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An Autumn Cruise And Round Britain Race Qualifier

From, Multihulls, July/August 1985

By Mark Orr MOCRA Venture Trophy Winner

You cannot always have your own way in life, if you did, life could become too easy and boring. My modified Strider Class catamaran, Scorpion, designed by Richard Woods and built by Palamos Boatbuild at Plymouth, was strengthened and modified for two specific races, the 1984 Three Peaks Yacht Race and the 1985 Round Britain Race.

The boat was finished in April, but required further modification, thus it stayed in Plymouth until June, when our team for the Three Peaks Race arrived. I work in Munster, West Germany and since my favorite races are held in British waters, I have to face the problem and expense of travelling. After last year’s Three Peaks Race,Scorpion stayed in Plymouth for repairs and more modifications. This left me with the problem of how to get the boat back to Munster at the end of the season. I was unable to take leave until October.

Have you ever found it difficult to get crew when the weather is unpredictable? I ran out of addresses and telephone numbers, and this persuaded my father to join me, for whatever time he could spare from his busy job. He is a retired Naval Officer, holding a Master Mariner’s Ticket, adjusting to life away from the Armed Forces.

When you leave a boat for a couple of months there is much sorting out to do, and Scorpion was no exception. Winches required a spot of WD 40, electrics needed a complete’rethink’ as the mast had been taken down, even the outboard required service, etc. However, a short two days saw the work done and we departed Plymouth under sail. Never trust an outboard! We left on the evening tide in a gentle westerlyF2. I hoped to make Gosport, near Portsmouth (the British Forces have a Joint Service Sailing Centre-JSSC - there) in one leg, a distance of 165nm. If the wind was right I could do it in well under24 hours. .

The winds were forecast as westerly F3-4, however, it looked as if it could become a task to coax Scorpion along fast enough, to make the tidal gates at Bolt Head, near Salcombe, Portland Bill, Anvil Point and The Needles. Fortunately, we had ago spring tide and were sluiced eastwards, making the first gate on the last of the tide, clearing Bolt Head at 22:30. On the tide change the wind died completely, leaving us drifting. Luckily, after a few hours, the westerly set in again, enabling us to make headway against the west-going tide. By breakfast next day, we were making steady progress across Lyme Bay. The weather was so warm that I spent most of the morning helming in shorts. Indian summer had arrived.

My course was as straight a line as possible between Bolt Head and The Needles, meaning I would be close enough to Portland Bill to get a good eyeball fix and also avoid the notorious Race. My dead reckoning (DR) proved accurate and the Bill appeared a 16:00. We were going well despite the light winds, definitely no record-breaking passage, but a pleasant cruise. As dusk arrived, the wind freshened from its westerly F 1-2 to a great one of F3, which enabled us to tack downwind at 9-10 knots.

The beauty of the warm, bright days is often followed by crisp. clear nights which, though very cold, give good visibility and make navigation, easier. On cue The Needles’ light appeared and we passed through Hurst Narrows out into the Solent on the very last of the tide. I was now on home territory. Once again the wind died, leaving us chasing zephyrs along the coast of the Isle of Wight, to avoid the spring tide. By the time we decided to abandon the struggle against the tide. we had reached Gumard Bay, just west of Cowes, where we anchored at 02-00 to wait for it to turn favorable. At 07:00 we set off, again in light winds, and headed across the Solent toward Portsmouth with a good 3-knot tide beneath us.

It was a pleasant sail, enjoyed by both of us. We moored at JSSC at 10: I 5.A slow passage, but I was happy having enjoyed the pleasure of taking Father, my greatest supporter, for a sail on my boat. Once in harbor, Father had to return to work, so it was just Scorpion and I together for the rest of the trip. My first priority was to buy a reliable outboard motor, fortunately Geoff Williamson, a good friend, had advised me well. He also helped me beef up my chart folios. so that when I left Portsmouth that evening I was well prepared for my first, major, single-handed run.

Portsmouth to Brighton is a simple trip, out through the forts that have guarded one of Britain’s major naval harbors since Napoleon’s time, and along the coast to the Owners light buoy and into Brighton’s very ’mod’ marina. I wanted to use the trip to get the feel of this ’single-handed’ sailing business. Aided by my Autohelm 2000 and enormous portions of chili con carne, it proved uneventful until the outboard ran out of fuel in the marina entrance so, up with the sails and sail in. I like Brighton marina, everyone is involved in sailing and consequently friendly and helpful. The marinas night watchman welcomed me at the unearthly hour of 02:00, put my battery on charge and gave me a cup of coffee - that’s service! When I awoke it was Sunday papers, brunch, and away again. My aim was to pop into Dover harbor for some milk and then head across the North Sea.

As I set off, the wind was southwesterly F2 with a forecast of southeasterlyF’3 and fog patches. I soon made Beachy Head under spinnaker and full main, rounding at 16:00, helped by the tide. The weather was still clear and Scorpion and I were the only yacht to see an entrancing sunset form and fade - ah, the pleasures of autumn sailing. On cue Royal Sovereign light took over as my running fix light from Beachy Head, until Dungeness light appeared. Regrettably the wind died and the tide pushed us in towards Dungeness, necessitating several gybes out to sea. As the tide changed, I made better progress and rounded at midnight to face a light northeasterly wind.

The wind was wonderful. It gently picked up on the beat towards Dover. providing very good progress. With excellent visibility I picked point after point off the chart, making Dover Harbor by 03:00. As I was still feeling fresh, had favorable tide and wind, I felt it would be cheating the gods to go into Dover, and I pressed on to Ramsgate. This is a lovely passage through the Goodwin Sands, which in good visibility and weather is a safe short-cut compared with going all the way around the Sands, the only option in poor weather.

The wind remained northeasterly F2, requiring constant tacking up the various channels and the use of clearing lines to avoid the many sandbanks. The joy of shallow draft was again appreciated, cutting comers as the tide changed against me on my last couple of legs to the harbor. I got in at 07:30 and anchored to wait for daylight outside the main channel. No sooner had I moored, than the Harbormaster arrived and asked for £9 mooring fees. I was astonished. this was double the rate for my length because I was on a multihull. I was livid! I used no more alongside space than any other 25ft yacht, had few facilities, toilets 200m. water 100m, etc.. and this in an empty harbor in late autumn. After l had cooled down I slept for a few hours and adjourned to the local pub.

The pub was so pleasant that I stayed the night, waking somewhat the worse for wear next morning. It was a very chilly pea souper, but a busy one preparing Scorpion for the passage from Ramsgate to the west end of the Frisian Islands, then across to the Skaggerak and south to Kiel, by way of some of my favorite Danish ports. I sailed out of Ramsgate at 13:30 just as soon as the fog had lifted. It had become a pleasant day, southwesterly F2 and sunny. My route would take me to the Nord Hinder Light Vessel, then on to Den Helder, should I need to duck in. Very simple!

The first shock was an enormous bang at 16:00. I was below, cooking, with the Autohelm in command. I leaped on deck, fearing the worst, to find all was intact. The leeward hull had sailed over an abandoned dinghy. I made a quick check for damage, found none tacked round to see the dinghy and, God forbid, what if anyone was in it or near it? I was by now crossing the Thames Estuary and felt that if someone was in the dinghy they would be in difficulty, hardly helped by me sailing over them. Having closed in on the dinghy, it turned out to be a waterlogged Laser- hence the lack of damage and, luckily, no one was in it. I informed the Coast Guard and went on my way

Who says you can be bored at sea?

As dusk fell, the wind rose to F3, giving me an evening of cruising along at 8-9 knots, while I tried to pick up something on the RDF - not a whisper- despite battery changes, curses and praise! I decided to alter course, slightly. to take me a bit closer to Nord Hinder Light Vessel, for visibility was decreasing. This proved wise for my range of view dropped quite quickly to about a half mile when, faintly, a foghorn could be heard. However, having faith in my DR (don’t all navigators?), I maintained my course and the light appeared abeam just as I was about to say - it should be about a mile on the beam. Fortunately, the fog had lifted a little at the time I was heading for a group of fishing boats. I weaved my way through them and awaited the 00:15 forecast with great interest.

The ’Met’ people forecast southwesterly F 4-5, occasionally F6, with fog patches for my area, and the general synopsis sounded unfavorable. I pressed on, beautifully dodging the heavy shipping. In the early hours the wind started dropping, so I altered course a little to improve speed. By now I was quite tired, not helped by all the beers of the night before. and kept myself busy by splicing reefing lines, sorting out the boat, helming and navigating the night through. By morning I was okay again and checked the 06:25 forecast, which gave us southwesterly F 6-7, gusting to 8. 1 decided to dig out the Den Helder chart since it seemed there was a low crossing Europe, causing havoc along its path. I waited for the lunch time forecast with some concern for I was very keen to complete the North Sea crossing to Denmark and not wanting to have to call off the sail at Den Helder.

The greater part of the morning was spent trying to feed two birds that had landed on Scorpion looking very tired, indeed. They weren’t interested. At 11:20 I was passed by the MV Osterheide, going south. In my best German I asked for a position check. as I wanted to be ‘bang on’ before closing the Dutch coast. A very helpful officer gave me 52’52"N/4’32"E. I was about 5 NM off on my DR, which I was not too happy about. He also warned of a gale coming. I thought it was prudent to give the Dutch Coast Guard at Den Helder, now some 15nm away. A call to check on the weather as he saw it. He confirmed the bad news. I told him I would be coming in later that day. I was not keen about losing the good wind, having done 150nm, I decided to crack another 200nm qualifier for the 1985 Round Britain Race while conditions favored high speed. I found three buoys that made a nice triangular course. adding some 40nm to the passage. I felt that by the time I had reached Den Helder I would have done some 210nm. I set off in a steady southern F4-5. Three hours of exhilarating sailing followed, that reaffirmed my love of multihulls, their speed, seaworthiness and ease of handling- even If the small ones like Scorpion are wet! Now there was the promise of a hot shower only a few hours away, so what the heck! We roared a-cross or through the waves, throwing water everywhere as Scorpion thrived on the conditions. At one stage I overtook a heavily laden Russian Merchantman whose watch-keeper came out onto his bridge to survey the madness before him and to give a friendly wave. It was great.

However, prudence being the sensible thing, I wanted to get into Den Helder in daylight and before the wind rose much more. It was now a southern F6. I decided to cut short my fun and enter the Molengat Channel which, once found, was easy to follow. Once in the Channel, I was surprised to see how steep the seas were in the normally shallow water and decided, having the wind on the starboard quarter, to drop the main that already had two reefs, and to sail in on the No. 2 genoa. It made life a lot easier and gave peace of mind.

Having identified Kijkduin light, I altered course to hug the coast and bring the wind on the beam. The shore afforded some protection from what was now becoming quite ablow. As I approached the harbor entrance I put the outboard on, fired her up and motored into the Naval Yacht Harbor. I was lucky to find a berth under a harbor wall (in the lee), for the wind was being reported to be southern F7 by the Coast Guard.

So ended a really lovely sail, giving me as much of a workout as I had wanted under the circumstances. My disappointment at not being able to go on to Denmark was somewhat reduced by the exhilarating sail into Den Helder and by the gales that raged across the North Sea for the next four days. I had a good time in that Dutch town, and moved the boat into the Ijsselmeer two days later, during a lull in the storm. Scorpion glided up into the terrific marina at Hindeloopen.

I’d learned a lot about myself and Scorpion during the cruise. Anyone sailing single-handed has to think well ahead and must remember to take things steadily. There is no other crew you can call upon to help if you get things wrong, and only one person gets it wrong. Equally, at the end of the passage there is nothing to beat the glow of pride and satisfaction that is inevitably there. It also makes one humble and grateful to others who are always there - the Coast Guard, ’Met’ men and merchant marine. I also thank Nautech for their marvellous Autohelm 2000.