one moment nearly lifting out and screaming as the resistance on the propellers vanished, followed by plunging deep into the water so that waves actually broke over the covers.
The channel was very narrow with oyster beds and oyster boats crowding the sides. The two engines together were pushing us along at between 3 and 4 kts. If either had stopped I was sure we would find ourselves forced onto the banks. But they kept driving and rumbling. The twin engines made a sound that I imagined was like a WWII bomber, droning through a dawn sky. The continuing whine of the noise a comfort blanket to my stretched nerves.
It was about this time that we decided to name the engines. They popped up and down through the decks when raised and lowered, so I decided on Bill and Ben. Throughout the trip Bill and Ben were completely faithful and never let us down. Sometimes they needed coaxing to start, and they were definitely thirstier than expected, but they were always there for us.
As we got further into the bay, and left the oyster beds behind, I slowly started to relax. La Rochelle is connected to the Ille de Re by a beautiful tall curved bridge. We headed towards it and started to play with the sails.
Bell ‘Acqua has a schooner rig, meaning 2 masts of the same length, with a jib, main and mizzen (technically a second main). I have no experience of schooner rigs but had read a fair bit about the mechanism of balancing the sails and using the mizzen to help the boat through a tack (a notoriously difficult manoeuvre for a catamaran). As we raised the sails and experimented with the badly set up running rigging, I felt like an expectant father, determined to love their new child whatever they are like – but silently praying that they will turn out to be fast and gifted.
After an hour of playing we had good drive out of the sails. There were other sail boats around us and we were able to compare our speed with them. We were slower on a beat but a match on a reach. We even had a chance to try out the cruising chute – a good sail but we would have to work on the sheet block position. The sun was out and the day was good.
Towards the middle of the afternoon the wind began to die as forecast and we decided to duck into Ars on Re on the Ille de Re for the night. The tide was rising and the entrance is tricky. There are a number of very shallow spots and we waited with a number of other boats for what we calculated would be enough water. We allowed the flood waters to wash us down a narrowing entrance. After the fraught day at sea it was odd to see people sunbathing on calm beaches. The approach was complicated by holidaymakers enjoying themselves on windsurfers and being pulled around behind motorboats. The channel narrowed and our ability to manoeuvre disappeared. At one point the marked navigation channel was narrower than our length and we had to alter direction to avoid a collapsing windsurfer. Luckily our shallow draft allowed us to deviate over the muddy edges. Sailing is like flying: it’s only the taking off and landing that are hard.
After an final interesting potter down a stone lined entrance, we found a spot in the marina. Ars on Re is a gorgeous stone French town where the rich of Paris come for the Summer. Great restaurants, chic people, expensive boats – we didn’t really fit in. We stayed anyway, had a good wander around and ate a mediocre meal. Tip – be careful what you order from the “Specials” menu and never eat Andouette sausage.
The next day, Tuesday, was forecast to be very light winds, but we thought we’d go check it out anyway.
We wanted to get North and West but the wind made it difficult. We made it as far as La Sables D’Olonnes but needed a quick burst of engine to avoid being swept onto the outer rocks because of misjudgement and light winds.
Isles De Yeux was our theoretical destination, but seemed to never get any closer. I got bored of tacking back and forth and made one of the pivotal decisions of the trip. On the next Starboard tack we kept going, away from the coast.
It felt so good. Near the coast I was constantly juggling variables: other boats, rocks, tides, timing. By heading away from the shore, things got much simpler and therefore calmer.
It seemed right. The wind let us do a little bit North of West. I was even willing to accept a little South of West to get away from the lee shore. As the buildings of Sables slowly shrank behind I felt calmer and more purposeful. Boat speed was low (we were happy when it reached 4 kts) but the motion was gentle and relaxing.
The hours ticked by and we settled into a 3 hour watch, managing a couple of hours sleep between shifts. Nick caught Mackerel and made the best fried fish I’ve ever tasted.
Night came, the nav lights worked and Sables finally vanished behind. The boat sailed gently on, towards the west.
As the trappings of civilisation vanished behind us I re-ran a checklist of safety. We had top of the line life-jackets and harnesses; nav lights were working well off a new battery; a recently serviced life raft; and a new EPIRB.
This was balanced against a boat that was new to me. Areas of caution were that the boat had been home built 18 years before by someone that I didn’t know. Let’s hope he did it well. A characteristic of the Wharram is that the cross beams connecting the 2 hulls are attached by 6mm polyester line. The rigging is stainless steel but also attached using the same line. I had inspected all the line and it seemed sound. When I launched the boat it had been picked up by 2 of the beams, without a hint of a creak or of twist; should be fine.
During my watches, I would start wide awake and full of focus. The boat has no autopilot so needs to be hand steered at all times. The stars were out, the Milky Way a broad stripe across the sky. The sea was a long rolling set of hills, which gently passed beneath us so that we rose and fell in a constant predictable rhythm, almost like we were on the back of a gigantic breathing creature. Our wake was stirring up phosphorescence that twinkled behind us. I saw shooting stars and blinking planes.
Within an hour of starting my watch I would be nodding off. The gently rhythm was irresistible. I had my harness set up so that I couldn’t fall over from my cross legged position on the aft deck. At one point I was woken up by a wet snorting noise to find about 5 dolphins swimming around the stern and between the hulls, directly below me through the slatted decks. I could barely see them but tracked them from their breathing noises.
We carried on like this until dawn of Wednesday, when we tacked over onto Port tack. We spent all day sailing Northish. The wind was flukey and we tacked every so often to try and keep moving North and West. We continued to experiment with the sail set up but didn’t manage better than 110 degrees true between tacks – disappointing (more research to be done).
The wind was light and at times we drifted. There were 2 other dolphin sightings; one with a couple leaping clear of the water and turning in the air, jumping with and over each other in what seemed to us like pure joyous play. The other time we spotted a couple of fins surfing in a big swell. Then we saw some more and some more. They were all around us, completely ignoring the boat. In all, there must have been 100 dolphins travelling past us. It was an amazing display of vitality and success, and made me realise how out of our element we were.
At times the wind strengthened and we made good progress Northwards. Late afternoon we had to decide whether to sail NW to Audierne or N to Belle Ile. Every so often I get a burst of “Spidey Sailing Sense” which this time told me to take the advantage gained and settle for Belle Ile. I also wanted to see at least one Brittany island before we left France.
We aimed for Belle Ile and took every opportunity to gain North. We saw the island a couple of hours before sunset and closed the Eastern corner with lighthouses bright in our eyes.
There were so many lights, the navigation was confusing but we didn’t hit anything. We managed to sail most of the way in and at 2am we tied up to a visitors mooring outside La Palais – 42 hours after leaving the last port. Very tired, very smug.
We spent the next 2 days on Belle Ile, enjoying French culture and re-charging our batteries, literally. We tied up just outside the tidal lock and watched traffic come and go each HW. The water level rose and fell by almost 5m, making getting on and off our boat quite interesting.
A huge number of boats came and went during our 2 days. We saw aged couples from South Wales on bullet proof bilge keelers; rich families on highly polished teak decked yawls; and large groups of charterers, who somehow managed to squeeze 1o people on a 38 foot Beneteau.
Loads of people expressed interest in our Wharram. Some were building one themselves or knew someone else who was. Even though this was a busy tourist town, the feel was gentle, stylish and friendly. Great shops, great restaurants, but mediocre chandlery.
I was watching the weather carefully on the internet and the morning after we arrived, Thursday, the wind swung around to the NW and increased to Force 6, bang on the nose for our next leg. Good old Spidey Sense meant we were well sheltered here rather than being banged about at sea.
We ate, drank, slept, and re-provisioned.
The only concern we had was the boat touching down at each low water. We rigged some styrofoam in nets to protect the rudders, our weakest point, and I almost slept right through one night.
On Friday (8-8-08) I spotted a 3 day weather window for Sat to Mon. A low pressure system travelling in from the West meant good SW winds for 3 days, veering to Westerly on the third or fourth day. Tuesday would be horrendous, but if we could make it back to England before then we would be safe. We decided to go for it.
We finished our stay on Belle Ile with a great meal and drinks in one of the coolest bars I’ve been in for a long time. Run by its 3 owners, it was largely rum based and had a great vibe. The 3 guys ran it in the Summer and then travelled in the Winter. One kept his boat in Venezuela, which generated lots of sailing conversations between us. Late to bed, a bit tipsier than planned.
Up early the next morning, Saturday, and off the dock at 8am. We motored for the first hour and a half, waiting for the wind and to get clear of the blanketing corner of the island. Very interesting tidal flows around the island. At 9.30am we set the sails on a Port tack and left them there for the next 40 hours.
The wind filled in from the SW and we sailed off on a close reach towards the Raz de Sein.
I had done a lot of calculations in planning this final sail, but they were all dependent on our boat speed. The key milestones were getting through the Raz de Sein and the Chenal de Four. Promised as the worst tidal races in Europe, I was nervous about my first time through them. The French call this area Finisterre (the end of the Earth) which is wonderfully portentous for nervous sailors.
Going North you need to pass through with the flooding tide, safe water being 6 hours before till the turn of the tide (in other words a 6 hour window). I had planned the whole delivery trip so that we would arrive at the Raz near Neap tides, which would actually be Sunday, the day after our departure from Belle Ile. HW was Midnight and Noon, so my gates were 6pm to Midnight and 6am to Noon.
As we sailed NW I studied our hand held GPS intensely. Could we get through the Raz on Saturday evening? If our average speed was 4kts we would miss the Raz and have to wait until 6am Sunday morning. If we could keep it above 6kts then we would just make it.
We stayed on a close reach for speed. Any closer to the wind and the boat really slowed down. Unfortunately this meant our route cut very close to some rocks and lights. The worst was Pte de Penmarch. Loads of rocks and we only just pinched our way past.
Our Starboard side showed us the Ille de Groix, Illes de Glennans and then Penmarch. It’s amazing how insignificant and uninteresting land looks from the sea even from a moderate distance. We’d have to save those for the next trip.
There were other boats with us, but after Penmarch they turned towards Audierne but we carried on for the Raz. Wise, brave or foolhardy?
Calculations went into over-drive. It was going to be tight. There was definitely no chance of getting there for 6pm, but how late could I safely leave it?
The Raz came into view at about 7pm and we headed towards it on almost a beam reach.
If we made it through the Raz, could we do the Chenal de Four as well? How far was it after the Raz? What would the tide be doing when we got there? What were our options if the weather changed? How hard would it be to navigate at night? I spent ages re-reading the pilot guide and the charts. It certainly seemed complicated.
We got to the Raz at around 10pm. From a distance it wasn’t clear what we needed to go around or through, but just as we arrived the lights were switched on. There is a big coastguard centre on top of the cliffs overlooking the Raz and I imagined the staff shaking there heads at us in a very French way and turning the lights on earlier than normal to help us through. Thanks. Everything now made sense.
We left the West Cardinal to Starboard and the last of the tide rushed us through. The wind was still SW and as we bore away there were a few accidental gybes. Not a big issue with our boomless rig.
The sun set fast and before we knew it we were navigating by lights alone. There are a lot of lights in that area. This was not easy, very nerve wracking. I navigated and Nick helmed. He did a fantastic job, especially considering he was mostly unsighted on the lights.
Unless you’ve sailed into a place like this at night, you can’t imagine how complicated it is. We had lights on the shore to the East, on islands to the West, the Raz to the South, and in the Chenal to the North. You can’t really judge boat speed or distance to lights. Sail trim is done by feel and the occasional torch shone on the sails.
To really add to the pressure, fog and rain chose this time to roll in from the West, which severely reduced our visibility.
I knew that the tide flooded for an extra hour in the Chenal so we should be okay, but the wind was rising and the swell increasing. What would this do to the water in the Chenal? How late could we still change our minds?
We used sectored lights, transit lights, bearings, flashing channel markers and GPS waypoints. This was one of the most challenging bits of navigation I’ve done, but we made it through smoothly. One of the biggest blessings was the lack of other traffic, what did they know that we didn’t?
As part of our planning we had wanted to stop at the Illes de Ouesant (Ushant), which has a mystical pull. An old Breton proverb says : Qui voit Ouessant voit son sang, Qui voit Sein voit sa fin. Translated "The one who sees Ushant sees his blood, The one who sees Sein sees his end." We agreed that a landing on Ushant would take a lot of time and put us in jeopardy of missing our weather window. We satisfied ourselves with waving in its general direction through the dark. I’d love to go back and see all of this in the daylight someday.
After the Chenal de Four, Brittany seemed to take ages to go away, but eventually we left it behind. We bore off some more to 030o and headed across the Channel towards Start Point. It was now 2am and we had a long 150M ahead of us. After what we had been through I felt very relieved and completely unconcerned by the open water and long distance ahead of us.
We settled in to a 2 hour watch system. Initially we both undressed when off watch and tried to sleep. After the first couple of watches the changing became a real chore and we started spending our off watch periods sitting on deck, catching short power naps.
As the coast of Brittany receded it was very dark and completely overcast. The wind was initially SW force 4, but through the night and into the dawn the wind veered to W and strengthened to what I judged as Force 6 gusting 7 – well above the forecast.
The sea swell also increased above what we expected. It’s notoriously hard to judge the height of waves, but they grew to be as high as a house. They felt 10m high, so perhaps were about 5m high.
The boat coped extremely well with the wind and the sea. We were on a broad reach Port tack (still), with the waves on the Port stern quarter. If we caught the lifting swell right and bore way in time, the boat speed would pick up in a rush to over 15kts.
Through the first night and the following day we handled the boat to keep her below a beam reach, above a run and with the waves behind the quarter. It was strenuous work, hand steering all the time, and a 2 hour shift was about the most we could manage. As the wind increased the weather helm got stronger, putting pressure on the boat to round up beam to the seas. To reduce the effort we first took down the Mizzen; then fully reefed the Main; and finally dropped the Jib. Under fully reefed main we were still having extended surfs of 15kts.
The noise level was amazing and constant. Waves rushed at us, some with beautifully green breaking tops. Water streamed past the hulls. Wind whistled. Every so often a wave would push up between the hulls and bang into the deck boards. Some of the boards were loose and would be knocked upwards by the waves. On one occasion we narrowly missed losing one of the boards as it almost fell down through its own space.
It became clear early on that the replacing of the ugly grey tents was a good idea. They gave us somewhere to stand out of the spray, a place to take off wet clothing before going into the sleeping compartments, and somewhere to navigate from in the rain. They also deflected much of the spray and crashing waves, but not all. Water managed to find holes in the tents defences, resulting in an hourly bail out of about half a bucket. We stayed on top of it and it never became a problem. We were definitely glad for the cautious decision to leave the tents.
The Channel trip dragged on with the repetition of shifts. I was wearing good quality breathable waterproofs but still I was damp and soggy from head to toe. It reminded me of stories of round the world yacht racers who get wet on day 1 and stay that way until the finish.
During my helming stints I experienced a phenomenon that had started on the first overnighter. Whenever the boat gets to 6 kts the tiller starts to hum and then above 7 or 8 kts, she sings to me. I actually hear singing. It seems like a Celtic or Elvenish ballad. One or two voices; no words that I can make out. It’s gentle and soothing. Definitely odd but not in any way frightening. I’ve never heard it when there is anyone else awake on the boat. I’ve decided to take this as a good omen.
We eventually got to the traffic lanes and saw a fair number of large container ships, but mostly at a distance. The first potential collision crept up on me over a period of half an hour. I saw it coming from Port and judged that if I bore off the ship would pass in front of me. It wasn’t happening though and I couldn’t bear off any further without gybing. I also didn’t want to head up into the wind as the conditions were very rough. I therefore decided to cut in front of it. It worked, but only just. Big ship, big bow wave, nice rivets. Too close. With the second close ship, I bore off early and let it overtake me, after which I rounded up a bit and passed close behind it. The bass thrumming of the engine woke Nick up and he popped up from the cabin like a Meerkat. Impressive sight, ugly boat.
I saw only one dolphin, tracking fast from right to left, travelling West to where?
When the wind was at its strongest and the waves the roughest, my brain ran through the classic sailor’s assessment. Is the weather getting worse? Are the conditions still sailable? Will the boat and crew continue to handle the conditions? Will any of my gear fail? What should I do it things get worse?
I felt confident that all was good, but reserved a small nugget of watchful concern.
Around 8pm I spotted the beginnings of land in the distance. As it got clearer, I identified the light at Start Point. Our contingency first stop was Dartmouth, but as we approached we decided to dig deep and continue the extra 30M to Exmouth.
I knew that my stress and anxiety would be directly linked to de-hydration and food. Conditions had been too rough for us to comfortably cook during the crossing but as we approached the shore and got partly in the lee of the land, everything calmed down and we had a hot meal and super strong coffee. A big help. My impatience and nerves calmed considerably.
I had taken charts and pilot books with me for the Brittany, Biscay, and Channel Islands. It was now that I realised that I had nothing for the UK – oops! As the sun set, we found ourselves navigating using the lights between Dartmouth and Exmouth. I know this coast reasonably well, but this was our second night of sailing and we knew we had to be careful. It’s interesting that there is no light on the rocks off Torquay even though they lie on a direct line from Berry Head to Exmouth.
The final challenge was a night entry to Exmouth. We knew that the fairway had moved and the entrance was marked by buoys, but was it lit? We knew roughly where the new channel should be and sailed towards the bright lights of Exmouth hoping things would get clearer.
Right on queue the fairway marker became visible and then the channel markers after it, clear against the town lights. We sailed as far into the Exe as we could and then fired up both engines. They were my biggest worry at the start, had required the most work before we set off, but in fact had performed flawlessly. They had been essential to start our trip and now Bill and Ben powered us into the Exe estuary and up the floating visitors’ pontoon.
We grabbed hold, tied up and stepped onto the pontoon. It was 2am (our traditional finishing time) and we could see Exmouth town a couple of hundred meters away across the river. No movement, no sounds. No one to see us arrive, no one to applaud our achievement. It didn’t matter; I felt like a tired god. We stayed awake long enough to share a Pastis, toast the trip, tidy up a few bits and then we crashed out.
Home again. Obsession over?
There has been a fair amount of follow on in terms of fixing engines, replacing moorings and general tidying. The most surprising thing for both Nick and I was that it took over a week before we could sleep through the night. For me, I would wake at least three times every night to open the curtains, check the wind, take a transit on a couple of street lights and try to decide if the mooring was dragging. The fact that the boat was 7 miles away in the middle of the estuary wouldn’t sink in. For Nick, one of the funniest events was him racking his brain to work out the navigational significance of a red light that he saw in the night, only to work out that it was an alarm clock in his room; and then he’d do the same thing again the next night.
An epic trip; an adventure: challenges, people, places, endurance, spiritual connection, success, pride.
This was the hardest and the best sailing I’ve done so far.
The boat is magnificent and she’s worth every penny and every bruise. Winter has now come and Bell ‘Acqua is out of the water. I’m repairing and improving, dreaming about the next trip. The Scillies or the Channel Islands?
Let’s wait and see.