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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!