Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Best laid plans.....and severe gales

We never made it to Brixham. Having set off in sunshine, with relatively calm seas and good winds, we made excellent progress from Cawsand and at one point were contemplating extending our passage right across Lyme Bay to Bridport. However, by the time we passed Start Point, the seas had picked up and things were getting uncomfortable so we battled our way into Dartmouth instead.

The next day things seemed to have calmed down somewhat, the north westerly winds had moved back south westerly and although the Met Office forecast predicted gales, the local forecast for Lyme Bay was for F5, possibly increasing to F6 later. With only 30 miles to get to Bridport, we thought it would be an ideal time to scoot across Lyme Bay so we would be much closer to Portland for timing our tides for the notorious Portland Race a day or two later. So much for plans and forecasts!

Things started off well and we whizzed halfway across Lyme Bay before catching an updated forecast with urgent gale warnings. Our F5-6 was now F7-gale 8 in Lyme Bay itself with severe gale 9 predicted round Portland and further out into the Channel. The wave heights had picked up and it struck us that perhaps Bridport was not going to give us enough shelter, even assuming we could get into the harbour. On calling the harbour master, our fears were confirmed - there was no way we could guarantee getting safely into the outer harbour and in any case, there was no room in the inner harbour. The prospect of tying up against a wall in a gale with waves already breaking over said wall was not only unappealing, it was downright dangerous. There was no way to turn back as the waves were too high and cats don't beat to windward particularly well in good conditions, never mind bad ones. So our only (relatively) sensible option seemed to be to head well off-shore to get round Portland against the tide. We checked and re-checked every other option of harbours and possible refuges and reluctantly decided that the off-shore choice was the only one we could take. We both recalled 'Lessons Learned' stories in yacht magazines about people desperately wanting to get the boat tied up in harbour when the safer option would have been to head out to sea and although it was a scary prospect, the possibility of crashing the boat into a harbour wall or the beach was a very real one if we tried to get in.

We were well rested, the boat was capable, we both have experience of bad weather and conditions at the time meant we should be able to head south for a couple of hours without too much difficulty. We called Brixham coastguard to tell them our plans and they agreed that in the circumstances, if we felt we were capable and the boat was up to it, then it was the best solution.

Without going into too much gory detail, I never want to be out in conditions like that ever again. It turned out that I found helming to our course easier than Mark did, and in any case, I was battling against sea-sickness and had no chance of going below to do any navigation. The sea state got much worse than the forecasts had predicted and despite our best efforts to claw southwards to 5+ miles south of Portland, after achieving the waypoint, we were pushed back north frighteningly close to the dreaded Shambles just as it was getting dark because it became impossible to hold any course other than east.
We did eventually scramble our way past first Portland Race, then St Albans Race and once we turned north into Swanage Bay, the wave heights dropped from about 5-6m to a more manageable 3m. The relief on finally seeing Old Harry Rocks and picking out the red and green channel buoys was indescribable, until Mark came up with the news that the gale forecast had been updated and our severe gale 9 was now an imminent Storm force 10.
We only had a scrap of genoa out and we were starting to get shelter from Studland Bay so we put the engine on, furled the sail completely and raced down the channel into Poole Harbour to find a relatively sheltered anchorage behind Brownsea Island.

All things considered, although we were shaken by the experience, we felt we had pretty much done the right things (other than staying put in Dartmouth in the first place!). We were constantly evaluating our position and options, we reefed early, we had a 'passage bag' ready with snacks and drinks and we used each other's strengths to best advantage. Ironically, things would have been easier if we had been truly off-shore with no danger of hitting land, since we could have just turned our backs to the wind, streamed warps to slow right down and just ridden out the storms.

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