Last August I set off to sail around Wales in a small catamaran for charity, and called the expedition ‘cat around the dragon’. The expedition lasted four days. Team 109 from Portishead RNLI are planning to cycle from Portishead to the RNLI headquarters in Poole. How are these two connected? Well, funny you should ask that.
The departure point was Thornbury sailing club, who had kindly let me use their facilities for the launch. I’d gone down the previous day and assembled the boat so that on the Saturday morning I could be dropped off with the kit, load the boat and launch a couple of hours before the high spring tide that was due around noon. The plan was that the rising tide would work against me initially, but flush me out later in the passage as I rounded Lavernock point and headed for the destination of Barry Harbour. We arrived at the sailing club late and loading the boat to a state that I felt happy with also took longer. I launched two hours after high tide, literally shin-deep in mud shoving the boat off the end of the slipway. Ten minutes later, and I wouldn’t have been able to launch at all. Reaching Barry was now a challenge, and heading into the prevailing south-westerly wind meant tacking all the way.
Progress, at least at first, was good. The boat handled well, and the GPS reassured me with speeds of between 7 and 9 knots. The compass told me the direction of my tacks were close to due west and due south. That was to cause me problems later. I passed under the old Severn bridge, and I now had the English coast on one side of the estuary only. Wales was to starboard. The voyage had officially begun. Eddies in the current slewed the boat from side to side as I approached the second Severn bridge, but strong corrections on the tiller kept me on course. The tide has fallen and there were sandbanks to both sides as I emerged from under the centre span.
The Welsh grounds is a huge sandbank that runs from the second Severn crossing for a number of miles south-west. I was aiming for a buoy called the Welsh hook that marked the edge of the sandbank where it turned west, but the GPS showed me there were still a few miles to go. Once I reached it I could turn and head towards the Welsh side of the estuary. The wind had decreased and the falling tide had slowed in anticipation of the turn in an hour or so. I’d marked the buoy as a waypoint in the GPS and monitored the distance left to go. About three-quarters of the way to Welsh Hook the distance was barely changing. I would make reasonable headway on the southerly tack, but on the westerly tack the tide pushed me back northwards and I lost most of the distance I’d just covered.
The alternative passage plan was simply to make landfall where possible overnight. The catamaran would float in half a metre of water, could easily take the ground (or anchor off), and despite it’s small size, was self-sufficient for three or four days. I would not be able to make the Welsh coast so I tacked, eased off the wind slightly, and sailed south-east looking for a likely spot for the night. I could see Clevedon pier in the distance and the curve of a shore behind. Choice made.
The wind was still dropping and the tide was against me. Sunset was less than an hour and a half away. The pier was getting closer. And then it wasn’t. I checked the GPS to confirm, and unclipped the paddle. The pier was less than a hundred metres away. I started paddling. The pier was getting closer. And then it wasn’t. So long Clevedon. I stowed the paddle and turned north, letting the tide help rather than hinder me as I looked for somewhere to land. The wind had now died completely so I started paddling again, this time with the tide. It was getting dark.
Then a call came on the radio from Portishead coastguard for “unknown white catamaran” and we had a brief chat about my intentions, before asking if I would like the lifeboat to assist me. I was already a member of the RNLI, and I’d joked before the trip that I’d be mortified if I had to call them out, the aim of the trip to be on the right side of the dividing line between adventure and stupidity. Another brief chat with the coastguard and I agreed that Portishead lifeboat would be called out.
I furled the sails and rigged a bridle for the inevitable tow, and as the light was fading fast I retrieved my dive torch and strobe from the locker (the legal requirement for lighting a sailboat of this size is to shine a torch on the sails). I could see the lights of large commercial ships leaving Avonmouth and heading seawards and clipped the strobe onto the forestay. I used the paddle to keep reasonably close to the shore but not too close.
The lifeboat arrived and checked I was OK. We had a discussion about where to take me since they (understandably) assumed I was day-sailing and had a fixed destination to return to. I explained about my trip and we decided Portishead marina was the best choice. A little while later I was moored to the events pontoon.
The forecast for the second day was a pitiful force two. Sunday would be a shore day. The cat is only 14 feet long and was moored not far from one of the footbridges across the marina so there were a few people who leaned over the railings to talk to me. I was having a lovely chat to a woman called Caroline and her daughter about the trip and mentioned that I’d been towed in the day before. “I know,” she said, “I was in the crew.”
Day three and the forecast was “westerly/south westerly three or four, decreasing two; north-westerly four or five later”. High tide was just after noon. A lock separates the marina from the channel and, slot booked, I paddled in, trailing the larger vessels that dwarfed me. A woman caught my lines and I moored to the pontoon as the lock levels became equal with the channel outside. I clipped my lifeline onto the boat: fall overboard sailing solo and even in a drysuit you have a very real, and potentially lethal, problem. I set two waypoints in the GPS: Welsh Hook, and South Cardiff. Once I reached the second I could follow the coast, turning the corner at Lavernock Point and finally head along the south Wales coast. The destination was to come ashore at Sully Island, or failing that find a suitable landing point before Lavernock point.
This was a good days sailing. Sun shining, I pass Welsh Hook. The hulls cut through the swell, rocking as the peak first passed under the port hull and then starboard. I pass South Cardiff and turn to follow the coast. I spot a pier and just beyond, two boat ramps. I pass Lavernock point and turn west. The wind is coming strongly from the west and the sea state is a lot lumpier now that the land is not shielding me. I’d assessed Sully Island as a possible stop before the trip and knew that there were many boulders there. Sully Island is only an island at low tide and unsure of how much shelter from the weather I would get I turned back towards the pier and boat ramps.
My timing was unfortunate, arriving between the pier and the ramps fifteen minutes before low tide. My normal launching trolley hadn’t been suitable for the trip and I’d not been happy with the portable replacement I’d made so I’d left it behind. So now I would have to walk the boat up the beach as the tide rose, but at least those extra fifteen minutes were just enough to make a brew and pack the stove away before the boat refloated.
The two boat ramps belonged to Penarth RNLI, who were conducting a training session based on the reasoning that they might as well be at the station because it was Bank Holiday Monday, and a callout was very likely. I wandered over and explaining what I was doing and asked if I could beach the boat between their two ramps for the night. A little while later one of the volunteers came down the beach with a mug of tea and a Mars bar, which was very welcome. The lifeboat went out to a yacht that was aground on a sandbank near Flatholm to standby should it was needed as the rising tide lifted the yacht off. Back the lifeboat came and was recovered to the station. A little while later the crew come down the beach again. “Seeing as we’re already here” they said, and carried the boat up to the high water mark. This gave me a couple of hours to eat and sort out equipment before bedding down for the night between the hulls as the tide dropped.
Day four. The destination was Porthcawl, 22 nautical miles away. The wind was westerly, which again meant tacking all the way. Changing the batteries on the GPS and a spring from the battery compartment pinged off into the sand. I couldn’t find it. There was a GPS built into the radio but I’d have to dig into the manual to set it up. I checked over the boat and saw bare wood where there shouldn’t be any. There was a block on the upper inner surface of the hull that the cross beam fitted into. It had sheared off and the hull had moved inwards.
The hulls are pulled inwards by the tension on the rigging. The only thing stopping it would be the 4mm rope lashing on the outer end of the beam. The entire tension of the rig through three turns of 4mm rope. Losing the rig overboard would be a very real possibility in rough water and I’d been warned of the overfalls around Nash Point. I sat on the hull with my head in my hands. The voyage was over: the boat was no longer seaworthy.
Would I have succeeded without the beam support shearing? Unlikely. I camped on the Llyn peninsula around the time I would have been passing there with the boat. The wind was blowing the tent virtually flat and the breaking waves left a wide, wild foamy border to the lee shore. It was not the only storm that week, and the weather between storms could also be described as ‘challenging’.
Will I try again? Yes, but perhaps in two or three segments rather than try to do it in a single trip, and after ironing out any other issues with the boat with weekend trips this year.
Safety equipment carried:
Drysuit, lifejacket, lifeline; permanently clipped on when under way.
Standard Horizon HX870E handheld VHF with DSC and built-in GPS.
Imray 2600 and 2700 series charts; dividers and portland plotter.
Steering compass and handheld compass.
Crewsaver coastal flare pack.