No……not a Covid post !
Personal factors in sailing small boats.
This post will be the last one in my current series about the problems and risks of going to sea in small sailing boats and in this one i’m going to look at ‘human factors’ and in this case from my personal perspective of what goes wrong with me at sea. I’ll come back to the subject in the spring next year (20220 because by then i should have a lot of the ‘safety features’ of the boat either built or planned ; and by safety features i mean primary ones such as having bilge pumps, a big rig, alternative power and shelter. As is my way in starting series – writing a sea story , i’ll finish this series with one as well so…….
Something dark-thirty, one early spring day in 2019 then.
Early in the season in 2019, early enough that most of the moorings were still empty and most boat owners were only just beginning to think about their spring refits i was already at sea having kept my Hunter Liberty in a mud berth over the winter and then done a few days of easy sailing along the south west coast from the Tamar to Fowey stopping off and anchoring in Whitsand Bay and Lantic bay.
Early one morning in the spring of 2019 then, i threw off the line from the mooring in the western end of Fowey harbor and motored the short distance to the entrance under my tillerpilot while i did everything else at once ; took off sail covers, hoisted main and mizzen, generally stowed and tidied for sea and of course put the kettle on. At the entrance i made a little bit of sea room off the high cliffs and then pointed the boat generally south as that’s where La France is on the map ; to be honest it didn’t matter which side of south i was on because the strong spring tides would be sluicing me up and down the channel and i’d be quite happy with making my landfall as far east as Roscoff or west at L.Aber-Wrach.
I noted that morning that i had the predicted wind which was light and just east of north giving me ideal wind for the Liberty , giving us both an easy broad reach although over a slightly lump swell running up the channel – not onerous but enough to make frying a bacon butty a slightly precarious operation.
The first half of the passage went well – sometimes motoring to keep the speed up but mostly light downwind work trying to find the best angles….even a bit of downwind tacking to find the best speed over the ground. I got into my usual solo offshore watch routine as well which revolves around a stand up/look around the horizon for a few minutes every 20 minutes and then get on with everything else ; everything else including having a warm drink every hour and spending as much time as possible sitting below with my sleeping bag over my legs. I crossed both of the separation zone lanes in light traffic, only having to jink around the stern of a container carrier that was going slower than i thought. In fact, it looked like this was going to be an easy and straightforward, if somewhat slow, channel crossing and that my landfall would be during daylight the next morning.
I won’t say ‘and then it all went wrong’ but it did change and become a lot more uncomfortable, although faster, when the wind went south of east and breezed up enough for me to put the first reef in. The problem with that was that the flooding tide started to pick up , and it was a big spring one , running hard against the new wind from the east : a classic wind against tide situation in the channel. Although significantly faster it became horribly uncomfortable with the boat rockin and rollin, slipping and sliding in every plane all at once and doing all of that on a short cycle. I spent a lot of time standing in the companionway because that’s the only place i could stand being and had to change from heavy fleece to full foulies to deal with the frequent spray. About an hour into that and i knew that i was going to be violently seasick but hoped that one good ‘chuck’ would clear my head – it didn’t and instead i had hours and hours of dry heaves ; horribly uncomfortable and with it i started to feel increasingly cold .
That time of year it’s short days and long cold nights ; the sun set and the channel went from a dark green to a steel grey and the temperature dropped like a stone in the now fresh south-easterly ; the wind having gone so far forward that a hard beat into Roscoff was no longer and option and i had to reach off a bit and aim for the entrance to the Chanel de Four instead and make for L.Aber-Wrach instead. It was a horrible cold night and i was just getting colder so at one point, after a long retching session, i stripped off inside the cabin and changed from ‘normal’ clothes into a heavy base layer wool top, light wool sweater, heavy windproof fleece and oilskins as and when i needed them….our new course being a little less spray laden. I tried to keep up a routine of staying below with my back against the lee berth and my heavy sleeping bag pulled up to my chin but the episodes of retching got worse so i spent more time standing in the companionway with my head in the open air…..just as well because i thought i picked up the lights of one ship behind a wave, then another and soon there were some dozen or so ships in the inshore channel either making for or coming out of the Chanel de Four.
Somehow i also managed to make a navigational mistake and it was only several days later that i was able to track it back to when i was inputting new waypoints into the boat’s GPS unit. I won’t go into a lot of detail here except that i’d misread the scale on the chart i was using and simply put in the wrong numbers – i discovered the error when i wasn’t picking up lights when i should have done and my error put me further north and therefore further away from my intended landfall than i first thought. That i was further away and thus would be spending at least another cold hour at sea didn’t exactly cheer me up and neither did trying to input new numbers from my waypoint directory while my stomach was still trying to heave at the same time….oh and doing that while i was also tracking the movement of some dozen ships…..all good clean offshore sailors ‘fun’ !.
Of course it all ended – i got a bit of a tidal push past the high lighthouse of La Vierge and an hour later turned the corner at the Libenter shoal buoy and turned up into the Aber Wrach estuary shortly before a cold and grey dawn. I know my way up the estuary well enough – past the many rocks and shoals well marked and even past the outer anchorages that i used on my first trip there ; instead of stopping there i motored straight upstream and found an unused mooring buoy in the kink of the river about a mile east of the mole and marina. My main reason for doing that was that a big part of my discomfort had been the result of a strong westerly Atlantic swell and there was still some of that in the Chenal de Four and the outer part of the Wrach estuary – i wanted to be just far enough into the river that the rocks, shoals and shallows now to my west would all damp down the swell.
I remember that i took the cap off the chimney port, fitted the chimney and lit the charcoal stove before setting my little kettle in the fid rail over the stove while i moved around a bit putting on sail covers and having a post passage tidy. I got a warm and sweet coffee to stay down first and then had some solid food….fruit loaf if i remember correctly….before stripping off my outer layers in the now warm cabin and stretching out on the bunk with my sleeping bag thrown over me. As with other solo voyages iv’e done i slept very heavily for just a couple of hours and then got up again to check the mooring, do a bit more tidying up, have another drink and something to eat before sleeping again.
As i remember it i stayed on that mooring for a couple of nights – at least until i stopped feeling so beaten up and some time during my post passage rest i worked out what my navigational error was ; i’ll come back to that later on.
Just to recap then…..
Early in this series i talked about being prepared for ‘normal’ conditions and events rather than being focused on extreme storms and such like so in this passage i put to sea in light weather and only ran into conditions that were a bit difficult ; i estimate that the maximum wind speed was only about 18-20 kn for a while but the sea state was made difficult due to a strong wind against tide compounded by a lumpy westerly swell. There’s nothing exceptional about any of that in the English channel and later on in my cruising that year i spoke with other sailors who’d been well pleased to get out of that swell. My own thoughts about getting a bit of a kicking in a small and light boat not intended for offshore sailing was that i’d got accidentally cold and sick and then made some simple errors which i managed to correct but that i hadn’t managed myself particularly well – iv’e done longer solo passages and harder ones but never ended up feeling so beat up and achingly tired.
On a previous passage to the same place a few years before, in fact my first time ever into L.Aber-Wrach , i had a longer passage of nearly 40 hours and had to navigate the entrance when i was so tired that i could barely concentrate and i nearly ended up backtracking down the Malouine channel until i heard softly breaking waves just ahead. That one was probably the most tired iv’e ever been on a boat when iv’e been alone and going into somewhere new and at night : as i think about it i actually like making a landfall at night especially on the French coast where the lighthouses are superb…..but i do then prefer a daylight entrance . One of the main differences between the 2 passages was that the earlier one was done in light weather all the way so i was able to eat and rest as normal but that i also spent what could have been 2 cold nights comfortably by sitting on a cushion set on the engine box and with my head and body all under a sprayhood. I was simply too tired and fuzzy at the end of the passage to work out what lights were which channel and which where background.
In my first post of this series i stressed the importance of normally setting up for the range of conditions that the boat will deal with so as a second major point we should also accept that ‘normal conditions’ are also those that the sailor drives his or her boat in…..mine being occasionally offshore on 100 mile passages and that i sail mostly solo : that brings with it a whole shed load of personal factors such as in my short sea story today. I get cold very easily unless i manage myself well and tiredness at the end of a difficult passage is not the time to find out that my navigational preparation is poor ; tired, cold and sick at landfall is not the time to try and focus on a paper chart or a channel and lights that don’t add up.
Iv’e been lucky to do things in the outdoors other than sailing which have given me a sideways look at problems such as hypothermia and working while extremely tired and cold in difficult conditions with no input of food….one course with Ray Mears comes to mind and i took the opportunity to discuss the hypothermia problem with him. Recognizing which personal factors are a problem is half the battle of solving them or working within their limitations – on the way home at the end of the season for example i had an equally long passage but far less problems partially because i managed myself better, even down to the micro detail of changing into ‘offshore’ base layers early on .
With the Pathfinder build now well under way i’m starting to think about the passages and voyages i might do with her….at the moment i think of her as Monet….looks good at 20 feet but is a mess close up !. The hull is mostly built and for the first time this week i sat on one of the cockpit seats and thought about managing a 100 mile coastal or offshore passage and thus how to stay warm, make food and drinks, do my navigation and watchkeeping etc. I’m sure now that i want to include either a hard cuddy or structural canopy cum sprayhood for shelter and i’m pleased to say that the single larger bunk space would allow for one person to be sleeping comfortably while the other one sailed the boat….if there was a good shelter that is. As iv’e said before i’m now designing the ‘safety features’ of the boat and those are not the secondary safety features that most sailors think about first – liferafts, first aid kits and massed electronics, but rather that the boat sails well and fast in all ‘normal’ conditions, that i can anchor her , beach her when i need to and that she will look after me rather than tiring me out on passage.