What have we got on the ship that does work?

With a two day, one night passage from Pin Mill to Brancaster ahead of us we are having to make plans that are constrained by a growing list of equipment failures aboard. The engine cannot be relied upon and we are going to treat it as absolute emergency use only. We are also going to try to not take the boat anywhere that we can’t reliably sail out of.

With half of the house battery bank now dead we have limited electrical power, and unable to visit marinas for shorepower, or run the engine, battery charging is now entrusted completely to our two solar panels. Electricity now has to be severely rationed, at times we can use the navigation instruments or the VHF radio!

We also now have an intermittent fault on the LED masthead navigation light; the deck level nav lights that we can use as an alternative consume too much current. So no night sailing.

It feels like the scene from the Apollo 13 movie where they are trying to work out how to power up the LEM ready to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. Mind you they got three guys back from a quarter of a million miles away in a space ship that had partly exploded; and they didn’t even have mobile phones.

I have often thought that we are over-reliant on the boats engine and hanker after the simpler days of engineless Wayfarer sailing at Morston. The boat still sails fine so with good planning and a bit of luck it should be entirely possible to sail home. I feel that this is as much an intellectual challenge as a physical one, if we are patient and make good decisions there is no reason that we can’t complete this passage.

Day 1. Pin Mill to Winterton-on-Sea

At 0550 we slip the lines on our buoy on the Orwell to take the last of the ebb down river and out through the container port to sea. There is a beautiful sunrise as we say farewell to the river that has been our home for most of the last month. This first section up to Aldeburgh will be sailed against the tide so we keep to the shallow water right in against the coast. The forecast SW F3 to F4 is tending to be slightly less than we would like, especially so close to the coast. We make good progress up the coast using Woodbridge Haven and Orford Haven as waypoints; difficult to sail past these places when we would so love to visit, but Flamingo needs and deserves some TLC.

We further hug the coast through Hollesley Bay past the former MOD site on Orford Ness where I belive they undertook research into increasing chrysanthemum yields or something similar. It must have been important because all these years after WWII has ended visits by the public are severely restricted to certain areas.

Derelict MOD structure

Only a mile or so further along the coast we come across the remains of Orford lighthouse, now sadly demolished. The lighthouse, which was a traditional stumpy red and white pepper pot building always felt like a turning point on this journey. What I don’t understand is how you can demolish a red and white lighthouse and not end up with any red or white rubble.

Orford Lighthouse

By now, creeping along right next to the beach and taking photos with my long lens had attracted the attention of the MOD, and they sent a chap with binoculars in a landrover to look at me as I looked at him through my binoculars. He didn’t wave.

At this stage we were ahead of schedule so we opted for the route inside Aldeburgh Ridge, rather than heading offshore into the last of the foul tide. This requires some careful pilotage as depths around the ridge have been changing rapidly over recent years, this is where the winter evenings correcting charts pays off.

From here the tide began to fill in behind us and our speed over the ground began increasing, peaking at an unprecedented 9.2kts as we passed Lowestoft. Fortunately we were going fast enough to stop the crew jumping ship as we passed the cruise ship Aurora anchored off Southwold; apparently there has been a mysterious drop in demand for cruise holidays this year.

Cruise anyone?

As we reached late afternoon the weather forecast was developing with more stronger westerly winds predicted. This did not suit phase two of our passage and we looked longingly at the green, white, green lights inviting us into Lowestoft. Shore power, buy a new battery and wait for better weather? Fortunately (very fortunately as it turns out) our resolve held and we used the remainder of the fair tide to sail up to the very pretty Winterton-on-Sea where we anchored at 1800hrs for a pleasant if slightly rolly night.

Lovely Lowestoft

Electrical power is now critical and we are having to ration water (electric pump) and cooking (electric gas solenoid). On the plus side the old paraffin lamp that I bought is proving invaluable.


Would the engine have changed this passage measurably, the answer I think is yes. We would probably have motored down the Orwell in the very light winds, and pushed on the extra seven NM to Sea Palling at the end of the day.

Day 2. Winterton-on-Sea to Brancaster Staithe

The dilema with this next part of the trip is that your course at the start of the day is northerly but bends throughout the day until you reach Blakeney when you are sailing due west. Ideally a westerly breeze which backs to south is perfect but you could wait a long time for that to happen; and we can’t wait anchored here.

Our forecast is for WSW winds, veering westerly F4-F5, occasionally F6. This is less than ideal but WSW at the start of the day is good, we can work our way through the early foul tide. Once we turn west, if the wind turns out to be at the lower end of the forecast strength, and with the tide behind us we might be able to make progress. There is a danger however that if the wind is nearer F6, blowing against the spring tide the sea will build up horribly.

Another 0550 start to a beautiful sunrise and perfect WSW winds. We make great progress until about 1100hrs when slowly but surely our world begins to unravel. The wind veers to westerly and now blows solidly at F6, double reefed and with a scrap of genoa we are now beating into a tide that is intent on pushing us back to the east. The waves are getting steeper and taller, each one knocking us back with a shudder, or dropping us into the trough with a bang. The wind is now shrieking constantly which saps our energy, but all of the time we know that if we can keep it together for another hour the fair tide will kick in and we might just make it.

But over a period of 15 minutes it becomes clear that we are not going to make it. We are heading towards Brancaster at a rate of 0.2kts, and we still have 30 miles to go. I have been watching the rig and the leeward shrouds are completely slack in the gusts. This is especially worrying as the shrouds on Flamingo are set up using the Parkinson-Fosdyke method; tighten the cap shrouds until the heads door won’t open, then back them off two turns. Tight!

Looking at the crew it is clear that she has had enough and so have I. If we continue we will make a mistake, or somebody will get hurt, or we will break the boat.

With an engine this would be a boring, uncomfortable but effective delivery trip, motoring along the coast out of trouble, but we don’t have that option. To prove it we see two boats plugging their way north under engine, each making heavy weather of it even before they turn west.

Plugging north under engine.

Almost without words we agree that we have had enough, and after eight hours of battling to the west we turn and run east, giving away those hard won miles so, so easily. This is such a relief but also so difficult to deal with, we have fought so hard together for eight hours to get this far west. With the wind now behind us, and its apparent strength reduced our afternoon settles into an exciting ‘downhill’ sleighride as we surf down the following breakers. Each wave threatens to poop us but they haven’t reckoned with the mighty Flamingo who rises majestically over each one.

With Belinda now helming I settle in the corner of the cockpit to consider our next move, but I can’t even think. I am so utterly exhausted both mentally and physically that I can do nothing! Belinda spots this and won’t even allow me to helm.

After a couple of hours rest, some food and a cup of tea we are able to start looking at what to do next. The absence of an engine is debilitating. We can get to Lowestoft by dark, but can’t go in safely. We could run all the way back to the Orwell by breakfast, but have no nav lights for night sailing. Our decision is to follow the curve of the coast to somewhere near Great Yarmouth where we should get some protection in the lee of the shore, there we will anchor overnight. It may be a bit rough but it will be safe and we can then get some sleep and formulate a new plan; probably back to the Orwell to wait for better weather on Thursday.

As we follow the coast we are pushed out to sea by a shoal patch extending half a mile out, marked by people exercising horses ankle deep in water. Once past this and back into the coast we find relatively flat water and anchor back in our old spot at Winterton-on-Sea. Fifty five miles sailed in 14 hours, total progress zero, it takes some effort to square this in our minds. We tried without an engine and we failed, can we do it at all?

Equine navigation marks

Tomorrow’s forecast looks even worse for a second attempt on Brancaster, WSW veering all the way round to NE, ideal for heading south back to the Orwell though.

Day 3. Winterton-on-Sea to Brancaster Staithe

Such was my tiredness from the previous day that overnight I convinced myself that our daughter Paige had sailed with us yesterday. Now, three days later I am still clear that that is what happened. Strange what tiredness and stress can do to the mind.

In this befuddled state however I had formulated a cunning plan, a plan so cunning that a fox with a yachtmaster ocean qualification would have struggled to devise it.

From the Met Office charts I had plotted out the likely wind direction hour by hour throughout the day. All that was required for success was for the Met Office to be 100% correct; I told you I was not thinking straight!

We would fetch along the coast in the WSW winds to Trimmingham, using the last of the morning’s fair tide. Then, as the wind began to veer and the tide turned against we would anchor through the worst of the foul tide while the wind veered to NNW. With the wind in the NNW, and a new fair tide running we would reach along to Brancaster Staithe arriving at 2000hrs in time to sail into the harbour to the heroes welcome that must surely await. There we can wait, recharge our batteries literally and figuratively, and wait for a perfect forecast to sail up to Fosdyke.

After what feels like a lie in we are away at 0700hrs and the plan is working. We are fetching up the coast close in to the beach making good progress. As we pass Mundsley we spot their inshore lifeboat heading our way. After a pleasant chat they ask if they can practice coming alongside exercises because they don’t often see yachts sailing close enough to the shore. Well, you’d be a fool to say no to the lifeboat, it’d be like taking bananas or a vicar aboard and then not expecting bad luck.

Mundesley Lifeboat

With the wind forecast to veer towards the north later we allow ourselves to be pushed out to sea north of Cromer. This is where the single greatest tack in our sailing history began. Tacking onto starboard about four miles off Cromer we were making a course of due south, when we should be heading west. However if the tide behaves as expected (if it doesn’t something very bad has happened to the moon) and the wind veers as forecast our heading should gradually improve to the point where we can comfortably sail west. And this is exactly what happened, the Met Office were true to their word as our course slowly but steadily turned from south to west. We didn’t quite clear Blakeney Point but tacked out once at Cley and then reached, in diminishing winds towards Brancaster, home, safety and rest.

With the wind falling and the last of the fair tide behind us our speed slowed and our e.t.a. dropped  back to 2100. Off Scolt Head Island, with the wind again increasing we began to prepare for our entry to the harbour. The plan is to run the engine in neutral to give us some extra amps  to help raise the keel, we have cunningly kept the engine starting battery isolated and about 3/4 full. Sadly over the last few days the engine has lost its battle with salt water corrosion and makes no effort to fire, this is a psychological blow. We knew that the engine was not to be relied on but in the back of our minds we knew that last time we tried it it ran OK. Never mind, we now have breeze, we can sail in. Belinda suggests testing the keel which hasn’t been raised for a month, so I hit the up button, nothing!

It appears that there are insufficient amps to raise the keel, this makes Brancaster’s drying harbour untennable. At this point I really felt that I wanted to give up, I felt defeated; it seemed that whatever we did, however hard we worked and how many good decisions we made the next setback was just round the corner. The crew however seemed undaunted so again Belinda effectively took charge and we set to it again.

After 14 hours sailing, and in the growing darkness we need another new plan. Sailing on into the SW corner of the wash is not realistic, it is too far and we have no nav lights. Sailing into Wells in the dark with no engine woukd be reckless so we settle on anchoring in Holkham Bay, which we passed an hour and a half ago! With the wind having veered to NE as promised we now have a beat back to Holkham Bay where we anchor at 2240.

A hasty crew meeting is convened and our options are mulled over. It is four days until a NW wind is forecast that will allow us to sail all the way up the river to Fosdyke. We could sail to Wells fairway and get towed into Wells, there we could wait, recharge and restock; then get towed out again. This is quite an attractive option. The second is to sail up into the corner of The Wash where we should get some shelter while we await a tow the six or seven miles up the Welland to Fosdyke. This is less appealing but would get us in sooner, and our resilience, while holding up admirably is waning.

Before we set off tomorrow I am going to check, there must be a bloody vicar or a banana somewhere on this boat; or did we set off in a Friday?

Would the engine have made a significant difference today; absolutely. We would have motored with the autohelm through the light winds at Mundsley and at Blakeney allowing us to arrive rested and on time. The keel would have lifted and we would have been tucked up in bed, refreshed and relaxed by now. I suspect though that we would also have motored past Cromer and missed out on the greatest tack in the history of sailing!

Day 4. Holkham to Freiston

After another luxury lie in I pop my head out of the hatch at 0730 to see fog! Seriously if I can find that vicar or banana they are going over the side.

Off by 0800 fetching along the coast towards the Bays channel off Hunstanton we are passed by Richard and Rosie aboard Tonic, headed for Wells. Out of respect for our electrical situation they send a cheery text rather than use the current hungry VHF. The fog soon clears and the rain eases.

To get into the corner of the Wash where it meets the Welland we have to beat into the wind against a foul tide yet again. There are no dramas but again it blows hard and we are fighting for every mile under double reefed main and handkerchief sizes genoa.

Progress is slow for a start with the five miles to the Roaring Mid light buoy taking three hours. After that we struggle a little as we tack towards the start of the Freeman channel, the westbound tack is more favourable but progress is blocked by the Long Sand, southbound we are pushed too far east, but before long we are able to ease sheets and reach across to our planned anchorage in Clay Hole, off Freiston Shore.

On the opposite side of the channel to us is the odd site of the Boston cockle fleet all aground on the sandbank, awaiting the tide to take them and their already loaded catch back up the river Witham to Boston.

Cockle boats

Tucked up as we are in the corner of the wash we have a relatively calm and restful night. Confirmation comes that the yard will be able to tow us in tomorrow which is reassuring.

Day 5. Freiston Shore to Fosdyke.

Tuesday dawned bright and breezy and we had a pleasant enough morning preparing for our tow. It is roughly six miles from our anchorage to the boat yard and we are interested to see what boat arrives, and what it will be like being towed.

By mid morning we get a message and 20 minutes later Moonshine appears to our rescue. If ever you needed a tow, Moonshine looks like the boat to do it; purposeful and powerful. My only concern, having read about these things is that they will try to tow us too fast and pull our cleats out of the deck.

Skillfully handled (by Richard I believe) Moonshine is soon alongside at a safe distance in the swell. Greg appears and throws over the line which I attach to the port side bow cleat and Moonshine takes the strain while I retrieve the anchor. I add one of our lines over the top of the towline and lead it back to a cockpit winch where I winch it up tight. This will prevent the tow line tripping off our cleat in the swell and transfer some if the towing force away from our vulnerable cleat.

Our saviour

Any fears that we had about being towed were soon dispelled, this is the right boat with a skilled and considerate crew. Regular thumbs up signals and smiles from Greg reassure us that all is well.

Belinda helms most of the way and I assume control (accountability) as we approach the pontoon. Such is our confidence in Moonshine’s crew that there is little anxiety as we approach the yard. With the speed of the tow eased I am able to easily edge Flamingo over to the pontoon where Belinda passes the bow line ashore before smartly releasing the towline, and it’s done! We have sailed in excess of two hundred miles over five days and four nights and we are shattered beyond all imagining. There are tears of relief as we offer heartfelt thanks to Greg and Richard and it is clear that as sailors they understand.

It is not 1969, and we haven’t just circumnavigated the globe single handed, it’s not 1970 and we haven’t just nursed a broken spaceship back from the moon, we haven’t even completed the citcumnavigation of Britain that we had planned. For us though, and our little boat it has been a monumental challenge, we have stuck together, made good decisions and succeeded.

So does Flamingo need an engine? Yes! No one part of this trip has been horrific but the relentless battlIn fact browsing through my photos I notice that one boat appears over and over again. It was moored next to us for many days, it is a pretty boat and the light on it was amazing. But maybe somebody was sending me a message, maybe we need a motor-sailer!

Perfect boat?

As a final note. Flamingo was lifted out the following day and the keel was found to be jammed, so no amount of battery charge would have made any difference. The keel was freed with a stout kick from Greg and she was lowered onto her trolly. As the tractor began to move her to her winter quarters it broke down, so we left her, stranded, about 40 metres from home!

Hunstanton, we’ve had a problem.

One of the joys of our trips has been listening to some of the excellent podcast series that are now so easily available. One of our favourites last year was the BBC World Service’s series 13 Minutes to the moon, detailing the Apollo moon landings. It is still available and comes highly recommended by the crew of Flamingo.

Imagine our delight then to find that this year there is a second series detailing the trials and tribulations of the troubled Apollo 13 mission. I’m sure that you are familiar with the story but to recap, following a catastrophic mechanical failure they find themselves adrift days away from home and safety. Unsure of it’s status they are unable to use their main engine and are constantly plagued by alarms and failures of their systems. Imagine that!

As we ended the Bank Holiday with a top grade Pad Thai in the cabin we started to outline how we thought we would be able to get Flamingo back to Brancaster, and then directly to Fosdyke for a lift out. A stop at Lowestoft we agreed was out of the question as we are not sure of the engine’s status and a failure there would be very dangerous. We outlined three plans involving completing the trip in one, two or three legs with nights anchored off  the beach during the worst of the foul tides.

So after being further inspired by Episode 6 of 13 Minutes to the moon we dived into our berths and slept the sleep of the righteous until at 0200; gas alarm! For the third consecutive night. This is disturbing in many ways.

Without going into too much detail there is no smell (so not butane) the alarm is quickly cleared by opening the overhead hatch so the offending gas is lighter than air so is most likely hydrogen from the batteries, but how?

Having ventilated the boat and checking that both alarms have reset to zero we retire to fitful sleep, both of us considering what the problem could be.

Tuesday dawned bright, sunny, warm and calm! We grabbed the calendar quickly and yes, it is still summer 2020! So with a perfect lunchtime tide we rowed up to the hard at Pin Mill past a row of little east coast barges.

A sunny day in 2020!

We discovered a lovely new walk along the river bank to the Royal Harwich Yacht Club. From there it heads inland past the lovely looking Wolverston School (no more public school beating I promise) and back through some proper wild flower meadows.

Arriving back at the Butt and Oyster reveals yet another tide height calculation failure. Clearly we are going to find a way to fill an hour and a half before we can retrieve the dinghy.

I’ll get it!

A brief note here, I have been accused of adopting heirs and graces by referring to the tender as the Avon. So from now on it will be referred to as the tender; it was made by Avon though!

After a couple of ciders and a full price lunch Belinda rowed us back to the boat. I’ve tried to explain repeatedly that there is no need to tack into the wind while rowing the tender but to no avail. Leave it!

Our walk has been fruitful and plans have been put in place to attempt to resolve the gas alarm issue. The most likely situation seems to be that one of the house batteries has failed and at night, when the solar charger shuts down the good battery is charging the bad battery, causing it to gas.

The glamour.

The first part if our theory proved to be correct, one of the batteries has failed and has been bypassed, so fingers crossed for an alarm free night.

Regards getting the engineless Flamingo home we plan to stay here until we have a suitable weather window, and we will then sail her home in one, two or three hops.

We awake on Wednesday after a night’s undisturbed sleep, it looks like we may have solved the gas problem; fingers crossed. We also speak to French Marine Motors at Levington who are able to fit us a new engine at what seems to be a very reasonable price. The bad news is that it will be the first week in October at the earliest.

So I have a chat with Greg at Fosdyke to check that we can get the boat up to the yard and he confirms that it will be fine, he will have the launch ready should the engine fail as we approach. He also seems to think that they can do rather better than the price that I have already got for the engine.

Tonight we eat our sweet chilli garlic stir fry to the sound of rain pattering on the coach-roof, listening, as I write, to Kraftwerk on the radio. Tomorrow we will sit out a windy day here and if the weather holds we will depart at 0600 on Friday for a two day, one stop trip to Brancaster, overnighting at Winteringham.

Breakers at bedtime

A combination of weather and circumstance have led us to a situation where we both agree that we would like to do a little more actual sailing. Even better, sailing in the absence of gales, fog or electrical storms. It seems that our wishes may just come true, certainly regarding the quantity, if not quality of the sailing.

Having been woken early by the insistent tapping of the mooring buoy at Felixtowe Ferry we rise and have a smart breakfast while we ready the ship for the sail back to Pin Mill.

Heading out to play with the big buoys.

On a lovely warm sunny morning we set out sailing into a F3 headwind which is being ably assisted by a foul running tide. The sailing however is lovely, Flamingo is at her best sailing close hauled and feels as though she is loving it. We have decided to sail the whole trip if possible, partly because we want to enjoy an extended sail with no deadlines and partly due to some concerns over the engine’s possible longevity.

Flamingo’s single cylinder diesel engine has always threatened to do something dreadful, while continually plugging on regardless, almost to the point of being contrary. It is reluctant to start, but has always started; once running it bumps, bangs and leaps about in the engine bay while it settles, yet once running is as smooth as you could hope and it always goes on running, 30hrs continuous back from Holland being it’s best effort.

Now however the reluctant diesel is showing symptoms that suggest that all is not as it should be. At higher revs she is beginning to produce characteristic blue smoke as if she is burning engine oil, checking the district confirms that for the first time she is indeed burning oil. So we have decided to ration the use of the engine, Flamingo is after all a sailing boat with auxiliary engine. I have also accepted some teaching work over the winter to finance what looks inevitably like an engine replacement during the closed season.

Anecdotally we appear to be making limited progress as we enjoy beating down the coast but we are sailing and the sun is shining. A bit of careful plotting however reveals that a one hour tack has gained us 0.2NM towards the turning point at the mouth of the Orwell, so we treat ourselves to 50 minutes of motoring. Soon we are able bear away, silence the engine and reach up through the container terminal and into the river, finally sailing onto our preferred buoy in time to prepare an evening meal as the wind again dies to nothing.

We were not to get away lightly again because just as we were planning to retire to bed the wind whistled up to an unforecast F7, straight up the river and against the ebbing tide. This raised a horrible and remarkably large chop which has us bucking around on our mooring in the now pouring rain. We spent an anxious 45 minutes watching the boat anchored immediately to windward of us but to their credit their anchor held. Almost as quickly as it started the wind dropped back to nothing, the rain ceased and we were able to retire, sleep soundly and wake to a lovely calm and sunny Friday; the start of the bank holiday with it’s attendant gale forecast.

So off we motored in the flat calm trailing our own little hydrocarbon mist up through the lock to the protected sanctuary of Ipswich Haven marina. A hearty thanks goes out to the crew of the enormous motorised tupperware tub who beckoned us to raft alongside them in the absence of a safe space for us. To the crew of the 55ft wooden ketch who stuck their hands in their pockets and whistled while staring at something important on the lock side, shame.

Ipswich Haven marina has a lot to recommend it, easy access to good shops for provisioning, nice bars and restaurants and it is very picuresque. Three streets back from the waterfront, as in many ports it is less salubrious. It has to be said that the friendly and helpful staff are a little disorganised. It took them two hours to find us a space as they were ‘very busy, it’s the Bank Holiday’, and the space that we were allocated was only suitable for a ‘slim yacht’. Why we couldn’t have used one of the eight adjacent berths which remaimed empty all weekend is a mystery. I suspect that having paid for two nights we could have remained until the end of the season unnoticed.

The slim yacht

Ipswich is great, along the waterfront it has pretensions of being San Tropez, which it isn’t. Over the weekend we saw a lot of white trousers that probably fitted when bought, and a lot of those white jackets with sail numbers stitched to them. We finally got to eat in Isaaks on the quay, which is legendary with local sailors. They coped well with the current predicament creating a friendly atmosphere, as did The Nelson, and The Steamboat.

Spirit Yachts did not disappoint with three of their incredible boats being afloat and in the final stages of production. Commendably they were tied up to the public pontoons and unattended. I can confirm that the heads on the larger of the three is beautifully fitted out and functions perfectly. A little research revealed that the Spirit Yacht used in Casino Royale with Daniel Craig had it’s mast craned out at each of the ten bridges in Venice to give the appearance of her sailing up the Grand Canal!

Non matching fenders, like Flamingo

Tucked up amongst the high rise buildings we hardly noticed the gale but the messages from friends suggested that it was bad elsewhere. Bank Holiday Monday dawned sunny and warm with a light northerly breeze so we headed back into the river. Having monitored the lock on the VHF it was becoming clear that the tide was only just going to be high enough to allow free-flow, and if it did it wouldn’t be for long. Fearing a scramble we motored round ten minutes early to be third in what was becoming a very big queue; all administered with humour and an air of drama by the lock keeper.

Once out in the river the engine began to give real concern, a local forecast of visibility poor was issues for areas immediately astern of Flamingo. We shut down the engine and had a delightful sail once again to Pin Mill to assess the state of play.

The engine still starts and runs, but for how long? A chat with Dan, who knows about these things suggests a hole in the cylinder head! So we now have to consider the engine as being utterly unreliable, we also feel that whatever hours (or minutes) it has remaining need to be saved for essential docking. We also have to ensure that we don’t get into a situation that we can’t manage under sail alone.

So with the sky and the Bank Holiday boats clearing we will sit tonight to plot out what the remainder of the trip will look like. Marooned at Pin Mill in the sunshine, what an earth will we do?

Horses for courses.

Wherever you go around our coast you will find traditional local vessels, designed to give them the best chance of success in the conditions that prevail locally, and to be manufactured using the available materials and skills. The Norfolk Crab Boats and the Cobbles found on the Yorkshire coast are a case in point. Both strongly built to take the pounding experienced when beaching on these mainly harbour free coasts, and each double ended to part the breakers that inevierably follow them up the beach. We witnessed a 21st Century version of this at our next brief stop, Felixstowe Ferry.

Wishing to get away early the following day we dropped down to Felixstowe Ferry to pick up a buoy that we had arranged to use with the ever helpful Harbour Master. Felixstowe Ferry is an interesting spot situated at the mouth of the River Deben. On the north bank is the beautiful old country manor house at Bawdsey; during WWII it played a pivotal role in the development of radar. It is now a public school where a chap can get himself a first class education, assuming that his parents can afford the fees. If not, it is possible to sit on the very picturesque shingle beach and dream of what might have been.

On the south bank is the rather more ramshackle collection of stilted wooden huts, Martello towers and occasional masonry built structures that make up Felixstowe Ferry itself. Between the two, constrained by it’s banks is the River Deben with it’s deadly shingle banks and fierce tidal flows.

Felixstowe Ferry

Arriving shortly before sunset and about 20 minutes into the ebbing tide we were looking for a ‘sky blue buoy, just off the jetty’ as described by the Harbour Master. As we passed through the hundreds of moorings we began to wonder if somebody else had picked it up, there were lots of boats on sky blue buoys. At the last minute we spotted it, the very last buoy in the mouth of the river; above us river, behind us the sea. By this time the ebbing tide was running past us at about 4kts, within minutes it must have been 6kts, it is doubtful that our ageing engine would have stemmed a 6kt tide (more on the engine later).

As we secured to the buoy there was the sound of a hooter signifying the start of the Laser class racing from FFSC, and we were moored (on the HM’s instructions) about 10 metres up from the start. Within minutes the second and final fleet started, catamarans. Boats beat up either side of us against the now raging tide.

It struck me as odd that the fleet consisted of only two types of boats, Lasers (fast) and catamarans (very fast), but it was obvious, to race here you needed to be able to stem the extreme tides. Local boats for local conditions.

Our main reason for picking up a bouy right down here was to have a look first hand at the sea state that was still being described as moderate to rough in the inshore waters forecast. Fortunately this close to the coast it was quite benign.

View out to sea.

As the sun set we settled to our evening meal of shell on prawns, there was a palpable feeling that we were right in the mouth of the river and at the heart of the action, with just the violently flooding tide keeping the ocean and it’s swells at bay.


As we ate, the last of the winds associated with the overnight storm blew themselves out and the FFSC fleet, deprived of their driving force began to be swept out to sea, and the destructive shingle banks. As the first catamaran was swept past us, it’s skipper clearly in an agitated state, it became clear that a rescue was now essential and we were right in the middle of it!

What a dilemma, shell on prawns are a special treat and chilled Aspall cyder needs to be respected. But equally every seafarer knows that a mariner in distress must receive assistance. Fortunately I managed to reach the VHF handset without spilling a drop and was able to inform FFSC’s safety boats that their fleet was heading out to sea backwards. Their response was swift, professional and efficient, they even motored over to thank us for our ‘help’. Duty bound.

After an exciting and fun evening we turned in ready for an early start. Sadly, with the ebb tide no longer keeping the sea swells at bay we were woken indecently early by the bouy tap, tap, tapping on the stbd bow, right next to my ear!

We were however treated to the sun rising over Bawdsey, the best of the trip so far. I bet it looked great from the dorms!

The education you could have had.

South-westerly 7 to severe gale 9…..

A working understanding of the Met Office’s surface pressure chart is all that is required to understand why this weather is happening. What is harder to understand is why it’s happening to me!

Lone Orwell sailor.

After two nights and three days in the Marina at Levington our return to the river was most welcome. The forecast however was already warning of the next low pressure arriving. With fresh provisions running low we really wanted to get into the Deben and up to Tide Mill marina to do some shopping. Careful study of the various weather forecasts suggested that there was a possibility of getting out of the Orwell and into the Deben on Monday. It would then require an early start on Tuesday to get into Tide Mill before the coming storm.

Having just come through one gale we suspected that the sea state could be interesting on the short trip up the coast and especially in the notorious Deben entrance. So with F5 still in the forecast Belinda made the boat ready for a rough passage. Meanwhile while I prepared a conservative passage plan which would allow us options to sail slowly, with a small sail-plan.

We slipped our mooring at 1215 and under double reefed main had a lovely broad reach down river against the newly flooding tide. We seemed to be the slowest boat on the river as again and again we were overtaken by boats sporting full sail. The crew were delighted that I was prepared to allow this and not pile on sail, but of course I knew what to expect once we were out past the container port.

Once out past the container port we discovered that the light and variable winds forecast for later had arrived sooner than expected, and that we needed rather more sail.


An inbound container ship blocking our path gave us opportunity to shake out our reefs and unroll the mighty wind catching genoa. Immediately that the container ship passed us a second headed out of the port, closely followed by a dredger, this put us slightly behind schedule but not enough to be a problem. It was during these manoevres that I looked up to check the sail trim for my trusty Raybans to slip off my hat and plunge to the murky depths.

With the wind settled around F3 from the west we had a lovely beam reach up the coast and even managed the Deben entrance without having to use the engine.

Being back in the lovely Deben is always a treat and with time to spare we beat our way up to Ramsholt where we picked up a buoy. While we drank a well earned cup of tea Belinda phoned Tide Mill to arrange a berth for the morning as we would be arriving well before the office opened. A quick check however revealed that to be sure of getting into Tide Mill, two hours up the river, we would need to be there by 0630!

So having just got settled we set off again with a view to getting much closer to Woodbridge before we turned in, this would allow us a much more civilised start time in the morning, and less time motoring in the forecast heavy rain.

We have never anchored or picked up a bouy really close to Woodbridge but decided that we would give it a try, and finally settled on a vacant buoy just north of Methersgate Quay. Tide calculations showed that even this high up the river we should still float at LW, so we didn’t even need to lift the keel. The skipper/chef managed a passable Thai curry from half a sweet potato and a found onion. Suffolk skies didn’t let us down again and we spent a lovely evening watching the sunset (and the lady swimmer who stripped on the quay oblivious of our presence) and speculating on what the scene would look like in the morning.

Woodbridge sunset.

Even before we rose at 0545 it was clear that it was indeed raining, but mercifully not the forecast downpour. Even more helpful was the fact that although the wind had risen it was still only F4; mooring in the sheltered marina shouldn’t present too many problems. When Belinda booked the berth on the phone the Harbour Master had hinted that he had allocated us a spot that would keep us sheltered from the approaching severe gale. Berth 149 was perfect, tucked in the corner formed by the big boat repair shed, and the railway trackside trees we were as well protected as we could have hoped for.

Having evicted one tender from our berth, and squidged another into the corner we rigged normal lines and fenders and retreated to the cabin for breakfast. A breezy and damp shopping expedition began to replenish our food stocks. Miraculously by the afternoon despite the wind the sun emerged and we took our favourite walk up to Meltham Bridge.

We were pleased to be able to ‘help out by eating out’ at the Kings Head as the wind was now becoming fierce. Before we set off I doubled all of the lines, then rigged two extra lines to take the strain caused as the wind now attempted to rip Flamingo from her berth.

After a blustery but dry walk up to the pub the wind in the Kings Head was F0, and we had a lovely calm meal watching the torrential rain being blasted around the market square. Miraculously the rain stopped in time for the to walk back to the boat but by this time the wind was so strong along the quay that we were literally picked up and had to run with the wind to stay on our feet.

Although the boat couldn’t have been more secure we endured a bumpy and noisy night getting some sleep which we compensated by having a two cup of tea lie-in. Unbelievably it looks like we may be able to get back into the Orwell to meet friends before Friday’s forecast gale arrives!

Following a breakfast that was prepared to Lloyd’s 100A1 standard the remainder of Wednesday was spent further topping up the supplies and wandering around Woodbridge. It is rumoured that the crew went Christmas shopping! Although I wasn’t allowed to inspect the haul so maybe its all for me.

We were touched to receive messages from friends and family checking that we were OK. Now to plan our trip back to the Orwell.

River Orwell

Finally an end to the NE winds, fog and thunderstorms. A mysterious orange disk has appeared in the sky and the wind arrives, pre-warmed, over the top of the trees on the cliff at Pin Mill.

We are now fully occupied in holiday mode. Regular swims with our gelatinous friends in the river, the Compass jellyfish that we swam with in Blakeney have been replaced by Moon jellyfish that we are more familiar with. Both are harmless but it requires some resolution to put this aside and rely on breastroke arm movements to brush them out of the way. The crew has taken to swimming in gloves right behind me (it’s like the kraken breathing in your ear) so that I displace most of them. This must appear amusing to anyone watching but not as funny as when I get my 112ft Herschoff schooner with 15 strong crew in matching navy shorts and cream polo tops. Swimming conga?

Afternoons often involve rowing the dinghy up to Pin Mill for a walk in the woods or along the shore followed by a pint or a bit of lunch at the ubiquitous Butt & Oyster. Pin Mill is so picturesque, there is always something to see and it seems to be one of those places where the light is special. Where else can you see Thames barges and a chap launching a little clinker dinghy off the back of a Citroen 2CV?

We have also discovered that from Monday to Wednesday, try as you might it is near impossible to spend money on food from the pub. Lockdown dividend?

Many a happy hour can be spent boat spotting on the Orwell. Not the horrible wandering around brokers or marinas dreaming about that next ‘bigger boat’ which inevitably would be more complex and costly; and probably no more fun than your existing boat. The Orwell is packed with interesting, quirky and plain beautiful boats of all sizes and ages. There is also a very picturesque but rather sad portion of the river bank where a collection of once proud craft have been discarded by their owners to be reclaimed and recycled by nature.

As the week progressed the wind began to increase with F6, F7 and finally F8 appearing in the inshore waters forecast. One of the joys of the Orwell is its sheltered inland position which often allows sailing in the river when a trip out to sea would be reckless. We had one lovely day sail up under the Orwell Bridge all the way to Ipswich and then down to the container port at Felixsowe. Mind you by the time we were approaching Harwich it really was blowing.

Orwell Bridge
Ipswich Docks

However as the week progressed the forecast worsened; and with water and fresh food supplies diminishing we headed into the ever helpful Suffolk Yacht Harbour. As this coincided with the skippers 34th birthday we booked for a meal at the newly refurbished (following a fire) Ship Inn at Levington. We were treated to more lovely Suffolk skies as we walked along Levington creek up to the pub. The service was excellent, atmosphere as good as can be hoped for and the food satisfactory. The crew barred me from offering to return the following day to show the chef how to make a proper scotch egg!

While we had easy access ashore we took the bikes and rode over the heath to watch the boats going up into the Deben at Felixtowe Ferry. With it’s fierce tidal flows and shingle banks this always makes for a picturesque and entertaining hour. The following day we took a longer walk up river through the woods on the north bank; some shelter from the still howling wind was most welcome. After a long walk, made longer by forgetting the O.S. map, we decided to give The Ship Inn a second chance and dipped in for a pint of Adnam’s and a pint of prawns.

Suffolk skies

Marina life, with its hot showers, chandlers, walk ashore facilities and shelter soon loose their appeal. Force seven winds shrieking through hundreds of sets of rigging become wearing and by Sunday we had had enough. Despite a complex exit from our pontoon berth in still strong winds we completed a manoeuvre that we were rather proud of and headed back up to Pin Mill and into our preferred environment.

Where next? Hopefully the Deben.

Lowestoft to Pin Mill

This passage quickly became a delivery trip, with too little wind to enable us to sail at anything like a speed that would enable us to complete the arrive at a sensible time.

So with the Autohelm and the diesel engine on Flamingo steered us the 46NM to Pin Mill with occasional inputs from the crew. We dodged the foul tide early in the passage by following the 5m contour to Southwold then headed offshore as the tide became more favourable.

As seems to be normal in 2020 the visibility was poor with us reduced to electronic scans with the AIS and radar every ten minutes at one point. The obligatory thunder storm threatened off the Deben but came to nothing but heavy rain.

And so at 2010hrs we picked up our favourite visitors mooring at Pin Mill and hunkered down to a late meal and attempts to dry our once again dripping oilies.

The forecast for the following morning was for light winds and sunshine but it was no surprise when I popped my head out of the hatch to see more fog.

Much prettier fog at Pin Mill

Don’t Fret

I rarely remember my dreams but as I woke from my fitful sleep the night before our first big passage of the year the outline of my dream was still vaguely with me. We were on a trip (a passage?) with my good friend Martin, trips with Martin rarely end well. For some reason we were in Talin, Armenia and everything was going wrong. Any sailor who tells you that they don’t worry about a big passage is dillusional at best.

Lying in my berth listening to what sounded like a solid F5 howling through the rigging I popped my head out of the hatch to see fog, well if not fog then certainly a stiff sea fret caused by the continuing easterly winds.

Passage making weather?

Parts of our passage plan were making me uneasy; the continuing north easterly winds; poor visibility and anchoring on what would effecttively be a lee shore being chief amongst them. Against this the wind was not forecast above F5 and was more likely to be  F2-4; visibility was likely to be limited, not poor and we did have the option to not anchor and press on direct to Lowestoft, or even Harwich if Lowestoft entrance was untenable.

Following a full crew meeting we made the decision to ‘poke our nose out ‘ and have a look, with the option of returning if we didn’t like the sea state or visibility. Although limited the visibility didn’t stop us seeing probably the biggest swell that we had ever seen coming out of Brancaster, still it was no worse than Ijmuiden last year so we pressed on with the promise or decreasing winds as the day progressed. Yet again there are no photos of the worst conditions as we always seem to be too busy to take any.

To keep herself steady the crew gripped my arm for the first hour in a way that reminded me of when the children were being born, but soon the wind and sea state moderated and the circulation returned. Before long we were able to make cracking progress on a beam reach, gradually shaking out mainsail reefs (folds in the sail to reduce it’s size, tied in with ……….. a reef knot) and unrolling more and more genoa.

The Norfolk coast sped by hidden in the sea fret, although we finally closed to within view of the coast at Walcott to sail along the 5m contour to avoid the now foul tide.

Cromer Pier

Once past the artificial reefs (piles of huge boulders designed to protect the beach) at Sea Palling we began to look around for a safe anchorage, gaining some protection from the most southerly of the nine stone structures. Sadly this last reef has subsided significantly and offered little protection. This combined with poor visibility, growing darkness and a rising NE wind made for a miserable and stressful anchoring process.

Taking bearings to check the anchor is holding.

Anchored in 2.5m of water, on solid sand and with 25m of chain out we were in no danger but it was a fretful night. As the wind gusted the boat pitched, as the wind subsided she turned and began to roll wildly. We got some sleep but were up before the 0330 alarm ready to catch the next fair tide down to Lowestoft.

Getting 25m of chain and it’s attached anchor aboard in a swell and in the dark takes some planning and extreme care in the execution. Life jacketed (as always) and clipped on I head forward and get organised. Belinda then motors slowly ahead as I retrieve the chain by hand when it is willing, allowing it out again when it rebels, much like playing a big fish. Once the anchor is back aboard Belinda immediately steers the boat onto a safe course which has been pre-programmed to display on the cockpit GPS, it is very easy to pile up on the beach or worse in the self congratulatory euphoria of having ‘recovered the hook’.

Having tidied the foredeck I return to the cockpit and we roll out enough genoa to keep us moving at a respectable speed, there is no need for heroics on deck getting the mains’l up while it is still dark. We can already see the lights of three ships that will need to be dealt with.

The first of these appears to be a fishing vessel, although he does not show on our AIS screen and his deck lights are so bright that there is no possibility of discerning his status or even direction. There is a complex relationship between our two vessels, I am sailing, he is overtaking, he may be fishing; all of these factors will determine who is ‘stand on’ vessel and who is ‘give way vessel’. The situation is simply resolved by him appointing himself ‘stand on vessel’ probably on the grounds that he hasn’t even seen us.

To add to the fun the sky to the east and west begin to fizz and boom with lightening and thunder which becomes persistent with the gaps between the flash and the bang becoming ever shorter.

Our next challenge is to avoid an unscheduled rendezvous with a 364ft long floating crane called Goliath who is carrying half an oil rig. Goliath has been thoughtfully named. Initially this meeting looks like it will be easily dealt with as Goliath appears to be anchored and about a mile off our intended path. The AIS helpfully reveals that he is moving at 3.5kts and headed for Great Yarmouth, this will involve him turning and crossing our path. Once established on his new course the AIS informs us that our closest point of approach will be 0.0NM and will occur in 8 minutes. It also informs us that he is restricted in ability to manoeuvre which makes him very much stand on vessel. Two quick gybes and we pass safely astern of him.


Looking at the photo you will clearly see the vertically array of red-white-red lights indicating that he is restricted ability to manoeuvre.

With that hurdle cleared we were now on the last lap before we arrived at the notorious Lowestoft harbour entrance. Creeping up behind us was a thunder storm with a curtain of rain turning the surface of the water white. This is a potentially very dangerous situation; a lightening strike nearby can disable all of our electronics; the arrival of the storm can bring violent and unpredictable winds and heavy rain leaves decks and pontoons slippery and can distract the crew from already hazardous manoeuvres.

Thunder Storm

So with half a mile to run Belinda spoke to Lowestoft Port Control who gave us permission to enter. Lines and fenders were rigged and we hunkered down, prepared for the coming storm. As we approached the entrance we had a final check astern; nothing, the storm had evaporated. So it was that we motored into the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club wearing full oilies and sea boots as the sun came out. No doubt the holiday-makers on the harbour wall commented on the fact that we must have had a lovely sail!

2020 Cruise

So 85 days after the planned start date it looks like our 2020 cruise will start tomorrow. It won’t be the five month circumnavigation of Britain that we had planned but it is not many weeks ago that we thought that it would be impossible to launch the boat at all this year. We need to be grateful for small mercies, I bet there are people out there who don’t even have a boat at all. Mind you looking at the crowds here there can’t be many.

At the moment we are holed up in Brancaster Staithe, penned in by easterly and north easterly winds that are forecast to be too strong for an East Coast passage. While the weather has been hot enough for daily swims and some tide sails the easterly winds keep it feeling constantly damp.

Waiting for the off

Like most people I think that we are desperate to just get away and visit some of our favourite old haunts. The idea that next week we might be sat outside the Butt & Oyster with a pint of Adnams seems almost too good to be true.

The passage plan for tomorrow is a little left field. Starting at midday we will take the tide down to Sea Palling where we will anchor and have a sleep through most of the foul tide, then off on the next fair tide arriving in Lowestoft in time for breakfast. For those who are familiar with Sea Palling we are planning to anchor to the south of the false reefs, not between them. The NE wind is forecast to finally back a little to NNW and the F6 has disappeared from the forecast.

Anyway, right now we are very excited about going to Lowestoft! What could go wrong? Lots, update soon……


In our berth at Fosdyke the following morning with a cup of tea at 0845 hrs there was a tap on the hull, did we want to be lifted out now or tomorrow? After a quick crew meeting we agreed that tomorrow would be good; yard manager Greg’s eyebrows clearly indicated that this was the wrong answer. So using our well rehearsed plan we were up, dressed and motoring round to the lift out dock in minutes.

Awaiting the lift-out.

Less that ninety minutes after that initial tap on the hull Flamingo was ready to hibernate having been lifted out, pressure washed and very precisely placed on her trolley.

Our first look at her undersides since April revealed that she has fared rather well. The selection of Antifouling paint to deter marine growth is always a difficult decision, what works in one area of the country will be almost totally ineffective in another.

The problem is clearly very bad in the Netherlands as we had seen many boats with great forests of weed growing from their hulls. Apart from possibly 50 barnacles around the skeg Flamingo’s hull was completely free of any fouling, this is quite miraculous and very encouraging.

Filthy rudder

Marine fouling slows the boat and increases fuel consumption but our choice of antifouling, paint and the constant change from salt to brackish and then to fresh water has kept the hull completely clear. The meadow on the (antifoul-free) rudder demonstrates what would have happened without protection on the hull.

Clean hull, before washing

Sailors note, for one year we used Cruiser Uno which seemed to attract barnacles, at the end of that season I scraped off the barnacles and took them away in buckets. Following a recommendation we the moved to Shogun which is slightly cheaper and works brilliantly, even using one coat per year. Financial constraints have compelled us to move over to Jotun over the last two seasons. This has clearly worked extremely well, it is however evil stuff to apply, it even dissolves your rollers.

So our season is complete we have had an amazing adventure but more than that we have proved that we can live aboard for almost indefinite periods during reasonable weather. Now we need to start planning next year’s adventure, the plan is slowly forming but there are many things to consider.

Overall we travelled 1096NM during the season with just over 800NM being our Brancaster to Brancaster cruise. Almost half of that mileage was under motor, a figure that under most circumstances would be considered excessive,but on the Dutch inland waterways this is inevitable. We have also undertaken some ambitious passages in narrow weather windows, this has compelled us to motor to meet tide gates, or dodge approaching strong winds.

The blog will now go quiet over the winter with just occasional posts on the necessary re-fit and updates on how next year’s plan is developing.

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