3 The Passage
So it was Saturday 14th July 2001 at last, and after rising early, well 04:30 is early for me, and getting our sailing kit on and some food inside, we set off for Hill Head Sailing Club. We arrived at 05:15, and having done some preparation the night before, we were able to get on the water by 05:45. The preparations were over, now the sailing began.
The passage can conveniently be divided into four sections, effectively one for each side of the island. These are marked by the major landmarks at the four corners:
North corner - Cowes (opposite Hill Head)
West corner - The Needles
South corner - St Catherine's Point
East corner - Bembridge
Hill Head to the Needles
Cowes at dawn
We had expected to be the only people out from the club at this early hour, but to our surprise found a Mirror already on the water! This was more remarkable because there was almost no wind at the time.
By 05:45, shortly after high water, we were on the water but becalmed, so we started the outboard and motored out of Hill Head harbour until we were a few hundred metres offshore where we found a very light breeze. It was a beautiful still morning, and we were almost the only boat about - an unusual experience in the Solent!
With the wind from the north west we sailed close hauled over the Bramble bank, and off Calshot for about 06:15, where we phoned in to let Pat Dollard, the event organiser, know we were away. There was no immediate sign of other Wayfarers leaving Calshot, but after 15 or 20 minutes we started to see boats creeping round from Calshot spit behind us.
The sail down the Solent was quiet, with winds of not more than force 2. The sailing consisted of long tacks down the Solent with occasional short tacks out from the shore of the island to the middle of the channel. Three of the other Wayfarers with more sail and less crew passed us as we approached Hurst Narrows, and as we looked back, we could see the Solent fill with sails behind us. There can be falls (confused seas) at Hurst Narrows, but there was no sign of them today. This was probably due to the neap tides, being close to the end of the tide, and the gentle breeze.
As we approached and passed Hurst Narrows at about 09:00 we started to be overtaken by yachts. Either there was a race on I didn't know about, or a lot of people had worked out that this would be a fine day to sail round the island.
From Hurst Narrows to The Needles was quite awkward, having to tack, in waters that were a lot more crowded than I would wish. However, at least the breeze was building now, and by the time we had reached the Needles at around 09:30, it was just a force 4.With the sun shining, the Needles were a wonderful sight.
09:30 was an hour ahead of schedule, largely because we had assumed a dead head wind, and in fact we had less tacking to do than was expected.
There are a number of hazards at the Needles, and this was the first time I had sailed there in any boat. There is a rock ledge directly under the lighthouse (which seemed to be exposed) a wreck, and a rock. None of these should be a problem for a dinghy, but I decided it would be prudent to follow the track of a large yacht round the corner as we were bearing away. Again keeping clear of the many and much larger boats around us was a major concern as they took different routes round the point.
The Needles to St Catherine's Point
So at 09:30, with the wind just touching force 4 from the West North West, we found ourselves on starboard tack on a training run. Although we had brought the spinnaker with us, I had not been sure we would use it. However, since all the yachts around us were hoisting theirs, and also the other Wayfarers that were in sight, we decided we would do likewise.
A sea of spinnakers looking back to the Needles
We opted for a straight line route to St Catherine's and once we could get a signal we phoned in to let the organisers know we had rounded the Needles. This leg of the passage was spectacular. We were slowly being passed by yachts flying colourful spinnakers. The waters were very busy, and at times we were being passed by boats on either side within 20 metres. We also started to slowly make ground back on the other Wayfarers.
The difficulty was that this is where Lydia found she needed to relieve herself. With all the yachts around, this was as much a matter of finding enough space to give some privacy as any other consideration.
Wayfarer 7391 taking a photo of us taking a photo of them
Just before St Catherine's Point we caught up with Wayfarer 7391, and exchanged photo opportunities both boats enjoying the conditions.
St Catherine's Point is also supposed to have over falls, and this time we were not disappointed. The sea was really quite confused. However, with the spinnaker pulling us through the water, it was more interesting than concerning.
St Catherine's Point to Bembridge
Having reached St Catherine's Point we phoned in to Pat Dollard again, noting that there were 3 or 4 other Wayfarers in sight. We then adjusted our course to a dead run as we headed towards Dunose, taking an offshore course. By now almost all the yachts had passed us, and we were beginning to feel strangely alone. Once we were off Dunose we gybed the main and the the spinnaker and headed towards Bembridge, again on a training run.
We were sailing along quite happily in a good force 4 when we were hit by a squall. With a spinnaker up this is not nice! The boat heeled over dramatically, taking water over the gunwale as we scrambled to hike out. The boat heeling over brought it onto a beam reach. David was helming at the time, and I suggested he might consider bearing away, only to have him point at the tiller which was already hard over. By now we were on the wrong side of the boat to release the spinnaker sheet, so we opted to turn head to wind and wrap the spinnaker round the jib, from where we recovered it gratefully, with only the odd gallon of water on board. All this happened in about 5-10 seconds.
When we turned our attention to our intended direction of travel, we noticed that the spinnakers had magically come down from all the yachts, we also noticed that W7391, now a few hundred metres ahead of us had capsized, a fate I think we only avoided because of the extra body we had on board. We phoned in to Pat that a Wayfarer was over and that we would go to stand by and offer assistance if necessary.
By the time we reached W7391 they had righted the boat, and were well into draining it. They indicated that they were OK and that we should carry on, but that was not an option. We dropped our sails, put the motor on, and stood by - recovering a floating box as we waited. Within 5 minutes they were off again, leaving us in their wake as we set about raising our sails and phoning into Pat that all was well.
Another Wayfarer was also in the same region when the squall hit, though much closer to shore. When we saw them later it looked as if their spinnaker had been shredded.It is perhaps worth a comment on how a squall like that can have such a dramatic effect. We were bowling along at 6-7 knots in a good force 4 and the apparent wind speed had us on a training run. Now when the wind speed suddenly doubles, this results in the boat healing over, which in turn means that the boat tries to come round further into the wind. In our case onto a beam reach. Your options are:
- Spot the squall coming, and bear away into the safety zone, and possibly drop the spinnaker before it gets to you. (Recommended -but may require eyes in the back of your head or a good look out.)
- Release the sheets on the spinnaker (you should have them in your hand and not cleated anyway).
- Bear up into the wind (as we did).
The wind now settled to a good force 5, after the squall which I guess was at least a force 7, and we were broad reaching rapidly towards Bembridge. However, we had lost the sun, and the weather was never to be the same again.
Bembridge to Hill Head
At Bembridge we phoned in our position again. This final leg was originally expected to be a reach back to Hill Head. But that was with a south westerly. We had what was by now a north westerly, which left us with a beat back in a force 5 with rain attached. On the plus side, all the beating gave us the opportunity to wave to some of the other Wayfarers whose path we crossed.
However, the weather still had not done with us. As we were approaching Lee-on-Solent the wind built to a force 6, and had us hiking out hard. With a band of cloud ahead, it was time for a reef, which brought things nicely back under control. Of course as soon as the band of cloud had passed the wind dropped to almost nothing, and we finished up at Hill Head as we had started - with almost no wind at all.
We were out of the water at 16:45, and shortly afterwards made our final phone call to Pat to let him know we were home safe. The passage had taken almost exactly 11 hours, an hour ahead of our plan, so we were pleased. We also arrived to congratulations from fellow club members who were involved in running an RYA level 1&2 course.
One thing that surprised us was that whilst we were tired, we were not exhausted. I put this down to the conservative crew plus sail plan set up that we went with. This meant that we were only hiking out for a few minutes - rather different from a race round the cans.
We had a great time. The careful preparation was worth it. We had a wide range of weather during the day. Some observations are:
- Sailing with a jib rather than Genoa gained us more in comfort and control than we lost in speed.
- A crew of 3 also worked well, and unquestionably saved us from capsize when the squall hit us.
- We brought a lot of food and drink, but ended up only snacking. We also managed to leave our ham sandwiches at home in the fridge. Too much food is the right side to err, but variety of food on the journey is important for moral.
- We sailed in wetsuits, and contrary to popular myth, found them comfortable for a whole day's sailing. The only downside was the inconvenience when going to the toilet.
- The day was not as tiring as I had anticipated, and at least neither Lydia or I would make any great claims to fitness. This is in large part down to sailing more conservatively than we would if we were racing.
I hope to do it again next year, though my wife has indicated that once was enough for her, and David commented that it didn't have quite the same thrill as being out on the trapeze in a Buzz. Still I might be able to persuade my daughter Naomi, who missed out this time, to join me.