Rounding The Bill – In Practice

August 13, 2014 at 5:44 pm

This was the forecast on the morning of the 30th of July, the morning that I finally felt ready for The Bill.

North 3 or 4 backing West 4 or 5, veering NW 3 or 4 later.
Smooth or Slight.
Fair.
Good

I was coming to the conclusion that the sea state is more of a deciding factor for 22 foot Duet, rather than wind speed, and we’d been out in a f5 a couple of times so I was confident that well reefed she’d behave.  I had already decided that I would take the outside passage and planned waypoints to take me to The East Shambles buoy and then a position 6 miles South of Portland Bill which would hopefully keep me well clear of any race or overfalls, and the predicted force 5 confirmed my decision more. And we were near a Spring tide.

Looking at the tides, I worked out that I would need to be at the East Shambles buoy just before High Water (HW) Dover in order for me to catch the strong tide that would whoosh me quickly, and safely clear round The Bill.  I calculated that to get there would take 2 hours, so I would need to slip my mooring in Portland 2 hours before HW Dover which was to be 14:00 that day.

My passage plan was to leave at midday and head out to round the East Shambles buoy which is 7 miles from the harbour mouth.  I calculated that there would be half to 1 knot of tide with us so I should arrive at the buoy at 13:30 just in time for the current to turn west at 14:00 (which was HW Dover, remember?).

It would then be 7.5 miles to the next waypoint, set 6 miles south of The Bill.  On this leg I would have a 2-3 knot tide lift which would help me alot. I estimated then that I would reach my offshore waypoint at 15:00 and turn northerly to travel the 20 miles to my Bridport waypoint.  Once I was back in the lee of Portland Island (ie 6 miles North again) the tide would still be with us, but not so westerly and it would gradually weaken to turn against us at 19:00. I estimated arrival at Bridport to be 20:00 (probably at the earliest).  HW Bridport was due to be 21:30 so we would have plenty of water to enter the harbour on a rising tide, and it should still be daylight when we got there.

portland routes

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

I spent the morning quietly preparing myself and the boat.  As there was a f5 in the forecast I put 2 reefs in the main sail and I also gaffer taped the inside of the front hatch (the fastening’s are original and I don’t particularly trust them).  As a precaution I prepared a grab bag with the flares, the handheld VHF, my ships papers and passport, a spare set of thermals, a bottle of water and a bar of chocolate.  Perhaps a little excessive as I would never be more than about 7 miles from the shore, but it all helped emotionally. I also prepared a good packed lunch and made sure my waterproofs were within reach of the companionway and my sailing gloves, the winch handles, the binoculars and the hand-bearing compass all went into a bucket in the cockpit along with a written copy of my passage plan in a waterproof pouch.  Everything else was tidied away securely.

So, at 1215, with a dry mouth, I called the coastguard to log my passage plan half expecting him to tell me not to go (he didn’t, but wished me good passage), and then slipped the mooring in 10 knots of wind (a lovely f3). We were off!

Once clear of the moorings I raised the reefed main and rolled out a full genoa, and was able to pretty much immediately put the engine to neutral, though I didn’t actually switch it off until we cleared the harbour entrance at 12:35.

We had a fabulous sail down to the Shambles buoy, logging well in excess of 5.5 knots (helped of course with the tide).  However the wind was starting to rise, and was from the West already. At 13:30 I logged that the windvane was showing 16kts and I put 3 rolls in the genoa, and then we rounded the Shambles buoy at 13:45 and were unfortunately dead into wind so I rolled away the headsail and put the engine on to motor sail out to the offshore waypoint which was 7.5 miles away. My waterproof went on here too.

The Shambles East Cardinal Buoy

The Shambles East Cardinal Buoy

I was already glad that I’d put 2 reefs in and not settled for the one, and this was pretty much the point of no return as once West of the Shambles buoy, and HW Dover, the tide would turn to run strongly West and it would be very difficult to get back. At about this point, I took this little video:

In hindsight, that must have been still slack as although the wind is picking up the sea state is looking OK isn’t it…

Not long after this, at 14:10, the wind backed more South and I was able to put the headsail back up (with 3 rolls as it was now showing 17kts ) and turn the engine off again. We made good time to the offshore waypoint, logging around 5.5knots over the ground all the way.  However, the wind rose quite a a bit and by the time I reached the offshore waypoint at 15:45 we were seeing a sustained 22kts (f6) and also, as the tide got going westerly the sea state deteriorated and we started to experience the effects of wind over tide (or maybe race?).  As I had the wind on the starboard side I was able to bear away from my waypoint to try to get further off to what I hoped was calmer water (if it was a bit of race).  I know we passed more than 6 miles offshore.  But whatever, Duet coped pretty darn admirably and she was well reefed and we felt in control. I am always surprised by her motion in a sea. Because she’s heavy, and got a fuller keel she does feel like a much bigger boat. There was never any slamming, and she kind of plunges forward and then comes up slowly. It’s all quite controlled.

So after turning North level with, but a little way South of, the offshore the waypoint we turned to now have the sea and wind on the beam and by then were seeing pretty big waves that were breaking on the tops. If I’m honest, my friends, at this point I did briefly attempt to turn back, kinda ‘just to see’ but I was also concerned that the sea would be this big over by Bridport and I wouldn’t be able to get in (and once over there, there is literally nowhere else to go and you’re on a lee shore!).  But by this point the return journey was more intimidating than continuing on.  Turning downwind, we then had 20+kts of wind behind us, as well as a big sea, so our direction was pretty unstable and we risked an accidental gybe (as I couldn’t easily get off the tiller to get the preventer on) or even a broach.  Also, we went from a speed of nearly 6 knots to just 1.8 knots with the tide against us …So with the advice that someone had given me earlier in the week ringing in my ears to ‘push on through it’, I turned back towards Bridport and we did indeed ‘push on through it’.

Now, I’m not very good at judging wave height, and I’ve found it especially hard to judge from Duet’s cockpit where the cockpit sole is pretty much water level, so your head is a bit over 1m above the water and everything looks pretty massive. I also have no pictures so you’ll just have to trust me…

At 17:00 I recorded a position of 50° 26.817’N 02°32.074’W with a speed over the ground of 5.5kts, wind speed of 22 kts and the comment ‘BIG SEA!’. As we had the wind on the beam I had a certain amount of directional freedom and was able to weave in and out of the breaking waves. At one point I misjudged it and looking up I remember being surprised to see this big lump of flying emerald green water leaping over the hatchway to hit me right in the face.  Amazingly, I think it all missed the open hatch! However, my phone, which was in my pocket, has never since shown any sign of life…  It also gave me a mild panic as I didn’t think it was going to drain away, but I managed to tap dance the sheets, reefing lines and main halyard out the way and clear the drains.

I do remember at one point asking myself if I was scared, and deciding quite coolly that I wasn’t. I had my life jacket on, was clipped on, we had 2 reefs in the main, a little scrap of headsail out, they were well trimmed, we were making over 5 knots over the ground, I had my grab bag ready, the forehatch was gaffer taped shut, I’d logged my passage with the coastguard and they knew I was out there and I also had some comfort in that I could see other boats in sight (although they were Eastbound and clearly struggling against the tide to make the next tide gate).  There really wasn’t anything more I could have done to prepare, and we were in control, and making good progress.

Sure enough, as we got into the lee of Portland, and progressed along Chesil Beach the wind slowly began to calm and the sea state definitely calmed down.  By 19:20 the wind had dropped back to 17 knots (only a f5!) and I even managed to eat my sandwiches!

By the time we reached Bridport it was a little after 21:00 and the light was starting to go.  Bridport is a small harbour, with a narrow entrance, with a long breakwater on one side and a beach and cliffs the other.  I was tired and had salt in my eyes and I found I couldn’t easily see the entrance even with binoculars as it all looked like a continuous dark line …so I held off to take the sails down and prepare the boat for mooring.  There was also still a pretty rolly sea breaking scarily on the beach so I didn’t want to get too close.

But there was a Drascombe leisurely tacking backwards and forwards, so with a certain amount of impatience I lingered waiting for him to go in first, and also muttering ‘put the lights on, put the lights on’ under my breath (meaning the harbour lights to go on and show the way).

Eventually, the leading lights went on and I followed the Drascombe in too. And the entrance was not where I thought it might be!

We tied up at 21:30 and I logged off with the coastguard feeling pretty triumphant. I also had to find someone on the quay to borrow their phone to call my shore contact (mum) who also knew I was out there, as my soggy phone would not boot up.  Thank you, again, to you.

Bridport's Outer Harbour

Bridport’s dredged outer harbour. Duet’s in the middle with the entrance behind.

Bridport's Inner Harbour

Bridport’s pretty inner harbour. This dries.

 

 

 

 

 

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 sailingalmanac.com (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.

Going West?

July 28, 2014 at 9:42 pm

“Going West?” said the skipper of the pilot cutter. “Yes”, we answered, and felt like adventurers.  “And you?” He shook his head.  We’d have a head wind, he reminded us, all across the bay.  We knew it, but we had a good ship, too. The west wind still blew.  When we were clear of the harbour we backed the jib and let the boat lie while we hoisted the dinghy on deck, and lashed it.  That done, we let draw, set the foresail and mizzen, and stood away for the Shambles Light.  Our voyage had begun.  We were bound west, to visit a new country beyond the Bill…”

Aubrey de Selincourt wrote this in 1948.

Nothing much changes then, the wind is still on the nose… It’s 65 miles to Brixham, so at 4 knots that’s a bit over 16 hours.  I’m going the outside passage, 6 miles off, as we are on Spring tides and the currents are stronger and the lobster pots on the inner passage will be invisible under water.

My tide is fair to leave at 1130 tomorrow (and yes that’s BST), 2 hours before high water Dover, so I’ll check the weather in the morning. But it’s looking like West or North West f3 or f4, sea state smooth or slight.

So that’s perfect then… Just on the nose.

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