Is it just me, or does it feel like autumn is already in the air? Perhaps it’s just that we are now in a part of France not exactly famous for its tropical climes, or perhaps it’s just that the weather everywhere for the past few weeks seems to have taken a turn for the wintry? I always sense winter is coming as soon as the summer solstice has passed us by; I’m not pessimistic by nature, but I always find the idea a little sobering that the nights are already starting to draw in again, even before June and early summer is out. This year though, it feels like we skipped summer almost completely.
So here we are, in Brittany, at the end of the first week of August. It’s raining and blowing a hoolie. It’s been doing that since we arrived on Monday. You might already know that we have been trying to sail to the Azores for about 5 weeks now? It’s getting a bit ridiculous.
I know we haven’t written any blogs since April, so – to cut a very long interim story short but bring you up to speed – we arrived in Ramsgate from the Netherlands back in May. We did our time in quarantine, caught up with family and friends and then slowly made our way west over many weeks, down towards the southwest of England via the Solent. We visited friends and family along the way and had a really wonderful time. I think I’ve just about managed to convince Dietmar that Margate is not a representative sample on which you should judge the whole of the United Kingdom, and we didn’t go north of the Cotswolds so there’s plenty more for him to see one day…
So – back to the story – at the beginning of July, we had a crewmate join us. FranJo is a friend from Germany who sailed with Dietmar from South Africa up to the UK back in 2017, Franjo is as famous for his outstanding pancakes as he is for his exceptional drone skills – and crazy hair after a few days at sea 😉 That and his effortless charm make him a great crew mate – he’s dependable, kind, cheery and he plays a good game of Scrabble (even if he does come up with some very dodgy words 😉 ) so we’re always happy to have him on board with us. (He’s what the Brits would call a Good Egg. I doubt that translates word for word…)
The three of us left the UK on 11th July from Gosport, which is across the river from Portsmouth in the south of England, just opposite the Isle of Wight in the Solent. We were bound for the Azores. We set off around the eastern end of the Isle of Wight, choosing to dodge the thrills and spills of the narrow passage between the mainland and the island at the western end of the Solent. The tide would have been funnelling out of that tiny gap by the Needles in the opposite direction to 20-25kt winds; this would have likely produced some delightful standing waves and certainly some very confused seas, maybe even the odd little whirlpool and certainly some big eddies. We didn’t fancy this much. Funnily enough, watching the start of the Rolex Fastnet Race this afternoon, that’s exactly the conditions they had to punch through, poor buggers. We weren’t racing though, and contrary to appearances we are not masochists either, so we took the marginally longer and much more comfortable route instead.
When I know the weather is going to be crap, I try to cook before we leave. On this occasion though, I hadn’t had the time. In the previous few days, I’d driven to Essex and then Norfolk where I’d dropped a series of paintings off at The Old Harnessmakers’ Gallery in Harleston, driven down to Kent to see friends and my parents, and then to Heathrow to pick up FranJo. By the time I got back to Gosport on the Saturday night, all the supermarkets were closed. Dietmar wanted to leave with the tide on the Sunday morning so I had to run (literally) to the nearest Morrisson’s and back before we left for the fresh supplies (fruit, veg, fresh meat). I stepped on board with the shopping and we cast the lines off almost immediately. It was a mad rush and a wholly unpropitious start.
That Sunday was however the first apparently reasonable weather window to sail west, even though we expected to have light winds on our nose to begin with. As it turned out, we spent the first 36 hours beating hard into the wind but not making much headway thanks to a hefty swell that slammed the brakes on every time Cesarina started to lift her skirts and run. We were see-sawing into the waves. Our foresail – usually the sail that drives us hard into the wind with plenty of success – was sheeted in hard, with its bottom getting a good wash on every third wave. The crew were taking as much of a beating as the rig with each slam into a wave. The novelty and the thrill of the adventure wore off quite quickly as we realized that these could be the conditions we could actually expect for several days. Ugh. This would be our first long passage since well before COVID – since 2017 for me – and we were all pretty rusty. It was all a bit grim.
I’ve probably mentioned this before, but Cesarina is what we call a very ‘wet’ boat, which means that you can’t sit in the cockpit in even slightly rough weather and not expect to get a soaking. As a result, it’s full oilies all round, and what this means is that going to the loo is an expedition worthy of Captain Cook. First, you have to wriggle out of your lifejacket – while hanging on to the boat so you don’t go flying. Then try to take your jacket off – while hanging on to the boat so you don’t go flying… Now you can go into the loo, and shut the door behind you – while hanging on to the boat… Then try to undo and pull down your dungarees, one handed… then your thermals… then your knickers… then park yourself on the loo but don’t stop holding on to the boat because every other wave is trying to make you knock yourself out on the shower taps which are 3 feet in front of you. Wiping is a fun challenge, and then you have to repeat the whole process in reverse. And don’t forget to flush – pump twice (a big steel lever) to flush out, then turn the tap to let seawater in and pump ten times – put your back into it – then close the tap and pump the bowl completely out – at least another half a dozen pumps. For goodness’ sake don’t forget to close the tap or you’ll sink the boat (I’m not joking – you’d certainly flood it although I’d hope that the bilge pumps would kick in before she actually sank!) If you’re even slightly prone to seasickness, having just spent at least five minutes being thrown about in a small space with no horizon to watch, and the last two of those with your head almost level with your knees, this is about the time when you wish you’d taken that anti-seasickness tablet before you left the harbour… or perhaps not left the harbour at all!
Anyway, this first foray towards the Azores ended when Dietmar had simply had enough. Both FranJo and I were struggling – his obvious seasickness, which was being kept just about at bay by enough drugs to knock a horse over, was making me so much queasier than usual – so Dietmar was having to be captain and crew for much of the time. Then we had a wave so fierce that it knocked the pulpit (the railing right at the bow of the boat) out of its stanchion bases, and at that point Dietmar had a sense of humour failure. Sleep-deprived and very grumpy, he decided we should turn and head for home, convinced that the only solution was to take Cesarina back to Germany, take her out of the water and buy a house and the puppy that we have been talking about for some time now. This was all just too much like hard work, too stressful, too knackering, no fun at all.
It seemed however that Cesarina – and the Atlantic Ocean – had other ideas. No sooner had we turned the boat around than the sun came out and we were treated to some fabulous, textbook-perfect downwind sailing and a stunning pink sunset. It was heartbreaking. I sat in the cockpit, salty already, and cried fat tears at the beauty and the thought that I would perhaps never experience it again. For me, sailing the open oceans is the only place where I feel truly free and unfettered, unhampered, uninterrupted by the constant stream of daily (often pointless) noise. No mobile reception means a different set of responsibilities – spotting problems in advance and keeping the crew alive, producing good food regardless of the conditions, keeping a good watch and the thousand other little responsibilities of long-distance offshore sailing. Take me sailing or put me somewhere beautiful and quiet with no interruptions and let me paint or read – these are my happy places, no question about it. I’m not ready to give up this feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere, with just the birds and later the stars for company.
Dietmar and I sat in the cockpit and held hands tightly, not speaking a word to each other. I’m not sure I was the only one with leaking eyes.
The sun slipped prettily over the horizon, I took the watch and Dietmar went to bed for a while. When he woke, we were due south of Plymouth. We checked the weather and the charts again and Dietmar’s stance softened. We decided to sail to Torbay and have a rethink, so a nice easy reach north-east brought us safely in to drop our hook just outside Brixham harbour not long after sunrise. We all slept, emotionally and physically exhausted.
From Torbay, we plotted an easy sail around the corner to Salcombe – my idea as I’d been hearing about how wonderful Salcombe is for many years now and I’d been so keen to visit. It’s not so easy to get into though – it looks like a river valley but it has a tricky, suddenly shallow sand bar at the entrance which would cheerfully scupper you if you get your tide height calculations wrong! Once you’re over that tricky little hazard, then there’s the small matter of where to tie up for the night.
We did our sums, got them right and motored safely into the ria and up the valley, through beautiful scenery and past stunningly located houses that must have the most incredible views. The further we got, the more boats were there. 5, 10, 30, 50,… My eyes widened as I realized that some of the mooring balls already had four yachts on, all over 40’ long!
I’d read that the mooring options were all expensive and, in any case, choosing the week that all the private schools broke up for the summer holidays was perhaps not the best timing to arrive and hope for a mooring buoy. Trying not to panic and really hoping that I hadn’t talked Dietmar into a very bad decision, I reminded myself – and him – that (as I’d read) an easy, peaceful and much cheaper option (although you still have to pay) is to anchor up a side channel they call The Bag. I’d looked at the charts, checked the depths and although there didn’t appear to be that much room up there, the pilot books assured me that there was always space. This looked like an excellent plan to me, so when the uniformed harbourmaster approached us in his smart little dinghy with an offer of a mooring ball, I thanked him and told him our plans. He raised eyebrows, politely, and wished us luck.
As we motored, in fading light, up what was increasingly an exceeding shallow channel, with so many more boats than I’d expected, the wind seemed to pick up. The tide was by now running out really hard. Dietmar started to get very monosyllabic with me, which is a sure fire sign that he is getting stressed. Frankly, this was no surprise. The thing is, what I hadn’t taken into consideration was that all the kindly composers of almanacs and channel pilot books (looking at you, Tom Cunliffe 😉 ) don’t generally sail unwieldy classic 55’ yachts that weigh 25 tonnes and draw 9 feet – they’re far too sensible for such nonsense! Also, I’m sure there might well be more room if you’re not in the middle of a pandemic where every boat owner who usually sails to the Med has decided on a ‘staycation’…
Note to self and all larger boat sailors – don’t even think about trying to anchor up The Bag in Salcombe unless you have the place entirely to yourselves. The holding is sticky mud that doesn’t really hold the anchor unless you have a lot of chain out. For us, putting out a lot of chain would have meant hoping that there was no wind direction shift, otherwise we would have swung round and collected half a dozen little yachts on the way! The Bag offers 4m of water in the middle of the channel at low tide and the channel is about 40 metres wide. Outside of the channel it shelves steeply and dries out. Not a good idea.
Anyway, to cut a long and very sweary story short, we dropped the anchor twice, and dragged the anchor twice while trying to set it. It was a total nightmare. This was never going to work. Now what?!
There was nothing for it – I was going to have to eat humble pie and call the harbourmaster back and ask him, apologetically, for that mooring ball. He was perfectly kind and didn’t even laugh at me, but my heart sank when he said that he had just allocated that mooring ball to someone else. I should standby.
Oh God. I had visions of imminent divorce and us having to leave Salcombe entirely as I knew there was not a cat’s chance in hell that we would want to raft up to any other boats – we are too heavy to raft alongside anything small, but we sit too low in the water to raft up to anything our own size and get tangled up in lifelines and back stays and Lord knows what. Nightmare. Bugger, bugger, bugger. It was getting dark and I was about to be very unpopular on board as there was no obvious anchorage around except back in Torbay.
When the VHF crackled back into life in my sweaty paws with the news that they had a mooring ball for us, I did a little dance. We threaded our way back downstream to where I was told the buoy was located and I expected to see a circular buoy about 60cm in diameter and 40cm or so high, with a smaller ball attached on a longish bit of rope that you can hook and pull aboard to make fast. And then I saw the bloody great big thing, like a massive orange oil barrel, designed for the fishing trawlers that operate out of Salcombe and other mighty vessels, my heart sank again. How the hell was I meant to catch that?! Dietmar was on the helm and he had sent me forward. After a quick and fairly fiery exchange between me and the captain, I took the helm (which is how we always tie up to mooring balls) and he went forward to help FranJo (who had never done this before). And thank goodness, a very kindly neighbour spotted that they were about to have a problem because this buoy has a large hoop on top but no easy thing to attach a rope to or haul aboard like we would usually see. I manoeuvred us gently into position and Dietmar tied us up with the help of our kindly neighbour in his dinghy. Thank goodness. Engine off, log book complete, job done. Crew hug, and breathe…
Salcombe is indeed beautiful and our mooring buoy was actually perfect – big and safe, with a beautiful view – close enough to the town to make getting in and out easy, but far enough away to not be deafened by the cream of Chelsea and Westminster’s youth partying boisterously late into the night. It is the birthplace of many a chic nautical brand and home to a very old friend of mine with whom I had lost contact until she popped by in her dinghy, suspecting that the German classic yacht may well hold her old friend on board. It was lovely to catch up. It’s also – for the record – not that expensive to pick up a mooring ball. We paid £32 per night, which is peanuts compared to marina fees for our boat.
There’s wonderful ice cream, thanks to the Salcombe Dairy; a smattering of chic little shops and some very high quality art galleries; an unusually high proportion of extremely beautiful people; great walks and some incredible views. I painted en plein air twice and sold both paintings the same day – the new owners even took delivery while they were still wet! It was an extraordinary few days. If I’m completely honest, I would happily have stayed longer, but the Azores were beckoning and so we prepared again for departure.
This time the weather forecast was wonderful and all looked dreamy for at least the first few days of our passage. We set off early, filled up with diesel, and bade Salcombe a regretful au revoir. Onward – to the open ocean! Nowhere near as much wind this time so we sailed as much as we could but the wind faded and on went the engine. We were graced with pod after pod of dolphins, soaring seabirds and plenty of sunshine. We began to remember why we got hooked on sailing in the first place- this dreadful and dreadfully expensive drug that wrecks marriages and drives sane men crazy. It’s like nothing else in the world. Onward, further, west-south-west, to the Atlantic, to where the water is a deep, deep blue and you sail through the stars at night…
And then – 12 hours out and about due south of The Lizard peninsula- we had a problem. Our batteries should have been charging while the engine was running, but they weren’t. Quite the opposite in fact – they were emptying. Bugger. Some poking about in the engine compartment confirmed our fears – the alternator had stopped working. This meant that, in time, we would have no electricity on board. Now, technically, we do also have a generator which could also charge the batteries, but we don’t like to go sailing without a plan B and we had 1350 miles ahead of us. If the generator also stopped working (and it can be a bit temperamental sometimes), we would eventually run out of power completely. This would mean no autopilot, no fridge, no water pump, no bilge pumps, no lights, no radar, no chart plotter, no depth gauge, no radio… Not an option we were prepared to consider. I know what you’re thinking – what, no solar panels? No wind turbine? Nope – and nowhere to put either, unfortunately… We’ve just replaced our old batteries with state of the art lithium but even they need to be charged from time to time.
So – we turned around – again.
For goodness’ sake. We were slightly starting to feel like Blighty didn’t want to let us go. The disappointment on board made everything taste slightly wrong. We were all pretty fed up, to put it mildly, and more than a little stressed that we needed to make it back to a marina to plug in our brand new batteries before they discharged themselves beyond the point of rescue.
This time, we made for the massive naval harbour of Plymouth, and sailed into Mayflower Marina not long after sunrise the following day. What a fantastic marina! We were given a very warm welcome and the staff there couldn’t have been more helpful. Dietmar ordered and received a new alternator and other replacement parts, and fitted a new cooling fan to the engine compartment. Time will tell whether he has solved the problem…
While we were waiting for parts and weather, we did a little exploring. The waters around Plymouth are beautiful – the city centre less so, to be honest. The old part on the waterfront – the Barbican all the way to the Hoe and the King William Yard, for example – is full of history and very charming. The inner port is still used by a large number of working fishing boats and the quaysides are full of interesting things going on. The old Admiralty buildings are imposing and there are historical landmarks around every corner. The ghosts of ancient mariners stalk the alleyways. It’s quite magical.
Sadly, this postage stamp of historical beauty is surrounded on all sides by some dreadful Brutalist architecture and some even less attractive 1960s and ’70s lumpish concrete monstrosities. It’s hideous and dreadfully uninspiring. The city centre seemed windy, grey, deeply depressed, populated predominantly by people with even less hope than they have teeth, and with an apparently large number of people who appeared to be street homeless. There was clear evidence of much drug and alcohol abuse, almost everywhere you looked. The industries that grew the town have shrunk, died or moved away and I’m sure Covid hasn’t helped. I have never seen so many pound shops and discount stores in one place. It was really sad.
Not so keen to spend too much time in the town, we ventured in the other direction. Near to our marina, there is a ferry that took us across to Cremyll – out of Devon and into the Kingdom of Cornwall, to the land of Rosamunde Pilcher films – the most incredibly famous and successful British author that no Brit has ever heard of. Seriously. Rosamunde Pilcher writes period dramas that sound like Fielding/Austen/Brontë pastiches and are unbelievably popular in Germany. She’s ridiculously successful and yet no one in England seems to have ever heard of her, including me until I met Dietmar.
Anyway, from the landing stage at Cremyll, it’s a bracing walk uphill to Mount Edgcumbe, an elegant stately home dating to the reign of Henry VIII, with commanding views back across the city. From here we picked up the coastal path and followed it for a few miles, along paths carpeted with pine needles and smelling of the Côte d’Azur, with glimpses of precipitous cliffs and shimmering turquoise waters below. We followed a trail through the long grass and bracken up to a folly – a half tower built to look like a medieval ruin, one of the few buildings in Plymouth left untouched by German bombs in WWII, despite its appearance. We walked for hoursand returned with tired legs, the sunshine in our eyes and the smell of lush greenery in our nostrils. It was glorious.
As if however in sympathy with the strange melancholy of Plymouth, I fell ill the next day – first with an unshiftable headache which went on for days, then dreadful stomach ache. As I seemed to be recovering, Dietmar set a date for our next departure with the next weather window.
And on the morning of our departure, I was so ill I could barely get out of bed.
FranJo flew home. I called a doctor, went for a Covid test (it was negative) and spent a pretty miserable week on board, slowly getting better. Dietmar and I cooked up a new plan: we decided that actually, maybe, we should just try moving the boat south and wait until we had a better weather window and a shorter journey. Dietmar and I had sailed double-handed across the entire Pacific ocean, so a quick trip to France maybe, then perhaps Spain before crossing to the Azores shouldn’t really be a problem.
And so we left Plymouth last Sunday morning and made it across to La France in 26 hours, without any problems whatsoever, to Brest in Brittany.
By the way, Brest looks not dissimilar to Plymouth, with the difference that the town was bombed not by the Germans but first, tactically, by the British, and then apparently indiscriminately by the Americans who almost razed it to the ground. 75% of the town was obliterated. The decision was taken to redesign the city completely and, with so much grey granite used in the rebuild, I have a strong suspicion that the architect may have been related – at least in spirit- to whomever redesigned Plymouth…
De toute façon, I’m feeling more or less back to my usual bouncy self, and here we are, waiting for yet another weather window, ready to head across Biscay. Right now, it’s looking like Tuesday but – honestly – who knows? In the meantime, Dietmar is enjoying the amazing bread from the bakery and the great running routes – and I’m enjoying chipping the rust off my French. I really want to paint but the wind and almost endless rain here is putting the brakes on any plans to do that. It might have to wait until we are somewhere a little less … Breton.
We’ll keep you posted…