Plymouth to Chichester single-handed

We bring the final part from the skipper’s account of ‘Equinox’, a Cornish Crabber 24, taking part in the OGA50 ‘Round Britain Challenge’ as one of the Relay boats. Having made a plan to head back east from Plymouth, despite the challenging weather, we hear how the single-handed skipper managed the passage with minimal use of his damaged engine and read his reflections on the nine day cruise with the OGA50 fleet.

'Equinox of Chichester'
‘Equinox of Chichester’

Starting the engine at 06:00 before casting off, all seemed fine, a Passage Plan lodged with Falmouth and Brixham Coastguard was radioed in as I motored out of the marina on my handheld VHF. But as soon as we entered the slightly turbulent water by ‘The Bridge’ the same hollow exhaust note was quickly followed by the dreaded alarm.

Engine off, I deciding to push on, taking advantage of six hours of a favourable tide and the light but steadily growing breeze. Once out of the harbour, my SOG averaged 5 to 6 knots to begin but soon crept up to 7. As the hours passed, I first lost the favorable tide but with a growing breeze my average speed remained 6 knots. Seven hours into the passage, first one, then an hour later a second reef in the main was called for; then I furled the staysail. Neither it or the jib were providing much power; both prone to being back-winded.

Progress was swift but without the engine to assist my exit from Plymouth and to complement the light morning breeze, I was already three hours behind schedule. With this in mind and ‘Equinox’ on autohelm, I studied Reeds. Weymouth was considered as a suitable diversion, but at night with just two minutes of engine use and a westerly of 20-30 knots, not one I felt comfortable with. Lulworth Cove and Chapman’s Pool not options either without an engine. I had to press on, Studland Bay it had to be.

As the evening progressed, the seas picked up as did the wind. A look back astern bought into view rank upon rank of white crested rollers, as far as the eye could see; each as high as my boom. Each lifted ‘Equinox,’ her bowsprit sometimes carving a furrow surfing into the trough. She would surf down a wave, lose the wind, and depending on the shape of the wave attempt to veer either port or starboard. Total concentration and vigilance on the helm mandatory, the risk of an uncontrolled gybe, if it slipped for a moment, a major concern. In 30 knot gusts something would be bound to break. I considered dropping the main; but standing on deck in those seas on my own; even harnessed! No way! I prefer to have the power on tap anyway, and bear away if necessary. And you keep, of course, the option to ‘heave to’ if things get really grim. Eventually, and after what seemed a lifetime, at 1:44 in the morning I picked up ‘Old Harry’ through the mist and rounded it into Studland Bay, at the very limit of my endurance. my arms aching from the strain of so many hours at the helm. I hadn’t eaten for 24 hours, just two cans of Coke.

Portland Bill is a scary old place at 11pm in a strong westerly with an AWS of 22 knots and gusts over 30 knots in a little Crabber 24! Visibility poor too, with only the occasional glimmer of a lighthouse or lit buoy for reassurance. I had opted to keep a good five miles offshore, rather than the inshore route and was thankful that I had. Thank you Raymarine Plotter, it’s so reassuring to see your little icon progress slowly across the chart leaving a dotted crumb line behind as testimony to your progress!

I radioed Portland Coastguard to say I had arrived, the duty officer sounded nearly as relieved as I must have done. I had radioed in twice earlier to say I was overdue, giving a new ETA each time.

Studland Bay was empty except for a huge French ketch on a visitor’s buoy, the wind blowing at 14 to 20 knots from the west made for a lumpy night even in this traditionally sheltered spot. To add to my discomfort, I eventually laid out 9 fathoms of chain on the seabed before she would hold! Not a restful night with three interruptions as the anchor alarm sounded, forcing me to dash out into the wind to take stock in the ‘all together’ to let out more chain. With just 3.4 meters of water under the keel and under a metre tidal range, I concluded I must have dropped the hook on a patch of weed. The next morning when I retrieved it, I was proved right; rotten luck. You may wonder why I didn’t pick up one of the numerous visitors’ buoys, some even lit, but anchoring, I find, is by far the easier option if you’re sailing alone in any sort of breeze.

The next day as sunshine flooded into the cabin, I lay aching all over wondering whether I had enough strength to push on to Chichester. I’d slept fitfully and felt the effects physically of yesterday’s exertions, repeated cramps in my forearms woke me twice too, I never seem to drink enough at sea. Provisions I knew were running low. Milk for just one cup of tea only and only a pint of Speckled Hen left!! Desperate times!

Hand cranking a GM20 engine is not much fun first thing in the morning, but I’d forgotten to turn the battery master switch from the ‘both’ setting. Idiot! In my exhausted state, I’d left the fridge on all night too. Pointless as there was little left in it! Both batteries were tired, in any case, after the long passage from Plymouth with navigation lights and instruments on, but the fridge proving to be the final nail.

I’d be very sorry not to have the option of a starting handle on any engine or boat I own in the future. Starting a Yanmar on one cylinder is not easy but with practise achievable, it also gets your blood on the move too! The passage began well, the engine pumping water as it should, breathed life back in the batteries and behaved itself and after 30 minutes motor sailing felt confident there was enough charge in both batteries to start it again later.

Battery switch to ‘one’. Well remembered!

The sail to Hurst Castle was exhilarating. A 14 knot of SW’ly just about perfect; the sun shining. Had summer arrived at last? In the Solent, with ‘imminent’ gale warnings being announced by Solent and Portland Coastguard along with a DSC alarm, the wind increased dramatically, something to due to the geography perhaps?

Dark clouds obscured the sun and I could see heavy squalls over Southampton and the Downs and with them came 27 knot gusts or more, but we were flying, both wind and tide working with us, the Solent empty except for a few hardy souls. Roaring past the forts with a SOG of nine knots the sea around me was white with foam. With every reef possible tied in and a handkerchief of jib and staysail, we reached the entrance to Chichester at 2:32, a fabulously quick passage.

After a brutal barely controlled gybe as huge wave decided to collapse on us rather than lift us, the run into the harbour was both terrifying and exhilarating. One after another either the crests of waves broke over the stern or chose to lift us up making us surf in at unheard of speeds!

The depth alarm adding its strident warning due to sand in suspension confusing it. Accompanied all the time by constant VHF distress traffic which for once kept the usual ‘radio check’ chatter to a minimum; not that many were out, or even contemplating going out! Past Hayling Island sailing club, another gybe, more controlled this time, I had the harbour to myself, not a single boat moored at East Head, just dog walkers who stood and stared as I took down the main and attempted to secure it with ties, only to find I barely had the strength to capture the ballooning sail.

The lock keeper at Chichester sounded surprised when an exhausted voice radioed in for instructions, then to watch a single wind-blown helmsman sail under jib alone to within a hundred metres of the lock before furling it and starting the engine. He looked more surprised when the line he threw down was ignored, the helmsman dashing to switch off the engine before he hung onto the lock timbers and the permanent yellow vertical lines, as if his life depended on it!

So not being thanked, probably came as no surprise to him either.

As the lock gates opened, I started the engine, the exhaust note discernably changed within seconds, the aerated water that had filled the lock had set off the gremlins again, or did ‘Equinox’ know she was home? Exiting the lock and gently motoring up the marina, the alarm trilled, but the calm water was intoxicating. I had, I calculated about two minutes of motoring before I reached my berth. I’d make it in time, just!

As I sat in the cockpit hunched over a mug of black tea contemplating the last two days, wolfing down a slab of chocolate for energy, relief and exhilaration fought for supremacy. I worked out I must have sailed something over 415 miles, as the crow flies, in just over a week, actual miles sailed probably 50 more! Were they my two toughest passages in 50 years of sailing both man and boy? Yes, without a doubt they were, but clearly recall, I was far more frightened on occasions sailing solo around the UK in ‘Equinox’ three years ago for the Prostate Cancer Charity. Back then I lacked the experience. Realising as I did, that I would never have even contemplated doing what I had just done, had I not got those 2500 sea miles under my belt. Then, reminding myself that a few days earlier Sir Robin and Tom Cunliffe had gazed over us as we paraded our gaffers while they lunched, then smiled at the thought that had they been in my shoes, they would have found both legs very tame. Very, very tame indeed!

Time to clear up, the boat’s a mess. 80-odd pumps to empty the bilge! And something, I think coleslaw, smells pretty rank in the fridge. I bin the lot, except for the Speckled Hen, It will keep for another day, another passage, soon I hope!

One good thing, I don’t have to top up the fuel tank, I’ve only used a couple of pints since leaving Chichester!

Simon d’Arcy, Solent Area OGA member

Solo circumnavigation in ‘Equinox’: 2010