Sailing through Winter
Silence floats down the Hamble River.
Busy boatyards which have been hoisting yachts ashore for the past few weeks lie motionless. Marina car parks, bars and pontoons are deserted. A frozen Heron hunts silently in the shallows. Nothing stirs.
Slowly, one boat slips her moorings and glides past the deserted fuel pontoon, beyond Hamble Point to the sea, her work for the year not quite complete.
Onboard are David, Ollie & Dan who live in Totton, a town which fringes the New Forest National Park, and they are taking their first voyage out to sea on a competent crew course with First Class Sailing. I am working as their instructor on a wonderful old Jeanneau Voyager called Cascadeur.
Sailing traditions are strong on the south coast. During October, people start lifting their boats ashore for the winter, and by mid-November, most leisure craft are on the hard, leaving the Solent quiet and peaceful. These sailors spend the next five months ashore, waiting for the warmth of Spring.
So why not break free from tradition and give winter sailing a go? You may have painted an image in your mind of what winter sailing feels like, so let me share a few snapshots of my winter at sea late in 2020.
Dusk arrives early in the afternoon. The temperature plummets when the sun sinks below the horizon. Cascadeur lies hove to in the Western Solent using tidal stream to drift west. I stay on watch while the lads run through our daily list of sunset jobs, more winter layers, nav lights on, logbook entry, head torches and hot drinks prepared. We relax on deck with tea and biscuits as the pastel colours of winter recede over Hurst Fort to be replaced by velvet black and a thousand stars. The cold air sometimes holds less moisture in winter, and the visibility is incredible. I can see every light from The Needles to Cowes, sparkling green, red and white like a giant Christmas tree. At the end of the year, these courses include many hours of night sailing, which students enjoy immensely.
There is no urgency in the morning. Yarmouth marina is quiet for once. We relax onboard where it's cosy and wait for the sun to rise above the village. After breakfast, I show the crew how to de-ice the decks with a bucket of seawater. There's time to relax before heading out to sea, even though daylight lasts for a third of each day now.
Yesterday's storm has passed. Today is calm, so we use the spring tide to enter Keyhaven to practice anchoring. A vital element of the competent crew course is to show students how to use the tender which lies deflated in the stern locker. By midday the sun is as high as it will ever get at this time of year, it feels warm on deck as we inflate our rubber dinghy. I struggle to remember the last time I saw water so perfectly still, reflections as clear as the real image. The lads take the tender and row to Hurst Fort then return, taking photos all the way. While they rest, I row to Keyhaven pier for some exercise. The tiny ripples from the oars the only disturbance in the calm lagoon. Oystercatchers, Redshank, Curlew and Little Egrets patrol the mud searching for their lunch while I row around this beautiful haven which enjoys a high water stand lasting two hours at spring tides. Some days I enjoy my work so immensely I struggle to believe that I get paid to spend days afloat like these. We sunbath on my return to the yacht amazed at the winter sun's warmth after the previous stormy day.
We approach Freshwater Bay just before sunset. A swell from the SW has set in, a reminder of a passing depression. Jagged reefs protrude into the bay from East and West, so a gentle and cautious approach is essential. Two surfers ride waves into the bay just beyond where we drop anchor, the boat riding gently over smooth swell about 100 metres beyond the breakers. I am curious to see how the New Forest lads will handle this winter's night at sea.
It's warm down below. The gentle rocking and the change from cold to warmth make us feel tired, so an early night works for everyone. My alarm wakes me at the hour the tide turns. I check the anchor and transits, they look good, the LAT & LONG on the plotter confirm we are ok even though an offshore breeze holds the stern into the swell. All is good on Cassie tonight.
The sun is above the horizon before we awake. The motion of the boat remains the same, but the view on deck has changed significantly. There is no view at all! Beyond our guard rails, there is nothing to see.
Our yacht is prepared for fog sailing, and I run through the procedure with the crew before we weigh anchor. Approaching the Needles from Freshwater Bay, the radar and AIS become essential. A large ship is approaching the entrance to the Needles Channel at a speed of 10 knots. Three small fishing boats, two without AIS are just north of the Needles, and there are several large lateral buoys on our heading. We crawl along at 2 knots. Dave monitors the Radar and AIS on the chart plotter below, providing minute by minute updates. Ollie stands lookout on the bow and Dan helms while I continuously analyse the situation. The lateral marks and fishing boats stand out clearly on the Radar and Sand Heron, a large dredger approaching from the SW is visible on the AIS. Rarely do I get the opportunity to show these instruments' value and demonstrate low visibility sailing in the summer months.
It's mid-December: a new crew and a different boat but the same sailing school. Palomar, a Beneteau 381 is approaching Portsmouth Harbour into F6 wind with a semi furled genoa and reefed mainsail. Visibility is excellent. I can see the Spinnaker Tower, all the Napoleonic Forts and the Isle of Wight is crystal clear. To the west, a strange low bank of cloud is approaching rapidly down the Solent on the breeze, and I have lost sight of landmarks to port in the past few minutes.
I realise a little too late what is approaching. I quickly switch on the engine, check the compass heading while giving the helm clear instructions of the course to sail. We rapidly ease the mainsheet and vang but keep our genoa powered up. Spit Sand Fort lies only 300 metres to port when the sea surrounding it starts to boil white. Then the fort, a solid stone structure 15 metres tall, totally vanishes. The squall slams into our boat with a ferocity which is hard to believe, forcing us all to face away downwind. A wall of water washes horizontally over us. Waterfalls pour off the sails onto the deck, filling the cockpit, the wind screams through the rigging. The wind's intensity and the quantity of water is incredible—the boat heels and powers forward on her course up the small boat channel. I feel the way forward; my senses overloaded inside this micro storm.
Close to port lies shoal waters, to starboard a large ferry is leaving Portsmouth harbour and will cut across our path into the Swashway. I'm about to turn about and head back into open water when in the blink of an eye, it's over! The wind abates significantly, the rain and spray vanish, and the narrow wall of cloud drifts to the east. Visibility returns as suddenly as it vanished, with a quick scan I see Spit Bank Fort behind our wake and the entrance to Portsmouth with the approaching ferry on the bow. Wow, what an experience. Within 15 minutes we are moored in Haslar Marina, out of the wind, in the sunshine and laughing. Happy to be ashore but euphoric having sailed through such a challenge.
This is Winter sailing. Unpredictable, ever-changing, surprising and challenging. The memories are great, the experiences rewarding, the skills learned are valuable. As the sun sets over the sea and the stars and planets sparkle in the winter sky, I feel privileged to be out here on an excellent yacht having been allowed to sail at this time of year. In addition to introducing people to the ocean, teaching them how to safely navigate the waters and respond to challenges.
2020 has been a great year for sailing in English waters. So maybe this year keep your boat afloat after the autumn equinox or book on a winter sailing course and experience a wild adventure at sea!