1,000 miles in a Solway Dory sailing canoe…

On Tuesday this week I decided to call a halt to my voyage at Oban. My 3 month sabbatical ends soon. I could do with a bit of R&R time before returning to work and Katherine will be joining me at Tighnabruaich tomorrow. I had hoped to sail from Oban to Tighnabruaich but forecasts of strong south and south-westerly winds ruled out the passage to Crinan via the Dorus Mor tidal race for a couple of days.

On Wednesday Stacey was loaded onto the roof rack and I travelled to Arran with Dave and Hilary, by road and ferry. I’m currently at Holy Isle, near Arran, and will soon leave to sail 20 miles north to Tighnabruaich.

Just before reaching Oban I clocked up 1000 nautical miles. Ideally I would have liked to have sailed and paddled further, but given the challenging conditions of this summer, particularly along the East coast, I’m happy to have made it to the West coast of Scotland. The physical and mental strains of sailing a very small boat alone on the North Sea in strong winds and large waves meant that there were times when I was close to giving up, and I confess there were times when I was very scared, but I’m glad I persisted with the voyage. I would not like to have missed many of the experiences of the last 2 1/2 months.

I’ve seen much of Britain’s amazing coastline from a special ‘upclose’ perspective usually only experienced by sea kayakers and a few intrepid dinghy sailors. I have many great memories, not the least of which are of the people I’ve met along the way and of the huge amount of support and generosity I’ve benefited from. So, huge thanks to all those who’ve been so kind and helpful.

I hope to bring my blog up to date soon and there are many photos and a quite a few videos which may be of interest to others. I’d also like to thank all who have generously donated to Hospitality Action. I’m sure the funds raised will be put to good use. Of course, the fundraising has not ended, so please contribute something if you haven’t already.

In addition to the sailing challenge and the fundraising, another of my objectives was to demonstrate the capabilities and possibilities afforded by a well designed and equipped sailing canoe. I’d like to thank Solway Dory for building me a superb boat which has stood the test of some very challenging conditions, with winds of up to force 7 and waves of up to 6 feet, although thankfully not quite both to the full extent at the same time.

This voyage of mine has not finished and there are many of the best bits to come. However, they’ll have to wait for another year. I hope what I’ve achieved may inspire someone with more time and courage than me to sail all the way round Britain in a sailing canoe. I’m not in the same league, but I feel I can say I’ve made a passable attempt at following in the tradition of the ‘Canoe Boys’ and John McGregor.

Stonehaven Harbour

Milton Haven to Stonehaven…

The small campsite at Milton Haven was a perfect place to camp with the boat on the beach nearby. Unfortunately, I managed to upset the owner who sped towards us on his quad bike, like a four wheeled dour version of Mr McHenry from the Magic Roundabout, to inform us I’d pitched a tent next to the campervan in an area that was for campervans only – as he’d clearly explained when Dave and Hilary had arrived. He now repeated himself three times over, just be certain we had received the message. However, moving the tent a few yards to the left seemed to pacify him and Mr McHenry ensured a quiet evening free from rowdy youngsters and barking dogs . Thereafter, we were careful to obey all the rules and so were left in peace for the rest of our stay.

Monday dawned grey and overcast with little wind. The previous day’s sail from Arbroath had brought me 16 nautical miles up the coast. Actually, I had sailed 21 across the ground as I’d tacked northward. The wind was again forecast to be light and from the ‘wrong’ direction, but I was keen to continue to make progress and try to reach Stonehaven, some 13 nautical miles along the coast. Dave and I thought the day would be a good opportunity to experiment with the relative merits of tacking (just sailing), paddle-sailing (and tacking) and just paddling upwind. Dave set up the GPS to display ‘Velocity Made Good’ (or VMG) to windward which measures speed towards an upwind destination rather than speed across the ground or through the water. This would help me to work out which of the three canoe sailing options was the fastest upwind.

Setting off after breakfast and tacking upwind, I passed a series of tall rugged cliffs with a great many sea caves, some spectacular water sculpted rock arches and several small streams cascading over the cliffs onto the rocks below. I felt a strong desire to land, pause and soak in the scenery for a while. However, the tide was soon due to turn against me so I pressed on in mostly force 2 conditions. Experimenting with the various upwind options gave the approximate results for VMG of; just paddling with a double bladed paddle – 2.2 knots, just sailing – 2.7 knots, and paddle sailing with a single bladed paddle – 3.2 knots. As I fought upwind against the increasing south going tide and the wind becoming fitful, some fairly aggressive paddle sailing was need to clear Downie Point just south of Stonehaven. On a starboard tack I inched northward at 1 to 2 knots over the ground and on a port tack the tide swept me south, back towards Milton Haven. Thankfully, the port tacks were short and just after Downie Point the wind picked up a little and I was able to sail into the small sandy bay just south of Stonehaven harbour. The local sailing club found a space nearby for me to park Stacey for the night and Dave, Hilary and I booked into a B&B conveniently situated very close to the harbour. During the day I’d sailed 17 nautical miles across the ground.

Arbroath to Milton Haven…

After meeting up with me as I sailed up the coast from Berwick to Arbroath, Katherine was due to depart on Wednesday 1st August. Apart from meaning we were able to be together after much time apart, having Katherine to provide ‘shore support’ and follow me round the coast with the camper van had been a welcome relief from the business of arriving at a destination and dealing with getting the boat out of the water, leaving it somewhere safe, sorting out accommodation or camping, cooking and so on. Even with Greg’s considerable help from a distance, the ‘off the water’ workload of solo canoe sailing had taken big chunks of time, often on top of long days on the water. My previous experience of canoe sailing expeditions in company have not included most of this extra workload. Campsites have been next to boat landing sites and remote locations have meant few security concerns. The time for reflection, analysis and lessons learned will be later this year, but I am now sure that if I ever plan another trip anything like this then it will be either in company or with a shore support vehicle for the duration. However, back to Arbroath.

With the above in mind and after seven weeks of battling up the North Sea alone in poor weather and with repeated unseasonal northerly and easterly wind and waves, I was feeling I could do with a short break from the East Coast. So I elected to accompany Katherine back to Dave and Hilary’s home at Grange, stay with them for two nights and then drive back up to Arbroath with Dave and Hilary who were going to continue the vehicle support whilst enjoying a holiday in Scotland.

Driving south to the Lake District and staying with Dave and Hilary was indeed a welcome break and meant I could spend a little more time with Katherine before she took the train back to our home in Southampton. I was also able to meet Chris Wheeler briefly when he arrived to collect his new Mk 2 Shearwater Sailing Canoe like mine, from Solway Dory. He looked as pleased as I felt when I had collected Stacey, and he couldn’t wait to get on the water the next day. I’m hoping Chris might be able to join me for some part of my passage down the West Coast in a week or two’s time.

Arriving back in Arbroath with Dave and Hilary on Saturday 4th August, feeling much refreshed, I took them to the boatyard where Stacey had stayed for three days. We found Stacey next to the cradle where a very large fishing boat had stood out of the water. My thanks are due to Paul Simpson of Mackay Boat Builders, who very kindly looked after Stacey while I was away and for free. We found a campsite on the north side of town and after pitching my tent as a fog descended, we returned to the harbour for fish and chips. These were eaten in traditional style on a bench next to the harbour whilst looking at a wide variety of boats, some of which were there especially for the annual Arbroath Sea Festival. We spent a while looking at The Reaper, a huge twin masted lugsail herring drifter. Registered in 1902 she is now based at Arbroath and sailed by the Scottish Fisheries Museum Boat Club. MacKay Boat builders and the Scottish Fisheries Museum Boat Club share the maintenance work. We also briefly met Alec who’d come up from the Tyne with three traditional fishing boats especially for the festival.

Next morning at 6.30 the fog of the night before had mostly lifted so I woke Dave and Hilary. Dave busied himself with setting fire to the meths stove in the van but we managed to get it out and onto the grass before a wider conflagration ensued. Fortunately, the day was saved by my back-up stove which was used to boil water for strong coffee, whilst Hilary kindly made me some sandwiches. I was pleased to be able to launch and sail out the harbour by 8.15 but then had to return to show Dave how to find reverse gear for the campervan. Dave was having a bad day, later topped off by blowing up the cigarette lighter socket in the van and disabling the domestic electrics. However, I set off for the second time just before 9 and paddle-sailed northward under grey skies and in light winds. Long starboard tacks alternated with short port tacks out to sea and the skies slowly lightened to give bright sunshine by noon. The wide sandy expanse of Lunan Bay followed the tall dark cliffs north of Arbroath. Paddle-sailing alternated with just sailing and occasionally just paddling. By late afternoon I was approaching the top of St Cyrus Bay just South of Milton Haven where Dave and Hilary had found a perfect little campsite next to a stream and a small cove where I’d be able to land the boat.

A haze began to form close to the sand dune backed beach, while to the north east the horizon disappeared behind a fog bank. Then quite suddenly I was enveloped in a thick fog with visibility down to 100 meters. Fortunately I been able to get a bearing on the top of St Cyrus Bay, of 330 degrees. I sailed a course of 320 degrees so as to approach the coast short of my destination, which would then enable me to short tack up towards Milton Haven within sight of land*. I find sailing in fog a bit unnerving but my plan worked and the St Cyrus Bay beach appeared out the fog just before the sun reappeared. Further fog patches and sunshine alternated as I cautiously tacked up the rocky coast north of St Cyrus to find Milton Haven where Dave was waving to me from the beach. Together we pulled Stacey up the steep shingle beach and above the tide line, before going off to the van for a cup of tea.

* This is sometimes referred to as a navigational ‘built in error’ and means that when the coast is found there is some certainty about which way to turn to sail towards the intended destination. Without this, in fog there will be little certainty about which way to go when the coast is reached and a high chance of making the wrong choice – thus sailing away from a safe port, haven or landing.

Leaving Crail

Crail to Arbroath

Leaving Crail

Leaving Crail


Light winds were forecast for Tuesday 31st July but the direction was favourable for a 20 nautical mile passage round Fife Ness and across the Firth of Tay to Arbroath. Katherine and I had spent a great evening in a small hotel in Crail with fantastic views over the Firth of Forth and of the Isle of May, so feeling refreshed I launched into the small harbour and drifted out of the shelter of the hills surrounding Crail. A light north easterly breeze took me along the north shore of the Firth of Forth towards the point of Fife Ness at around 3 knots. It wasn’t possible to raise the coastguard on the marine VHF due to surrounding hills and cliffs, but once in sight of the Coastguard station at Fife Ness I was able to register my vessel’s details and my passage to Arbroath. The officer on duty wished me well and I confirmed I’d call later to report my safe arrival. Dodging numerous creel buoys I sailed in company with a small Drascombe with tan sails for a while.

Rounding Fife Ness in bright sunshine I steered to the east of the post marking the edge of the reef that extended eastwards from the point. Later, with the expanse of the Firth of Tay to my left, the wind increased in strength to F3 gusting 4, backing to the south east whilst the waves also slowly increased in size. By now I was on a reach and making a much better speed toward Arbroath than expected (around 5 to 6 knots as an average). Whilst this was welcome I wasn’t entirely sure what the effect would be at the shallow entrance to Arbroath Harbour. Reeds warned about the dangers of the entrance in moderate swell conditions and I knew I’d be entering the harbour fairly close to low water when breakers would be more likely. I concluded I’d be unlikely to have a problem as there had been insufficient time for any significant wave height to build, but a slight nagging doubt remained. I’ve found this sort of uncertainty typical of sailing unfamiliar waters in a small vessel. For example, in the Solent I’d have no difficulty with working out what the implications of a wind against tide situation in the Needles Channel would be for a sailing canoe; because pilotage guides are written for yachts, I’d also have little problem with entering a harbour for the first time in a yacht in less than ideal weather. In the event there were no breakers at the harbour entrance and after reaching Arbroath I soon had Stacey on a boatyard slipway next to a very large fishing boat, which was out of the water for deck repairs and repainting.

The large fishing harbour, with a marina in the inner harbour, offered nothing in the way of camping possibilities, campervan or not, so Katherine and I booked into a B&B where I was able to catch up a little on blogging and recharge the VHF, mobile phones, camera batteries and so on. The next day dawned grey with grey skies and fog (visibility of less than a mile) whilst waves from the spell of fresh south easterly winds were intermittently breaking over the harbour wall, so we spent the day looking round the harbour and visiting the Signal Tower Museum* and Arbroath Abbey.**

* Built in 1813, by Robert Stevenson (the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson), the Signal Tower complex was the shore station of the Bell Rock Lighthouse until 1955 and provided a home to its keepers and their families. The museum, housed in the signal tower building, has a fascinating exhibition concerning the building and history of the Bell Rock lighthouse, the first sea washed lighthouse in the world, also built by Robert Stevenson. The Bell Rock lighthouse is situated 11 miles from Arbroath on the notorious Inchcape reef which wrecked many ships before the lighthouse was finished in 1812.
** Arbroath Abbey is the site of the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath which asserted Scottish independence. The ruins of the once huge abbey are impressive. There is an interesting exhibition concerning the declaration, Scottish history and the long history of conflict with England.


Across the Forth – Take Two!

My retreat to Dunbar after finding the sea and wind conditions too strong for a safe crossing was frustrating, but it did mean Katherine and I would be able to catch up with my cousin Sarah, her 3 children and also with my uncle, John. The strong winds continued through Saturday and Sunday, but the weather was mostly sunny and we enjoyed a great leisurely weekend at Sarah’s beautiful house on a country estate close to Dunbar. Sarah and I compared memories of childhood visits to our grandparents living near Bamburgh, Northumberland. Like me, Sarah had a vivid recollection of the flash of the Longstone Lighthouse at night. I remember it lighting up the bedroom where I slept and Sarah remembers the two flashes in quick succession illuminating a stained glass window half way up the stairs.

I was also able to visit John Muirs’ birthplace on the high street of Dunbar, where there is an excellent permanent exhibition about his life and writings. I hadn’t heard of John Muir before but the importance of his pioneering environmental work is widely recognised in America, to which he emigrated in 1849. In his later life John Muir spent 4 days hiking in Yosemite with President Theodore Roosevelt and persuaded him to establish the world’s first national park. John Muir believed passionately in the educational and spiritual importance of wilderness.  “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike”,  John Muir – The Yosemite (1912)

Visiting my uncle on Sunday evening was a chance to share memories of the past and to talk about life in East Lothian. I was very touched to be given some family letters and mementos, which included a 1927 postcard sent by my grandfather to my grandmother. Previously, I’d been discussing where my round Britain circumnavigation might finish this year* and Tignabruaich, near Bute in the Firth of Clyde had been mentioned. On the front of the postcard was a black and white photograph of Tighnabruaich with an ‘x’ marking the location of a house near the sea front.

I eventually and regretfully left Dunbar late on Monday morning. My destination was Crail, a small village on the north side of the Firth of Forth but I planned to visit the Isle of May, small island and nature reserve at the mouth of the Forth. The forecast was for a westerly force 2 to 3 wind and as I sailed north in the sunshine I watched heavy rain showers chasing each other down the north shore of the Forth. Around 8 miles later I found the small cove called Kirkhaven on the south west corner of The Isle of May and after furling the sail, paddled along the narrow cleft in the rocks towards a tiny beach at the north end. Two people came to greet me; Dave Pickett, the warden and a builder who was staying on the island to repair roofs. I walked up to the small cluster of buildings near the centre of the island with Dave and while we drank coffee in his apartment, situated in the old lighthouse keeper’s house, he told me a little of his work and love for the island.

Dave stays on the island between March and October to conduct wildlife surveys and look after the nature reserve. He writes a fascinating and vivid blog which can be found here.

I wandered the green island pathways for a while looking at the two lighthouses and the views out over the Forth. Most of the nesting birds had departed but there were still a few terns and guillemots, and a great many rabbits. I would have liked to stay longer but the wind was light and I was concerned that the ebbing tide might make it difficult to reach Crail. Back at Kirkhaven, the receding tide had left Stacey high and dry but it wasn’t difficult to drag her over the sand and into the water. As I sailed out towards the Forth in a gentle breeze I shot some video of the scene accompanied by the cries of numerous sea birds lining the narrow harbour entrance.

Contrary to my fears the short passage to Crail went well and I was soon pulling the boat out of the water in Crail’s small harbour. Katherine was there to greet me having driven over 90 miles by road from Dunbar (via the Forth Road Bridge). We soon found a place to leave Stacey by the side of the harbour and then drove to Anstruther for a fish supper at the award winning and famous Anstruther Fish Bar.

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.

Sailing With Steve at Berwick

Berwick to Dunbar…

I was fortunate to have arrived at the sailing club on the weekend of the annual Coquet Shorebase Trust’s three day visit to Berwick Sailing Club. The trust is a community based watersports centre offering sailing, canoeing and kayaking for all. Berwick Sailing Club has become a fixture in their annual calendar and provides an excellent base for coastal and river canoeing and kayaking. A party of kayakers returned from a 6 mile long paddle down the Tweed soon after I’d showered and changed. Over lunch they reported some difficulty with the strong wind but an otherwise excellent down river trip. Berwick Sailing Club is an ideal location for sailing and canoeing events with river paddling, sailing / paddling in the harbour and out at sea all close to hand. Camping is possible and the club is very welcoming and hospitable.

Katherine arrived with our camper van during lunch. It was the first we’d seen of each other for two weeks. Later, we were made very welcome at a barbeque in the evening and discussed the trust’s open access policy which enables people of all ages and all abilities to learn how to sail and paddle. The trust organises an annual canoeing and sailing race from Amble around Coquet Island and back with a party afterwards. I’d very much like to meet this enthusiastic and friendly group again, so hope to make it back to Amble next year to take part in the Coquet Island race in June.

Next day, on Monday, I took Steve, one of the group members, for a short sail on the river. Later, Katherine and I took a walk around the ancient town walls, built in the 16th century to defend the town against the Scots. The Act of Union followed 30 years after the completion of the walls – so they were never fought over and are the nation’s best preserved Elizabethan fortifications. Well worth a visit to see the impressive walls, ramparts and cunningly designed gun batteries able to repel an enemy at a distance but also close to the town walls. After lunch, all from Coquet Shorebase departed and the sailing club seemed very quiet after all the activity of the previous day and a half.

Reluctant to leave, we slowly packed up next morning and I departed close to noon. A strong ebb tide propelled me down the river to the harbour entrance where I turned north, sailing close to the line of dark rocky cliffs, interspersed with green slopes. Sailing slowly in the sunshine, I wasn’t sure I’d left early enough to reach Eyemouth before the tide turned against me. As I neared a small cove thick clouds formed at the top of the cliffs, whilst out to sea the northeast the horizon disappeared beneath a bank of fog. Looking at the cove, I could see three small groups of houses between the sea and the high cliffs behind. My charts revealed the cove was Burnmouth with a small harbour accessible at most states of the tide. Carefully following the leading marks in the steep ravine leading down to the cove, I sailed toward the concealed harbour entrance. A group of three grey seals on a rock slid into the clear water as I approached.

Inside the harbour I was able to pull Stacey out a small slipway before walking toward a white cottage at the north end of the bay where I was told I might find the harbour master. I didn’t locate harbour master, John, until sometime later but along the way several people took an interest in my boat and my journey northward. When I did eventually find John he asked if I knew there was a charge for landing and launching but on hearing about the purpose of my sail he waived all charges and said I’d be welcome to stay as long as I wanted. We looked at his small open boat which he thought might be the smallest registered fishing boat in Britain. He used it for creel (lobster pot) fishing and hoped to continue fishing until his eighties to become Britain’s oldest fisherman. Katherine soon arrived with the camper van which we parked next to a harbour jetty before visiting the pub, The Gull’s Nest, at the top of very steep road leading up to the cliff-top. Just over the border from England, the pub is also known as ‘The First and Last’.

Coffee and passage planning were the next morning’s first priorities. I hoped this day’s sail would take me to Dunbar passing St Abb’s Head along the way. As I was looking up tide times a fisherman approached and tapped on the window. I rolled it down and he said “for your charity” handing me a tenner. I assumed someone had told him of my arrival and purposes of my trip. Later, seeing him and his crew loading up a fishing boat with fish boxes, I went over to talk.

Alistair was the owner of a wooden fishing boat called the Village Belle. He’d had her 40 years since new but was finding small fish quotas, for example only 35kg of mackerel per week, were making it very difficult to scratch a living. He doubted there would be any fishing boats left along this stretch of coast in ten years’ time. Alistair also ran trips for anglers. He told me that the recent run of bad weather with long periods of northerly and easterly winds had led to 70% of these fishing trips being cancelled. This made his generosity all the more special. However, as I’ve previously recorded, on this voyage I’ve found people in almost everywhere I’ve visited keen to offer me assistance whether it be helping to pull the boat up a beach, or a bed for the night, or somewhere to store the boat, or a meal.

Alistair’s gift reminded me of one of the purposes of my voyage which is to raise money for Hospitality Action. This charity for Catering and Hospitality Industry workers in need may not initially quite tug at the heart strings in the way that some other charities might but they do excellent work and are a lifeline to many. So please have a look at their website and make a donation, even if only a small one, by visiting this blog and clicking on the Just Giving link.

Before leaving Burnmouth, Katherine and I looked at a small harbour wall memorial to those that died in the terrible fishing disaster of 1881. On Monday 17th Oct 1881 the Edinburgh Evening News reported:

The disastrous results of the storm last week have now been properly realised and it is seen that so far as the Berwickshire fishing fleet is concerned, they are the most appalling that have fallen upon the fishing population of that quarter within living memory. Of the boats belonging to Eyemouth alone, several were wrecked within sight of the harbour and altogether 64 lives are known to have been lost, while 11 boats with 74 persons on board are still missing. There is but too much reason to fear that most of them will never be heard of.

Another £20 donation to Hospitality Action followed from another stranger, on holiday but with strong connections to Burnmouth. Glad to be in Scotland and setting sail in fine weather, I made ready to depart and around 11 am, paddled out to sea, setting sail for Dunbar just outside the harbour entrance.

As I departed from Burnmouth around 11 am, the forecast for Wednesday 25th July was for variable light winds and sun. Away from the harbour I found the light breeze was from the north. Tacking slowly towards the point just South of Eyemouth, I could see from the light ripples around the creel buoys that the north going tidal flow was beginning to gather pace. A Dutch yacht travelling in the opposite direction passed close by. I exchanged waves with the crew and took a photo of the only yacht I passed close to in the North Sea. St Abb’s gradually increased in size. A lighthouse and several white buildings stood on top of the high rocky headland with patches of green sward running down towards the sea. Sailing very close to the rocks I rounded the headland to see the south shore of the Firth of Forth stretching away to the west. The light wind died as I passed a small fishing boat checking creels for lobster.

With the mainsail furled I paddled toward the distant outline of Torness nuclear power station east of Dunbar. I’d left most of my camping equipment and other baggage in the campervan so powering along at a speed of just over 3 knots was easy work. For a while a seal followed me for a while, revealing his presence with loud exhalations as he surfaced, but as soon as I looked behind he’d shyly dive below the surface again. I tried to catch a photo of the seal during this game of grandma’s footsteps but he was too elusive. From time to time a sea breeze would persuade me to stop paddling and unfurl the sail and I’d briefly speed along at 4 knots. But then the wind would fade away and I’d be back to paddling.

Close to the harbour at Dunbar, I carefully followed the safe passage between several large rocks and then paddled in through the narrow cleft in the rocks which leads to the harbour. Katherine was there to meet me and had met the harbour master who raised the small lifting bridge so I could pass through to the small inner harbour without dropping the mast. Bob Clunas, the harbourmaster helped me pull Stacey up the slipway and said it was no problem to park the boat and campervan next to the harbour while we stayed in Dunbar.

Steve and Northern Soul

Lindisfarne to Berwick in a Strong Wind…

Steve and Northern Soul

Steve and Northern Soul

I slept well on the yacht Northern Soul. In the morning, enjoying the feeling of being dry and warm, I lay in the forward cabin thinking about the day ahead whilst halyards clanked against the mast. I was grateful for Steve’s kind offer of shelter on his yacht Northern Soul, without which I would have had a much less comfortable night. Katherine was due to join me at Berwick which was about 8 nautical miles away by sea. I was looking forward to a short sail in moderate westerly winds and to seeing Katherine later that morning.

Steve made tea and toast and we shared the last of his jam on the toast whilst listening to the inshore waters forecast over the marine VHF radio. The forecast for the day had changed and the prediction was now Force 4 to 5 winds occasionally gusting 6 with a warning of force 8 later (i.e. in 12 or more hours’ time). Greg confirmed XC weather was predicting much the same so I was keen to set sail before the wind increased any further.

Casting off, Steve and I took photos of each other and our boats before I tacked out of the small bay under a reefed mainsail. Reversing the path in from the sea was simple enough but this time the ebb tide sped me on my way and I was soon sailing north with Lindisfarne close on the port side. Gusts of wind swept me along with the waves to Emmanuel Head where I turned to port towards Berwick, just discernible as a slight dip in the distant line of cliffs stretching away to the North.

The offshore wind protected me from large waves. Nevertheless, sailing into small but short steep waves, spray flew across the foredeck and fairly frequent bailing was required. I steered a course upwind of Berwick. This was partly as an insurance against the wind veering, but also to bring me closer to the shore where, with less fetch, the waves would be smaller. As the wind gradually increased over the course of the next two hours I progressively reefed (by rolling the sail around the mast) until there were 5 reefs in. I experimented with 6 reefs but found with this tiny amount of sail it was not possible to sail upwind. So I carried on with 5 reefs, spilling wind in fierce gusts.

Fortunately, I was now close to the shore and landed on the sandy beach for a respite and to consider whether I’d be able to sail to Berwick harbour, 2 miles to the North. Greg made enquiries with Berwick Sailing Club where the commodore, Alistair, confirmed conditions at the harbour entrance weren’t difficult although there was a strong fresh water spate coming down the river which might mean paddling against wind and the water flow, once inside the harbour entrance.

Berwick at Last!

Berwick at Last!

Checking the forecasts again with Greg, it seemed there was no immediate prospect of a sudden further increase in wind strength so I took advantage of a slight lull in the wind to launch. Sailing close inshore on a reach, gusts, showing as dark ruffles on the water, swept toward me. Still with 5 reefs, boat speed in the gusts surged to over 6 knots, so it didn’t take long to reach the safety of Berwick harbour. Due to the strong winds the sailing club had given up sailing for the day but they kindly sent the club safety boat to motor alongside as I tacked upstream against the flow of clear brown peaty fresh water.

I was ashore soon after 1.00 pm. Sailing club members and visitors from the Coquet Canoe Club helped pull Stacey up the steep sandy river bank. Alistair arrived to say hello and assured me Katherine and I would be very welcome to camp at the club and use their showers. As I looked across the river to the 16th century town walls and the town beyond I was glad to be safely ashore with a warm welcome from Berwick Sailing Club.

Stacey and the Ribs

Amble to Lindisfarne…

Saturday dawned sunny with a promise of a real summer day. I took a breakfast of cereal and toast alone at the B&B, before anyone else was about, and departed for Coquet Yacht Club, carrying two drybags over my shoulder. After loading up and rigging the boat in the sun I pushed off. A light wind barely disturbed the surface of the water, but the ebb tide carried me steadily down the River Coquet past moored yachts, small motor cruisers and the marina. Passing the high harbour wall and the fishing boats tied alongside, I looked toward the harbour entrance. Unlike previous days, the breakers, formed as the ebb tide swept out into the calm North Sea, were small and posed no threat. Sailing gently northward, about half a mile offshore with a gentle breeze from the south west, I watched the panorama of wide sandy beaches, sand dunes, green fields and the grey blue outline of the Cheviots slowly drift by. Wide bays alternated with rocky stretches of coast and headlands. As I passed Craster’s small harbour, the dark outline of the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle came closer. The hillside under the castle was covered with many small dome shaped white tents pitched there as part of an art installation project to celebrate the Olympics. I’d looked at some details two days before when I was in Craster. The event was described as a ‘Peace Camp’ and live event, but camping was not permitted and all the performances were recorded. I expect celebrations and camps were more lively affairs in the castle’s 14th century heyday.

Around midday, I could see the Farne Islands clearly. The tide, which had been carrying north, began to slacken. The wind became slight. Keen to reach Inner Farne before the tide turned, I paddle sailed. Gradually, the outline of Inner Farne, with its white lighthouse, increased in size. Puffins floated on the water. Their small wings seem inadequate for flying, but as I approached they launched themselves away from me across the waves, and after much frantic pattering across the water and whirring of wings, they took flight with their large orange Puffin feet trailing behind. Sooner than I’d expected, the tide started to run south. I was just able to reach the shelter of a small area of water known as ‘The Kettle’ (between Inner Farne and two nearby smaller islands) before I was swept back southward.*

The Farne Islands are a nature reserve owned by the National Trust. Landing, particularly during the breeding season for seabirds, is restricted, with all of the Farne Islands except Inner Farne currently out of bounds. Also, it wasn’t possible for me to pull Stacey ashore on the only small sandy beach as Arctic terns were nesting on the sand. Fortunately, two resident wardens had seen my arrival and kindly arranged for me to tie up alongside their RIB (stands for ‘rigid inflatable boat’) next to the small harbour wall. Small converted fishing boats from Seahouses arrived every half hour or so with visiting tourists and bird watchers to spend an hour or two walking around the designated pathways for views of the resident Arctic Terns, Common Terns, Shags, Puffins, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and other seabirds. The Arctic Terns seemed particularly unafraid of the visitors, making it possible to get very close before they flew off with scolding cries. I was glad of my Tilley Hat as Terns would occasionally shoo humans away from their nests by dive-bombing and pecking their heads. Puffins scurried about in the undergrowth, disappearing into and reappearing from their burrows. All around, the raucous cries of hundreds of seabirds filled the air.

The next tide running North was due about five hours after my arrival. This gave me plenty of time to relax on the small green next to the lighthouse, and to look out over the small sunlit archipelago stretching out to sea, with the large red and white lighthouse on Longstone in the distance. I talked to some of the wardens for a while. Some of the wardens live on the Farne Islands from March through to November, with one day off a week, and much of their time is spent doing wildlife surveys and looking after visitors. On a sunny July day, Inner Farne seemed an idyllic place but I could imagine how wild and isolated the island was during cold, wet and stormy weather, when the sea is sometimes too rough to launch a boat. I was reluctant to leave and asked the head warden whether it might be possible to stay overnight. After a phone call to his boss the answer was ‘yes’ but on thinking through the practicalities of where to ‘park’ Stacey when the ribs were on the pier for the night we couldn’t come up with a simple solution, so with regret I departed for Lindisfarne around 6 pm.

Carefully steering to the west of Swedman Buoy to avoid the hazards of the Megstones rocks, I paddle-sailed in a light wind towards Lindisfarne. The entrance to the harbour is somewhat tricky, but I managed to line up the brick built leading marks on the Old Law peninsula and found the Triton starboard hand buoy where I turned to Starboard and towards the harbour. In the increasing gloom of a cold and cloudy evening, I began to encounter a very strong ebb tide running out the harbour and struggled to make way against it in the light wind. Some frantic paddling was required and at one stage I had to resort to jumping out the boat in shallow water to tow the boat against the fast flowing water. To add to my discomfort I discovered I’d previously forgotten to close the waterproof zipped ‘fly’ in my drysuit. Cold seawater flowed in and down my legs. I cursed. Paddling into the small harbour where the receding tide was exposing areas of mud, I had a strong suspicion that camping on Lindisfarne is banned so I was resigned to a rather cramped night sleeping on the boat under a tarpaulin. A guy on a moored yacht called Northern Soul confirmed I was correct about the ‘no camping’ rule but sensing my lack of enthusiasm for sleeping on board Stacey whilst parked on the mud, he offered to put me up for the night. After tying Stacey up to his dinghy and transferring bags to the yacht, we pooled our food and drink and passed an enjoyable evening drinking an eclectic variety of drinks and mixers whilst discussing my canoe sailing journey and his previous career as a big band roadie. I suspect Steve was better company than me. Tired after the exertions of the day I began to flag and then started to nod off before eventually crawling into the forward cabin and falling asleep, just as the rain started to drum on the deck above me.

* The tidal streams near the Farne Islands run much stronger than those on the rest of the Northumbrian coast and are renowned for being difficult to predict accurately.

Craster & North Sea Surf

Paused at Amble…

Having just reached Scotland, and looking back with a little distance of time and space between, it seems my time in Amble was a low point in my journey around the coast. I knew that long sails, challenging conditions, getting ashore and doing this solo* would be physically and mentally arduous but I didn’t reckon on two things. The first being the worst British summer anyone can remember and the second being the hefty demand of the ‘off the water’ workload. By this I mean; getting ashore, setting up camp, or finding somewhere to stay, making sure the boat is safe, planning the next day’s sail, domestic tasks, answering emails and blogging.

In addition to delays waiting for wind or waves to abate, the long run of exceptionally bad weather has often meant sailing solo in challenging conditions without any nearby safe havens. Physically, this has been hard work but mentally it’s been a whole lot tougher with some very difficult decisions concerning wind, weather and what’s an acceptable level of risk. Plus, there were some periods of very demanding sailing in large waves and or strong winds, or both, with a high level of vigilance needed to stay safe. Simply put, days of sailing in strong winds and into five foot waves, alone, was taking its toll. To add to my woes, my knee injury was increasingly painful and beginning to make walking difficult.

After a night’s rest on the floor of the Coquet Yacht Club floor, light winds would have allowed a Wednesday departure but a day’s to rest and allow injuries to recover seemed the better option. I occupied the time with updating the account of my voyage, reading and visiting the local supermarket for food supplies. On Thursday morning I prepared to leave but, looking seaward from Coquet Yacht Club, could see breakers at the harbour entrance so walked the half mile to the harbour pier to take a closer look. Large rollers from the North East were causing large breaking waves on the entrance. A departure was clearly not possible that day and I later heard that most of the local lobster boats had returned to harbour after finding the sea conditions too rough for comfort or safety. Talking to Greg confirmed that websites such as XC Weather and Magic Seaweed (a surfers’ website) were reporting a wave height of 4 to 5 feet, which was predicted to take a couple of days to die down. No doubt, the cause was some stronger winds far out sea, perhaps as far away as Norway. I’m learning that Northerly and Easterly North Sea winds often lead to such sea states which can persist for some time. In any normal summer this is unusual, but not this year. Landing on beaches was clearly impossible with large breakers and talking to one of the Coquet Yacht Club members who happened by, confirmed that all the harbours between Amble and Lindisfarne, some 22 nautical miles to the North, were open to the North or East.

Craster & North Sea Surf

Craster & North Sea Surf

In the afternoon, deciding to make best use of time ashore waiting for the sea to calm down, I took a bus to Alnwick to collect a hire car which would enable me to drive up the coast to check out the sea conditions at harbour entrances, but also to revisit some of the places I new as a child. Craster’s tiny harbour looked calm enough but outside large white breakers surrounded, and occasionally invaded, the narrow rocky channel leading to the entrance. An angler on the end of the harbour pier assured me this was common in winter but was very rare in summer. A short walk into the small village yielded wonderful smells of the famous Craster kippers being smoked in a large two storey shed but sadly, nowhere to buy a hot kipper, toast and mug of tea. So I left to explore Beadnell beach and the river mouth at Alnmouth, both to the South. Neither seemed to present much in the way of safe havens in the prevailing sea conditions but Alnmouth was an attractive enough spot with a village next to the River Aln as it wound its way over the sandy beach. I watched anglers fishing for flatfish for a while before continuing back to Amble. A night in a B&B and comfortable bed helped ease some of the knee and back pain.

Next morning I continued my exploration of the coast with a visit to Seahouses which had become much busier and commercial since childhood visits with my grandmother. However, it was still recognisable and the harbour was much the same but the fishing boats had been largely replaced, or converted to day trip boats taking tourists and bird watchers to the Farne Islands. The roundabout where my grandmother used to take short cut up to the high street, against the flow of traffic, rather than go the longer right way round, was still there. So I took a photo for memory’s sake.

By contrast Bamburgh was hardly any different. This small village is dominated by the imposing castle, once the site of the home of the kings of Northumbria. A village green with tall trees is surrounded on both sides by rows of stone built houses leading down towards the castle standing on a high rocky outcrop near the sea. The stone fronted terraced stone house where my grandmother lived in later years looked much the same. At the western end of the village is the ancient church of St Aiden, first founded in 637 AD. Sitting for a while beautiful, calm and cool interior I looked at the tall illuminated window at the end of the nave while reflecting on times past and the present, on my boyhood and on revisiting the Northumbrian coast, on relatives no longer alive and on those close to me now. With a renewed determination to continue the journey formed in the peace of the church, I left to visit a nearby beach where I ate bread, cheese and tomatoes in the sun and took photos of rockpools where, earlier in life, I’d played with toy boats. After returning the hire car to Alnwick I took a taxi back to Amble where I dined on fish and chips at the harbour cafe. Later I checked the tides and weather forecast for the next day’s sail to Lindisfarne, via the Farne Islands.

* ‘Solo’ means solo at sea and not in company with any other boat, apart from when Ian Hylton or Keith Morris have sailed with me for a day or two. Greg has provided excellent shore based support from a distance and I doubt I’d be in Scotland now without being able to rely on Greg for up to the minute weather forecasts, assistance with researching destinations and for discussions of potential passage plans.

Druridge Bay

North Shields to Amble

I usually sleep well on boats, so on Monday morning I awoke on Ed’s yacht Samphire feeling refreshed. Katherine and Ed had sent details of local physiotherapists. A few phone calls later and I’d arranged an appointment with Swiss Physio in Tyneside for 12.15. Lately, increasing knee pain (and some hip pain) has caused me some concern as I need to stay fit to continue the tour. I’d decided to get an understanding of the cause and of what I needed to do to manage the problem.

Angela at Swiss Physio provided a diagnosis with clear advice on what self treatment was required – mainly a regime of specific exercises but with some other ideas.

I would have liked to stay a little longer and see a bit of Newcastle, but the prospect of a force 3 to 4 westerly wind and ideal conditions for sailing north meant I was away next morning before noon. Before departure, Stewart and Darren had made me welcome aboard their orange-hulled 19 foot yacht, where I shared coffee and croissants. They were planning a quick day sail before returning to work in the evening. We met again in the lock between the marina and the Tyne where I moored alongside their boat while the water level in the lock dropped to that of the river. The westerly wind took me quickly down the Tyne and out past the twin piers of the river entrance. I turned northward and waved goodbye to Darren and Stewart.

The sailing was pleasant enough, but uneventful. I close-reached past the northeast coast, passing a mix of small harbours, towns and industrial areas. Keeping fairly close inshore kept me up wind as ‘insurance’ against the wind veering to the North but also kept me in flat water, where I was able to make better speed. Soon after passing Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, with its distinctive, 14th century parish church on the point. Druridge Bay came into view. I’d wanted to stop here, mainly for the pleasure of being able to get ashore on a wide sandy beach backed by high dunes. Breakers, caused by a swell from the North East, were showing white along the shore. The north end of the bay was more sheltered though, and I put ashore close to a small coble tending a salmon net running out to sea.

Druridge Bay

Druridge Bay

By the time I’d briefly ‘stretched my legs’ (a strange expression in my view: ‘straightened my legs’ after being in a cramped position for several hours would be more accurate), with a short walk on the dunes, Stacey was almost high and dry. Several heaves were needed to drag her back to the water. Carefully avoiding the salmon nets, I pushed off. The fishermen gave me a wave as I passed. The weak breeze soon died, and I paddled towards Hauxley Point. Looking down through the unfamiliar clear green water, I could see rocks, seaweed and limpets as I glided slowly above.

Ahead, an uneven rocky shelf just off the point was starting to show above the water. I had intended to sail out to the east, passing seaward of the reefs, but now instead, with all the navigational insouciance of a kayaker or canoeist in calm conditions, I simply picked a path through the middle. The westerly breeze revived and I carried on under sail, spilling wind and slowly moving forward whilst standing up for a clearer view of any rocks near the surface.

Coquet Island, with a small beach and white lighthouse atop a grassy mound, was on my right as I neared the entrance to Amble harbour. Once inside the entrance (formed by twin piers), some hefty paddle-sailing against wind and tide was needed to reach Coquet Yacht Club (about a quarter of a mile upriver). Phil Derry (Vice Commodore of the yacht club) arrived especially to meet me and to give me access to the clubhouse facilities.

Feeling tired after about six hours’ sailing, it took me over an hour to unload the boat, carry my gear to the clubhouse and then drag Stacey up the steep slipway. But I was very grateful to Coquet Yacht Club for providing me with somewhere to stay. With the wind whistling through rigging and clattering halyards tonight, whilst rain batters against the windows, I was glad to be sleeping on the club room floor rather than in a tent.

Progress Review and Re-assessment…

As the half way point in time approaches I’m nearing one third of the distance from Southampton, around Britain via the Caledonian Canal across the Highlands of Scotland, and back to Southampton.

Given what’s promising to be the worst summer for a hundred years or more, I’m not dissatisfied with progress, but the delays due to strong winds have been very frustrating and I’ve often been sailing in unpleasantly wet and cold weather.

It’s been a tough physical and mental challenge and doing this circumnavigation solo has added to the difficulty, However, Greg has been immensely helpful with helping to organise some of the logistics from a distance, managing the website and as someone I can call at any time to discuss weather, the passage plan or safe haven options. I’ve no doubt my progress would have been a lot slower and less enjoyable without his help.

Given the chances of completing the 1800 nautical mile route in the time I have available before ending my 100 day sabbatical in the second week of September, I’ve considered crossing Scotland via the Forth Clyde Canal (further south than the Caledonian Canal) as a fall back option. But this would miss out some of the potential highlights of this expedition which include; the Highlands of Scotland and sailing south through the Inner Hebrides.

So I’ve decided to press on and to get as far as I can. And if I don’t complete the entire route then I’ll return to finish it at a later date. I’ve also been reminding myself of some of the reasons why I have chosen to make this voyage in a sailing canoe. These include not only the challenge itself but also the opportunity to explore the very varied and often stunningly beautiful British coastline in a way that’s often not possible in a yacht and sometimes not possible by sailing dinghy. The closeness to the physical experience, the ability to land on a wide variety of beaches and to get up close to headlands, cliffs and to some isolated and little visited parts of our coast are some of the attractions.

So, next I head on past the delights of the Northumbrian coast before reaching Scotland. And I’ll continue to try to communicate the excitement and enjoyment of travelling by sailing canoe as best I can.

Tees and Hartlepool Yacht Club

Hartlepool to the Tyne…

Newspapers this morning talked of a normal summer resuming, gradually. Let’s hope so. This strange summer has seems more like winter at times and my slow progress northward in the face of frequent northerly and easterly winds had begun to become dispiriting at times. Determined to lift my mood and experience a little of Hartlepool on the Saturday night before I left, I set out for the nearby Small Crafts Club. I imagined I might find some company with small craft sailors and enthusiasts. The club seems quiet as I walked down a dockside back street and I wondered whether the members had all gone home. So, as I walked through the soundproofed, intercom controlled door, I was not prepared for a crowded, riotous and very friendly working men and women’s club with a full-on karaoke night in full swing.

I fell in with a small group of lads out on a stag night. The brother of the groom, David, said he was a prize fighter and looked the part. But he was not looking forward to a fight tomorrow with his best mate and thought they might forego the contest. I sympathised and thought he might be better off nursing a hangover, but didn’t say so. He was also celebrating the birth of twin daughters earlier in the day.

At the end of the room with twin lines of long tables leading to the stage, singers took their turn. Some were very good, others less so. Judging I’d be in the latter category, I avoided the microphone.

David and the stag night group wanted to know what brought me to Hartlepool, so I explained as best I could. David’s brother Mark said he admired my ambition and David wanted to know if the sailing canoe could take passengers. Thinking he was asking about sailing 2-up on a day trip, I replied “yes.” However, David became irrevocably fixed on the notion of sailing up to Scotland with me and no amount of shouted discussion would dissuade him from putting me up for the night and setting sail sail with me the day. Taking advantage of David’s visit to the bar, I made my excuses and left.

Feeling a little below par the next morning, I struggled out of the tent warmed by the early morning sun. Coffee, a quick blog, with sunlight streaming through the windows of the club bar, and packing up followed. I was away before 11 am and waved goodbye to Micky and Mike who’d helped me launch. I wished I’d been able to stay a little longer in Hartlepool which has a lot more to offer than I expected and has clearly benefited from much Dockside regeneration, but also has a strong maritime tradition. I regretted not visiting the Hartlepool Maritime Museum. Thanks to all at Hartlepool and Teeside Yacht Club who made me so welcome and looked after me; I’d like to return. The club photographer took some excellent photos of me and the boat. I have a disk with many photos, but here is one kindly contributed by e-mail:

Tees and Hartlepool Yacht Club

Tees and Hartlepool Yacht Club

Running out past the North pier I turned left along the East facing coast. The wind was more from the north than forecast and instead of an easy reach, I found myself sailing up wind and into little short, steep waves that threw curtains of spray across the boat. Gusts, flurrying out from the small cliffs on the left of my track, ruffled the water and heeled Stacey over before I could move my weight out to counteract. A Dinghy Cruising Assocation contact, Ed Wingfield, had kindly offered to meet up en route and sail in company. He was sailing a a 10 metre Beneteau yacht and was returning to the Tyne from Sunderland. After some four hours of my slow progress against the wind and waves we met just north of Seaham and continued on towards Sunderland and then the Tyne.

Occasionally the wind would back to the west a little, when I’d be able to unfurl a bit more mainsail and speed would increase to between 5 and 6 knots. Seven hours after departure from Hartlepool, we neared the twin piers of the River Tyne entrance. With two cruise ships due for departure and wind and tide against me, Ed thought it would be best if he towed me to our destination, the Royal Quays Marina two miles away. I agreed, and seeing the strength of the ebb, added to by the peaty brown fresh water spate after recent heavy rain, I could see I would have had to wait several hours for the tide to turn before sailing upstream.

Southampton to Newcastle, or at least to the Tyne. One home town, for the last 40 years plus, to another home town, of my birth and childhood. A circle completed and a sense of returning home.

Transitting the lock at the Marina entrance was a new experience, but useful with over 20 locks to come in the Caledonia canal. Stacey was moored to a small pontoon and I went aboard Ed’s yacht, Samphire, for a welcome cup of tea before a beer and cheese toastie aboard the Earl of Zetland floating bar and retiring to Samphire’s forward cabin for the night.

Runswick Bay to Hartlepool…

Keith and I had sailed into Runswick bay, the day before. Our route had taken us down the middle of the small bay, which is surrounded by higher rolling pasture land on all sides. We’d carefully steered a path between the headlands either side of the bay, where the large swells (innocuous at sea) were rearing up and crashing onto the rocky foreshores. However, we found that the Northwest corner of the bay next to the village was almost free of breakers, and we had landed without difficulty. Dave and Hilary were there to greet us. They had arrived to take Keith and his boat back to Filey, but also to deliver some stickers and spare parts for Stacey.

Runswick Bay, with its sandy beach backed by a grassy hill rising steeply behind and small village perched on the side of the hill, reminded me of childhood holidays on Arran. There, we often visited the equally small village of Blackwaterfoot, with a tiny harbour, general store and bank – where the doors were left unlocked when all the staff went home for lunch. Runswick has no store or bank, but there is a small café and a very pleasant pub, the Royal Hotel, where we had enjoyed an evening meal in a small room lined with many photographs of the village in times past.

The next morning, after breakfast, when all had departed save for me, I chatted to the Cockpit House B&B owner, Jennifer Smith, about the village and its history. Her father had served with the RNLI as a mechanic aboard the Runswick lifeboat. Some 60 years ago a dispute over whether to launch the lifeboat had reignited old rivalries between Runswick and the nearby village of Staithes. The coxswain, a Runswick man, backed by Runswick crew members, had refused to launch as an impenetrable wall of breakers stretched across the entrance to the bay. All knew there would be no pay for the crew members if the lifeboat did not touch the water and the chances of getting out of the bay were negligible. The Staithes crew members disagreed with the coxswain and in the ensuing bitter dispute between the villages the lifeboat was moved to Staithes.

Runswick villagers later funded an independent rescue boat and still do so. Although lately, a shortage of capable men and women able to launch at short notice has meant rescue boat cover is now only available at weekends. Nevertheless, the Runswick rescue boat continues to respond to distress calls and forms part of the Coatguard response to emergencies.

I was reluctant to leave and didn’t set sail until after midday. Tacking out the bay into a light easterly wind took me out to sea and past the headlands. Runswick has been added to the line of dots forming my image of Britain’s coast, and I hope to return one day.

Turning left I sailed past more high cliffs of Yorkshire and onward toward the chimneys and steelworks of Teeside, just visible in the far distance. Another unseasonally cold and grey July day, together with some recently accumulated aches and pains, contributed to a feeling of listlessness and slight gloom.

I talked with Greg about the options. Seaham (more than 30 nautical miles from Runswick) or Hartlepool (just over 20 NM). The decision to head for Hartlepool was made as the wind started to back from the north-east to the north, which meant I was heading more into the wind and that my speed dropped off. Greg made contact with Tees and Hartlepool Yacht Club, where I was made very welcome. Commodore Barry Hughes arrived especially to welcome me, and a small group of sailing cadets (at the club for Friday evening sail training) pulled Stacey up the wide slipway inside the the harbour entrance. They later took a keen interest in the sailing canoe and in my travels as I gave a short talk in the bar.

Today’s northerly winds have made this a good day to rest and recover. Everyone here has been very hospitable and following a couple of beers and conversations with club members, I’ve enjoyed a good night’s sleep on the soft carpet of the club’s bar.

As I write this latest blog from the comfort of the bar, I also look out to the North Sea beyond the harbour walls. Tomorrow the wind is promised to be westerly and fair for a passage North towards the Tyne or beyond.

Scarborough Breakfast

Scarborough and Fair Winds to Runswick Bay…

Sunlight streamed in through the windows. Keith Morris and I were looking out over Scarborough harbour. A full English breakfast needed eating downstairs in the Ivy House Café

Scarborough Breakfast

Scarborough Breakfast

This was followed by a short walk over the road to retrieve the sailing canoes from the fairground. Sadly, it’s no longer possible to transport sailing canoes by train in the guards van* but what other sort of sailing boat can be sailed in the open sea and then stored in a fairground for the night before setting off again the next day? We enjoyed our short stay at Ivy House and much appreciated Alison’s kind hospitality and unusual home for the boats overnight.

Watched by an audience leaning over the railings above the slipway, we re-assembled our boats and launched into the harbour. Before departure, Capt. Doug Shannon, the Assistant Harbourmaster had come over to say the harbour would waive any fees for landing / launching – for which we were very grateful and would like to say thanks.

Paddling through the crowded harbour brought us back out into the bay, and thence past the headland into large but long slow rollers coming from the North. Unlike the waves of the day before, this swell posed no obstacle to our journey. We paddle-sailed for an hour. Then, with the breeze from the South-West gradually filling in, we ate our rolls whilst slowly sailing. Gradually we picked up speed as we alternately rose and fell on the small moving hills of the rollers, whilst ploughing watery furrows northward and parallel to the sunlit cliffs.

From time to time Keith and his boat would completely disappear behind a big wave, with only the top half of his sail visible. I snapped away with the camera, trying to capture this scene. Keith posted messages on Facebook and checked our position from time to time on the Canoe-Sailor blog. A narrowly averted collision reminded us to pay more attention to sailing and less to electronic media!

Was The Canoe Boys ever like like this? Their hand written accounts posted, from various ports in the Hebrides during the late summer of 1934, to the Daily Record might now be called a blog.

As our speed increased to an unexpected 4 to 5 knots and we neared Whitby, it seemed a waste to not make more use of this fair wind and sunlit day. We passed the ruins of Whitby Abbey, silhouetted against the sky on the headland just south of the town, and resolved to press on to Runswick Bay. Five miles further on, our course took us mid way between the Runswick Bay twin headlands where the long rollers reared up in shallow water and crashed, white, onto the the rocky shores. The north western part of the bay provided a safe corner to land free of surf.

Dave and Hilary were there to greet us, and we hauled our bags (well, mostly my bags as Keith was travelling considerably lighter than me) to the Cockpit House B&B perched on the side of the hill above the tiny harbour and rescue boat station.

Scarborough Fair

Amid big waves and fairground dodgems…

Keith and I had hoped to set out for Whitby on Tuesday, but waves were still crashing over the line of rocks (called the Brigg) at the north end of the bay.

The surfers website, Magic Seaweed was still predicting five foot high waves. Sheltered from the continuing rain in Keith’s camper van, I brought this blog up to date and Keith edited the Open Canoe Sailing Group magazine, Gossip. An evening trip to a restaurant in Filey provided a pleasant Italian meal and an internet connection for downloading emails and uploading words and photos.

Wednesday looked a bit better, and we thought there may be a chance of sailing the 21 nm to Whitby. Enquiries directed to Ian at Whitby Marina revealed that the surf and waves off the entrance were dying down. So after carrying all our stuff down the steep hill to to Filey Sailing Club we set off just before noon. Waves over the Brigg were still sending spray into the air, but not so high as the day before.

We were both feeling a little apprehensive about the conditions as we sailed out round the cardinal mark and directly into the path of a large swell from the north. Smaller steep waves coming more from the east. Unexpectedly, the wind direction was slightly offshore meaning, the sea state might deteriorate during the day. Sails reefed, we tacked, alternately out to sea and back toward the coast. The confused sea (with some breaking waves) made for difficult sailing, with our boats sometimes almost stopping when the hit a particularly large wave. Magic Seaweed later confirmed a wave height of four to five feet.

As we sailed on in the grey day, past high cliffs topped by green fields, the tide started to turn in our favour to the north and the waves began to get larger. Ruffles of wind across the water preceded increasing gusts. Nestled behind a headland, Scarborough appeared in the distance. A quick shouted conversation with Keith confirmed we were thinking the same thing – time for our ‘plan B’. This was to head for the security of Scarborough rather than to continue upwind to Whitby, which might take another 6 hours or more.

Sunshine broke through the clouds as we reached the shelter of the headland. Paddling between the high stone piers of the harbour entrance revealed yachts, fishing boats and the Scarborough seafront where we pulled the boats out of the water and onto a wide slipway. We’d no idea where to stay or where to store the boats securely for the night but were recommended to enquire at the Ivy House Cafe and B&B.

I explained our situation to the owner, Alison, who thought we were nuts but also deserved a medal. She very kindly offered us a very attractive room, with views over the harbour, at less than half price and suggested storing the sailing canoes in her fairground, over the road. We were able to tuck the boats up securely with the dodgems for the night…

Scarborough Fair

Scarborough Fair

We felt very fortunate to have been treated so kindly and headed off along the sea front for a meal of mussels and chips… followed by a couple of beers at Scarborough Yacht Club (on the end of the pier).

Filey Sailing Club


Filey Brigg

Filey Brigg

I like the convention, or maybe superstition, of titling a yacht log entry about a destination with ‘Towards’. It conveys a sense of aspiration rather than certainty and, for the superstitious, avoids tempting fate. This must have been all the more real in the days of sailing ships without engines and with very limited ability to sail to windward. I’m reminded daily of the dangers and uncertainties of previous maritime trade and travel by the countless wrecks marked on marine charts and littering the seabed around the shores of Britain.

Yesterday, I set out from Filey Sailing Club towards Whitby knowing the following stretches of northeast facing coast (between Scarborough and the Tees) can be uncompromising and dangerous when the wind is from the north or the east, offering few harbours and safe havens. Swells from strong winds can take days to die down. Little wonder it’s a paradise for surfers in such conditions.

The night before I’d said goodbye to Katherine and knowing I wouldn’t see her for another two weeks, I was feeling sad and a bit dejected. I also felt a sense of foreboding about the next day’s sail to Whitby, but couldn’t work out why. The forecast was for light winds from the North, and a slight to moderate sea state. During the night, gusts of wind rattled the tent a few times. I thought I could hear the distant roar of surf. But I dismissed these fitful, night-time impressions and put them down to my mood.

The next morning’s forecast was in agreement with the previous day’s. Making ready to sail involved walking all my kit in three relays (down a very steep hill to the beach) and I found it hard to be motivated under a grey sky and the continuing drizzle.

At 11am, I set off (later than planned). I sailed close to the Brigg, a natural breakwater at the north end of the bay, to take a few photos of white plumes of spray shooting into the air as breakers from the north hit the rocks. I was surprised at the amount of surf, but pressed on eastward to the cardinal mark beyond the end of the Brigg, where I turned north towards Whitby.

The tide had started to run northward and I assumed the five foot waves coming towards me were a localised effect caused by turbulence as the tide rushed over the underwater extension of the Brigg. However things were no better half a mile on. I looked up at bottle-green wave tops coming towards me (some with white breaking crests) whilst the headland started to disappear in a grey mist. The thought of continuing like this for another few hours to Whitby was starting to feel very unappealing and unsafe. I called Greg for a forecast update, but it still seemed to be at odds with what I was experiencing. I was also concerned about what sea state I’d encounter at the shallow north-facing harbour entrance at Whitby.

Water swirled around lobster pot buoys as the tide rushed towards Whitby, carrying me with it. So, a quick decision was called for on whether to carry on or to return, while I still could. I chose the latter, and sailed back slowly down the waves and back towards the cardinal mark, almost lost in the mist.

This had been my first retreat since I’d left Southampton but I was very relieved to be back ashore at Filey Sailing Club and eating bread and cheese whilst sitting on the end of the slipway.

Weather forecasts are sometimes wrong and, one day on, I’m still waiting to sail towards Whitby. Keith Morris arrived last night to sail with me for a few days, so we drove north to Whitby to look at the sea conditions at the harbour entrance. Large rollers came in between the twin breakwaters and on either side, large breaking waves rushed in towards the shore.

Little had changed this morning, so today has been a day for catching up on emails, laundry and blogging. Breakers are still crashing over the Brigg. Tomorrow, if the sea has calmed down, we might sail towards Whitby.

Flamborough Head

Around Flamborough Head and on to Filey…

Flamborough Head

Flamborough Head

More fog meant Friday was another day ashore. Jim and David returned me to The Manor House before returning to London, and I occupied myself with writing in a beautiful book lined study with an open fire. Such is the peculiarity of this weather that it did not seem at all strange to be tucked up indoors with a fire on a July day.

Later, Katherine arrived and we walked down to South Landing, returning to the village along the cliff to Beacon and back via the churchyard. The Flamborough Head lighthouse sounded two mournful blasts every ninety seconds. Dave Stubbs of Solway Dory, one of the two builders of my sailing canoe, arrived with his wife, Hilary. We walked to a local pub for a meal before retiring to very comfortable beds.

Saturday morning’s breakfast of bantam eggs, bacon and toast was eaten in the study with sunlight streaming in through the window. We made plans for the day. Katherine wanted to visit the lighthouse whilst Dave and Hilary would watch me pass Flamborough Head and take a few photos from the cliff-top. We all hoped to return to Flamborough Manor one day.

Back at South Landing, Dave and Lesley (who’d just been for a swim) helped me lower Stacey down the steep ramp and over a small beach covered with small white chalk boulders. In the light wind, I tried paddle sailing for a short while… but gave up and resorted to just paddling. I headed for the gap between the cliffs and a long line of white breakers where the tidal race tumbled over an underwater obstruction. As I reached the headland, a slight breeze enabled me to sail on in the sunlight. I could just make out Dave’s silhouette on the cliff edge. Many small caves had been burrowed out of the bright white chalk of the cliffs, which were interspersed by small stony beaches. Skeins of Guillemots lay on the water, and I passed small groups of puffins which took fright as I approached within a few feet, and took off with whirring wings and feet pattering across the water. The Guillemots made their escape by either bobbing underwater or by launching themselves across the water like the puffins, but without becoming fully airborne. They bounced off the slight swell with a series of belly flops before coming to rest again.

As I passed the headland and drew level with Bempton Cliffs another ‘sea fret’ (northern words for sea fog) rolled in and the wind died – so I was back to paddling whilst following the misty outline of the cliffs to take me on towards Filey. The racket of thousands of sea-birds still filled the air. High above me, nesting gannets appeared as neatly spaced lines of white beads along horizontal and diagonal small ledges and fissures in the chalk.

Paddling with the long two bladed paddle felt easy and I was able to sustain about 2½ knots without difficulty, but it was another 4 hours before I’d paddled past the remainder the cliffs and then the beach, leading round to the top corner of the bay where Filey Sailing Club is located. Dave and Peter Crooks were there to meet me and helped to pull Stacey up the steep slope to the club’s dinghy park.


In Fog 30M from Flamborough Head

Fog off Flamborough…

After the rigours of the previous three days I couldn’t resist a lazy morning relaxing in the sun with coffee, catching up on emails and blogging. I’d slept comfortably upstairs in the clubhouse on a large soft sofa. The large windows looked out over the bay and in the distance I could see Flamborough Head, my next headland hurdle before Filey, which I hoped to reach by the evening. The wind forecast was favourable and I planned to depart at 1 pm to catch the last of the north-going tide around the headland. This would avoid the possibility of a tidal race and breaking waves off the headland.

Ian and Rachel arrived at lunchtime to prepare for the sailing club barbeque that evening and I talked to another club member, Steve Smith, for a while. It turned out we’d probably met before when racing on J24 yachts and knew a few people in common. Steve had considered a sailing-dinghy circumnavigation of Britain, so was interested in the details of the sailing canoe and its ability to cope with the conditions of the past few weeks.

Ian towed Stacey across the wide expanse of sand to the sea, and Steve helped pull her into the water. I pushed off around 1.45 pm and in the very light wind immediately realised I’d left too late to catch the tide round the headland.

I started paddling and hoped for more wind. Heading along the beach to avoid the tide brought me close to the harbour entrance, where I tried sailing for a while and dropped a paddle overboard to shouts of ‘you’ve lost your oar, mister’ from the pier above me. However, I received a round of applause on managing to return under sail to grab the paddle. More wind eventually arrived and I tacked towards Flamborough Head. At the small bay on the south side of the headland (South Landing) I paused for a while, moored to an orange jerry can serving as a buoy, and called my brother in law, Jim, who was travelling from London with my nephew, David, to meet up with me for the evening. A woman in a black wetsuit watched me curiously for a while, after her swim.

A slight mist rolled in from the sea so I attached the navigation light to the top of the mast before setting off again, tacking into the light breeze. The sea mist steadily thickened and I was soon only just able to see the cliffs 30 metres to my left. Any further away and I was totally surrounded by thick fog with the eerie crash of unseen breakers against the cliffs close by. I briefly considered continuing, using the cliffs and sound of the waves crashing against them as a kind of hand rail, but this didn’t seem safe. Besides, I was just too darn scared to go much further! I retraced my route back to South Landing and managed to press gang an unsuspecting family out for a walk into helping to pull the boat up the very steep slipway.

I considered my options; camp at South Landing (OK, but not a great way to spend time with Jim and David), portage over Flamborough Head and carry on again on the other side (I’d be unlikely to arrive in Filey before midnight), or find somewhere to store Stacey and travel to Filey to the B&B booked by Jim.

Greg called, as he tends to do at difficult moments. “Do you remember the woman watching you earlier at South Landing? Well I’ve just been speaking to her. She has a B&B in the village of Flamborough, can store your boat overnight and her name is Lesley”.

How Greg does that I don’t know, but within an hour Jim and David had arrived, David had helped me pull Stacey to the Flamborough Manor, where we parked her in a walled garden. I arranged to return to the Manor to stay the following night with Katherine, who was arriving for the weekend, and Jim, David and I were on our way to Filey where beer and a curry were amongst our first priorities.

Saltfleet Haven to Bridlington

Saltfleet Haven to Bridlington

Saltfleet Haven to Bridlington

Saltfleet Haven to Bridlington

For some reason I didn’t sleep well. I was aware of the pattering of rain on the tent from time to time as I awoke from time to time and  tried to get comfortable in my sleeping bag on a Thermarest inflatable matt. When I crept out of the tent next to the River Eau, the water level was still low and the yachts and motor boats along the bank were resting on the mud. A passage to Bridlington (some 44 NM, and across the Humber Estuary) would mean an early start to catch the best of the tide running northward. To breakfast, take down the tent, pack everything into waterproof dry bags, check the forecast, look at charts and sailing directions for the day and load up the boat usually takes me a minimum of two and a half hours. So my 5 am alarm was timed to enable me to be on the water at 7.30 and out of the haven sailing north by 8 or shortly after. Thankfully, the rain didn’t resume until I was under way, close reaching down the channel towards the North Sea. The beach was under water as I followed the channel marked by posts and buoys. Whole families of seals came to have a look as I sailed by. I hoped this was a good omen. Sailing a small boat alone in the North Sea is beginning make me superstitious.

Gradually, I parted company from the low lying and misty coastline in the grey morning light and headed toward the big ship channel leading to the Humber Estuary. As I neared the channel a large ship passed from right to left ahead of me and I could see the matchstick-like silhouette of the lighthouse at Spurn Head ahead in the distance on the port bow. As the north-going tide picked up, I sailed through larger than expected overfalls with some breaking waves on the North side of the channel – but I found that as long as I pointed the boat straight any breaking waves I was able to sail through without difficulty.

For a time thereafter I sailed on uneventfully in the poor visibility with the Yorkshire coast and towns of Withernsea and Aldbrough just visible. A firing range just South of Hornsea meant I needed to stay east of the Greenwich meridian – so for an hour or so, assisted by the GPS, I amused myself by sailing due North in the Eastern Hemisphere, never coming any closer to the Western Hemisphere by anything less than 50 metres. Eventually I was able to edge slightly to the West and towards Bridlington in a fresh wind with moderately rough conditions. However, as I neared the coast the wind started to die and for the last 6 miles or so I paddle-sailed in the sunshine towards the clubhouse of the dinghy section of the Royal Yorkshire Yacht Club. Greg had made contact with Chris
Maw of the RYYC and as a result, Rachel and Ian Porter had very kindly and patiently been waiting for me as I made painfully slow progress against the now south-going tide. Paul Lister from the Open Canoe Sailing Group had also come to meet me and helped me pull Stacey from the water before Ian arrived with a tractor to help pull Stacey up the beach and through the dunes towards the clubhouse where I would later be able to sleep on a very soft and comfortable sofa. A beer and steak and kidney pie and chips supper with Paul followed unloading Stacey and leaving her secure in the boat compound. It had been an exhausting day and I’d been on the water for eleven hours, so was very grateful for the continuing generosity of friends and strangers. Rachel said there’d be a club barbeque and party the following evening so, as I fell asleep, I was very tempted not to move again tomorrow and take a day off in the predicted sunshine.