One day Barry, a good friend of mine, said to me “would you like to help me sail my boat around to Falmouth?” A simple question really except that the boat was on Blake’s boat yard slip on the River Brue in Highbridge and Falmouth is, of course, ‘round the end’ in the English Channel.
The boat in question was a ‘Phillip’s 32’, a really nice comfortable long keeled sea boat, so I said “yes, when?” So we settled on a date, arranged annual leave from work, got all the necessary charts and provisions and set off early one Summer Friday morning at high tide.
I had done the trip several times before on other boats so I was looking forward to it. We left Highbridge on a falling tide and as soon as we had cleared Hinkley Point we marked our course on the relevant charts, because this was before the luxury of ‘satnav’, sorted out who was going to be on watch and then settled down to enjoy the trip. The weather forecast had said that there was some bad weather expected from the west, but we estimated that by the time it arrived we would be around Lands End and into the English Channel and the wind would help us on to Falmouth. So we set a cruising jib and mainsail and with a good steady wind from the NE we made good headway. We sailed under these conditions all night and through the next morning passing Minehead, Ilfracombe, with Lundy off to starboard down past Padstow and on to St Ives. We made good progress until we reached Cape Cornwall. There the wind headed us, that is to say that the wind shifted to the south west so that it was coming from dead ahead. So we tacked. And tacked. And tacked. After many hours we were hardly any further forward on our course because the wind was getting stronger.
The bad weather had arrived and beaten us to Lands End. At this point we heard the coast guard calling to a yacht off of Cape Cornwall on the radio. As we were the only yacht out there we assumed that they were calling us so we answered and were advised that the bad weather had developed and they suggested that we make landfall. We were aware of this of course, for we had been listening to the weather forecasts regularly and the sea was getting decidedly ‘lumpy’.
From the chart the nearest place that I thought we might safely shelter was St Ives Bay or possibly St Ives harbour so, reluctantly, we shortened sail to a storm jib and rolled the main down to the size of a very large handkerchief and altered our course to NE to head back the way we had come.
By now we had lost the daylight and the wind had increased. We picked up the entrance to St Ives bay and headed in but by the time we had made the entrance the waves were extremely high and there seemed no way that we could reach the harbour. So we bore away back out into the sea, again turned NE and ran. We decided that our only hope would be to run before the wind up to Lundy Island, for there there is a safe anchorage in the lee of the island. By this time the wind had increased to storm force and with the auto-pilot steering we absolutely flew along. Both of us were wearing safety harnesses clipped on to the boat and all we could do by this time was to sit in the cockpit with our backs to the bulkhead and look aft and hang on. The waves grew higher and higher, it was difficult to say how high but was it was very frightening to feel them lift the boat up from the stern, pass underneath and drop us down - you could not so much see the waves as feel them coming and when one had passed you sat and waited for the next.
It must have been in the early hours of the morning when we had Padstow off on our starboard beam when the waves seemed to get higher and one hit us and completely filled the cockpit and laid us right over. We recovered but we could hear, rather than see, more coming. Then another one hit us and again laid us flat on to our starboard side and when the boat righted itself I called out Barry, who had been sitting on the starboard side of the cockpit - but he wasn’t there! I stood, up to my knees in seawater, to see Barry on the end of his lifeline about 10 feet off of the stern, being dragged along through the water. I threw all of the sheets and main over the stern at Barry and he managed to grab them and I started to haul him in. He helped by pulling himself in to the boat and, after what seemed an age, we finally pulled him up over the stern. When he had sat himself down and I had retrieved and stowed the sheets and main Barry, because of course he was soaked through, started to shiver, so we got the washboards up and he went down below to change into something dry.
Barry told me afterwards that when he went down below and I had closed up the washboards again he had no lighting save a torch which, when he switched it on, showed everything that had been stowed tidily away, food, clothes, books and charts had all been tossed together on to the deck together with the seawater that had come in when we opened the washboards. He then had to fight to get his wet weather gear off, find some dry clothes, some his, some mine, and then put his wet weather gear back on.
Now all this time the weather had not abated at all and the boat was still being swamped, but perhaps not so often, but it was the violence of the sea that staggered me; when waves hit the boat it shook and shuddered, when waves hit me it hurt and above all this was the constant noise, of the screaming wind and turbulent water.
After what seemed an age Barry eventually banged on the washboards from inside and we got them open enough for him to crawl out into the cockpit again, tie himself on and just sit and like me, look and hope. We sat like this for another hour or so until the dawn came.
With the dawn things got a little better in that at least you see what was happening and be prepared for when the waves were going to hit and occasionally glimpse the Cornish coast. After a while the weather did abate some to, we estimated, gale force 7, and we could see Lundy Island about ten miles ahead. Between Hartland Point and Lundy there is a ‘race’, which because of the storm, we knew would be much worse than normal, so we decided to stay under storm sails until we reached it and then motor through it. Just before we reached the race Barry started the engine but after twenty minutes it stopped. Fortunately we had not taken down the storm sails so we managed to sail through and, finally, get into the lee of Lundy.
You cannot imagine the relief. From waves that seemed as high as the mast, from winds that you hardly stand up in, to complete calm in just a few hundred yards, yet you could see the gale still blowing outside the lee of the Island. We gently sailed to the anchorage, moored on two anchors, made sure that the boat was safe and went to bed. We woke about lunchtime, fixed the engine, which turned out to be quite easy - in a calm anchorage, had a meal and tidied up the boat. Barry and I debated our situation but as we had run out of time we decided that we could not attempt Falmouth again and that we would have to return to Burnham On Sea.
We set out in the evening for home and, although the seas were still lumpy, they were nothing like we had experienced the previous couple of days. We reached Blake’s boat yard in Highbridge the next afternoon, tied up to the pontoon, cleaned the boat and, very thankfully, went home.
From: East Brent Parish Magazine - Issues 1 & 2
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