If you tell someone you have sailed a boat back from Portugal to the UK, they are usually gratifyingly impressed. If, however, you are waxing lyrical about a torrid 25-mile sail from Studland Bay to Weymouth, or any other section of the British coastline, you are likely to get a less awed reaction.
And yet, these short traverses of British coastal waters are often far more challenging and fraught with peril than anything you are likely to encounter during most open ocean cruises. The only difference being, if you do get in trouble off the coast of the UK, you are within reaching distance of help – this is more problematic when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest land.
The British Isles present some of the most testing and rewarding sailing conditions in the world.
On our voyage back from Portugal, Pete and I had to carefully monitor the weather and resulting sea conditions when planning our passage route and timings, looking for weather windows that would ensure safe conditions for long enough for us to reach our destination, along a stretch of coast with few safe havens.
In the UK, you have a major additional consideration, the tide.
The power of the tide in the UK cannot be overstated. The Bristol Channel has the second highest tidal range in the world – reaching more than 12 metres – exceeded only by the Bay of Fundy in Canada.
At springs the tide can often run at more than five knots – that’s five nautical miles per hour in normal parlance. The fastest tidal races in the UK can, horrifyingly, reach more than 10 knots. When you consider the average sailing speed of a 43-ft yacht like N’Tiana is six knots, this can present a problem depending on your intended direction.
The tide can be your best friend or greatest foe. It can whisk you to your destination or sweep you backwards.
When the wind is blowing in the opposite direction to the tide, it can kick up nasty choppy seas. When the tide is too low there are many small harbours and river inlets that become impassable or inaccessible and poorly timed arrivals are forced to bob about waiting for the water to rise. But woe betide the poor fool who anchors or moors up at high tide without allowing for the drop and returns to find their yacht stuck on the mud for hours.
‘Time and tide wait for no man,’ as the old saying goes, so it’s best to plan ahead, and leave on time.
Then you have the British coast itself to factor in. In the west, a rocky, irregular coastline of sharp jutting points and islands, studded with hazards hidden just below the waterline. In the east, a shallow sea of shifting sandbanks with few places a yacht can safely reach the shore.
Sailing in Britain puts your pilotage skills to the test.
By choosing to sail east to west along the south coast, Pete and I were also choosing to travel against the prevailing south westerly wind. We accepted this would mean a lot of close hauled sailing. What we had forgotten is just how bloody tiring that is.
Getting to Studland Bay had been a strenuous five-hour sail, tacking into a force six breeze, which woke up every muscle in my upper body with a loud unsympathetic alarm call.
Pete and I sailed out of Studland Bay just before midday the next morning in order to reach the tidal race off St Alban’s Head while the tide was still relatively slack, having just started to ebb. We passed Old Harry Rocks, which marks the end of the band of chalk which once joined up with the Needles on the Isle of Wight before the sea finally broke through, severing the Island from the mainland for good – much I suspect to the Islanders’ relief. Old Harry Rocks also marks the official start of the Jurassic Coast – a breath-taking stretch which extends 95 miles all the way to Exmouth in East Devon, named after the period during which most of its dramatic rocks, now being attacked by the sea, were laid down. Tacking into 20 knots of wind with the tide against us made it slow progress as we passed Swanage and it took us a solid three hours before we were passing the race by which time my arms were once again putting up a violent rebellion against doing any more winching.
In three hours of sailing along the English coast, I felt more physically exhausted than in the whole length of our sail from southern Portugal to the UK. Ah, so good to be home.
But once round the point, with the ebb tide behind us, we flew past the military firing range, past Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door and across Weymouth Bay. Sadly we were unable to admire this famously beautiful bit of coast as by late afternoon the thick grey cloud had enveloped us, so we had no evidence of land at all until we were about 800 metres off when the lights of Portland harbour began to shine through the murk. We were conveniently placed just inside the sheltered harbour entrance in Weymouth and immediately greeted by ear-splitting cheers, shouts and chanting which a cursory investigation revealed was related to England’s world cup match against, someone, and not to our arrival.
A big screen had been erected on the cobbled street on the harbourside and I struggle to believe the town of Weymouth has experienced anything approaching that level of excitement since, well, the last World Cup. It was a relief to all the boats moored up along the harbour wall that England won that night.
I love Weymouth. It has that uniquely British seaside blend of quaint prettiness and cheap gaudy seediness.
The Old Harbour is a treat with its colourful rickety-rack old houses clustered along the waterfront’s uneven cobbled roads. It is alive with noisy drinking haunts, fish and chip shops, overweight tourists, brazen seagulls and smelly fishing boats craning their catch onto the dockside.
The other side of the town centre is Weymouth beach, a huge curving sweep of sand, which slopes gently into the water perfect for sandcastle building, swimming or flolicking in the shallows.
Bordered by a grand Victorian promenade that makes one want to go reaching for a parasol, Weymouth beach exemplifies the faded grandeur and tacky charm of the British seaside. There are donkey rides, beach huts, crazy golf, pedalos for rent, fish and chip and ice cream stalls and a multitude of tea rooms.
Like most resort towns, in the right weather it has that lovely feel of a place where people have come to enjoy themselves. By midday on Tuesday, the harbour was awash with people soaking up the sunshine while guiltlessly enjoying drinks outside the many pubs.
But Weymouth also has elements of a film set, step back from the harbour or beach front and the evidence of dirt and deprivation are immediately more apparent. It is not a place of affluence and elegance.
After arriving, having not eaten since a late breakfast, we beelined through the yelling red faced football crowds for one of Weymouth’s best fish and chip shops, the Marlboro Restaurant. It seemed rude not to. Restaurant seems a grand title for what is essentially a proper old no-frills family-run ‘caff’. It is a total delight, with charming staff serving up deliciously fresh fish in the lightest of batters, thick juicy chips and homemade mushy peas. Pete proclaimed it the best fish and chips he had ever eaten.
After a day of work, boat repairs and shopping, we were up at an anti-social 2.30am on Wednesday morning, to time our rounding of the next notorious tidal race off Portland Bill before we crossed Lime Bay to reach Devon.
By 4am it was already light – the joys of mid-summer – and we were flying along under full sail towards our next destination, Exmouth.