Two years ago, I sold my boat which I had built, and sailed for 30 years. It seemed like the end of an era when she went. The end of my sailing. Time to hang up the sailing boots and become an apprentice land-lubber.
But somehow, I still had an unknown tenuous link with my sailing life. Out of the blue I received an e-mail asking for people to crew on one of two boats which were going to sail around the UK in aid of Macmillan Cancer Trust. The sail was divided in to six legs and you could join in any of these. It was quite expensive, and each leg was to take one week. But, I decided that this would be a good opportunity to test myself. Have I left the sea completely? Is there something of the old sea dog still left in me? So, decided I ought to test myself and I signed up to sail from Milford Haven on the western end of St Davids Head, in Wales, to Plymouth, in Devon, from the 12th to the 19th June.
The day of my adventure arrived. I travelled by train from Hungerford to Reading, then went west to Cardiff. The route took us through the Severn Tunnel which runs under the Bristol Channel and as we went through I began to remember the last time I had been there. It was about 1958, and the engine at that time was steam powered. Quite a contrast to the modern day GWR Intercity Express Train which I was travelling on that day. At Cardiff I changed trains and travelled to Swansea, then another change which took me finally to Milford Haven. On this last train I met up with some of my fellow shipmates and we took a taxi together from the station to Milford Haven Marina. There I met Ian and Fiona the boat owners, and my other crew members were Sally, Mat, Tony and Andy.
Our boat was a 46-foot long, she is 10 years old and manufactured by the French company Dufour. She was called Clearlake II.
The other boat we were sailing in company with was a 39-foot boat called Ashanti.
The following morning, we set sail for Lundy, a small island to the south of us on the western end of the Bristol Channel. It was here that, in the days of the square-rigged sailing ships, pilots would moor while waiting for a ship. When one arrived, they would sail out to meet them and barter with the captain for the job of guiding the ship in to harbour. Once a deal was struck, the pilot would climb aboard leaving his assistant to sail the pilot boat back to port single-handed.
We motored down the channel then past St Annes Head and out to sea. We travelled under engine at first, getting used to the boat, then hoisted the sails for the final part of the voyage. On the way, we had the joy of seeing some dolphins. They swam alongside the boat leaping ahead or speeding past us just below the surface. They stayed with us for about 10 minutes – then, as suddenly they’d appeared, they were gone.
At Lundy we managed to pick up a buoy near to the slipway. The other boat arrived a little while later and dropped anchor nearby. Three of their crew went ashore in their dinghy and climbed right to the top where they found a pub and enjoyed a pint of beer before making the long trek back down.
The bay we were in was on the downwind side of the island but we were still rocked about by small waves all night which made it difficult to get to sleep. Pity those poor pilots from the square rigger days having to endure several days here. Next morning, we set off early, sailing south towards Padstow, in Cornwall.
The wind was from the south so when we set the sails so we were having to tack against it. However, it wasn’t long before our skipper Ian worked out that, under sail, we wouldn’t get in to the harbour at Padstow before the tide had gone out, so we lowered the sails and motored the rest of the way.
A short while later we were suddenly surrounded by a school of porpoises, leaping and diving at incredible speed around us. There must have been over 30 of them. They didn’t stay long and seemed to have more pressing business elsewhere. We guessed that they were probably chasing a shoal of fish.
We continued south and as we neared the coast we could make out Tintagel in the distance. Soon after that we could see the headland which stood at the entrance to the Camel River and the channel which led up to Padstow.
We arrived at Padstow mid-afternoon, the other boat arriving about two hours later. It was near to high water at that time so both boats were able to motor straight in to the harbour and moor up alongside the quay. A few hours later the lock gate was closed as the tide went out, leaving us afloat high above the creek which had become a sandy stretch with a stream winding its way down the middle.
Padstow harbour is a wonderful place to visit, full of shops lined up around the landward side. That day there was a busker who was singing and playing his guitar, giving the place a great atmosphere. We ate some local fish and chips aboard, then sat in the cockpit chatting before we turned in for the night.
The next morning we couldn’t leave because the tide was out and wasn’t due to come in until the afternoon, so we spent a few hours wandering around the shops and going for walks. I climbed up the hill out of the town and to my amazement discovered a field with a herd of reindeers in it. Some were standing, and some were laying down just about 10m (30ft) away from me.
At roughly. 3:30pm the tide had come in far enough for us to leave. We stood on the quay and watched as the harbourmaster operated the gate opening mechanism, and to our amazement the whole thing swung downwards and disappeared under the water. It was time to go, so we hopped on board the boats, let go the ropes, motored out into the channel, and made our way out to sea. Then, as we left the shelter of the land the sea became rougher and we began to plough our way through the steep waves, heading south-west towards Lands End.
It was hard going: the wind was with us but the tide was not. This made the waves high and steep and they tossed our boat around as if it were a toy. At every wave the bows rose up in to the air and then plunged down again, sometimes slamming in to the trough behind it, making the rigging shudder and the hull beneath us.
We ploughed on. As the hours passed the wind dropped slightly which made our ride more comfortable: then at last the tide changed and began to help drive us on our way.
During this part of the voyage we were close enough to the shore to make out Newquay, and St Ives, then as the night approached, we divided ourselves in to two watch-crews. I was on the midnight watch so went below to get a bit of shut-eye. When I climbed back out on deck for my watch I found we were just passing the Longships Lighthouse which is on a rocky outcrop a mile offshore from Lands End itself. By about 1am we were clear of the peninsular and changed course to head east along the south coast. A short time later we were passing Penzance and Marazion At about 3am the other watch crew took over as we sailed around the Lizard peninsula and then on up in to Falmouth where we arrived at about 6:30.
We tied up in the marina and then after a good rest we went out to explore. We found that there was a sea shanty festival going on quite near to us and we were also right next to the Falmouth maritime museum. I haven’t been around that museum for years, so I popped in to take a look around.
The next morning, we had a few hours to spare so I walked up a nearby hill and began to recognise the road from previous visits. I was heading for Pendennis Castle. It was great to re-visit this place: it is so large it has a certain feeling of grandeur about it. I walked around the battlements taking in the scenery around me then bought some postcards in the shop before heading back down the hill to the boats.
We left our moorings at about noon and headed east, sailing towards Fowey. The weather was kinder to us that day, with a good wind coming from the south. Our sailing speed was about 8 knots and so we had plenty of time to travel the 30 miles to Fowey in the afternoon.
As we had a bit of time to spare we did some seamanship training. The skipper went through the man-overboard rescue technique and then let everyone have go at helming during the pick-up, and hooking in the victim with a boathook. This was quite a challenge especially for those who had little or no sailing experience, but we all managed steer the boat in to position and pick up the fender that we had used as our dummy victim.
We arrived at Fowey at about 6:00pm and tied up to a visitor’s buoy. A water taxi took us ashore where we split up and strolled around, exploring this charming place, and then met up for a drink.
We went back on board later for our evening meal, and then turned in for the night.
The next morning, I decided to explore the harbour further. I took the water taxi to the shore, had a short wander round followed by a cup of coffee while I stood taking in the scenery. I could see some kind of ruin, on top of the hill on the other side of the harbour, so I took the ferry across there, landing in the small village of Polruan. I walked up the steep hill there, through the village right to the top, and there it was, a thick looking ancient wall that turned out to be the ruins of St Saviours Chapel. Right next to it was a coastguard lookout hut so I popped in to say hello and the man on duty told me that the weather was going to stay cloudy and with very little wind. I guessed from that the last part of our voyage was going to be under engine power.
I walked back down the hill, called up the river taxi, and his boat appeared a few minutes later. What a great job he has I thought, as we travelled back to the boat, motoring around this beautiful harbour all day and getting paid for it too. I chatted to him and he told me that he was born in Polruan and had lived there most of his life. “I moved to Plymouth when I was a young man” he said “but only for a short while. I been here ever since.” It was difficult to hear any more of what he was saying because of the noise of the engine; also because he had a pipe permanently stuck in his mouth. This was a change from the day before (when he had a cigar instead of a pipe).
We set sail at about mid-day, there was no wind except the odd light gust so motored the whole way to Plymouth, arriving in the late afternoon. It was the end of our journey, but not the end of our holiday. We finished off with a grand meal at the restaurant in the marina.
Next day we said goodbye to the boat, our captain Ian and his partner Fiona. We took a taxi to the station and travelled back home on one of the new GWR trains. The others were travelling on to London, but I had to disembark at Reading and catch another train, back the way we had come, to Hungerford. My adventure had come to an end.
Was that the last time I will ever go sailing? I don’t think so. It turns out I still have a bit of the old sea dog in me. I’ve also recently learned that a friend of mine has just bought a boat and has asked me to go sailing with him. So, I might be off on another sailing adventure soon. Ho-Har me Hearties!