When I wrote my last blog from Conwy in North Wales, I was becoming increasingly conscious of an impending deadline. I had been stuck there for a week waiting for a nice high-pressure system to arrive from the Atlantic, which was being held up by a low pressure system sat over the North Sea. As each day passed, my chances of reaching Glasgow in a week’s time and hitting my deadline faded. I was supposed to be meeting Sarah and two friends, Jane and James, there but I wasn’t even in the right country. Adding to the pressure was that I was to be doing these legs on my own. Ordinarily, a passage of 60 –70 miles is achievable in a day, albeit a fairly long one. On my own, though, I prefer to keep them under 40 miles. It’s fairly tough to do 14 hours on your own with no break, particularly if you hit any problems. In order to keep the legs manageable, the route from Conwy to Glasgow was seven legs. I only had seven days. I couldn’t afford any days off or any days lost to bad weather. I didn’t fancy my chances!
It was with some delight, therefore, that I received an email from Howard that evening, who had joined me from Plymouth to Padstow, asking if I could use any crew in the coming week. A quick return email and some internet surfing of travel sites later and Howard had his train ticket booked for the following day. Admittedly he very nearly ended up in Conway, Merseyside and not Conwy, North Wales but that particular crisis was averted in good time! With Howard on board, I could stretch the legs to 60 miles and cut down the number to five. This gave us a couple in hand to dodge weather if needs be and still make Glasgow on time. I think my crew would be relieved if I was at least in Scotland after they had made the effort to get there!
So it was then that the following day, Howard and I slipped Caol Ila’s lines from Conwy marina in fantastic sunshine, topped up the diesel tank and headed out of the marina. I had been warned that the river outside the marina had quite a tide, so I was at full speed as I came out of marina gates. The tide still hit me like a sledgehammer and threw the bow out. After recovering from the shock, I managed to get her lined up and we progressed very slowly towards the Irish Sea.
Once out, there was barely enough wind to sail in so we left the engine running and hoisted just the mainsail. To occupy the time in the long run over to Port St Mary we had a play with the Go Pro video camera, hoisting it up to the cross trees, about 30 ft above the deck. It entertained us but in truth you would need to be a real sailing enthusiast to endure all 35 minutes of it! I’ve popped up a brief taster below for those interested:
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The run over to Port St Mary was a long one but with the engine running and all the sails up we made good progress. By early evening we could see the headland we were aiming for and things were looking good. Port St Mary isn’t the most accommodating to visitors. You can moor against the harbour wall but with an eight foot tide, you need to adjust your mooring lines very frequently – not ideal for getting a good night’s sleep. There is also an area in which you can anchor but the guide book cautions against this as the holding is apparently very poor. The best option is to pick up a mooring buoy and hang on that. All very well but there are only four of them and as we approached, it seemed that every man and his dog had decided that Port St Mary was the place to be seen! We were racing at least five other boats in – and we were looking like being the slowest by some way! As we came into the harbour, predictably all the visitor’s buoys were taken. However, there was one left which belonged to a local but which clearly hadn’t been used for a long time. We decided to moor up to it but not without some nerves. Had it been maintained? Was it still attached to the sea bed? Would we awake to find that we had dragged it out to sea, or worse, into the harbour wall? Oh well, no other choice really.
We picked up the buoy and Howard cleared the rope and chain of as much seaweed as he could. We slipped it onto our cleat and set about tidying the boat up, resigned to a slightly stressful evening. Thankfully, at that moment, one of the boats on a visitor mooring untied and headed off. It was with some relief that I exchanged our rather shabby affair for the shiny, clean visitor’s one. It was time for dinner!
The next day saw us heading round the coast of The Isle of Man to get to Peel. It was a short hop of about 20 miles but would significantly reduce the following passage over to Bangor in Northern Ireland. We had to time our passage to get to Peel by 3:00 in the afternoon as the tide only allows you to get into the marina at two hours either side of high water. Unfortunately this meant the tide would be against us for the first few hours but there was nothing we could do about that. We headed south to round the bottom corner of the island and suddenly hit the tide hard. I knew it would be against us but with the engine revving hard and all sails set, we were still only doing 1.5 knots. Our ETA which had started out as a very safe midday, slowly increased until it was showing 7:00 in the evening! Real problem!
We battled on hoping that once we got round the Calf of Man that things would improve and, after a very long slog, they did. The tide reduced and with the wind directly behind us we managed to hoist the cruising chute, which is a very large, lightweight sail that pulled us along nicely.
Our ETA fell and at 2:00 we rounded the outer breakwater and headed into the marina.
We had been allocated berth B25 to moor in so we headed up the marina to find it. Sadly, the local authority who ran the marina clearly had never tried to spot the berth numbers from the water. They were almost invisible from the bow of a yacht! Howard thought he spotted B25, though and we headed in. Unfortunately it was B26. Equally unfortunately, B25 was not next door to it! A quick turn and we headed back to a berth I had spotted that looked like it was B25. We moored up, somewhat surprised that we had been allocated this one as the pontoon only reached halfway along Caol Ila. This, it turned out, was because we were now moored in B55. After a quick walk around the pontoons, we eventually found the real B25 and on our third attempt, we were successfully moored in the right place. Oh well, a bit of mooring practice never did me any harm!
The next leg was to be across the Irish Sea and into Bangor in Belfast Lough. I was looking forward to this as I’d never been to Northern Ireland and it was starting to feel a long way from home! The weather had taken a distinct turn for the worse over night but with promises of it moderating significantly the following morning, we planned for leaving as soon as the tide rose above the level required.
The following day, the wind was still quite strong so it was with some nerves that we let the lines go to head out. Caol Ila is not easy to handle in a marina as she won’t go backwards in anything like a straight line and she won’t turn to the left at slow speeds. However, for once, she behaved impeccably and she did exactly what was asked of her. We trundled out of the marina, through the outer harbour and into the Irish Sea. At this point it became apparent that the promise of the weather moderating may have been premature! It was revolting. The seas were high and the wind was blowing a gale. After only 20 minutes of being thrown around, Howard and I decided that we couldn’t face another 12 hours of it and promptly turned back to the safety of Peel marina.
We headed back in and went to find the berth we had just vacated. Getting Caol Ila into the berth requires a turn to the left. Something she just won’t do. So in these situations, it is necessary to go beyond the berth and turn 180 degrees to the right, so you are coming back on yourself. You can then make the turn into the berth itself a right-hand turn. The wind in the marina was a bit calmer than out in the bay so I started the 180 degree turn. Half way through the turn, the wind suddenly pipes up to 30 knots. Right on her beam. As she had no forward momentum at this point, she started slipping sideways.
I needed to pile on the revs to get her speed up so I could turn through the wind, but I was now pointing at the row of boats opposite my berth and had only about 10 yards clearance from them. Nowhere near enough room. I couldn’t go backwards as accelerating in reverse would just make her swing even closer to the other boats. I tried anyway, hoping for miracles but clearly my quota of divine intervention was exhausted. We were now less than 5 yards away and options were somewhat limited. We were going to hit them.
Howard was heroic in his fending off and thanks to him we avoided doing any damage to our victims, as the 30 knot squall pinned us onto a pair of yachts. Thankfully, a number of other owners had seen what happened and were sprinting over to assist. Between us we managed to haul ourselves off with ropes and get safely tied up on another berth. Caol Ila had a small scrape on her capping rail, Howard had an impressive looking blood injury on his wrist and I had a bloody big dent in my pride. Still, it could have been worse. (Except to my pride!)
We decided to sit out the rest of the day and try again the next. Unfortunately, with the tide getting an hour later each day, we would now struggle to make it to Bangor in the light if we left on the daytime tide. It was therefore going to be an early start.
At a quarter to three the next morning, the alarm went off and we duly set out fearing the seas would still be pretty uncomfortable. In fact, it was a flat calm and light winds. What a difference less than 24 hours could make. The trip itself was very uneventful, thankfully. Light airs and a foul tide for most of the trip made it a long run of nearly 13 hours but we were rewarded by a great display from four dolphins. Bright sunshine all day made applying the factor 30 about the most strenuous thing we did!
We finally lined up into Belfast Lough and pottered down to Bangor. A great marina with really friendly staff. Sarah’s parent’s boat, Irene that I had last seen in Plymouth, had been at a festival in Belfast. As we lined up for the marina entrance, they could be seen in the distance tacking up the lough and heading for Carlingford. Great sight to see her under sail!
We got moored up and squared away, feeling somewhat tired after our early start. Irene had eventually given up on their trek down to Carlingford once the wind had died and they ended up moored in Bangor with us. It was great to catch up with them over a glass of wine but an early night beckoned.
We took the next day off. Partly because neither Howard or I fancied another early start, which would be required to make a fair tide, and partly because the weather forecast was slightly marginal. The North Passage across the Irish Sea to Scotland (which we would be skirting across) is know for being very unpleasant in the wrong conditions. Normally a force 6 wind wouldn’t unduly worry me, but in these seas it could be a bit of a trial. Instead we headed into Belfast on the train and spend the morning at the Titanic exhibition. Very worthwhile – interesting day.
The alarms went off at a slightly more reasonable 04:45 the next morning for a 05:30 departure. With a force 4 or 5 forecast with occasional force 6, we thought conditions should be ideal. They weren’t! We left the marina in a flat calm and were somewhat disappointed as it looked as though we wouldn’t be doing much sailing. Once out in the lough though, it picked up and we were cracking along under full sail. Much better, we thought.
Unfortunately, once out of the lough things deteriorated significantly. The wind picked up almost immediately and we first put a reef in the mainsail, then rolled away some of the foresail. We were still heeled right over so it was in with the second reef and away with the rest of the foresail. The winds had now picked up to a consistent 30 knots with them peaking at 37 at one point. The big winds had also caused the sea to mount up. We were frequently rolled over a long way by a big wave and at times, had to head directly into them to avoid a very uncomfortably sized one. The passage was 64 miles and it was looking like being a long day.
We took it in turns to helm as the autopilot was hopeless in these conditions. After an hour on the wheel, our backs and shoulders would be aching with the effort. Also, the helmsman would be regularly deluged as big waves hit Caol Ila and broke over the cockpit. It was such a relief to come off the helm, somewhat salty, and be able to tuck in under the security of the sprayhood! The video below was taken after the conditions has calmed down significantly.
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After about six hours of this, we had made sufficient progress to be a little sheltered from the headland to the north of the Firth of Clyde. The wind lessened and the seas started to calm. We continued on up the Clyde and passed the island of Ailsa Craig looking somewhat like a large rock muffin!
Eventually, with the wind dropping even further and the sun shining, we hoisted more sail and had a very pleasant run into Troon. The Firth of Clyde had also given us a glimpse of a big old seal and a basking shark. Clearly rich in wildlife here! It was a lovely evening and we were delighted to have made it to within spitting distance of Glasgow! We even had a day to spare!
Howard headed off this morning. I am very grateful for all his assistance over the past week. I think we’ve both enjoyed the run up from Wales. We’ve covered a lot of miles and had a few challenges. Not sure I would have got here on time without him. Thanks Howard.
All it leaves now is a quick tidy of the boat, a mountain of washing and some shopping for supplies before Sarah, Jane and James join me for some Scottish Island hopping. Hope the weather continues to smile on us!