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I have owned Dark Star, a Leisure 27, for over 25 years and berthed her at various times in Portsmouth, Chichester, Brighton and Shoreham By Sea. Most of the time I have sailed single handed and running a busy printing/publishing business left limited time for venturing too far.
It was always in my mind to do something more ambitious than jogging along the South Coast. With retirement in 2010, there was plenty of time to dwell on what "something more ambitious" might be.
Open ocean crossings have never really appealed and I assumed that any project would involve mostly single handed sailing. Open sea sailing does place an unfair strain on wife and family. Besides, I am 73 years old, pretty fit, but I know my limitations!
The idea of sailing solo around Britain floated into my head, some 3 or 4 years after retirement. Since it would involve being absent for at least four months, "special permission" had to be tactfully negotiated. My wife Valerie has always been happy to use Dark Star as a marine B&B in the Solent where land remains comfortingly in sight, all around, but a sail around Britain was really not on her "wish list"
However Val earned my undying gratitude by giving the project her blessing. Conditions agreed were that I would be in daily contact by mobile phone, would sail only in hours of daylight.
I have some arthritis in hands and fingers and wanted to get on with the trip whilst I still fit and able. The plan was to leave Shoreham By Sea around mid May and return by early September. The trip should last some 16 weeks, weather permitting.
I wanted to sail quietly, definitely not as part of any organised "association event". Daily decisions were mine alone and if it did not work out, I would return home without fuss, probably by train!
Distance covered would be between 1700 - 1900 miles, depending on whether I visited the Orkneys and/or the Scillies en route. To achieve this, I would need to sail around 110 miles per week, which did not seem too taxing. In theory, three day trips each week of around 40 miles would get me round in the allotted time?
And the reality?
The total distance covered was 1792 miles. I spent 20 weeks on board, 16 weeks sailing, and 4 weeks weather bound. There were 55 stopover points, 36 on pontoons in harbours/marinas and 19 at anchor, on a buoy or against a harbour wall. Time and bad weather meant missing the Orkneys but I had nearly two weeks in the Scillies with fine weather.
There were a few anxious moments, but nothing broke or failed on the boat. I felt fit and healthy, never even caught as much as a cold and returned some 10lbs lighter. Not bad for an OAP on a 38 year old, 27 foot bilge keeler!
Which way to go?
The first decision was whether to go around Britain clockwise, or the reverse. I reckoned it best to go anti-clockwise with the prevailing south west or westerly winds.
Starting from the south coast at Shoreham By Sea, near Brighton, I hoped to get good, following winds down to Dover. Turning north at Ramsgate, the same south westerlies would provide a beam reach up the east coast and I would enjoy smooth seas with the protection of the coast on my port side.
Setting off on May 17th, the plan worked on the trip down to Ramsgate and across the Thames estuary, but at Harwich/Felixstowe, the winds turned northerly. A large high pressure system sat close to a low over over Europe and for the next month, sent cold northerly winds, mist and rain down the east coast of the UK. Instead of a nice beam reach, I faced a wet, cold motorsail 400 miles up the east coast to Aberdeen!
Had I gone clockwise, I would have enjoyed sparkling sunshine on the south and west coasts! I was probably unlucky, but with the benefit of hindsight, I think it definitely best to do this trip in a clockwise direction.
Going clockwise, the generally warmer weather on the south or coast allows for an earlier departure by the first week of May. Progressing west, temperatures should be on the rise. If winds prove adverse, there are many good marinas to provide 24 hour access to comfortable shelter.
All the way to Brixham you will find you will find excellent facilities, but Salcombe, Dartmouth, Falmouth provide "more challenging" facilities and give a taste of what's to come.
Going clockwise early, you reach the south west and possibly the Scilly Isles, in early June before Salcombe, Dartmouth, Falmouth and the Scillies become uncomfortably busy.
Another reason for favouring the clockwise route is that once round Lands End, you sail with the flooding tide and have the choice of many small drying harbours.
Finally, going clockwise up the west coast is much more interesting and you should arrive in Scotland with the best of the summer weather and very long hours of daylight.
Passage making and tides
Coastal sailing around Britain, the tide is "king" and a favourable tidal flow provides six hours of a "free lift". Six hours sailing at 5 knots gives distance travelled of around 30 miles. With the tide providing another 1 to two knots, actual distance travelled is closer to 40 miles. Travel 6 hours against the tide and your range could be just 20 miles.
Any trip greater tnan 35/40 miles includes a period of adverse tide. My experience was that it's best to buck an adverse tide at the start of a 9/10 hour passage so that you can be flying along at the end, when energy levels are dropping.
On the east coast, above the Humber, up to Peterhead, tides are weaker. However tides are strong all the way down the west coast of Britain with tidal choke points between islands which don't exist on the east coast, with perhaps the exception of the passage inshore of the Farnes off Northumberland.
Should you have to travel against the tide, be prepared to pop around headlands and nip into large bays where there is either much less tide or even a favourable eddy.
For the solo coastal sailor, headlands can be formidable. Tides, swell and underwater reefs create very disturbed water even in benign conditions. Many headlands have an "inshore passage" but without local knowledge I usually "took my lumps" offshore.
The east coast serves up very large headlands, Flamborough (Bridlington), St Abbs (Eyemouth) and Rattray Head Peterhead).
The west coast has faster tides and more "choke points"; a myriad of Sounds in the Western Isles, Mull of Galloway, North and South Stacks (Holyhead), Bardsey Island, Ramsay Sound, Jack Sound (Skomer), St Annes Head (Milford Haven).
On the south coast, Longships, Lizard (probably the most exposed of all), Start Point, Portland (fastest tide race), St Albans, St Catherine's (IOW), Beachy Head, Dungeness, North Foreland.
By 06.00 in summer, it's fully light. Setting off on a 10/12 hour trip of 50/60 miles will place you nicely at your destination around 17.00 - 18.00 hours. However leaving after 09.00 could find you at journey's end in fading light. So be prepared for some early starts to catch the tide. Early starts become less of a problem as you progress north. In Scotland in July, you can read a newspaper/book in the cockpit up till midnight!
There were several 70 mile passages on the trip. Up to 14 hours at sea alone may seem daunting or boring, but there is always so much to do and see that I waas never bored. "Daunted", yes. Setting out each day your brain seems to go into survival mode, with every possible problem thrown up, suggesting to leave your nice secure berth is a mad idea. I found this lasted for 10-20 minutes before everything settled down and you could relax and enjoy the trip. However, keep a spare sweat shirt handy since nervous perspiration can be a problem!
I carried every conceivable paper chart for the trip, but hardly used them. Neither did I carry a fixed chart plotter. Instead I used two smart phones, two tablets and a laptop. Each had it's own internal power supply. GPS solves the navigator's fundamental problem of "where am I?" Without this facility I would be reluctant to set off single handed sailing, outside familiar waters.
The app "Marine Navigator" together with the digital charts package supplied and downloaded from "visitmyharbour.com" proved a great asset. I could plan each day's trip the evening before and copy the routes, waypoints/markers to my mobile phones, tablets and laptop.
On each device I could see the track to follow plus details of speed over the ground, together with time and distance to destination and/or the next waypoint/marker.
When sailing or motorsailing, it's often difficult to follow the displayed straight line track, but I could tack back and forth across the displayed track at fiteen minute intervals and quickly see the best "making tack".
Arriving at a new harbour, I found the "Navionics" App and charts on my phone so useful for accurate tidal heights and for the final approaches. Tiller in one hand, phone in the other it was possible to pinpoint an allocated berth on the screen. Google Maps and Google Earth also provided a useful view of an unfamiliar harbour
Both "Marine Navigator" and "Navionics" are stand alone pieces of sofware. All charts are preloaded onto your digital device so that internet access is not required. I recommend them highly, especially "Marine Navigator".
Smart Phones, Data Packages and Wifi
First and foremost, the mobile phone provides a 24/7 connection to home and keeps your wife/partner/family reassured.
For internet access, harbours and marinas usually provide free Wifi but I found it was poor to hopeless most of the time. A good data package (4G) on a smart phone proved far superior.
Up to 10/12 miles from the coast, internet access is available via 3 or 4G. I used EE and found that the coverage was excellent. Sailing up the middle of Loch Ness, I made an emergency banking payment without fuss!
When I first encountered wind turbines which appeared to cover the horizon on the approach to the Thames Estuary, I Googled whether I had to sail around the wind farms. "Proceed straight through" said Google and I did.
However, 4G or 3G coverage can be patchy on stretches of the coast with no large town. The only phone and 4G complete blackspots I encountered were at the Crinan Canal (landline only there) and on the west coast of Cornwall. Even the Scilly Isles now have excellent 4G coverage.
Internet also provides email facilities but more importantly it gives access to many weather forecasts. The solo sailor needs at least an accurate 3/4 day forecast. Long passages with stop overs which feature overnight anchorages where you would not like to be stuck if the weather turns, need a clear 3 day window.
The Met Office forecasts seemed a little over pessimistic and irritatingly generalised. Most of the time I used XC Weather and Windfinder and found both excellent. Websites provided mainly for surfers, forecasting swell heights were a great help. After a big blow it takes a while for the swell to drop as I quickly discovered in the the North Sea.
Weather forecasts change hourly. Waking up, a look at the latest weather forecast on your smart phone, will become the first action of the day. Without internet access you are reliant on Radio 4 and whatever is pinned up on the the harbour or marina notice board.
I had no fridge on Dark Star. I installed a simple Mobicool £50 cool box which worked on both 12 volt and mains power. The instructions warned that it was not to be used 24/7 so I was careful to switch it off from time to time. However, it performed faultlessly the whole way around Britain and it's still going strong! The cool box proved very useful for milk, butter, salads and meats.
I stocked up with rice, pasta etc so that I could prepare an evening meal on board. The first few stops along the south coast with good marina facilities, made eating out quick and easy. Moving north, I had to "dress up" to visit a town, search for a restaurant, then eat alone. That soon lost it's appeal, especially at end of a tiring day.
Preparing a meal on board is commendable but washing up afterwards is a complete "pain" when the only source of hot water is the kettle. Time was too short for elaborate meal preparation and clearing up.
Freedom came in the form of frozen or chilled "ready meals for one" available from every little supermarket around the coast. I usually put a four day supply of chilled and frozen in the cool box. Two chilled meals were eaten first and two frozen meals later. The meals come in oven ready trays. Pierce the lid twice then heat for 40 minutes in the oven whilst enjoying a beer or two. To eliminate washing up, the meal could be eaten straight from the tray.
I regret not taking a micro wave which uses mains shore power, produces a meal quicker and saves much expensive bottled gas.
When stuck in port, a fresh chicken would be oven roasted in it's own bag. The meat provided meals for three days with spare to give away. Rice salads became a favourite and any left overs made next day's lunch.
Best "minimum mess" breakfast was boiled egg and toast. The hot water from the boiled egg being used to help wash up.
On a 8 - 14 hour trip, I would split the time in two hour slots with a reward of something to eat and drink. Snacks were prepared before casting off and included sandwiches/rolls, fruit, dates, nuts energy bars and crisps.
The most convenient and easily kept fruits on board were bananas, oranges, apples and grapes. UHT milk, kept in the cool of the bilge, lasted for weeks, but once opened it only lasted a few days. I never bothered with fresh milk. Small tins of evaporated milk were tasty with fresh fruit or tins of "fresh fruit cocktail".
Apart from the odd bottle of wine, I must confess to laying in a good stock of beer from our local brewery in Partridge Green in West Sussex, none other than The Dark Star Brewery!
Thanks for reading this. Kevin Gilroy