Tales from Waif’s past

Of the many reasons I love owning and sailing a classic wooden boat, one of the most important is the connections these boats can make. By definition, old boats have long histories, and they can create distant and often unexpected connections between places and people. Waif made one of these fascinating connections for us recently, when we received an email from California. The email reached us (of course) via an earlier Waif connection, our friend Benjy.

[As an aside; take a look at Benjy’s brilliant small boat and other designs at http://www.woodenwidget.com]

Benjy forwarded an email from a man called Simon, who had recognised photos of Waif on Benjy’s website. I emailed Simon, and he wrote back:

“My history with Waif dates from about 1965 when I was 11. The owner at that time was Peter Mayer, who owned the grocer’s shop in Axbridge, Somerset. Peter had an interesting past, being just old enough to serve in the RAF at the end of WW2. He was an enthusiastic motorist and he and his friend Barney Lovell raced saloon cars in the 1950s, and competed in both the RAC and Monte Carlo rallies, sponsored by MG. Peter also took up sailing in the 1950’s and crewed aboard a gaff cutter called Judy Anne out of the river Helford. In about 1960 Peter was left some money by his uncle and he purchased Waif in Southampton for £3,000, a tidy sum in those days [more than £45,000 now!]. He sailed her with crew up to Highbridge in Somerset where she was refitted. I then crewed for him when he kept her at Porlock, on a mooring just outside the lock gates. We cruised regularly there, with trips down to Ilfracombe and Lundy, but the grocers shop really only allowed him short weekends. He laid her up for her first winter at Dave Blake’s yard at Highbridge, where Dave was to do some repairs as recommended by the surveyor. Waif was on a cradle at the end of a long slipway fitted with rails. The wind started to blow up the river Brue, and it was dark and raining hard. Dave cranked on the winch to pull her up the slipway, but instead, the cradle was being pulled out from under… She struck hard over on her port side and as the tide rapidly came up she was flooded with mud and water. The next day Dave got her hauled out (quite a job!) and cleaned her up before calling Peter to tell him what had happened. There was some damage to her port side and the rudder, and the engine was flooded with seawater. Dave put doubling frames on the port side, that are probably still there [they are!]. He made a new rudder, stripped down the engine, and fitted new bunk cushions – in effect a refit courtesy of the insurers. Peter then sailed her down to Brixham where I continued to crew for him while I was at school.”

“In about 1980, I was in accountancy articles in London and Peter and I were taking the boat to Guernsey where I was going to sail her with a friend from college, after Peter had come back on the ferry. We set a heading for Les Hanois light off Guernsey (dead reckoning in those days) motorsailing on the starboard tack as the wind got up. Waif was going at top speed, probably making 7 kts, when we cut the engine – at which point she took off on the top of a wave and fell maybe 10 feet into the trough with a shudder. It did not feel good, so I went below to have a look and found water gushing up in a fountain by the heads in the forepeak. We pumped continuously for maybe 2 hours, just about keeping the water maybe 6 to 9 inches deep in the cabin. The engine wouldn’t restart as the magneto had been soaked by a leak from the bilge pump. By then the wind had dropped, as we headed north up through the Little Russell channel on the east side of the island with just steerage way and the tide sweeping us north. We inched our way into St Peter Port, and dropped anchor, exhausted, in the middle of the harbour around midnight. The harbour launch told us to move so with his help we raised chain and anchor and he towed us across the sill to be alongside the harbour wall. I can still remember after nearly 40 years looking up at the top of the wall to see a policeman looking down and asking if we were okay! With a 40ft tidal range we loosely tied fore and aft lines, had several drinks and a meal and fell into our bunks, dead to the world. Bright sunshine in the morning, completely dried out, so we could see what damage had been done to the hull. All the paint on the port side was fractured along the caulking lines from the waterline to the gunwhale from the bow to midships, maybe 10-14ft. As she fell off the wave she must have landed on her port side with tremendous force [presumably forcing out the caulking]. Needless to say our cruising plans were off. We had her hauled out at the boatyard in St. Peter Port. The hull was recaulked, some work done on rebuilding the flooded engine, and the large bill covered by the Navigators and General Insurance Company! I think we went to collect her two months later. We had had a narrow escape, as off Les Hanois the water level was gaining faster than we could pump. It was the nearest Peter and I had ever come to sinking! With only a hard dinghy stowed on the coachroof I am not sure whether we would have survived in the water for long. Joys of sailing.”

We sent Simon some photos of Waif as she is now. He described her original mast (her 1960 original at least) as being shorter than the current mast, but with no topmast, so you could not set a topsail. She had a Thornycroft “handy billy” petrol / paraffin engine that he describes as “a brute to (hand) start, with a massive flywheel, but once going it was very reassuring.” [I believe this was her original 1929 engine – see one running here]. She had no electrics and no battery, with oil lamps only.


Home Waters

Waif stayed in Dun Laoghaire marina for two weeks while the weather improved, I waited for spare engine parts to arrive, and we all recovered from The Arklow Experience…

We drove down from Belfast at the weekend for a day of engine repairs. First I drained the seawater out of the fuel tank. There wasn’t too much, considering the amount of water that was on – and in – the boat, but a clot of emulsified fuel was lurking in the bottom. It looked like a brown jellyfish, and I tried not to think about what would have happened if it had reached the engine. Then I replaced both fuel pumps, both fuel filters, and bled all of the air out of the fuel system; a messy business. I had already changed the engine oil and filter, so we were ready for a test run. The engine started easily, and I adjusted the fuel injection timing “to minimise the amount of smoke…” as I had been advised. This was easier said than done. It was very smoky when idling, but to my great relief, the engine ran smoothly under load. We were ready for the last leg back to Strangford Lough.

After another week at work, and with a weekend of fair weather forecast, we headed back to Dun Laoghaire on the Friday afternoon train from Belfast. We arrived at the marina in time to settle the eye-watering bill and fill up with fuel. Even the diesel is green in Éire! Later that evening we spotted a new arrival in the marina; a boat called Jaylena that we had last seen on the canals in France, and before that in Port St. Louis in the Mediterranean. Dave and his Kiwi wife were still en route from Greece to Jaylena’s home port of Tighnabruaich on the Clyde. A much longer journey than ours, and a nice boating “small world” moment to meet them again.

We set off from Dun Laoghaire at 7am on Saturday heading for Ardglass, just over 60 miles away, with a forecast of light winds and good weather. We were motorsailing (again!) but we made good progress, with calm seas and some help from the tide. Everything went well until Gill, with impeccable timing as always, enquired about engine health. I made the usual reassuring noises. “The engine’s fine!” I smiled, glancing at the oil pressure gauge for the hundredth time. Two seconds later, I was scrambling to reach the engine stop cord. The oil pressure had dropped from 4 bar to 1 bar in the space of a few minutes. I knew the engine was not fine, and my smile was gone. I lifted the hatch, and the reason was obvious: we had a serious oil leak. Engine oil had been spraying out for some time, making a spectacular mess of a nearby galley locker, and filling the bilge with oil. The source of the leak was a tiny pinhole in the new oil filter, and the fault was all mine. When I replaced the fuel injection pump the previous weekend, I had dented the oil filter. With 60 psi of oil pressure inside the casing, the dent had become a crease, then a crack, then a hole… I should have thrown the dented filter out and replaced it, and now I was paying the price. Gill sailed the boat while I dealt with yet another engine problem; this time self-inflicted. We were only making 3 knots under sail, so it would have been a very long night if I hadn’t been carrying a spare filter and enough oil to replace the 3 litres we had lost. I restarted the engine with obvious relief. “Would you like a whisky?” Gill asked sweetly. I declined.

We reached Ardglass just before 7pm, and found a space in the small marina, watched by a couple of huge seals floating near the entrance. We set off again late on Sunday morning, planning to reach the entrance to Strangford Lough – the notorious Narrows – at the start of the inward running flood tide. The wind was stronger than the previous day, with force 4-5 winds from the northeast. We were apprehensive after our previous experience of easterly weather in the Irish Sea, so I tied a reef into our mainsail before we left our berth. The sea outside Ardglass harbour was rough, but as always, things were much more comfortable once the mainsail was up. We even had sunshine as we motorsailed as far as St. Patrick’s rock outside The Narrows. Our timing was just right: the conditions were very benign, with the tide just starting to run inwards. We could finally switch off the engine as we turned into the East Channel, hauled up the staysail, unfurled the jib, and sailed in.

The next 3 hours were some of the most enjoyable of the whole journey. We sailed past Portaferry and Strangford in the afternoon sun, and onwards up the Lough to Ballydorn. When we reached the lightship Petrel, we were amazed to see a huge crowd of people, including military personnel and the RNLI. All of the club officials were there, looking very smart, if a little fragile after the President’s Cruise the previous day… And they were all waving and cheering us! Actually they were all waving at us to keep away from Rainey Island, fearing I was about to run aground. There’s no pressure quite like manoeuvring a long keel boat, in a confined space, with a fast running tide – and an enthusiastic audience of much more experienced sailors. Get it wrong here and the story would outlive both of us. We eventually got into a position where the wind and tide could ease us gently onto the pontoon. The services of Portaferry RNLI weren’t required. And thankfully the crowds weren’t really there for us, despite cryptic suggestions earlier in the day about “something special” being laid on for our return. Our return coincided with the European Heritage Open Day at the club, with members of the public invited to visit Petrel – now registered as a historic ship.

It really was a perfect occasion for Waif’s arrival, and it was fantastic to finish our 3 month journey with familiar and friendly faces from Down Cruising Club taking our mooring lines. We wasted no time in tying up and organising celebratory drinks in the bar. We were finally home.

~ Del & Gill

Leaving Dun Laoghaire.

A visiting seagull.

Waif safely moored alongside the pontoon at Ballydorn.


The things I’ve learned….

Hello. Gill here.

Now the mid life adventure is drawing to a close, and Waif is on the right side of the shuck, I’ve taken some time to reflect. Everyone knows I’d not even set foot on a boat until we bought Waif, never mind done any kind of sailing. Those more experienced justifiably raised their eyebrows at what I was jumping into.

But I’m a ‘just get on with it’ type, so here are some of my learning points from the trip:

– Sailing sounds like a very glamorous pastime. In fact it’s hard graft, physically demanding (certainly on our traditional gaff rigged cutter – sans winches) and involves long days and early starts.

– Ropes aren’t actually called ropes. Which is surprising given how much of it there is on a boat.

– The law of cumulative disaster has been personally verified. Our friend and mentor in St Tropez, Benjy, educated us about this. If one thing goes wrong, it’s guaranteed that a cascade of other cock-ups will follow, combining to create a complete world of hurt. Best avoided if at all possible.

– If you are going to throw up, assume a position downwind of anything you care about. Including the boat.

– When in France, try to speak French as best you can. The French appreciate your efforts, and it comes in handy if you later have to dish out a Gallic reprimand to any inconsiderate French mariners.

– Patience is a virtue. Especially when engines break down and parts are on order. You can always take out your frustrations on the companies who let you down by hounding them relentlessly on twitter. After all, there’s plenty of time to devote to this while you are waiting. Patiently.

– The South Coast of England is home to a particular cohort of braying yachting types that I’d prefer to avoid.

– Make sure ALL portholes are closed before going out to sea. Including the one that was left open on the front of the cabin for a ‘bit of fresh air’ throughout most of June & July.

– As far as laundry goes, the sniff test is pretty reliable and an airing is as good as a wash.

– Don’t store all your wine on one side of the boat. The mast should really be vertical.

– Spider colonies on board are a depressing fact of boat life.

– Don’t laugh when the Skipper drops his much prized wrench overboard. And keep your face straight when he tries to snorkel in 7 metres of filthy dock water to retrieve it.

– After negotiating 200+ locks; up, down, automated, and manual, from 60cm to 23 metres; I can confirm that there is one overriding principle. Make sure your mooring line is at LEAST double the height of the lock you are in. Standing on tiptoe holding a frayed end, with one foot hooked round the pulpit is not to be recommended.

– Don’t be a cheapskate. Invest in drop-seat sailing pants. Your braces WILL fall into the loo pre-flush.

– Help others where you can. Share the access code for the marina facilities with the crew who get in cold and knackered after dark. You’d be glad of it yourself in their position.

And more seriously…

– Pay attention, ask questions and think ahead. Use common sense.

– Don’t become fixated on the plan or the timescale. Take stock of all the variables. Adapt, overcome, survive.

– If you encounter a hitch, don’t overreact. It’s rarely a disaster. Work back from ‘nobody has died’, and solutions become more straightforward. (NB – not to be used if someone is or was in mortal danger)

– Listen in to VHF traffic. Learn how to converse in a clear succinct way. And don’t address the female Coastguard as ‘darling’ (as we heard one particular male Skipper refer)

– Find the most pessimistic weather forecast you can and base your passage plan on it.

– Consider what you would do if the Skipper went overboard – and in what sequence.

– If things get hairy, stay calm and try not to panic.

And finally….

– Remember that at the very least, all a wooden boat REALLY wants to do, is float.

That’s all I can think of for now. There is tonnes of other stuff I’ll be mulling over as I get back to reality and work. A lot of it relates to how I function under pressure, what’s really important and what isn’t. All that good character building stuff we only truly realise when we take a leap into the dark.









Oily bits

“Oh no. What’s happened to the engine oil?!”

It was my turn to be wide-eyed. I had checked the oil level before we left Arklow, and it was fine. Now the level on the dipstick was, well, missing… There was no level. Just a layer of something that looked – and smelled – like black diesel fuel, dripping off the end. I had a sinking feeling as I realised what had happened. Diesel had leaked into the sump, diluting and thinning the engine oil, allowing it into the combustion chambers where it had burned. That explained the nasty black smear appearing under the exhaust on Waif’s transom, and the blue smoke I noticed when I restarted the engine just after we arrived. It had never done that before when the engine was warm. I drained the oil, which confirmed the diagnosis: over 8 litres of very runny oil in the sump, which normally holds 5 litres. :-/

Of the two likely causes, a split diaphragm on the fuel lift pump would be preferable, as that is cheap and easy to fix. Removing and dismantling the lift pump is a simple job, so I did that next – to find the diaphragm intact. It was worth a try (a new one is cheaper than most boat bits at £8!) but sadly not the problem. That leaves the other cause; a failed oil seal on the driveshaft of the high-pressure fuel injection pump. Apparently this is a common problem on BMC marine diesel engines of a certain age. A reconditioned fuel injection pump will cost a bit more than £8… but should solve the problem. After the Arklow Experience we aren’t taking any chances with the Irish Sea, so Waif is staying in Dun Laoghaire until I can sort this out, hopefully next weekend.

In other news, we were talking earlier to a friendly Dutch yachtsman from a neighbouring boat, who has many years experience of sailing in these waters. He sailed from Wales directly to Dun Laoghaire on Tuesday, in the same nasty lumpy seas we had. “It was horrible; very uncomfortable…” was his verdict. He told us he had sailed in many parts of the world and found the Irish Sea to consistently have the roughest and most difficult conditions, especially in easterly weather. In his experience the UK Shipping Forecast is often inaccurate for the Irish Sea, and Met Éireann forecasts are far more reliable. He also confirmed that Passage Weather – although very useful – always underestimates wind speeds by at least 5 knots. I felt better after talking to him, and wished I had met him on Monday!

So we are again heading back to Belfast, still without Waif… She is frustratingly close to home, but time has run out. We will hopefully complete the journey over the next couple of weekends. Watch this space.


A toast to Waif. 🙂

Waif stands out amongst the plastic boats in Dun Laoghaire marina, under the watchful eye of the Commissioner of Irish Lights.

The Irish Sea

… has showed us it’s teeth over the past couple of days. In fact, Gill suggested a blog post of just two words would suffice: the first was “Holy”; the second was unprintable.

We have reached Dun Laoghaire, so we are just 2 days from home. However getting here proved to be the most difficult – and at times frightening – part of the journey. As I write this on Wednesday night, we are drying ourselves and the boat in a nice marina, listening to the gale outside, and reflecting on the Irish Sea experience so far. This morning, for the first and only time since we left St. Tropez, I was seriously worried about our safety. Fortunately our boat is more capable than her skipper. He has learned a few more important lessons – the hard way, as always.

On Monday we recuperated in Milford Haven during a day of bad weather. The weather forecast for Tuesday looked pretty good for the Irish Sea; as good as we were likely to get anyway. The important factor of tide times was also in our favour. We could leave the locked basin at Milford Haven in time to catch fair tides for most of the distance, allowing us (in theory at least) to cross to Ireland in daylight. But where in Ireland? There are not many all weather, all tide harbours on the east coast of Ireland. I decided on Arklow, as it is en route to Northern Ireland, and it is (just) possible to reach Arklow in a long day from Milford Haven in a boat like Waif.

Some careful passage planning was needed, as our route would take us past the islands of Skokholm, Skomer and Grassholm, and a notorious series of rocks off Pembrokeshire called The Bishops and Clerks. Fierce tidal races extend for miles between and around these islands, which we had to avoid before setting off across St. George’s Channel. On the other side, a series of dangerous sandbanks lie just off the Irish coast, and Arklow harbour itself comes with a health warning. Entering the very narrow channel in strong easterly winds and swell is described as “dangerous” by the pilot book. The forecast was for north-easterly weather, but my backup plan (in case we arrived and found strong easterly winds and swell…) was Wicklow harbour, 15 miles further north.

We locked out of Milford Haven dock at 4:19am, and left the huge natural harbour and oil terminals behind us. It was immediately obvious we had more wind and bigger seas than the weather forecast had suggested. We had to maximise our speed to try and arrive in daylight so we were motorsailing with a reefed mainsail, making good time moving with the tide. A short, steep swell was being driven by wind from the northeast, and our northwesterly track meant we had to go across it all the way to Ireland. I spent the next 16 hours holding on to the tiller with both hands, while we both wedged ourselves into the cockpit as best we could so we weren’t thrown around too much. It was a testing day, fuelled by a packet of biscuits and a couple of chocolate bars (which were all we could reach, or eat one-handed). We arrived at Arklow harbour just as darkness fell, after a 92 mile passage. The wind was still north-easterly, and we were able to round up in the small bay to drop the mainsail. The narrow entrance required some commitment, as we were carried in by the swell, but we got through safely, found a space in the tiny marina, and fell into bed exhausted. The highlight of the day (apart from just getting in!) was more bloody dolphins. A big pod of them, at least a dozen, joined us off Grassholm island and spent half an hour breaching alongside the boat and riding in our bow-wave. Gill managed to get some better photos and some video. We’ll post a link once we get home.

With weather forecasts that looked similar to Tuesday, and wind forecast from the south-east, we set off from Arklow early on Wednesday morning to catch the north-running tide. We were heading for Howth, 50 miles away, and expecting easier conditions than the previous day as we were now close inshore.

The entrance channel to Arklow is narrow and curved to protect the harbour area. We rounded the corner leading to the entrance and got our first glimpse of the sea beyond, but by then it was too late. There was a swell running right up the channel, so trying to turn around would inevitably have put us into one of the walls. I only had time to mutter a few expletives and tell Gill to hold on tight before we were out. Within seconds I realised that (a) I had made a serious mistake by not walking to the entrance earlier to check the wind and sea state, and (b) there was absolutely no way back. We were pitched into a washing machine of brown seawater, steep swell, waves breaking heavily across the entrance and force 6+ wind – directly from the east. These were exactly the dangerous conditions the pilot book warned of; attempting to get back into the channel would lead to disaster. I motored hard away from the entrance into the swell to get away from the breaking waves.

We were in real danger of being knocked over, so we had to get the mainsail up to stabilise things, and fast. Fortunately I had tied a second reef into the mainsail before we left our berth, anticipating another windy day, but nothing like this. All of Waif’s sails are hoisted from the foot of the mast, so someone has to go up onto the deck to do it. Gill took the helm, and I got the mainsail up – a very alarming few minutes for all concerned. Things did improve, marginally, once we were heeled over by the wind in the sail, but we were being pounded by the steep easterly swell. Plans to go to Howth were immediately abandoned. “We’re going to Wicklow…”

It was difficult to do much except hang on and try to keep the boat pointing in approximately the right direction. Fortunately we were carried north at an incredible rate by the tide; we logged over 10 knots later. We passed behind the huge offshore wind turbines on Arklow bank, which were hard to see with the waves and windblown spray. I wasn’t looking at them anyway. I was watching our rigging nervously. If anything broke now, or if the engine failed, we would be in real trouble. Fortunately the wind was veering to the south east, so we were surfing down the waves rather than crossing them. As we passed Wicklow Head, I was reconsidering the decision to run for Wicklow harbour, and things were about to get worse again. The swell was breaking heavily ahead of us, east of the headland. What would happen if one of those waves broke on the boat? We found out a few minutes later. A huge wave crashed onto the starboard deck and into the cockpit, pitching us sideways. Miraculously, the engine kept running as if nothing had happened. Relief. Gill was wedged in the companionway, and she peered out, wide-eyed. “That was a big one…” she said, with talented understatement.

The prospect of turning inshore in breaking waves was not appealing, and dropping the mainsail outside the harbour would be out of the question in these conditions. We would have to run in under sail; would there be room inside to round up? The decision was made to continue instead to Dun Laoghaire, 20 miles further north. Conditions approaching Dublin Bay were still heavy, but better than earlier, and I knew we could enter the harbour under sail as there is plenty of room inside. Waif doesn’t have a windex (yet) but I’m pretty sure the wind was F7 as we ran in through the entrance with the boat heeled over at 45 degrees… We were in safely.

Setting out in the morning had certainly been a bad decision, but diverting to Dun Laoghaire was a good one. There was no need to worry about space for visitors, as the marina is huge, and the facilities excellent. There are now gale warnings in force for the Irish Sea until Friday night, with conditions (hopefully) improving at the weekend. In the meantime, we are staying put.

So. Lessons learned. With hindsight, I was guilty of checking more than one weather forecasting service and focusing on the best bits of each. In my defence, both the UK Met Office and online Passage Weather forecasts for Wednesday did not reflect the actual conditions. The Met Office forecast was for moderate seas and F5-6 winds – occasionally F4 in the south, where we were. I now realise that Met Éireann forecasts for the Irish Sea have been much more reliable this week. They forecast F6-7 winds and had issued a gale warning and a small ships warning by lunchtime on Wednesday. I only got this after we reached Dun Laoghaire. I was also naive to rely only on weather forecasts, and how the weather looked from inside a sheltered marina. If I had walked the half mile to the sea before we set out, the discrepancy between the forecasts and reality would have been obvious.


Passing Skomer island, en route to St. George’s Channel and the open sea.

I think these are common dolphins, rather than bottlenose dolphins. Marvellous dolphins would be more appropriate wouldn’t it?

The entrance to Arklow harbour (with apologies for copyright infringement)

Off the coast between Wicklow and Dublin Bay. We had other things to worry about, so didn’t take many photos. Things had calmed down by this stage…

Land’s End and the Bristol Channel

“Oh not more bloody dolphins…” mumbled the blankets sitting in the corner of the cockpit, as I cried “looklooklooklookLOOK!!!” for the hundredth time.

Okay, I confess I am taking some poetic license; that was the scene on-board in the early hours, but neither of us really felt that way. We reached Milford Haven this morning after an overnight passage that could only be described as magical. Sadly we didn’t get the hoped-for downwind sailing. The wind started in the west as we left Newlyn, but soon veered to the northwest. It was close to northerly by the time we set off across the Bristol Channel. So we had yet more upwind motorsailing, but there were no complaints. The conditions were – with one exception – very benign for what turned out to be a memorable day and night.

We had originally planned to spend a couple of days sailing up the north coast of Cornwall and Devon before crossing the Bristol Channel. I had some reservations about this, as it would mean spending one or more nights either at anchor, or in small “drying” harbours (i.e. harbours with no water in them at low tide…). With an approaching low pressure system and gales forecast off the south and southwest of Ireland, we made the decision to head straight for Milford Haven before the bad weather arrived. This would be the longest and most committing passage of the whole trip; over 120 miles, taking us more than 30 miles from the nearest land for much of the distance.

We restocked the food locker in Newlyn, ready for our first full overnight passage on Waif. Well, restocked is an exaggeration, as there are no food shops (other than fishmongers!) in Newlyn. Our victuals consisted of a packet of biscuits, a bag of leftover chips from the local Chinese takeaway, and 4 Cornish pasties. We were ready to go.

We left Newlyn harbour at 9am on a perfect morning, with warm sun and no wind. Once we left the shelter of Penzance bay, the temperature quickly dropped and the wind increased. We motored into our now standard headwind, with the sunshine staying stubbornly on land as we added extra layers. Still, I was thankful the sea state was much calmer than we had experienced off The Lizard the previous day as I contemplated rounding Land’s End, 13 miles to the west.

I initially thought it might (like Portland Bill) be something of a non-event as the sea was so calm. Obviously this was good news, but as we approached the waves grew in size. By the time the Longships lighthouse came into view, I had already dismissed my tentative plan to pass inside it, between rocks called Kettle’s Bottom, the Armed Knight, and the brilliantly named Dr. Syntax’s Head. This is described in the (normally very conservative) pilot book as being “safe in the right conditions”. The gap is over a third of a mile wide and at least 14m depth, but I didn’t like the look of it, so we rounded the Longships to the outside.

We had timed our arrival to use the last of the northwest running tide, and there are no charted tidal overfalls or races off the Longships, but we were clearly in for a rough ride. An obvious area of breaking waves lay between us and the Bristol Channel beyond, so we had our first taste of what the pilot book describes as “confused seas”… I could see a small open boat with a lug rig being expertly sailed just outside the Longships by a man with obvious local knowledge. He was within feet of the rocks at times, and managing to avoid the worst of the rough water. Meanwhile, we held on tight as Waif’s entire bowsprit (not just the end) was underwater at times, but in just a few minutes we were through. The broken water ended as suddenly as it had begun, and we were round Land’s End, another landmark on the journey.

We spent a couple of frustrating hours trying to make upwind progress under sail before we resigned ourselves to motorsailing, yet again. As we contemplated the long afternoon and night ahead (Scrabble, anyone?) Gill spotted the first dolphin – a glimpse of a head and a blowhole. Within an hour, we had dolphins swimming alongside and underneath the boat, riding our bow wave and breaching. This was the highlight of the whole trip, and an absolute privilege to see these amazing animals so close to us. I wondered how other people were spending their Saturday evening? To see things like this you have to get off the beaten track, and we had certainly done that.

We saw very few ships, which was a relief, although we had to take detours to avoid a beam trawler and a huge container ship heading for Bristol. Otherwise, we enjoyed the solitude, and the dolphins… Different groups came back several times over the course of the afternoon, but the most memorable visits began after dark.

Even without the dolphins, it was an extraordinary night. The sky was clear, with no moon, and no light pollution at all. We had been out of sight of land for an hour even before the sun set. There was only the dark sea and the sky, with the arc of the Milky Way directly overhead – an incredible sight. I have been fortunate to spend time in many remote places over the years, but I have never seen so many stars or the Milky Way so clearly. The dolphins returned regularly during the night. At one point there was a pod of at least 20 on both sides of the boat. As they breached and jumped alongside, there were bursts of bioluminescence* making their bodies and bubble trails clearly visible as they swam around and under the boat. Really unforgettable.

We reached the lock gates at Milford Haven marina at 8am, after a 23 hour passage of 122 miles – easily our longest so far. Waif was soon installed in a berth inside, leaving us to enjoy a breakfast at the marina cafe, a shower, and some well earned sleep.


*I mistakenly thought this phenomenon was only seen in the tropics, but we could clearly see sparkles of light in our wake and around the dolphins. It is caused by zooplankton belonging to the order Noctilucales that emit light when disturbed. We also saw larger bioluminescent animals from time to time.
“Did you see that? It looked like a luminous crisp-bag in the water!”
I suspect these were either squid or cuttlefish, disturbed by our wake.

Penzance bay early on Saturday morning.

Leaving the bay, with threatening clouds. Goonhilly downs in the distance.

Approaching the “confused seas” off the Longships lighthouse. Tiny lugger sailing very close to the rocks.

It’s hard to get good photos of dolphins with an iPhone on a moving boat…

Following us underneath the boat!

Probably our best dolphin pic.

Dolphins at sunset.

Sunrise as we approached Milford Haven.

Moored alongside a fishing boat full of lobsters and crabs, in the lock into Milford docks.

From Dorset to Cornwall

We refuelled the boat and crew in Poole, then set off for Weymouth the next day to meet another friend (Alan) who was joining us for the next leg. The forecast was for stronger winds and bigger waves from the west, so we left ourselves the option of returning to Poole if conditions got too difficult. We were expecting a rough day, but we also expected to get some shelter from Portland Bill once we passed St. Alban’s head and could get back inshore again.

Motoring out of Poole into a stiff breeze, we quickly regretted not putting our mainsail up in the shelter of the harbour. The Poole harbour channel is not a place to linger, so we continued past the spectacular Old Harry cliffs, and found ourselves facing a very steep swell coming across Swanage bay. Fortunately the wind and swell were both from exactly the same direction so we got the sails up without too much drama. If the swell had been across the wind, we would have had a very rough ride, as Waif pitches violently in a swell without her mainsail. Yet another lesson learned… With the sails up, we heeled over nicely and motorsailed onwards in the biggest seas we had encountered so far. We gave St. Albans head a safe berth of about 3 miles to avoid the tidal race – a large area of confused and dangerous water created by strong tides running past the headland. It took us 5 rough hours to cover the 30 miles to Weymouth, and we were glad to find space (albeit rafted up 3-4 boats deep) in the harbour. Alan, Sarah and my Dad were there to meet us, so Waif was full to capacity as we enjoyed an afternoon in the sun. Weymouth was a sea of humanity around us; I suspect it is a much nicer place outside the tourist season.

We later met the Northern Irish crew of a boat called Muscadet de Chavalet who were moored behind us in the harbour. Like us, they were continuing westwards the next day around the notorious Portland Bill and across Lyme Bay. At this point, a quote from The Shell Channel Pilot (the bible for sailing in these waters) would be appropriate:

Portland Race is the most dangerous extended area of broken water in the English Channel. Quite substantial vessels drawn into it have been known to disappear without trace…

We had been warned that Portland Race is so dangerous even the lifeboat cannot enter it to reach a yacht in trouble. To avoid the race, a long detour of up to 7 miles offshore might be required, or we could use the famed ‘inside passage’ which is a narrow channel of water very close inshore. We were told by a local sailor that you had to be close enough to the cliffs “to throw your coffee onto the rocks” to ensure safe passage. The Channel Pilot warns that “Numerous lobster pots lie in wait close inshore whose buoys can be towed under by the stream … To find yourself moored by the propellor with the race creeping inwards is an unthinkable nightmare.” With minds suitably focused, we set off for the pub, to find that Muscadet’s skipper David had discussed the inshore passage with the harbourmaster. He advised it would be safe in settled weather the next day with a 6am departure. Perhaps we would use it after all…

The next day dawned clear and sunny, with light westerly winds and calm seas. We left the harbour along with Muscadet and about 6 other boats, all motorsailing in convoy for the inshore passage and Lyme Bay. Compared to the previous day, we were relieved to find the sea off Portland Bill was completely calm. It didn’t look or feel like the most dangerous stretch of water in the Channel, which is exactly the danger of course. With the most daunting part of the passage behind us, we set off across Lyme Bay, the largest bay on the south coast of England. We again had the wind on our nose the whole way, and we reached Dartmouth 10 hours later to find a huge cruise ship anchored in the mouth of the river, with ferry boats charging in and out to carry passengers to and from the town. After avoiding them, we began the search for a berth for the night. We had some local knowledge (in the shape of James) who recommended mooring on the town quay if possible. There are only a few spaces, and we had to wait until the tourist boats stopped running at 5pm. We had checked with the harbourmaster by VHF, and were hovering nearby at 4:55pm, but so were several other boats, so it was basically a free-for-all. Armed with some commitment, and our 10 foot bowsprit, we managed to discourage another boat that was planning to jump in front of us, and we secured a space.

Dartmouth went straight to the top of our list of unexpectedly beautiful places. Aside from James, none of us had been there before, and we all thought it was a lovely and fascinating town. Another place I would love to explore, but we had to press on the next day. The hurricane formerly known as Bertha was bearing down on us, and we hoped to reach Falmouth in Cornwall before the bad weather arrived. James had to leave us the next morning to meet up with his family, and we had to be off the town quay before 9am. We had time for a quick trip up the river Dart, as a pilgrimage to visit the area where Waif was found and rescued by Tom more than two decades earlier. Then we set off for Falmouth, motorsailing into the inevitable westerly headwind and waves. This proved to be the wettest leg yet. Increasingly big waves made the foredeck a very wet place indeed, and we found a *lot* of water gets into the boat around the hawsepipe (where the anchor chain emerges). Another thing added to my boat project list.

Needless to say, with Bertha looming, lots of other boats were running for Falmouth too. Falmouth Week also runs from 9th-17th of August, so we struggled to find a berth. We eventually got a space in Mylor marina, which is very nice and has really good facilities, but is rather expensive. St. Tropez expensive in fact. We spent the day in Falmouth yesterday, Alan got the train home, and we met up with some twitter friends who live in Cornwall (hello Choo and Col!). After a visit to the chandlery, I also got Waif a rather fetching Cornish courtesy flag.

With strong (20-30 knot!) westerly winds and big waves forecast all week, continuing westwards to Penzance and Land’s End just isn’t an option. We have reluctantly decided that we should leave Waif here for a week or two, and return to real life in Belfast for a while… Our triumphant return to Strangford Lough will be further delayed, but we will get there. Eventually.


Portland Bill, in very benign conditions. We passed about 400′ offshore to avoid lobster pots. The safe ‘inside passage’ is really much closer in, less than 200′ from the rocks.

Arriving in Dartmouth, with speeding ferries from a cruise ship trying to overtake us and other small boats in the narrow entrance…



Nightfall in Dartmouth. And a visiting swan.

Leaving the river Dart the next morning.

Getting wet en route to Falmouth.

Safely moored in Falmouth, Cornwall.

The Channel

As often seems to be the case, I have some catching up to do. The last week has been pretty much non-stop, and the blog once again slipped down the list of priorities. As I write this we are safely tucked up in a marina in Falmouth, paying St. Tropez prices, but glad we made it here before ex-hurricane Bertha did… Going round The Lizard and on towards Land’s End in 20-30 knot westerly winds just isn’t an option, so Waif is staying here for the moment.

We crossed the Bai de Seine to reach Cherbourg last Sunday, departing from Honfleur in darkness to work the tide. Leaving the Rouen channel and the Seine estuary was uncomfortable, as we had the wind on the nose (as always!) so we were motoring into lumpy ‘wind over tide’ seas for the first few hours. Even dosed with cinnarizine, we couldn’t go below for more than a few minutes without feeling very ill. Things improved as the day progressed – although it was a long day, easily the longest of the trip so far, covering 80 nautical miles in 16 hours. This was further than our planned route across the Channel.

In Cherboug we met our friend James, who was joining us for the Channel crossing. We spent two nights in the enormous marina there (250 visitors berths!) while we prepared the boat and ourselves. We had a great afternoon off Cherbourg on Monday, enjoying our first downwind sailing of the entire trip. With hindsight, we should have just kept going and sailed on overnight, leaving our shore power lead and hosepipe on the pontoon in the marina. When we did leave in the early hours of Tuesday the wind had dropped completely. We motored on, watching the sails hopefully, but to no avail. On the plus side, the sea was flat calm as we watched a beautiful sunrise, and we were very lucky with shipping traffic as most of the big ships we saw passed safely miles ahead of or behind us. The day progressed steadily, with our actual GPS track staying reassuringly close to our planned route, drifting first east and then west with the tide in order to arrive ‘uptide’ of Poole harbour. As we approached the English coast things became more exciting. The wind picked up, and with the wind came increasingly big waves from the west. Fortunately we had made better time than expected and were heading north east by then. The waves were on our rear quarter not our beam, so not too uncomfortable as we surfed down them. We were all really impressed by Waif’s composure in bigger seas. Her foredeck was very wet, and her bowsprit in the water at times, but she stayed happily on course with a light hand on the tiller. It’s easy to forget she has been doing this for over 8 decades. We passed the millionaire’s row of Sandbanks as we entered Poole harbour in late afternoon, speculating about the residents. (Was that really Sven Goran Eriksson out picking up dog poo from his lawn…?) From our berth in the town quay marina we saw and heard the spectacle of the huge motorcycle rally held every Tuesday night in Poole during the summer months. James is a reformed biker, and there was a definite glint in his eye as we passed rows of big, fast bikes on our way to the nearest sit-down chippy. Next stop was the pub, for some proper beer. We were back in blighty.


Waif’s mainsail seeing some action at last. She sails with perfect balance with one reef in, just as Tom had told me.

Perfect sailing on Monday afternoon. The fort on Île Pelée and the east entrance to the Grande Rade of Cherbourg harbour are in the background.

Sunrise in the Channel.

About halfway across the Channel, motor-sailing to keep our speed up.

Still going… James hiding under his hat.

Old Harry rocks on the approach to Poole, giving us shelter from the waves and swell that developed in the afternoon.

Dropping Waif’s mainsail before entering the channel to Poole harbour.

Sandbanks. Nice enough, but it doesn’t look like the most expensive real estate in the country does it?

Fish and chips in Poole. 🙂

Days like this…

Apologies for how quiet the blog has been of late. Fortunately this was for all the right reasons, as we barely had a spare moment travelling down the river Seine and onwards to reach the channel. I have just added a belated post on going through Paris last weekend. We arrived safely yesterday evening in the beautiful medieval port town of Honfleur. Just outside the lock gates lies the English Channel (or La Manche, to use the proper French name!).

The Seine really surpassed all of our expectations. I was apprehensive about this part of the journey: the volume, size and speed of the commercial shipping; yet more big locks; travelling through central Paris; stepping our mast again and re-rigging the boat for sailing; the famously strong tides running between Rouen and the sea… There seemed to be plenty to worry about, and we had almost 450km to travel down the river. There were one or two moments, but travelling on the Seine turned out to be a real pleasure compared to the Rhône. We covered the distance in just 5 long days, but it was continually interesting and enjoyable, and the scenery was really beautiful. Travelling downstream was always going to be easier than upstream, although the current was never more than 1-2 knots (about 2-4 km/h), until we reached Rouen.

The locks on the Seine are enormous, with room for 2 big double péniches side-by-side. Fortunately most of them are only 3-4m in height, so they are much less dramatic than the Rhône locks, especially going down. Going up would be another matter. There are no floating bollards, so you would have to climb slippery ladders to secure mooring lines at the top, or move the lines up a series of fixed bollards as the water rises. There is lots of potential for drama in a turbulent lock. Also, the sides of some of the Seine locks are corrugated steel piling with gaps 2 feet wide, so standard boat fenders are useless. Our ‘fender boards’ (wooden planks hung horizontally over the fenders) were essential to protect the boat.

Compared to the Rhône and Sâone, the banks of the Seine are lined with houses, gardens and in many places with converted péniches, which are an interesting and popular houseboat option in France. The houses ranged in size from very grand indeed (actual Chateaus) to very humble (quite literally, garden sheds) while the péniches ranged from barely floating to really impressive conversions. The Seine has a very green and rural feeling about it outside the greater Paris area. Further downstream, the lower Seine winds it’s way through a wide and wooded valley with chalk and limestone cliffs, and pretty towns and villages nestling in between. I was amazed there weren’t more big river cruise boats, as there were on the Rhône. The Seine is much more beautiful, and (aside from the strongly tidal section beyond Rouen) is a much more relaxed place for a small boat.

Once we passed the ecluse d’Amfreville 20km upstream from Rouen, the character of the river changed markedly. We were now in the tidal Seine. The Rhône is defined by the relentless downstream current, as it flows into the non-tidal Mediterranean. In contrast, the Seine – from this point onwards – is defined by the tide. Rouen is 120km from the sea, yet the tidal range here is over 3m, and the river flows upstream for 4-5 hours every day.

We spent 3 nights in the new marina in the Bassin de Saint-Gervais in Rouen, where we appreciated the helpful staff and good facilities. Booking a crane to lift our mast was more complicated than I expected, as they are limited in Rouen to only doing crane work during the ebb tide. Luckily we got a slot for the second day, which gave me time to prepare Waif’s standing rigging, and the various halyards and other ropes that had to be reattached to the mast. Would my very hurried labelling and few photographs from Port-Saint-Louis be enough…? In the event, I only made one mistake (back-stays left wrapped around the top of the mast above the spreaders – doh). Some deft work with a long boat-hook from the top of their very high pier fixed the problem, and we had the mast back up and secured in an impressive 40 minutes. I can thoroughly recommend the helpful and relaxed l’homme grue in Rouen (Christoph). He speaks better English than I do, which made the whole task much easier.

Once the mast was up and the 3m bowsprit reattached, the rest of the day was spent re-rigging Waif for sailing, doing jobs with exciting titles like bending on the mainsail. By nightfall, everything was done (including me) and we were ready to face the last long run to the sea. Timing is critical for this, as there is nowhere to stop between Rouen and Honfleur / Le Havre, and the trip must be completed in daylight. Our 6:30am departure was timed to give us as much downstream current as possible.

Until we left Rouen, I hadn’t fully appreciated the value of our ‘Automatic Identification System’ (AIS) receiver. All merchant ships over 300 tonnes and all passenger ships, regardless of size, have to continually broadcast their identification, position, course and speed over AIS. An AIS receiver allows you to plot this information for nearby ships. Once our mast and AIS antenna were back up, we could use AIS to see big ships and the many small ferries crossing the Seine estuary while they were still miles ahead of (or behind!) us. It was very reassuring to have this, especially when we encountered fog on the river early in the morning, and several massive cargo ships later in the day.

I had read many dire warnings about the strength of the currents we would face, and the other hazards on this part of the river. In the event, the whole day was really enjoyable, and we reached Honfleur in ten and a half hours, just in time for the hourly lock-in to the harbour (just a few minutes to spare!). It was a memorable end to yet another memorable day. We had crossed France and reached the sea again.














We spent last Saturday night in a small Port du Plaisance on the outskirts of Paris called Port au Cerises. It is one of the few places where visiting boats can moor around Paris, and was almost full of (very scruffy!) boats, so we were lucky to get a place. I was directed to an empty berth that looked suspiciously shallow. Instead of the boat hook, I deployed my improving Capitainerie French to check the depth of water and was told “C’est bien!” I pulled a face and asked if he was sure, so he checked with a colleague, who said “Er, non…” Waif needs 1.5m, and the suggested berth had just 1.2m. Another grounding averted, and another lesson learned: always check. We were only staying for one night, so they found us a deeper one.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to stop in Paris itself. We decided to just get through the city as quickly as we could, early on Sunday morning to minimise traffic. Going through Paris in a small boat is daunting, as the river is so busy with river cruise boats, tourist boats, river buses, plus the usual range of big cargo péniches and ‘push-tow’ barges. There is a system of alternating one-way upstream and downstream traffic flow through the centre, with a time window of just 15 minutes each hour to enter going downstream. And a minimum speed limit of 8km/h applies on this part of the river. You can’t see Paris from a slow boat! I was excited about seeing the city… but part of me just wanted to get it over with.

We reached the alternating flow system with a couple of minutes to spare (relief; there is nowhere to stop or wait if you miss the lights). That took us between the Île St. Louis and the Île de la Cité, past the amazing Notre-Dame cathedral and the Palais de Justice. The next bridges were Pont Neuf, and the now famous Passarelle dés Arts, groaning under the weight of lovers’ padlocks… After that, I was focused on getting safely under the many bridges and keeping out of the way of the fast moving river buses, tourist boats and massive barges crossing the river. I didn’t really have much time for sightseeing, so I drove the boat while Gill took as many photos as she could. I was relieved to reach the Eiffel Tower, as that was as far as the river buses go! We were photographed by literally hundreds of tourists as we passed, all saying “Look at that strange little boat!” in a hundred different languages.

We covered over 100km in the rest of a long 10 hour day. Just as we were about to start looking for a friendly Péniche to moor alongside, we were relieved to find spaces at a new ‘halte nautique’ at Conflans-Ste-Honorine that wasn’t shown on our map. A nice way to end to a great and memorable day.