Gone west….look to windward.

Blog time : it’s past mid July 2021 and far too warm under the shelter to get any boat-building work done after about 9 in the morning. What i am getting done is mostly in the workshop while it’s still cool but mainly what i’m doing is digging and sifting bucket loads of dry soil in the garden in preparation for my autumn work. If anything it’s a bit cooler out in the garden in a slight breeze – to be honest though the work is simple and repetitive and doesn’t need much thought ; just needs doing before it rains again and the clay soil goes wet and heavy again. I’m lucky in that i can spend the middle part of the day in the cool of the cottage – the sun won’t hit the back wall until mid afternoon and doesn’t intrude on my writing desk until later on……time to do some writing again i feel.

In this post i’m going to continue my series of posts about my home cruising ground ; the south west coast of the UK from the Lizard in the west to Berry head, Torbay and the Exe river in the east. In this post i’m going to take as my theme the ‘what’s it like’ question to describe the features and nature of this coast – so unlike the central south coast and a whole different world to the much written about east coast. It’s strange isn’t it ?, ask many sailors and non sailors alike where ‘yachting’ happens in the UK and many would cite the Solent and Cowes or Southampton water and the Hamble river as being ‘it’. Well, there may be thousands of yachts there , rank upon rank of dull white plastic in soul-less marina’s but none of it, with a few small exceptions, provides for a quiet or ‘wild’ cruising experience. Anyway i digress…..as usual.

Clear blue water…at anchor off Jennycliff (Plymouth sound)

Historically, the first recognizable cruising ground for the average small boat sailor was the east coast and interestingly very small sailing craft , what we might now call micro-cruisers, really derived from sailing canoe’s in the big tidal estuaries of the Humber, Dee and Mersey. The first real cruising ground for leisure yachtsmen in British waters was really the east coast and the reason for that was mainly because of it’s proximity to London, the then excellent branch line railway network and a growing middle class with a disposable income. Remember that the late Maurice Griffiths did most of his work in London city and considered his sailing an ‘escape’ from a dull and dreary life of office and city. The west country then was regarded as being not only ‘down channel’ by which sailors meant to the west which often meant to windward and well to windward in a steep channel chop too – no surprise that the stiffest test for the racing sailor was the classic Fastnet race which many years gave a hard beat down channel and sometimes all the way to the rock itself.

What’s it ‘like’ then. ?

Well, the south-west coast from the Lizard all the way to Berry head is mostly a bold, steep-to coast with deep water just offshore, deeply cut with bays, several sticky-outy headlands with their strong tides and also deeply cut into by steep sided wooded rivers…..so there !. Most of it, i think, is a granite coastline so the cliffs are ‘well-ard’ as us climbers used to say (i used to climb a lot down on the sea cliffs at Bosigran), and many of the rivers drain the high moorland : Bodmin, Dartmoor and Exmoor. The Tamar for instance , which drains some of the western side of Dartmoor runs not far from my door and through a steep cascade section before it flattens out into a meander through the wooded Tamar valley. One feature that we have to watch out for is the many trees that fall into the rivers high up and get washed down during heavy rain….and it does rain hard here with this side of Dartmoor being one of the wettest places in the country.

For the sailor then this is also a steep-to and exposed coast, often a lee shore because most of our heavy weather comes out of the west and south west. When there’s a big swell in the Atlantic it rolls right up against this shore and into the Bristol channel to the north of us. Here’s a thing…..when i took the photo of my old Liberty at anchor off Jennycliff in Plymouth sound there were waves breaking clean over Plymouth breakwater and when i looked closely a standing wave on the ebb in the western entrance…..combination of a storm out in the Atlantic and a big spring tide. That day i had intended to sail out of the western entrance to the sound and make west for Fowey in a nice light easterly…..i didn’t because it would have been horrible inshore where the deep water swell starts to break as it shelves. One notable feature of leaving many of the deep water ports is that their entrances can be ‘interesting to scary’ in the right/wrong conditions : take Salcombe for instance with it’s bar where the unlucky Dehler DB1 went arse over apex (pitchpoled) over the bar and was totally wrecked.


Shelter ?

For the main part of this post i want to pick up on something that another sailor said – i think it was Dinghy-Cruiser Roger Barnes in one of his video’s but i might be wrong ; my apologies if it wasn’t. The comment was something along the lines of that the French coast was easier and kinder for the small boat sailor because there were more places to put into, and i think the comparison was with the English coast. That might actually be true down to the east beyond Exmouth where it’s a long old slog across Lyme bay and there are similar long stretches which seem to get longer as you go further east beyond Chichester. I’m not sure it’s the case with the west country though which is why when i conceived the idea of a 100 mile race for small boats i set it right here because there are so many places to put ashore so close together. I wrote a whole piece about this but i’ll quickly point out some of the distances between the main rivers and harbours and also ‘what lies between’ some of them : while most yachtsmen will know the usual ports and harbours few will have ever bothered to learn of the smaller harbours and sheltered coves where a boat can anchor out of the wind and wait out a tide.

From the west then, if we consider little Gillan creek and the Helford river as our upwind starting point that pair of rivers offer several miles of mostly sheltered sailing and then it’s only a 5 mile dash across to Pendennis point and shelter in the Fal estuary. The thing to remember just with that short passage is the deep bay between the Lizard and Falmouth is that it is sheltered from the west by the Lizard itself , heavy weather from the south or south east is a different story. In the most common ‘fresh to frightening’ conditions though most boats are only going to experience difficult conditions for half an hour or so as they come out from under the lee of the high ground that protects the Helford river. One feature of the boat that i’m building now is that it is reckoned to get up and plane in a decent breeze downwind…….crack on, as we say ‘down ere’. The opposite story is that the most difficult conditions will be met straight away on leaving the Fal…..going and having a look or ‘poking our nose out’ and deciding if we like the look of things is the common way that many cruising sailors get used to driving their boats upwind in a blow. Poke out and don’t like the look of things – run back into the river ; feeling ok about it and the Helford and it’s shelter is only an hour away .

The Fal estuary and it’s several creeks then offer a sheltered inland cruising ground with good anchorages from any wind direction (as long as the sailor is prepared to ‘shift his berth) and especially for the small boat sailor who can sneak into shallow water and sit his boat on the bottom.

Fal river (Ruan creek)

East vs west.

In his book Sailing Just for Fun the late Charles Stock, and copied by several others since, extolled the features and virtues of the Thames estuary and it’s rivers – one of the useful features being that the sea state in the Thames settles quickly after a gale. It’s true that most of our heavy weather comes from the west and the whole of the Thames estuary buffers the heavy sea state quickly because of the presence of the tides and mud flats effect on wave action. In the west we don’t get any buffering effect , rather we can often get a big swell from Atlantic storms, depressions can hang around for days and a whole lot of the coast here becomes a lee shore some of the time. A few years ago there was a lot of damage on the Plymouth sea front from a strong southerly gale and in the following year i sat at anchor in Jennycliff bay on a nice day, rising and falling in a remnant swell as waves broke heavily over the breakwater.

What we get in return is a big bold and ballsy coast, heavily indented with deep wooded river valleys and surprisingly little heavy industry – a far cry from many of the places once lauded by the late Charles Stock , Maurice Griffts et al. One of my few memories of cruising from the east coast was making my way down the River Orwell and having to find an uncomfortable anchorage between the Harwich and Felixstowe ports – as dreary and industrial a landscape as the outskirts of Birmingham or Sheffield….crossing the Thames estuary and having to work my way around the post industrial seascape of wind turbines and then having to put into 2 more industrial harbours before making out into the bolder waters of the English channel.

Here’s a question to finish today’s musings with : have the east coast and west country developed different designs and shapes in their sailing craft ?…….some thoughts to be developed in the next post i feel.

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