Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Murkily across the North Sea

In the ultimate triumph of patience over technology I am posting this from my Kindle. You may ask why. It`s because I get free  3G access from anywhere including IJmuiden i the Netherlands where we now are. Typing letters is ok but punctuation is a real pain so do not expect many commas.

On Sunday morning I suddenly found a weather window for the N Sea crossing if we left that very evening. We were pretty much ready except for the insides of our heads which are always the last to be prepared. We feared a bumpy passage after the weekend winds but the winds were due to be mostly SW three to four. Tuesday looked windier, Wednesday no wind at all, and on Thursday the winds are due to go NE, ie on the nose.

So at eleven in the evening we headed cautiously out of SYH, trying to remember how to do night sailing, always a challenge off the bright lights of Felixstowe. The winds had dropped as forecast and once we were past the choppy entrance to Harwich  Harbour the seas were quite manageable. We motorsailed through the brief hours of darkness, snatching odd bits of sleep.

At dawn it was bright for a while and by 6am we were able to kill the engine, but sadly at that point visibility also deteriorated to at its wordt only half a mile or so. Fortunately  we have a new toy, an AIS receiver, which combines with the radar or chart plotter display to show you the exact position of nearby ships, their name, sixe and type, and teir speed and course. It even estimates the closest point of approach so you know if a ship is a threat or not. This invaluable tool was our best friend and on several occasions we were able to change course in plenty of time to avoid a ship which was only visible at the last moment, or in some cases only audible.

My Kindle fingers are wearing out here so suffice it to say we only got about six hours of good sailing and the rest was a bit of a slog. By around eight in the evening the Netherlands welcomed us with better visibility and pouring rain. We reached Seaport Marina about ten UK time, tired, wet, cross but very pleased to be here. Tomorrow, Amsterdam.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Guy update

Guy is now a flotilla skipper! It looks as though the haircut paid off. This is how his lead boat looked on Monday:

He'll be living on board with his engineer and hostie until September....

Shaken down

Our dear friends at Rig Magic finally fitted the mainsheet track last Wednesday, which meant we could actually go sailing. I see that I originally posted that they were going to bend the track on 23 March. We like Nigel but may not use his services again if we're in a hurry!

By good luck there was an HPYC cruise to Burnham-on-Crouch at the weekend, which we joined. They weren't sure if we'd be able to join them for the restaurant meal, but as it happens the inshore waters forecast issued on Saturday for Sunday was somewhat horrendous (WSW6-7 increasing 8) and a number of people who started heading down the Wallet with us chickened out and went home.

The sail on Saturday was excellent - it looked as though we would be motoring into a headwind but in fact the wind went slightly to the west, and with a good tide we made it to Burnham Yacht Harbour at an average speed of 6.2 knots, sailing more than 70% of the way. The only downside was that Ben wasn't there to enjoy it as he felt he should be revising.

Burnham on Saturday afternoon

We've never sailed into the Crouch before and it is notoriously full of very sticky mud, but in fact all was well, helped by the new optional position for the chart plotter under the spray hood (we can transfer it back to the chart table for security or for planning). Burnham was looking sunlit and very pretty and we had a nice meal at Sgt Pepper's diner.

Sunday was a bit different. A deep low off Ireland was bringing very strong winds to the north and west of the UK (as it transpired, over 100mph in Scotland). We didn't know how much we were going to get but it was definitely going to be windy. However Monday looked worse and there was no guarantee that Tuesday was going to be much better. Furthermore Sunday's wind was WSW, almost astern of us or on the port quarter most of the way, and we would be in the lee of the Essex coast so wave height should be modest. We had a helpful SWIS forecast from Simon Keeling which showed winds easing a bit in the evening. And finally other boats from HPYC were doing the same route at similar times, which is always reassuring.

Of course I was a nervous wreck in the morning and during our visit to the RNLI - especially worrying about leaving the marina. Someone up there was on our side, though, because at around 1445 there was a real lull with the wind easing from 20-25 knots down to about 7-8 knots for a short while. We chucked off all the ropes and headed safely out into the Crouch before it picked up again - pushing the tide initially, but worth it to get out of the marina safely.

The most we saw was 32 knots of wind, with a fairly steady force 6 initially, easing to a 5 as we came out of the Crouch and finally a 4 in the last bits of the Wallet and the Orwell. The worst bit was crossing the Spitway at right-angles to the tide and almost into the wind, but it was only 20 minutes or so of hell. The rest of the time we sailed with a tiny bit of jib at 5 or 6 knots through the water. And the last couple of hours were really pleasant - quiet enough for us to be able to eat supper, albeit rather carefully.

Here's the list of stuff we forgot/still have to sort out:
  • Kayak
  • Kayak paddles
  • Cobb barbecue & charcoal
  • Petrol can for outboard 
  • Fresh food
  • Clothes for the summer
  • Batteries for torches 
  • Charts and pilots
    (Nordics is in the chart table)
  • CQR anchor?
  • New dinghy cover (not really new, cost us £15 from Seamark Nunn, but better than the old one)
  • coffee
  • hand towels
  • iPhone cables!
  • 4-way adaptor
  • Sink plug chain
  • Log book insert

Professionals and amateurs

A couple of interesting encounters over the weekend which formed an odd contrast.

On Friday Willie Wilson, chairman of the chart and pilot book publishers Imray (full name, Imray, Laurie, Norie and Wilson - yes, he's a member of that Wilson family) gave a presentation at Haven Ports yacht club about the work that Imray does. Willie looks exactly like one of the many printers and publishers that my father worked with in the 1960s and 70s. He is endearingly vague and not switched on to technology.

Imray produces most of the best pilot books in the English language, and also most of the paper charts which we use on board Kalessin. They use official data from the UK hydrographic office and turn that into charts which are actually useful, and often include detailed insets for key harbours, unlike Admiralty charts which often require you to buy 15 charts for a single passage. (Not that I ever do). Their pilot books are expensive (usually between £35 and £45) but indispensable. All this comes from a large Georgian house in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, with a small specialist printing press at the back. Most of their employees join as youngsters and never get around to leaving again. The impression is of a small group of gentleman amateurs, somehow managing to produce excellent work.

Front pod on the small (D-class) RIB

On Sunday morning we visited the RNLI lifeboat station at Burnham-on-Crouch. All of the crew, launch officers and the rest are volunteers and the funding is exclusively charitable, with no government money. They have two RIBs at Burnham, a smaller one mostly used for going up-river, and a big Atlantic 75 (about to be replaced by an 85) which can operate 30 or 40 miles offshore if necessary. These are very impressive bits of kit, built by the RNLI itself, completely overhauled each year and fitted with the sturdiest equipment around. If a lifeboat is damaged, it is replaced from HQ at Poole within 24 hours by an identical one. The impression in this case is of a group of consummate professionals, who just happen to be volunteers.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book now for the experience of a lifetime

Stavros S Niarchos at anchor in Bangor Bay, Northern Ireland
I've just got back from a five-day voyage on the tall ship Stavros S Niarchos. It's one of those things I've always wanted to do, and as I'm currently not working I finally made time to do it. Now I wonder why on earth I never took the opportunity before.

Stavros is a 600-tonne brig, with two masts and around 65 metres long. That makes her small compared to a Nelson-era ship of the line, but much much bigger than anything I have ever sailed before. Helming her up Kilbrannan Sound (between Kintyre and Arran), under sail in brilliant sunshine, has to be one of the top sailing experiences of my life.

And yes, I did climb the rigging - twice, although both times we were still tied on to the dock in Liverpool.

We left Liverpool around 10.30 on Monday morning and did an overnight passage to Bangor in Belfast Lough. At that point there was enough south in the wind to enable us to clear the south of the Isle of Man, but it started to veer in the morning and we couldn't make Carlingford Lough, which was the original destination. You realise the limitations of a square-rigger; with the wind just forward of the beam she's really pinching, and doing only 5 knots or so, where tiny Kalessin would be loving it and flying along at well over six.

I managed to get ashore in the RIB at Bangor, which is my first-ever visit to Northern Ireland. We were only ashore for an hour - just time for a quick walk and even quicker half of Smithwicks.

Working aloft. There is a safety line on the top of the yard and you are clipped on with full harness
From Bangor an exciting passage with lots of wind to Campbeltown on Kintyre. The wind was still veering, so as we came out of the lee of Northern Ireland we were exposed to a F7 and respectable Atlantic waves from the west-north-west. At that point I declined to climb the rigging to take the sails in. I still feel like a wimp for not going but I would have been utterly useless up there. I was also glad not to be out there in Kalessin - you'd want to wait for a really quiet day before crossing that bit of water.

Campbeltown Loch is lovely, very sheltered and wonderful Scottish scenery. Campbeltown itself is quite small, and has a couple of pubs where (according to Captain Liam Keating, our skipper) things can get a bit nasty. The fact that he's a bloody-minded individual from Waterford has, I'm sure, nothing to do with it.

The Davaar light at the entrance to Campbeltown Loch
On Friday morning we left Campbeltown at 0800 with our watch on the bridge. It was the most amazing privilege to be up there, helming for over an hour in my case, as we came through the stunning scenery. I was too busy to take many pictures but here's one taken by someone else (from the land) to give you an idea:
View from the AIS tracker at http://www.shipais.com
We arrived in Greenock exactly on time on Friday afternoon, and I discovered why the RIB has two 50hp outboards - it's so that it can act as an additional bow thruster for tricky mooring exercises. A lot cheaper than hiring a tug.

We were fortunate with this voyage in a number of ways. We covered 251 miles of which 137 were under sail, a higher proportion than usual. I was part of Red watch, a great group of let's say mature individuals, and we bonded very well with the support of our lovely watch leader Jo. We had very squally weather but in between each gusty shower we got warm, bright sunshine. And we sailed through some absolutely stunning scenery.

Red watch. Back row, from left: watch leader Jo, Anthony (who owns a Storm like ours), Margaret and Glyn from Liverpool, John who describes himself as a "washed-up drummer", Ron who used to run Staffordshire county council, Jennifer in front of him, and Les (71) on the right. Kneeling at the front Dave (73) who's also a Scouser, lovely Gillian from Glasgow, Jim (Jennifer's husband) who's currently building a nuclear plant in Abu Dhabi, and me.
If you're in East Anglia, Stavros will be at Great Yarmouth for an open day on 11 June. Or find out more on the Tall Ships website at www.tallships.org. If you hurry, you can book for Belfast to Cardiff from 21 May for an astonishing £99!

Thank you to the permanent and volunteer crew, the rest of my watch, and in fact everyone on board and in the Tall Ships organisation, for making it such a memorable trip.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

..and here's the real thing

Pictures borrowed from Facebook, with thanks to Nikki Camp

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Sad news

All those of you who have met Guy will be sad to hear of his recent tragic loss: his dreadlocks have had to go. His boss at Sailing Holidays said he had to choose between dreads and the job. I think this must indicate that he considers the job worthwhile. On Facebook he said "awesome job sitting in Corfu working on yachts loadsa drinking and [mention of illegal substances deleted], awesome people, going out on a drinking session tomorrow all paid for by the company. Life could be worse I suppose ;)".

He hasn't sent us any pictures yet but here is an artist's impression of the before and after:

Planning, planning

So slowly we are starting to get into gear and seriously consider options, at least for the delivery trip. Sometime between 27 May and 8 June we need to get Kalessin across the North Sea to IJmuiden and as far in the general direction of Germany as we can.

It is tempting to aim for somewhere within reach of Bremen airport as Ryanair does ridiculously cheap flights there to Stansted (down to as little as one cent per head, plus check-in of course). On the other hand they are ridiculously cheap because they are at horrible times of day, so easyJet from Schiphol might be a better option.

I spent yesterday afternoon looking at possible places to leave Kalessin, with many hours on the ever-helpful DeutscheBahn timetable and the Dutch transport site 9292. Naturally both of these include buses and ferries (and walking times) as well as trains. Favourites so far are Monnickendam (15km from Amsterdam and very friendly); Hoorn (direct trains to Schiphol); and Enkhuizen (station is almost in the marina) - all of these we know already. Then on the other side of the IJsselmeer in the Frisian canals we could go to Leeuwarden (pretty moorings and good trains) and Groningen (excellent connections to everywhere). The latter two only work if we take the inland standing-mast route. If we go round the outside, the stopping places are almost all islands, which are definitely not ideal for leaving Kalessin!

This morning I've been working out tide times for the Harwich to IJmuiden route. In 2009 it took us almost exactly 24 hours and is quite an easy passage, but is really dependent on a couple of days of confirmed settled weather.

I'm still waiting for delivery of both electronic and paper charts - we have some, but not all we need. Easter, Royal Wedding and May Day are all very lovely, but they seem to stop anybody from doing any work or delivering anything at all (except Amazon). Once we have these we can start to do a bit of further passage planning.