Making passage.

This is a follow-on post from ‘whats it like’ and ‘solo offshore’ and once again is mainly aimed at the visitors here who have little idea  but some curiosity, about a life at sea.  In the first post mentioned above i used several video clips to highlight a few aspects of the big-boat and professional ocean racing circuit and then in my solo offshore post i gave a first flavour of setting up a small long distance cruising boat : now if you will with the hard work of getting the boat outfitted all done we can throw the lines off and actually go somewhere.  This post though comes back a step from the high-end ocean racing stuff and is much more about the kind of passages i make now.

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The most recent longer passage that i have made single-handed was my cross channel trip from Plymouth over to Roscoff and that is only a straight line distance of 110 miles or so but it was long enough in a small boat to be useful here as an example.  Do remember that a small sailing boat at best makes about ‘jogging/running  speed so something that would be a couple of hours drive can be 24 hours or more of wet and cold work.        The way that last trip came about was due to some problems that would have stopped us making our usual holiday trip, mainly a car problem, so having watched the weather pattern for several days i realised that i had a suitable window to get my boat over to Roscoff and then for me to get home for work on the ferry.  What i was looking for was quite light weather and ideally a wind direction that would give me a downwind passage : for the little liberty that should give me if not the best passage then at least not a boisterous one such as the one i had this year to escape Plymouth.   Let me talk you through some basic passage making then :

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Passage planning : i am pretty old fashioned when it comes to this in that i like to get a small scale chart out, in this case the Imray chart of the western approaches and draw a line between the 2 points and see whats there : in this case what is there is the English channel almost at its widest and with the significant problem being the crossing of the 2 shipping lanes that run east-west about halfway across.  Knowing the distance to run , wanting to cross the shipping lanes in daylight but to then be approaching the French coast at night (its eaasier) by working with an approximate sailing speed for the expected conditions i could then play around with some timings that would achieve both. From there i only need to project back a bit and i have the ideal time slot to leave Plymouth : in that example the ideal departure  would be around 0400.  As it happens i was already in position at my departure point ie the Cawsand anchorage the previous afternoon and got my head down for a sleep so when i woke up and went topside for a look around at midnight i just decided to go right then and give myself 4 hours in hand : with a clear sky and a gentle northerly breeze it seemed rude not to and i don’t think i would have got back to sleep easily. While at this stage i should mention that the physical passage preparation is already done in that i had at least 2 weeks of water and long term food aboard and had done a fresh food shop just the previous day.  I wasn’t worried about the weather as i could see a 3 day forecast which wasn’t changing and didn’t need to start any tidal vector planning until much further into the passage.

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Departure : at just after midnight i stripped the sail covers off and hoisted the mizzen to bring the boat head to wind, went forward and pulled up the anchor and then went aft again where i hoisted the main  released the mizzen and allowed the boat to come around downwind .  I could see from the outset that it would be a slow downwind passage as according to the log my boatspeed was only around 3 knots…..tempting for many bigger boats just to motor but thats not my game.  I think i steered by hand to clear the point and get out beyond the breakwater, after that i rigged a simple tiller-tamer and tweaked that until i could get the boat running for a few minutes at a time and that allowed me to reach into the cabin and get the kettle on.  With my previous boat i would now have set the wind-vane and that would have done all the steering from that point on but i don’t have that system aboard the liberty (can’t afford it) and neither do i have a tillerpilot as yet so i was going to have to do the best i could with boat and sail trim and a cheap length of line to keep the tiller in place.  What i did do soon after departure was play around with finding the best point for balance and speed downwind and down my best track : i take from my racing days the principles of best speed down track and and navigationally trying to find what the best track is ….its not always a straight line !.   I must add that the liberty doesn’t track as well as my long keeled Frances and the combination of channel swell and light wind meant that at times i had to almost continually adjust the tiller line and i spent a lot of time messing around with the centreboard position, messed around with reefing the mizzen and even moving weight around.

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Rythym and routine : i have a time based passage routine , every 15 minutes i stop whatever i am doing and do a ‘360’ look around the horizon, then i check course, check sail trim and relax again.  Every hour i make a log entry and usually have a drink : water one hour and a hot drink with a snack on the second hour.  Usually on the second hour i will mark the chart with my position which after a few entries will show me the passage trend for that tidal portion. I tend to do the tidal calculations and vectors on each tidal cycle ie 6 hours and make major course adjustments then unless i am closing in on a waypoint.  I also do the other work of navigation at the same time, in this case setting the GPS waypoints and marking up notes for example the light signatures that i would need later on.  I try and eat a larger meal every 6 to 8 hours, in this passage i did get a bit fuzzy and mildly queazy from the awkward channel swell that was running across my track, that did get really tiring later on.  Jumping ahead a bit i found that i was arriving at the first shipping lane well ahead of time and not just the 4 hours that i had in hand but that i was obviously making much better speed than i expected, i hand steered and kept a continous watch while i dodged ships for an hour and then went back into routine before i met the second lane.  Being ahead gave me an advantage but it also meant that i would be entering an unknown port at night so sometime during the evening of the first day once i was clear of the shipping lanes and had seen the ferry’s go clear i had dinner and then hove-to under mizzen and got my head down for 3 hours.  I didn’t get proper sleep but relaxed and dozed enough to feel better : dark when i went back on deck and i had the first major lighthouse in view (the light on the Isle de Batz).  I dressed for the night, spent some time working out the best arrival vector so that i would make my ladfall uptide of my intended point and then just mainly steered and kept watch through the short night.

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Landfall : approaching a steep-to coast that is well lit at night is a surprisingly good idea and if timed right can be then completed by getting into port at first light, i did just that slipping past the Batz channel markers, through the harbour and into the marina.  I didn’t really want to use the marina but with having to leave the boat in Roscoff for 2 weeks i didn’t have much choice and the marina is ok…just very expensive but then its only a 10 minute walk to the Ferry.  One of the greater problems approaching the French coast is that the tides run strongly along the coast and its all too easy to end up down-tide of where you want to be or be pushed out of a channel by a strong cross tide, this happened to me when entering L.Aber-Wrach on my other solo passage and with a tired head on 40 hours into a passage had me backing off a mark for a while to work out exactly where i was.   I am a great believer in the method of heaving-to when unsure but the strong tides on the corner of Brittanny can cause a worse situation than working it out and getting into shelter : on that occasion it just took a bit of thinking, half an hours motoring and i had the anchor down and tumbled into my bunk.   As many will know, making a channel passage can be a lot harder technically than a long ocean passage where there are a lot less things to bump into and usually its possible to get into a sleep routine which is next to impossible in the channel.

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