A hazardous sail from Peel in ‘Sheila’ c.1910

Originally published in ‘Yachting Monthly’, May 1933, this extract is from a series of articles by Robert E. Groves, regular contributor to the Magazine, yachtsman, soldier and artist. He recalls experiencing ‘a bit of a dusting’ in his Albert Strange yawl, ‘Sheila I’ whilst setting out to sail single-handed from Peel on the Isle of Man to Ireland around 1910. The illustration shows ‘Sheila’ in the renowned overfalls of Strangford Lough. ‘Sheila I’ still sails today from her home port on the east coast of England.

'Sheila' faces the overfalls off Strangford Lough, Ireland
‘Sheila’ faces the overfalls off Strangford Lough, Ireland

Robert E. Groves sets out single-handed in ‘Sheila I’, the little yawl of four tons built for him at Port St. Mary from the design by Albert Strange. She’s a fine seaboat, as was often proved on many a strenuous cruise in the wild waters on the west coast of Scotland.

That it was probably injudicious to set out at all, in the face of such weather warnings as my barometer had given me, I am bound to admit. But life is made up of risks, and a certain amount of risk is necessary if one is to meet with any adventure worth speaking of.

The glass had been falling steadily for the last 12 hours, but being of an optimistic nature I imagined I could slip across before any big change took place. The distance between Peel Harbour, Isle of Man, and Ardglass in County Down, was a matter of 32 miles, and with the breeze as it now was, blowing fresh from the SW, I calculated on reeling off the miles at the rate of about six per hour.

Well, as I have said, the wind was fresh from the SW, the morning one of dazzling brilliancy, with, at first, a cloudless sky, when I got underway at 7.75 am, and, sliding out beyond the pier, shaped a course for Ardglass. I was alone, but what of that? The snow-white canvas of my little ship, the rich blue seas flecked everywhere with white caps, the cloudless sky, and the sharp tang of the salty air, filled me with an exhilarating joy.

How she did cut through it! The spray sparkling at the bow, for all the world like a million diamonds glinting in the sunlight. This was life! Hearty, vigorous, joyous life! How glorious were the views on sea and land! The stately bulk of Peel Castle, the smiling fertility of the northern half of the island, in contrast with the stern ruggedness of the southern portion, were a delight to the eye. A fleet of Peel Nobbies, away to the south, was scudding before the breeze as they made for the harhour I had just left, and a cargo steamer making her way down channel lent an added interest to a perfect sea picture. While, away down on the port bow, the Mountains of Mourne stood clear and blue against the western sky.

As the morning slipped by it became evident that the threatened change was at hand. The breeze had hardened considerably, and was working round more to the west, making it difficult to steer my course for Ardglass. I thought it wise, however, to get across with the least possible delay, and kept the little ship full with the idea of picking up the land as near to Ardglass as possible without beating.

I was becoming wet, and donned my oilskins. Before setting out I had fortunatelv prepared some sandwiches, placing them in a locker in the cockpit, together with something to drink. This I was glad of, as the keenness of the air had whetted my appetite. As it looked as though I was in for a tough fight later on, I despatched the meal, and felt considerably better for it. Now for the work ! – By this time the sky was becoming very much overcast, and the Irish coast was obliterated from time to time with heavy rain squalls.

‘Sheila’ was becoming rather hard-pressed, and something must be done to ease her. I hauled in my sheets and put her up into the wind. With the jib set a-weather she rode the seas fairly quietly and I was able to take a couple of reefs in the mainsail; then I stowed the mizzen and shortened the jib.

Once again on her course, she now made much better weather of it. It was difficult to estimate the speed I was making, but she was certainly walking along, in spite of the heavy seas which now occasionally came over her bows and raced along the deck. To leeward her deck was continually awash, but so far all was dry in the cockpit. I kept the companion closed tightly to save the cabin from being flooded should any green seas come aboard, and (must I confess it?) I began to feel a little anxious, as I could now see that it would be quite hopeless to make Ardglass on the course I was now sailing.

I should here mention that I was quite unfamiliar with the Irish coast to the north of Ardglass, and from what I had read in the Sailing Directions, combined with what I had studied on the chart, I did not feel at all eager to attempt Strangford Lough, with its intricate navigation and fierce tidal currents, to say nothing of the numerous outlying dangers, hidden or otherwise. In the light of what followed, and on subsequent consideration, it would probably harve been wiser to have made a run for Donaghadee. but as that would have added another 25 miles to my day’s work, I was loth to do so. As it turned out, besides experiencing a deal of discomfort, I had to sail a good deal further before my day’s work was done. We can always be wise after the event!

At any rate, I had the feeling that as the wind was becoming more and more westerly it would be a simple matter to put her about and sail down the coast to the desired port. I dare say many of my brother cruisers have at some time experienced the same reluctance to give up without making a good fight for it. The fact remains I was obstinate and was destined to suffer for that obstinacy. Alas! as I neared the Irish coast, which had been totally obscured for the last hour and a half, I found I was much farther north than I had calculated, for all of a sudden the sound of a gun made me start, and in another moment I saw the South Rock Lightship over my lee bow. In less time than it takes to tell my helm was down and I was off on the other tack. What a piece of luck! As I raced down the coast towards Ballyquintin I saw the gaunt remains of a large ship on a reef of rocks, the Ridge, and thanked my stars that I had received such timely warning of the danger for which I was heading.

The ebb tide had now set in and the seas were becoming very steep. I passed Ballyquintin Point and was soon in the terrifying overfalls off the entrance to Strangford Lough. The broken seas knocked all the sense out of poor little ‘Sheila’. The steering was a nightmare, I was virtually helpless and at the mercy of the tide, which at this point was very strong.

I shipped three very bad green seas. Each time ‘Sheila’ staggered and shuddered as though the burden would overcome her. Three times I was completely submerged, and was sure my last hour had come. Three times I said ‘Bother it!’ ‘Oh dear!’ ‘What a nuisance!’ or words to that effect. I clung desperately to the tiller in the hope of regaining control. Each time the gallant little ship shook herself free and rose again, buoyant as a duck, the water cascading from her decks.

Once in a very heavy squall she lay down almost on her beam ends, the sea pouring into the cockpit. What was the best thing to do? I did not quite know, she seemed so helpless! How ever my little dinghy survived I shall never cease to marvel, but survive she did, and followed bravely astern in the wake of her parent ship.

With the shipping of the green seas all steerage way was lost, and again a heavy squall struck the yacht. Down she lay once more and once more she rose. She must have divined what was passing in my mind, and knowing my uncertainty decided the question for me. Her stern was coming round and I foresaw a gybe.

Grabbing the mainsheet, I held on like grim death in order to ease her as gradually as possible when the gybe came. It was inevitable. A sudden lurch and over came the boom, almost wrenching my arms from their sockets; but she was now before the wind and pointing once more for the Isle of Man. And so before a following wind, which did not seem anything like so heavy now that I was running, I felt well pleased to be getting away from that dangerous vicinity. The seas in the channel were now very heavy but ‘Sheila’ rode over them like a duck. How she did sail! How the seas lifted her and urged her forward!The rain, which had been heavy at times, had now ceased, and the deck was beginning to look whitc once more. The long, regular motion was delightful after the terrible dusting she had recently gone through. The Irish coast was rapidly dropping astern and the coast of Man becoming clearer.

The afternoon was wearing on, and occasional glints of stormy sunlight pierced the heavy clouds away in the west. I was rather cold but supremely happy, and very proud of the seaworthiness of my boat, as proved by the way she had come through her trying ordeal.

Hour after hour passed by and still she tore through it, until when nearly dark I caught the first glimpse of the light on the pier-head at Peel. Another hour passed, and then the harbour was reached.

The feeling of satisfaction I felt as I once more ran up the harbour and tied up at the quayside I shall never forget. I must have sailed a good 70 miles that day, and had been at the tiller for nearly 15 hours. Was I sorry for what I had gone through? No! It had been an experience worth having and had taught me a valuable lesson: never to set out for a comparatively unknown coast before making sure that I had all the necessary information properly tabulated and fixed in my mind, to enable me to cope with any situation that might arise. It is so very difficult when caught out single-handed to go below and study charts and sailing directions. No! All this should have been done before.

My practice ever since that day has been to know all there is to know, as far as possible, before starting, and so do away with any feeling of indecision when confronted with a sudden emergency.

Robert E. Groves Published with permission: Yachting Monthly, May 1933

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