Saturday, July 19, 2008

Brighton to Fécamp and Honfleur

Hello again!

Something most readers will know already, but which I didn't mention last year, was that in Dublin we discovered that we were to have a baby! Lewis was born in May, the same month that I was officially made redundant. So, we now have several exciting new directions to explore which never would have been possible while working a 9 to 5 job. Lady Ayesha was reluctantly put on the market earlier this year but due to the so-called 'credit crunch' we've not had any offers, despite advertising her for less than what I think she is worth. Well, we thought, why waste this great opportunity? Let's go sailing again!

We had sailed briefly in French waters before, but really wanted to see more of the coast, and the Channel Islands. With only a few days before the spring tides necessary to get out of the boatyard there was a lot to get ready. The last jobs were completed including keel maintenance and antifouling, and I got a rigger in at very short notice to replace the standing rigging to comply with the insurer's wishes, despite the old rigging being overspecified, and in perfectly good order.

Restepping the mast at Chichester

I arranged to sail her back to Brighton with a friend. Strong wind warnings had been issued for the South coast, but I suspected these would mostly affect sea areas further west. The sand bar at the entrance to Chichester Harbour can be very rough in onshore winds so we sailed up cautiously at high water to check it was okay before heading out to sea. This was to be a shake-down sail to check everything was working properly after being laid up for winter. The passage to Brighton was uneventful, thankfully, but the strong winds later reached force 7 or 8 while a big low pressure system moved across Ireland heading Northeast. We were stuck in Brighton with waves breaking over the marina wall, and it was another six days before conditions looked favourable for the crossing to France. With a newborn baby onboard, we didn't want to take any chances.

Saturday July 12th arrived and we decided the forecast looked good. Indeed, we experienced perfect sailing conditions, with sunny weather and winds between 10 to 20 knots on the beam all day. We didn't need to tack once, just set the sails and pointed her towards Fécamp. Conveniently, the 64 miles across the channel takes the better part of two tides, so we kept to one compass heading the whole way with the tide taking us first west and then east of our intended course in equal amounts.

Goodbye Brighton

Not much to do but enjoy the sunshine!

We raised the French courtesy flag, mid-channel

Ten hours later, we sailed into Fécamp Avant Port and were directed to a berth by the friendly staff. The visitors pontoon was already crowded with foreign boats from neighbouring countries, gathering for the Bastille Day holiday.

Our new crew member

This was to be a busy weekend in Fécamp, which was hosting a dinghy regatta, a huge motorcycle rally, and the National Day celebrations on July 14th. The streets were filled with the youthful sounds of revving motorcycle engines and the relentless explosions of firecrackers. The city lights were switched off around 11pm and we watched the official firework display light up the sky from the foredeck of the boat. Being an old fishing port there is a good supply of fresh fish available from several markets so we had plenty to choose from. I especially enjoyed the enormous oysters, and plaice filets, and of course a visit to a quayside restaurant would not be complete without a plate of 'Fruits de Mer'. We climbed the hill to look out over the Channel from the chalk cliffs, very similar to the Sussex coast, where there are still wartime gunnery postions, built by the Nazis. We enjoyed being tourists and took a tour of the Benedictine Palace, the home of the famous 'DOM' liqueur, which was hosting a Dali exhibition.

'Fruits de Mer'

Dinghy regatta at Fécamp

The French take their cakes very seriously...

...and their Ice Cream too!

Chalk cliffs above Fécamp

Fécamp from above

We decided our next stop would be the medieval town of Honfleur, a locked port just inside the mouth of the River Seine. The passage would take us across the heavily controlled access channels of Antifer and Le Havre, which receive enormous cargo ships and tankers up to 500,000 tonnes! The charts we had were not detailed enough so I had to buy a French one which indicated the recommended routes for small vessels to pass through the various waiting areas and disengagement zones. Fortunately, there were about a dozen ships waiting to enter, but no traffic in or out as we crossed. A difficult day with regards to tides and timings meant that as we approached the mouth of the Seine we were fighting against the last few hours of the ebb tide, and even with the wind behind us, foresail and motor on, we were barely able to make 3 knots over ground despite the log registering 6 to 7 knots. I was nervous about getting into shallow waters as we were almost at low tide and the almanac recommends a local pilot for those unfamiliar with the shifting sands, but I stayed to the side of the dredged channel and didn't see anything less than 5 metres depth.

The lock leading into Honfleur was interesting, with unusual floating bollards. We weren't very well prepared, and our mooring lines were too short, leading to an embarrassing attempt to tie up, watched by a ferry full of tourists, all documenting our efforts with their cameras. We eventually gave in and tied up to the ferry instead. Once through to the other side and then under a lifting roadbridge we arrived in the Vieux Bassin, a picturesque sheltered harbour, a bit like a town square, overlooked by beautiful old buildings, with restaurants, cafes and galleries all along the cobbled quay. This is probably the least private place we've ever stayed, but great fun. Every time I look out the hatch there is someone taking pictures, but I've enjoyed having coffee and croissants on deck in the morning, watching the waiters setting up the cafe tables and the crowds slowly filling the streets.

Yesterday we climbed to the top of the hill for a view of the town and a visit to the Chapel Notre Dame de Grâce which has little model sailing ships hanging in the air below it's ornately decorated domed ceiling.

Honfleur town centre

Night panorama - click to zoom around!

Today is market day so a bit of shopping for local produce is in order. The weather's a bit damp so we are happy to stay here another day or two. We plan to make perhaps one or two more stops before Cherbourg where we expect to make for Alderney, the closest of the Channel Islands. Lewis seems to be quite content on board. We have strung up a small hammock for him in the cabin, and have a baby car seat which can be lashed down to keep him safe in rough weather. It's so tempting to buy him a little French sailor's outfit, but I've resisted, so far.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Isles of Scilly to Chichester

(Hello again, and apologies to anyone who thought we were still in the Isles of Scilly. We did in fact return to the mainland. Here is the last chapter of the story that I should have posted in October last year!)

Our time in the Scillies came quickly to an end. We only had two weeks to be home and so needed to keep making progress east. On Sunday October the 7th, after several nights anchored in Porth Conger we awoke before dawn and motored out between the rocks as soon as there was enough light to see our way. The passage to Falmouth wouldn't make the best use of tides since we preferred not to leave in the dark. The forecast was for East 3 or 4 becoming variable 3 or less, and veering Southwest later. The wind wasn't as strong as expected, and the veer to SW which we were waiting for never quite eventuated. So we motored for much of the way, passing Lizard Point around dusk, and arriving in Falmouth about 10pm. Jaime wasn't feeling too well so appreciated the chance to rest during the day. Again we anchored in the harbour near the old town centre, not far from several warships in the commercial docks for repair.

Falmouth Harbour again

We stocked up with fresh food, did a bit of shopping and had a puncture in the dinghy repaired. We also discovered that for the first time in ages our laptop was receiving a good digital TV signal. Amazingly, there wasn't much worth watching and so the initial excitement soon disappeared.

On Friday we made another early start bound for Fowey where we spent the weekend with blog readers Claire and Pete who came for a visit. We had a picnic up the river, did a spot of fishing and roasted a chicken in the evening. Fowey is a picture postcard town of weathered stone and narrow lanes, and being centred around a river mouth is typical of many along the Southwest coast. We used the harbourmaster's visitor pontoons since anchoring is not permitted. This gave us good wi-fi access which meant we could start researching where to leave the boat for the winter, and keep a constant eye on the weather forecasts. Winds were expected to be favourable for at least another day so we planned on making several further quick hops along the coast.


Jaime sailing around Start Point

On Monday morning we refuelled and sailed across the bay to Start Point and up to Dartmouth where we arrived late in the evening. We couldn't find any visitor moorings free so we tied up to the end of the town quay hoping nobody would charge us for such a short stay. We snuck ashore to a restaurant for a much anticipated meal before getting a bit of kip and sailing out again while it was still dark. To leave the harbour at night you must stay within the white sectors of the leading lights which take you safely past private moorings and several rocks near the river entrance. These lights turn red or green if you stray too far to port or starboad. The forecast was for stronger winds, good for sailing, but the direction was due to become cyclonic, meaning the centre of the pressure system would be passing above us. This can result in confused seas where wave direction changes over the course of the day. The first leg of our passage plan would take us 40 nautical miles across Lyme Bay to Portland Bill. The races off the Bill can sometimes be very dangerous, and may extend more than 5 miles out to sea so it is important to pass it with a fair tide, and to avoid wind against tide situations. A few hours out of Dartmouth, in uncomfortable choppy seas, and with fairly slow progress, the decision was made to turn around and set a course back to the nearby port of Brixham, which we discovered has a popular sailing club with cheap moorings for visiting yachts. We were happy with what turned out to be a good decision. The friendly members bar serves decent beer and good cheap food - we couldn't say no to two excellent sirloin steaks at only £6 each, nor the use of their brand new showers. I bought some fish from the fishmonger near the town quay and had a look around the shops for some more fruit and veg, passing many groups of seaside tourists at the cheap end of the season, waving their cameras and steaming bags of chips about in the drizzly weather.

The next day winds were much more favourable, Force 4 or 5 from the northwest, which would give us plenty of speed. We still weren't quite sure how far we'd get as it was hard to predict what our progress over ground would be for such a distance. We had several tidal gates ahead of us, the most important being to get past Portland Bill with a fair tide, and then consider going into Weymouth Bay, or carry on past St Albans Ledge and Anvil Point to anchor in Studland Bay, near Poole. However, as it turned out, by the time we first sighted the Isle of Wight I calculated we'd be in perfect time for the start of the flood tide which could take us up the Needles Channel and into the Solent. Even though it would be well after dark, this opportunity couldn't be missed, so we pressed on, choosing Yarmouth as a destination as the entrance is straightforward and well lit. We spent the rest of the night on a quiet visitor pontoon and spent the next day relaxing and catching up on sleep. It was a great feeling to have made such quick progress and to be so close to home.

Yarmouth Harbour

After ringing around and comparing prices for winter storage at various places we decided on a small marina near Chichester which is in a drying area upstream of Chichester harbour and can only be approached near the top of spring tides. Therefore we had about five days to wait until we'd be sure of getting there without going aground. On Friday we sailed around to Newtown River to anchor near Clamerkin Lake which is always a beautiful escape from the busy Solent, even when full of visiting boats. It has good ground for secure anchoring and is always full of geese, gulls, egrets, herons and many other birds attracted to the grass and drying mudflats. We'd arranged to meet up with blog readers Kerry and Steve in Lymington, just a few miles across the Solent. They joined us for a bit of a sail and a meal out in Yarmouth. After dropping them back the next day we returned to Newtown River to spend another peaceful couple of days exploring the creeks in the dinghy and doing a few short walks ashore.

The 'cheap' pontoon has no walk-ashore access.

Yarmouth Ferry Terminal

Yarmouth Pier

Dawn at Newtown Creek

Sunrise at Newtown Creek

Steve and Kerry pay us a visit

On Tuesday we sailed out of the Solent past the busy ports of Southampton and Porstmouth and the great round forts which guard the eastern approach and on to Chichester, getting to the bar at the entrance a little late in the ebb, but not too late to enter the harbour slowly against an increasing current. We stayed overnight on a waiting pontoon near Sparkes marina and the next morning headed upstream to make the lock by 1030. We were a bit nervous as we were told there'd only be millimetres under the keel. Unfortunately the high pressure system which had brought such warm weather over the last few days also affects tidal waters causing significant differences to predicted heights. After navigating the narrow channel between green and red posts towards the marina we arrived at the lock on time but there just wasn't enough water to get over the concrete sill and we bumped heavily against it next to the water level marker showing just under six feet. Half a dozen people quickly gave a hand pulling halyards and weighing down the port side of the boat trying to swing the keel high enough to get over the sill with only inches of space on either side. I ran around pushing fenders between the toerail and the concrete sides, and began getting concerned about what would happen if we got stuck there, blocking the marina sill and allowing all the water to spill away with the tide, leaving at least half a dozen boats stranded in the mud inside the lock. We finally managed to scrape over the sill only to hit ground again a few metres in, fortunately past the sluice gate and close enough to another boat to tie up to. She wouldn't be going anywhere until the next morning tide which would be at least 10cm higher. The marina staff brought in two more boats behind us, fortunately with shallower keels, and then closed the gate before the tide began to ebb. Blog reader Phil generously came to meet us in his van and took us and a load of stuff back to Brighton where we had our first baths in seven months.

Sluice gate is up. Note the high water level never made it to 6 feet.

Tied up at last, but still touching the mud.

Lady Ayesha is lifted out of the water...

...on this remote control submersible lorry.

Welcome Home

The next morning we returned by train and floated the boat at high water and had her lifted out and placed on a cradle where she will spend the winter. And so our journey is at an end. All that is left to do is prepare the engine for winter and give her a good clean, inside and out. It has been a fascinating voyage discovering so much of the British Isles and meeting all sorts people whose lives revolve around the sea. Within so many incredible landscapes we've become familiar with the sealife and birds which inhabit these waters, and its been great trying all the amazing seafood that was offered to us. We've been in constant awareness of changing weather patterns and lunar cycles affecting tidal heights and currents. And we've been the recipients of so much friendly help and generous hospitality, particularly in the most remote places where people's lives seem to us much simpler and in tune with the seasons. And there is still so much yet to see. Now we must again get used to traffic, crowds of people, constant media access and these remarkably steady floorboards! Thanks for reading this blog. I hope you enjoyed it!
Craig and Jaime.

(July 2008: Stay tuned... due to a several changes of circumstances we won't be going back to work after all! We now have an additional crew member and are preparing to set sail again, this time across to France and the Channel Islands.)