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Lessons learned on a trip from Falmouth to Belfast

by Andrew Laming 14 Apr 18:55 BST
South West Sigma 33 Championships at St Mawes © Graham Pinkney

Andrew Laming has sent in this story about lessons learned from a windy trip across the Bristol Channel. Given the conditions, he wasn't thinking about taking photos, but we have some shots of his yacht at the event they had just competed in before this story begins.

While in lockdown, I've been reading the excellent books on weather and storm sailing by Steve and Linda Dashew, and reflecting on my own experience of bad weather on a trip from Falmouth to Belfast in our Sigma 33, Afrita, a few years ago. The conditions we experienced were benign compared to the stories they recount, but it still taught us a huge amount about boat handling and what to expect when the wind dial is turned up offshore.

Ahead of the trip, the forecast had been exceptionally consistent for almost a week, showing that right on the day we needed to make the passage across the Bristol Channel, there would be strong wind just where we didn't need it, with the lee shore of North Cornwall at our backs. But, due to back-to-back dates between the Irish Nationals up in Bangor, and the South West championships the week before in Falmouth, there wasn't much choice about our departure if we wanted to make it to Northern Ireland in time.

The forecast was right on the edge of my comfort zone for what was going to be a night passage round Land's End. For a week it had shown a low, centred to the north of us, with squeezed isobars between the Welsh and north Cornish coasts, giving GRIB file wind predictions of a force 7.

We decided to set out from Falmouth and get the latest weather as we passed Newlyn with the option to wait it out there if we didn't like what we heard. We slipped our mooring at 5am in Percuil, and motored out across the bay towards the Lizard in the hazy sunshine, with the wind filling in as we went. By the time we rounded the Lizard we were sailing in a building breeze, with darkening clouds, light rain and falling visibility.

As we crossed Mount's Bay thick fog came down while I was off watch, not unusual along this stretch of coast, and as I made tea and monitored the AIS, we sailed past invisible fishing boats towards Wolf Rock. It was round about this time that we had a crew meeting, and decided to put into Newlyn. The sea state was lumpy, visibility closing in considerably, and that, coupled with the marginal forecast made us opt for caution. We turned into the bay for Newlyn, but 30 minutes later, on came the shipping forecast, which gave force 6 for inshore waters. We were much happier with this reduced wind and quickly switched back to our original course and plan. The forecast wind direction would give us a broad reach, so a comfortable point of sail for the conditions.

As we passed the Runnel Stone, the fog lifted to low cloud, and we could see a couple of other yachts set on the same course, out into the Bristol Channel, all well pressed under the low grey clouds. The wind was up into the high 20s, so I reefed down to the third reef early and checked everything over while we still had daylight. I was planning on the basis that we could still get the force 7 of the original forecast.

As darkness fell the wind kept building, and we rolled away a bit more genoa. The boat felt comfortable, with the tiller pilot doing the manual labour. By the time the night closed in the wind was up above 30 knots, and we were blasting along steadily at 6.5 - 7 knots. The third reef pulled the centre of effort very low and the boat felt happy in this configuration, with just under half the genoa pulling us along.

The breeze climbed to a steady 33 knots, then built to 37-39 knots. The sea state was also building and we began to get pooped from time to time. Other waves that came over the side ran along the topsides windows, and cascaded in through the companionway. We had a small canopy that just covered the companionway steps but didn't prevent the water from following this route into the boat. We clearly had more wind than the recent forecast, but we felt in control, and it was thrilling to see the conditions that Beaufort described, at close quarter, with the spray from the bow whipped away as Afrita cut through the swell lines.

The water coming into the boat was our only problem. Sailing two up, I was very reluctant to put in our wooden washboards, because as we stood, the off watch person, laying on the leeward berth, could see the face of the person on watch. This was extremely reassuring for both, and meant a grin of encouragement could be given to whoever was taking the battering outside. The water when it came in from time to time, was hitting the side away from the electronics, so I decided to leave the washboards out and see what happened.

During the early hours the wind settled up around 37-39 knots, at which point the tiller pilot was starting to struggle, so we hand-steered, keeping the boat in the groove that felt comfortable and in control. I was on watch at about 3am, when out of the dark a white mass appeared at the bow, and broke over the boat, sweeping us from bow to stern. I had just enough warning to put my head down, before the water rolled over, filling the cockpit completely.

The thud as the wave hit the bow, we found later, had flexed the stringers enough to burst the lockers off the port side. They are only attached with a few screws on these boats but the flex must have pushed in the side enough to break them free. The wave hit us hard, and I felt at the time that if it had come from the side it would have knocked us down. We laughed, possibly slightly nervously, and pressed on. Off watch got the fun job of bailing ten buckets of water into the sink.

Slowly the wind began to ease down, and by the time it was back to the early 30s it seemed quite gentle by comparison. It's amazing how much difference a few knots makes. As the morning light strengthened we checked things over, and I found three sand eels in the bottom of the cockpit. A bacon sandwich and some breakfast warmed us up, and we scudded on accompanied by some welcome dolphins at the bow.

As the grey morning lengthened we decided to duck into Milford Haven to dry the boat out before pressing on up to Bangor in the evening, as it wasn't much of a detour and the forecast was set to improve considerably. Once locked into the marina, we met the crew of a couple of other boats. One of the crew from a Farr 40, who were on their way to the start of the Round Ireland Race, had an injured man after he was thrown from the chart table during the night and cracked a rib. All felt the sea state had been worse than they would have expected for the wind strength, but it was also noted that the Bristol Channel had that reputation.

We tracked down a greasy spoon, stretched our legs and by 8pm were ready to head back out to catch the first of the fair going tide into the Irish Sea. The rest of the trip up the Irish coast was uneventful.

What did I learn? The main lesson was that we needed washboards that are possible to see through. Water in the boat is not good, I should have put them in. I also now carry a spare set. Washing the cooker in this way probably caused its early demise.

Given our heading and wind direction, the sail configuration was good. But if we'd needed to go to weather I would have needed to switch out the genoa for a storm jib and done that early. As we had such a stable forecast for wind direction and plenty of space to run to leeward once clear of Cornwall, I don't think this was an issue that night.

Why was the wind stronger than forecast? I am trying to upskill and learn more about the weather and from what I've read, the possibility of the isobars getting squeezed here was likely due to the topography of the coast lines so I should have factored that in to what the GRIB files were telling me. The slow moving low to the north may also have squeezed against the high to the south. Also as I later realised, we had only heard the inshore waters forecast which covers just the first 12 miles.

Would I have made the passage if I'd known the true wind speed? No, but then we would have missed out on what was a thrilling night on the water, from which I learnt a lot. It's good to know that you can cope, and that the boat that cut its teeth in the Fastnet storm of '79 is a very capable boat. It's what makes sailing the challenging and rewarding experience that it is.

Andrew recommends the Dashew sailing books, which are free to download:

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