Rounding The Bill – Tactics

August 13, 2014 at 12:53 pm

So since buying Duet 3 season’s ago, our big goal has been to work towards getting round Portland Bill, and the notorious Portland Race which I have read is the most dangerous piece of British coastline (though perhaps not as dramatically named as Cape Wrath or The Doom Bar it’s still known as ‘Poor Man’s Cape Horn’).  Even the Trinity House website describes it as a ships graveyard.

It is dangerous because the geography causes an acceleration of tide down each side of Portland Island to the tip, and there the sea bed shelves steeply to just 10 metres on a ledge just off the tip, which causes a tidal race (dangerous waves, eddies and currents), and there is also a big sand bank called The Shambles to avoid.  At all states of tide, and in most conditions there is churning water at some position, and this moves about as the tide changes. The severity of the race is also affected by the weather conditions and also where we are on the Spring/Neap tide calender.  It is not to be underestimated.  Even quite large ships have been known to be dragged into the race and just disappear (presumably from being lifted and then grounded hard in the shallow water in a big sea)

There are potential 2 passage routes round The Bill: The inshore passage and the outside passage, shown in the diagram I stole below.  Both have benefits and disadvantages: The inside passage is a lot shorter, but can only undertaken in good conditions and needs careful timing.  There is a danger of getting caught on one of the many lobster pots laid round Portland.  I also don’t think its for the faint-hearted as you need to pass less than 100m from the shore and potentially between the shore and plainly visible churning white water.  The offshore passage is arguably safer, but to take a route outside The Shambles and then pass at least 5 miles south of The Bill adds at least 15 miles to your passage (and it is recommended that in bad weather you pass at least 10 miles south).  It also needs careful timing as tides run at over 3 knots on Springs.

portland routes

Image courtesy of (great website for reference, but double check against your own expected speeds and a tidal atlas!)

It has always been my intention to take Duet West, as I live in Bristol and it’s easier to run up and down the M5 than hike across to Weymouth on the A37, and also there are more options for destinations when cruising out of, say Plymouth.  So, over the past 2 years I have asked pretty much everyone I’ve ever spoken to on a boat in either Portland or Weymouth, whether they take the inside or outside passage and to be honest there was no real pattern.  I also have had lots of opportunity to go and look at it from the shore in lots of different conditions.  Here is a video I shot back in May:

Ultimately though, no-one has ever been able to fully convince me of the prudence of taking Duet round the inshore passage, and I have never seen conditions on The Bill that do not show at least some element of risk going inshore.  Because Duet is 22 foot long with an outboard motor there is the risk that we would not be able to resist the strong tidal currents be dragged in to the race. Also I would be single handed, so there would only be one pair of eyes to watch for lobster pots.  If we caught one on the prop then we would be immobilised pretty near the shore and all of those associated risks, and again I would be single handed to sort it all out on my own.  Also, and this is probably the biggest deciding factor; there was my own inexperience of both singlehanding, and knowledge of my boat and how she behaves in various conditions. So on balance I did eventually, finally decide that the safest passage for me at that time was always going to be out round the outside. But with a bigger boat, or crew, or even just more experience I might have decided differently.  All depends on the weather though…

However, once round The Bill there is then the not insignificant matter of where to head for.  Traditionally most cruising yachts head straight across Lyme Bay to either Brixham or Dartmouth, which are 40 and 45 miles on after The Bill.  I plan passages for Duet at a speed of 4 knots (which is to be honest a bit optimistic) so to travel 40 miles would take 10 hours. However, the tide changes every 6 hours so some of this will be against a foul tide and extra time needs to be added on for that too! Adding on the time to get round the Bill I reckoned that it would take at least 18 hours to get from the mooring in Portland Harbour to Brixham, which is a fairly significant passage singlehanded (and without any means of self-steering!).  Remember also, that the furthest I’d ever been was Poole, in good weather, and that Portland to Brixham is as far as, and at least equivalent to, a channel crossing.

I discounted Dartmouth as a destination as a little care is needed with times of arrival due to the river flood and it looks rocky and narrow.  Brixham is an all weather fishing port, and also its 5 miles less (and I’ve been there before!)

But then, whilst waiting to buy some petrol at Portland Marina, I overheard 2 chaps discussing the passage (yes it’s avery popular topic of conversation round those parts!) and one guy said he always goes to Bridport, which I had never considered as it has only relatively recently become a viable stop off for yachts after the new breakwater was built in 2005.  Turns out that Bridport is only 16.5 miles from The Bill so reduces the passage by 23.5 miles (which at 4 knots is nearly 6 hours). The only consideration is the depth, but as Duet only draws 1.1m (3’9″) this was not really an issue, and speaking to the Harbour Master it seems that most yachts can be accommodated on Neaps, it is just getting towards Springs that care needs to be taken. Always best to call ahead and check though.

So Portland to Bridport, round the outside it was to be… And then Bridport to Brixham is a straight leg of 30 miles on across the bay.  Sorted.