Life at Sea - by Angus
Well this was one whirlwind trip.
For several years I have had a personal goal of sailing a dinghy between my home region of North Devon and Wales across the Bristol Channel. It started some years back when I was sailing a large yacht with friends heading out of Dale bound for France. I felt really out of my depth on such a big boat and flippantly made the comment that I’d be happier in a dinghy – at least I’d know what I was doing, having sailed dinghies from as early in life as I can remember. Since then the idea has stuck with me, so when Garrett asked for a volunteer to make the trip with Ludo it was too good an opportunity to give up.
I only committed to the trip on Thursday – we’d leave first thing Saturday. I spent many anxious moments worrying on Friday, have I made the right decision, what’s the forecast, maybe it’s too far for a one day trip, what if we don’t make it or the sea gets rough. Luckily I only had 24hrs to feel like this – ‘cos its energy sapping. I just had to face my demons and get on with things.
Saturday came – I was up at 04:30 showered, coffee downed and dressed in thermals ready for the drysuit that Ludo was to lend me. My neighbour Brian was very generous in agreeing to give me a lift to Clovelly, leaving home at 05:15. Breakfast was a yoghurt and a couple of pancakes eaten in the car – all chosen to be the least offensive if they made the return journey to the surface while sailing – you get the picture. We arrived to a beautifully sunny dawn in Clovelly at 05:50.
Ludo was down in the tiny harbour, looking like thunder – maybe he always looks that way – I’d never met him before, very trusting – both ways – but the sailing fraternity is like that. But Ludo didn’t seem cheery – a long trip up in high winds from Padstow had taken its toll and his hands were cut and causing him grief. Garrett was helping take the cover off the boat – and also had a long drive ahead of himself that day too – after a short night’s sleep.
We prepared the boat, donned dry suits and started to launch the boat. Then someone starting shooting – well at least that’s what we thought – in fact we’d blown a tyre on the launching trolley – uugh what a way to start – carrying the boat the last 30ft to the water. After lots of huffing and puffing we made it. On with the rudder and we set off. In just a few minutes we were well underway with full sails headed north-west on starboard tack close hauled in a force 3 to 4 northerly breeze.
The trip was about 55 miles as the crow flies. We’re sailing a 16ft dinghy – the type that is use to teach novices to sail on lakes and rivers all over the country – not normally what you chose to go offshore in, it can capsize so we’ll be constantly balancing the boat across the trip. Then there’s the tide to think about – and the Bristol Channel has plenty of that. And to top it off we had to go upwind. Remember there’s nowhere to stop, no service station, no AA. Any trouble would be resolved by RNLI lifeboat and RAF helicopter – not the publicity we wanted. On the trip Ludo and I discussed how to put this all in perspective for a non-sailor. Perhaps this sums it up: setting off on foot across an ice flow knowing that you had to make the limits of your daily walking range to reach a safe haven, if you stop you’ll freeze and dehydrate – you’ve got to just keep on going. Now throw in the fact that the terrain may get rough (waves) and you also have to walk uphill (upwind). It wasn’t comfortable – it is like sitting perched on the edge of your bath, being thrown about like you are on a bucking bronco with someone throwing a bucket of cold salty water at you every couple of minutes – for over 10 hours. All in all we had our work cut out. At least it was sunny.
We settled quickly onto a course headed for the north of Lundy Island which was visible right from the off. Ludo was helming and I was gradually getting used to the set-up of the boat. We were being battered by the waves and working quite hard to keep the boat upright. As I feared I was feeling very nauseous – I usually do when I am out on yachts – but not normally when sailing dinghies, maybe it was the thought of having to keep this effort up for 10+ more hours. Either way I felt awful and was very quiet for a good hour while I worked to conquer the feeling. Lord only knows what Ludo was thinking at this point.
After about an hour, when Ludo asked if I would take the helm to give him a rest I jumped at the chance – I know it’s a great way to get rid of sea sickness – you are much more in tune with the movement of the boat and the sea I think Ludo was relieved too – evidently his hands were really sore – and the hard day’s sailing on Friday had really taken its toll.
We continued to head north-west heading just to the north of Lundy – the wind continued to pick up and the tide was carrying us north too. We made good progress – so much so that we had to bear off a little as we approached Lundy to avoid some rough seas just to the north. It is really strange sailing past major landmarks, you feel like life has slowed down. You think it is going to be like driving past a tall building when you are on the motorway and you’ll see round it in a matter of minutes – but it literally takes hours – so much so that you get sick of the sight of it – you just want to get on with the passage.
It was fantastically sunny and Lundy was absolutely beautiful – rising from the sea – it reminded me of pictures I have seen of Aires Rock – just with the colours changed to green for the rock and blue for the outback / sea.
The sun continue to shine and we pushed on out into the Celtic Sea beyond Lundy. This was really special – perfect wind – beautiful weather and the boat was scooting along. The only sound was the wind and the waves, nothing but sky, sea and Lundy slowing taking a step back as the hour passed. This is exactly what I came for. I doubt I’ll ever experience this again – sailing towards the horizon in a tiny boat leaving all sight of land in our wake, with wall to wall sunshine. The sea state eased a little and we were humming along – if a little south of where we needed to be – happy days. Ludo even got to lie down for a bit – but I couldn’t convince him to take a nap. We saw only one other boat up till this point, a coastal vessel headed into Bristol, but that was now well gone, it was just us and the odd seabird. It doesn’t get any better than this.
We felt really pleased with our progress but knew we had the hard part to come, we were expecting the wind to change and drop – slowing us down, the tide was changing and we had to navigate the next 2 hours or so with no sight of land ahead of us. As it turned out Ludo called the one major change in course absolutely perfectly – so much so that we never changed tack again for the whole trip save for navigating between the moorings in Dale. I struggle to make that call when sailing a short racing course – somehow we just nailed it and it makes you wonder who is watching over you.
At this point my thoughts drifted to friends and family who’d be watching our progress via the tracker on the web, just as I had watched Ludo the previous day on his passage up from Padstow. I could hear them all talking to themselves, ‘why are they so far west – they need to get north’, ‘do they know what the tide is doing’, ‘will they make Dale or will they have to compromise and head for Tenby of Saundersfoot’. For our part we just kept driving the boat as hard as we could without pushing ourselves too hard. It was like a thousand last beats to the finish in your average dinghy race – you are tired but you know if you back off it’ll just take longer – so you keep up the effort and look forward to getting to the bar for a drink that few minutes earlier.
The boat really impressed me. I had sailed Wayfarers before – but this was a brand new one with new layout by Hartley Laminates which was a big step for this traditional class. It felt solid yet modern and very comfortable. The quality of the fittings was also impressive for a relatively standard race fit factory boat. The only issue I have is that the foredeck is quite low and flat and if we planted the bow into a wave the whole thing came into the cockpit rather than spilling sideways - After much tinkering we got the rig balanced and were handling the waves well – watching for breakers and picking our way around the nasty bits.
After a couple more hours sailing we spotted land and the some white and red vertical objects. After a long debate we’d convinced ourselves that these must be an offshore wind farm under construction - just goes to show what happens when you get tired and hungry – it was in fact the chimney stacks at the Pembroke refinery. We continued to get lifted up to the course we needed as the wind swung round to the West as forecasted. Then for good measure the breeze built quite substantially – white horses were common and we were still battling upwind – time to reef the mainsail and reduce power a bit and get more balance to the boat. This worked a treat and the boat settled down nicely and continued forging upwind – but it started to feel slow – and we realised having been hard at it for 7 hours we probably had another 5 hours sailing to make Dale – if in fact we could – given that the tide was starting to turn and push us East – at least it was sunny. Ludo seemed low at this point – even his bag of minstrels had got salt water in them! The monotony was only broken by the odd lobster pot marker that we passed – but they showed just how much tide we were fighting against.
After another hour’s sailing we figured out where the entrance to Dale was. Many thanks to the farmer that planted the field of rape seed on the hills behind the entrance to the harbour, at first I thought I was hallucinating as this vivid yellow patch appeared over the horizon – but it made it easy to keep a sense of direction. Over the next few hours I went from befriending the headland in the mouth of Milford Haven to calling it all the names under the sun as we never seemed to get any nearer to it. It was just one of those things – just keep plodding on – we knew we were doing everything we could to get there – just had to be patient – and did I mention it was sunny – joy. To console myself I pretended that I’d just come out for a little evening cruise and tried to make the most of it all – and not think of hot food, showers and dry land.
As we approached the entrance were met by Peter the Commodore of Dale Yacht club in his Yacht and then by John Mecklenburg in his large rib carrying George who’d be crewing for Ludo the next day. The company made the next hour’s sailing pass easily and lightened the desperation to get to shore. That damned headland was still in front of us though.
After a few short tacks in amongst the moorings and we landed at Dale and set about getting the boat out of the water to assess whether any damage had been done carrying the boat across the cobbles at Clovelly. Onshore at 7pm, it was a twelve hour passage, what an epic day’s sailing. Handshakes and hugs all round yipee. And it was still sunny.
Now here’s where the gravity of what Ludo has set out to do hit me. I was greeted in Dale by friends offering hugs and smiles, familiar surroundings and wonderful hospitality which added to the great sense of achievement and made for a very memorable evening. Even the next morning I woke early but felt like I had won a cup final, I was on cloud nine. Meanwhile Ludo had come ashore, got straight on the phone to sponsors, family etc. and then started to plan the next day checking forecasts and asking all the locals for navigational advice. His first meal of the day was at about 10pm – straight to a strange house to bed to do it all again in the morning. I was revelling in the achievements of the day – Ludo was preoccupied with the demands of the next day - no time to celebrate or just take stock of what he’d achieved.
The fact of the matter is, the boat will get round the UK at thirty miles per day no problem – but somehow Ludo has to sustain not only his energy levels but maintain the ability to make sound decisions on navigation at the end of every passage – for another sixty days. Personally I’d rather run a marathon a day for a week – and I hate running and love sailing! Even taking the sailing out of the equation – lack of sleep, disrupted meal times and diet and constantly dealing with new places and people in a tried state will be tough for the next two months.
With this in mind I was up the next day at 05:45 to give Ludo the best send-off I could manage – straight down to the boat – cover off – checked it all over and had it rigged by the time Ludo and new crew George arrived. George was sick as a parrot and I could see Ludo was concerned. But the weather was as fine as can be and they were due to reach Fishguard just after lunchtime so they just got on with it. A few stern words from me regarding food and fluids on the boat and it was off into the morning sunshine for Ludo and a long train ride home for me.
I’ll always remember this trip – might even do it again someday. My only problem is now thinking up another major challenge that on the face of it seems impossible to keep my scheming mind busy for the next 5 years! Any suggestions?
Many thanks to: Ludo, Garrett and the team for having me along for the ride. To the Mecklenburghs and friends for looking after me when I reached Dale, to Dale Yacht club for the hospitality, to all friends, family and colleagues who sent messages of support and congratulations, to everyone that has donated to the charities, and to my family for letting me take off at the drop of the hat.