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Firth of Forth, Take I: out to Bass Rock…

Strong south westerly winds detained me in Dunbar on Thursday 26th July. Many whitecaps, brightly lit in the sunshine were scattered over the Firth of Forth. XCWeather forecast Force 4-5 winds, gusting to F6. The risk of that turning into a Force 6 that gusting F7 meant staying ashore. However, the harbour at Dunbar has a pleasing combination of views over the Forth, interesting ruined castles at either end of the main harbour and is close to a wide variety of shops, pubs and restaurants. Even if the weather had allowed a departure I had two other good reasons to stay in Dunbar; Eddie Palmer had offered to come to Dunbar to share his in depth knowledge of the Caledonian Canal and I needed to get two punctures on my trolley wheels fixed. I’d collected one puncture when launching at Berwick so had used the spare but had punctured another tyre when hauling out at Dunbar. Broken glass seemed to be the cause of both punctures. Bob Clunas, the harbourmaster, very kindly offered to run me to a tyre garage where I was able to order two new tyres and inner tubes to be delivered the next day.

Eddie arrived mid-morning and we wandered up to the High St with Katherine to discuss the Caledonian Canal, the logistics of negotiating the 29 locks and finding places to camp along the route of the canal and the lochs which link Inverness to Fort William by water. I was glad to meet up with Eddie after not having seen him for some time and was We continued our conversation over lunch in ‘The Volunteer’ pub and Eddie kindly gave me a copy of a guide to the Caledonian Canal Canoe Trail, in book form, which he’d helped to produce. Eddie had also arranged for a pass which would enable me to use the locks rather than portage around them. Half the cost had been funded by the Scottish canals authority and the other half of the cost had been paid for by contributions from canoeing friends of Eddie. I’m very grateful for the generosity of the canal authority and Eddie and his friends. After Eddie had departed Katherine and I spent the rest of the day writing, shopping, reading and generally pottering.

By Friday the mainly westerly wind had started to moderate. I still wasn’t sure that the wind strength had dropped enough for the exposed crossing to Crail on the north side of the Forth. However, by mid-morning it seemed there was a bit less wind. I phoned the Forth and Aberdeen coastguard station to inform them of my passage. Paddling from the small inner harbour and under the lifting bridge, I raised the mast before paddling out through the narrow harbour entrance blasted through the rock in the late 1800s. Making way against the breeze whistling into the harbour was a struggle and I narrowly averted hitting the channel wall when a particularly strong gust swung the bows to port.

Outside the harbour I was able to set sail with two reefs and headed a little north of west, towards Bass Rock. Earlier that morning, the consensus of opinion amongst a few of the lifeboat crew / fishermen and Bob Clunas, the harbourmaster, had been that it might pay me to stay in the lee /shelter of the shoreline between Dunbar and Berwick until close to Bass Rock, where I would then be exposed to the full force of the wind and waves coming down the Firth of Forth. This would be an opportunity to test the conditions before committing to the crossing and would provide a safe downwind escape route back to Dunbar if necessary. This made a lot of sense. As I’ve sailed round the coast I’ve often found such advice, founded on a wealth of local experience, very valuable.

Close reaching towards Bass Rock was slow work, with short steeps waves often slowing the boat to 3 knots or less. As I started to leave the shelter of the shore to my left, the gust became stronger. With 3 reefs in the mainsail, spray flew across the bows as we crashed into increasingly large waves. Easing the mainsheet and heading directly towards Crail made the going a bit easier, but after considering the conditions for 20 minutes or so I concluded that any further increase in wind strength might make the crossing very difficult, and possibly dangerous, so I turned round and headed back to Dunbar. I wasn’t able to raise the coastguard on the VHF*, so Greg gave them a call on my behalf to say I was returning.

Back in the lee of the southern Forth shore, sailing fast downwind in the sun was a welcome contrast to the previous up wind slog and I was back at Dunbar in a fraction of the time taken to sail upwind towards Bass Rock. Fortunately, I’d been able to phone Katherine before she’d driven from Dunbar to Crail (only 15 miles by sea but over 90 miles by road via the Forth Road Bridge).

* I’ve often been unable to raise the Coastguard on my handheld VHF. From my previous experience this is fairly typical of the performance that can be expected from a handheld VHF when coastal sailing and is, I assume, due to the comparatively low power output and low aerial height. Standing up to use the VHF improves performance but this is too risky in anything other than very calm conditions. Calling the Coastguard from my waterproof mobile phone has usually been more reliable, but I would not recommend solely relying on a mobile phone which would be a poor substitute for a VHF in an emergency (not able to broadcast a ‘Mayday’ or ‘Pan Pan’, not suitable for calling other vessels in the vicinity, etc). However, I would recommend carrying a waterproof mobile phone in addition to a marine VHF when coastal sailing or paddling in a small boat.

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