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Crossing to Cowes…

On the 7th June I set out from Netley Sailing Club intending to reach Bembridge. The forecast was southerly: 20 knots with 25 knot gusts. I was keeping a close watch on the conditions. The actual wind direction was more south easterly than southerly, which was not helpful for a passage to Bembridge. I started out with four reefs, but was able to sail unreefed for a while. I reefed progressively as I reached more exposed waters, where the actual winds were force 5. As I was off Calshot I picked up a weather forecast on the VHF predicting Gale Force 8 ‘later’ (later in this context means 12 or more hours away) – so nothing imminent, but in view of southerly wind and worsening outlook, I changed my plans and headed for Cowes.

The Solent crossing went well. I made good progress to windward at 3 to 3½ knots and the boat coped well with the conditions, with the long crowned foredeck shedding the waves nicely. As I neared Cowes and the lee of the Island the wind dropped down to a Force 3 to 4. Unfortunately, about a mile from the entrance to Cowes my tiller and rudder parted company. Later examination showed that this was due to a completely unprecedented and one off manufacturing fault.*

When the steering failed I was in the Eastern approach channel to the Solent (main shipping channel) just north of Cowes. An attempt to reconnect the steering was unsuccessful so I resorted to steering upwind, towards Cowes, with a single bladed paddle. This is a standard “plan B” for a sailing canoe and in the right conditions can be very effective (and sometimes preferred) steering method. However, it was difficult to maintain good upwind performance in the moderately rough sea state. The skipper of a Southampton Harbour Pilot Boat was concerned about my presence in the shipping lane without fully functional steering and towed me to one side of the shipping lane. He suggested I should be towed to Cowes by the Inshore Lifeboat. In view of the potential proximity of large ships and the possibility of worsening conditions, I agreed.

Talking to Patrick Moreton (the Coxswain) and to the lifeboat crew (afterwards), they agreed that I may well have been able to carry on to the Island unassisted, but that the best course in the circumstances, had been to be towed to Cowes. Patrick commented that I was well equipped and clearly experienced. One of the lifeboat crew turned out to be a shipwright and very kindly offered to repair the rudder / tiller by the following morning. The Island Sailing Club made me very welcome for two nights while the predicted bad weather passed, so I had an opportunity to reflect on the experience and to prepare for the next leg to Chichester Harbour.

*Looking back, the completely unexpected steering failure at the worst possible point in the crossing to Cowes was deeply unfortunate and, at the time very depressing, but I’m not sure how it could have been anticipated or prevented. In the circumstances, I’m convinced I made the right decision and that the seaman-like thing to do was to accept the tow. I know that no similar failure has ever occurred with any other rudder built by Solway Dory and in no way has it diminished my confidence in their boats. Rather, after now having sailing several hundred miles in Stacey, I am now even more impressed with the design, seakindleness and build quality of the Solway Dory Shearwater sailing canoe.

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