It all started out so nicely, the wind from the NW was slight and gradually increasing so that by 14:00 Eileen of Avoca was making way at between 3 to 5kt.
I took photos of our
traveling companions boat “Hepta” while they took photos of Eileen of Avoca. In the lighter winds I needed to use the engine to keep pace but as the wind picked up number 9 was in her element and took to the lead.
Rounding Cap Taillat, just two hours from our destination we were hit by near gale conditions.
The wind was completely unexpected and I had to reduce sail fast as Eileen ran with the wind at 6.4kts. To make matters worse Hepta had moved to within a few meters of Eileen’s starboard bow and there was the very real risk of collision.
I called for Eva to start the engine while turning hard to port, (into the wind). This put an abrupt end to the lively acceleration, but it certainly wasn’t elegant, and with the bow now crashing into the oncoming swells, I was taking quite a shower. Within minutes everything was back under control and I set the jib to steady the boat as we motored with the wind in an attempt to catch Hepta.
Our friends had not faired too badly given that they’d been swamped by waves as their boat made valiant attempts to pitch-pole in the sudden gusts. When I caught up with them their mainsail was lowered and manually held out over the companionway in an attempt to keep out the water but Hepta was making good progress nonetheless with her small outboard at full revs. The only worry was whether they had enough fuel to reach port.
All the other pleasure yachts in the area were also heading for the nearest port, with the exception of one crew whose yacht seemed completely out of control as it took a course in the opposite direction closely followed by a concerned coastal patrol vessel.
Before long we were entering the port of St. Tropez, site of one of the largest collections of floating “Gin Palaces” I have ever seen. At 20 Euro a night this was the most expensive marina fee paid so far but I would have been willing to dispense considerably more just to witness the extravagance on display.
(06:00) An early start as the weather was set to turn this evening and I wanted to be as far as possible to the east so that the force of the Mistral would be somewhat moderated. My girlfriend Eva was not too pleased about leaving while it was still cold and dark. Mind you even water temperatures of 24 degrees seem frigid to her. She lasted approximately 15 seconds in the water yesterday; I put it down to her Mexican heritage. With Cap de L’Aigle silhouetted by the rising sun and a brisk wind in just the right direction, I couldn’t be happier.
All was going according to plan but it was obvious by 14:30 that the Mistral had arrived ahead of schedule. I’d set too much sail including a whisker pole out on the staysail. Oops! When the wind gusts arrived they were a good force 7 and while I was quick to furl the jib, the staysail was a tangle. After battling with the mainsail I worked my way to the pulpit to sort out the mess. Eva is a lithe 45kg but was having considerable trouble keeping the bow to windward while I battled the recalcitrant sail. In the end I had to remove the pole end fittings before I could beat the staysail into submission. The following hour was spent motoring under bare poles to Port du Lavavdou (which was given a good review by the pilot book) and on route it was decided to stay put while the Mistral blew.
(15:00) It was a late start to my sailing week, as I had to wait for the Capitanerie to reopen following the usual extended French lunch break. With a planned 25 NM trip to Port du Frioul just off the coast from Marseille my girlfriend and I were eager to get started even after driving more than 1200km on Friday night from Amsterdam and having had less than 4 hours sleep. We considered ourselves lucky as the weather forecast for the next few days was fine with the Mistral (which really howls through Port St. Louis and the rest of the Camargue for that matter); set to return no earlier than Tuesday.
There really isn’t much to Port St. Louis and it’s a bit isolated (If you don’t take your own car you’ll need to catch a train to Arles; worth the visit; and then take the infrequently run bus from there). Taxi fares from Marseille airport will set you back as much as the airfare. The port lacks character but is reasonably priced (at 72 Euro a week) and the facilities are good. It’s no surprise that the nearby Port Napoleon is so popular for wintering (see http://www.port-napoleon.com/) but you need to get quite a way out of the commercial port before the scenery improves.
It was just on sunset when we rounded Cape de Croix and saw the chateau fort of Ile d’lf (made famous by the Alexandre Dumas novel The Count of Monte Cristo) and before long I had settled in by the visitors quay against the sea wall joining the islands of Ratonneau and Pomegues (at the far side of the marina and contrary to directions given by the pilot book). The buzz of quayside restaurants in the balmy evening set the holiday atmosphere and we toasted our successful first leg over a glass of port.
At 7am I made my way through two locks to get to the VVW Westhoek marina (far right of the photo). Entry to the first lock is dependent on the tide (+ or – 3hrs HW) but it was a simple matter to call the lock operators on the phone to arrange everything (in English).
Until the end of April the locks are not attended on Sundays so for a while my travels will be restricted to Saturdays. My Belgian itinerary will be something like Nieuwpoot, Brugge, Gent, Antwerp, Turnhout, Hasselt, Liege, Namur and Dinant. Then it will be on to France and the Med.
An afternoon at the marina packing and lowering the mast using Mr Boyall’s concise instructions posted on the Yarmouth 23 user group and quoted below:
“I dropped the mast on Eileen of Avoca as follows:-
First the gooseneck was disconnected. Then the gib and stay sail.
The forestay was next and a block attached to the lower end. A rope
was then rove through the block and from there to one of the bow
rollers, the biter end was made of on the bits. The free end was taken
back to the cockpit via the other bow roller and round the winch. The
lower bolt in the Tabernacle was removed, the upper one loosened and
the mast lowered by using the winch. QED”
This can be done single handed but a little help to position the mast once lowered helps. Eileen of Avoca was now ready to enter the canal system.
I had arranged for a friend to join me for the last leg to Belgium and he arrived by train just in time to leave by the first opening of the lock at 13:28. As there was still little in the way of wind, I motored to Nieuwpoort. The complimentary tidal stream coupled with occasional use of the foresails provided a brisk 8 knots SOG giving us an approximate ETA of 19:30. Navigation was a cinch and involved little more than following the shipping channel buoys (keeping the line of red buoys to starboard). With innumerable sandbanks and accompanying shallow water, I imagine this must be a tough trip in unsettled conditions. The scenery is nothing to write home about and the only event of note other than the occasional passing freighter was a visit by the French coastguard, who seemed content to look me over before speeding off to do more important things. They probably left me alone because I wasn’t flying a British ensign.
There are no formalities when entering Nieuwpoort, just motor in and follow one of the visitor signs. While KYCN are still furiously renovating for the coming season, I chose their offering in the old harbour (keep right) and had no regrets with the decision (see http://www.kycn.be/en/home.html).
The clear sky and tranquil conditions within the marina were certainly a contrast to what awaited outside the lock today. After an hour of battling the elements I decided to abort my plan to visit Rye and turned back to Eastbourne. I had endured enough of this the previous evening. Using the beaching legs would have to await more accommodating weather. I spent the free time catching up on some rest, drying bedding, buying that sorely missed ski mask, checking the weather forecast and visiting the RNLI (who had apparently just returned from rescuing a Belgian fisherman).
A late start predetermined my next destination so with the mainsail reefed; I set off at midday for Hastings in (surprise surprise) blustery North Easterlies. Near Beachy Head conditions could only be described as awful. The wind frequently gusted to Force 7 and I was forced to motor around the headland under bare poles in the short heavy seas. Eileen does not have a spray hood so the water splashing over the deck equated to plenty of water splashing over me, my eyes and inevitably my clothes despite having appropriate foul weather gear.
I spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between regret for not having brought a ski mask to self congratulation, for having brought my pocket warmer (a must if you do not use LP gas, see http://www.hakkin.co.jp/)
With the safety line securely fastened I motored on, trying without much success to dodge the larger waves, a strategy that did little to ease the rollercoaster ride. Eileen apparently likes to bob around like a cork. Unfortunately this motion was making me decidedly queasy and I was not happy about going below to plot my hourly fixes on the chart. I was also unhappy about approaching Soverign Harbour by night, especially at low tide, but these concerns abated when it was clear I’d reach the safe water mark just before sunset. The marina office has a camera trained on the buoy marking the entrance channel and I’m sure Eileen made a sorry sight bobbing about there in the twilight. As I called up on the radio the duty officer was quick to give useful directions and before long we had entered Soverign’s impressive lock.
Interestingly, I found another Yarmouth 23 “Moo of Cowes”, berthed in the marina. I had seen her at Yarmouth Marine Services a few weeks earlier so apparently I was not the only one making an early start to the sailing season (unless she had made the trip on a trailer). For those planning to come this way, the marina hosts an excellent web site (see http://www.premiermarinas.com/pages/Sovereign_Harbour).
After a night of howling winds interrupted by a frigid escapade to adjust creaking warps in the middle of the night, I set off at daybreak in conditions that had me wondering about April fools. My concerns were underscored by the conspicuous absence of other departing yachts, but as I was determined to keep to my schedule I set aside these misgivings. A combination of unfavourable elements (wind against tide) and technical problems (jib sheet coming to grief at a most inopportune moment), made my double reefed zigzag to Cowes rather interesting. With relief, I spent a few hours sheltering in Cowes Yacht Haven with the excuse that I needed to refuel and that it was better to wait for the change of tide. After rummaging in a nearby chandlery, I returned to the boat with new running gear in hand and made some rigging replacements. After this, I set about taking a few photos. None are worth showing here but since I thought it unlikely that I would return to the Isle of Wight for some time, the Cowes tourist snapshots were a must.
My afternoon sail to Haslar marina in Portsmouth was uneventful, though upon arrival I was surprised to be greeted with a cry of “Welcome to tranquility!” from a crew member of a sailing school vessel that had also braved the afternoons blow.
The facilities in the lightship at Haslar were excellent and after fortifying myself with a glass of red port and a hot shower I settled for the night to make passage plans to Brighton in the vain hope that the conditions would improve.
At 7:30 am on the 11th, we motored out of the marina for the return leg. As we would not have a favourable wind or tidal stream we decided to motor for much of the journey. There was little wind and the choppy conditions of the evening before were replaced by calm. A large catamaran was making good use of the light winds but after raising the jib and staysail it soon fell behind us on route to Cowes. The Tillerpilot did most of the sailing apart from a few occasions where traffic forced us to dodge a number of larger boats running with the wind. Our speed over ground was little more than 3 knots though the log read a constant 5. The engine certainly had good run, but given our time constraints (the ferry back to Calais and a long drive to Belgium and the Netherlands) I was glad we opted out of sailing.
At an estimated hour and 20 minutes before reaching Yarmouth I called up the Harbour master on the VHF to request our return bridge opening. With this safely booked we ambled past the entrance to the Newton River and on into Yarmouth. We were a little early and asked to wait at the visitor pontoon but after a brief discussion on the VHF the harbour staff offered to open the bridge early as the car ferry had just left. So without further delay we approached our berth, fenders at the ready, a successful outing.
Not that everything was perfect. Before departure I had discovered that the toilet outlet seacock was seized in the open position and that the pump was not working properly. No toilet this trip. I also discovered that the depth sounder was in need of repair as it insisted that the Solent was never deeper than 1 meter. The main sheet
was a little too large in diameter for the blocks, the furling lines for the foresails chafed too easily, and the throat halyard stretched on route. All would need changing. But apart from some mix-up in the plumbing, (only hot water in the galley), and foul tasting water that made equally foul tasting coffee there were no show stoppers.
We had logged our first 35 miles with Eileen and she had proven to be a sure and pleasant sail. The real test would come at the end of the month when she would make her trip to Belgium.