Brixham to Plymouth – reflection – tidal race

(Continued . . .)

This series of five posts outlines a September passage from Plymouth to Teignmouth and back.

(Click on image to enlarge)


The interruption to my passage plan has meant that I have to get from Brixham to Plymouth, a distance of a little over 40 nautical miles by this evening. This is no problem on paper – but there will probably be no time for fishing. Also the tide will be wrong going round Start Point. I had planned to round the Point, which is about 13 nm along the coast from here, yesterday evening with the tide carrying me, I will now reach it around the middle of today with the tide against me. The wind has gone round  to the north east – almost the opposite of yesterday morning.


The visitor’s pontoon filled up last evening. I extricate my lines and make the tight turn towards the harbour entrance. It is 0730. Blue Mistress is the first boat to leave this morning. One or two people are on deck. They seem to be wearing a lot more clothes than I am. Maybe the wind is stronger than I think. We wave cheerfully – the bent-armed, open-handed, slow wave of acknowledgement, “Hi. I see you. All’s well.”

North easterly means the wind is blowing towards the harbour. It’s not strong but it sets up a distinctly choppy sea that becomes very apparent at the harbour entrance. I clear the buoys, reduce the engine speed, point Blue Mistress into the wind and hoist the mainsail, thinking I should have done this inside the protection of the breakwater and realising why people were dressed in their wet weather gear. With the main raised, I cut the engine and ease away towards Berry Head. Raising the genoa, which I hanked on and tied to the lifelines before leaving,  is easy. With the helm tied and the main eased off, there are a few moments scrambling forward on the heaving deck to release the tied sail while the boat holds its course. I too am tied on. My tether slides easily along the jack line.

The long keel gives a comfortable motion in a sea. We don’t slam down onto the waves as I’ve seen with some fin-keeled boats but slice through them. Although the freeboard is much lower than high-sided boats, the rise at the bows makes Blue Mistress reasonably dry at sea. No, I’m not wearing full weather-proof gear yet, and yes, I did go forward and not get wet.

We clear the vertical cliffs of Berry Head and ease away to run before the wind down to Start Point. The wind is directly behind us and I am able to goose-wing – ease the mainsail out one side of the boat and the genoa out the other side. We average 4 plus knots. The sky is overcast but visibility good. I pick up the Skerries Buoy easily, leave it to starboard and head for my “Start-Point-Outer waypoint”, one and a half nautical miles seaward of my “Start-Point-Inner” waypoint.


I am alone at sea. Sailing single-handed gives a chance for reflection – periods for unqualified observation, periods of absorption. Thoughts come and go like feathers on the palm of a hand. Most blow away in the wind, a few stick for a while . . . one or two stay forever.

I am heading for my “Start-Point-Outer” waypoint because I want to avoid the tidal race which, according to the Shell Channel Pilot, “extends for almost a mile, its severity depending on conditions of wind, tide and swell,” and “it is safer for strangers to give the Point a berth of at least a mile.” Going up the coast a week ago, we had favourable weather and the tide with us. We kept in close to the Point. Today, the tide is against me and I keep away from the coast.

I have a healthy respect for tidal races. In 2010, we were holidaying on the Isle of Wight and, one windy day, walked to St Catherine’s Point.


The tidal race was in full swing. The Channel Pilot: “Owing to the uneven bottom and the strong streams there are significant overfalls off St Catherine’s. These should be avoided, particularly under wind-against-tide conditions, and may be dangerous in bad weather. The race varies according to wind, tide and swell and is sometimes rougher or calmer than may be anticipated from the conditions.”


The wind was strong and squally. The horizon lies in the top left of the picture but hides behind a squall on the right. The squall disturbs the sea . . . but it is the tidal race that kept me transfixed that day as it does now.

I could not tear myself away from the spectacle of the strong, smooth tidal stream flowing up to St Catherine’s then breaking up into this chaotic, anarchic, stretch of rough water. Neither courses, nor charts, nor pilots can fully prepare you for the full spectacle.

This is not an extreme weather event, this is what happens to a greater or lesser extent every day, twice a day. It is, like many other occurrences around us, a natural phenomenon . . .

. . . And, being a natural phenomenon, it has not been laid on for the entertainment of we human beings. It has been occurring for as long as this headland and this sea have existed and will continue to do so long after we have gone. In the short years humans have been on Earth we have created a world for our own convenience, a world we define with names and numbers. In doing so our so-called civilisation has drawn lines between us and the natural world. Maybe not you personally but we as a species have come to see the earth as some-Thing we inhabit and can use as we like, rather than some-Entity of which we are an integral part.

Mankind has a track-record of making the same mistakes again and again. While our knowledge and skills leap forward, our perceptions and attitudes often lag behind. We have now reached a stage when that new knowledge and those keen skills have a planet-wide impact such that the very planet itself struggles to retain us.

This is a tidal race. It’s not man-made. It’s called a tidal race for our convenience, so we can talk to each other about it. In essence, it’s what the planet does in the universe it shares with the sun, the moon and the stars – it’s a dynamic element of a living, breathing universe.


All morning a swell has been coming up from behind, lifting us gently and pushing the boat forward. We have made good time despite the tide being against us. I have been steering for over three hours with the occasional break for a drink and a handful of trail mix. With a hand on the tiller, an eye on the sails and comfortable with my background thoughts, I am at one with the motion of the boat, the sounds of the sea, the quality of the wind. I feel I could go on forever.

We are approaching Start Point. I can see two yachts between me and the Point, both of whom are heading up-Channel through the race itself, their masts swinging like pendulums. According to the Pilot I am far enough out to avoid this.

One and a half miles from the coast, open water all around me, I avoid the main force of the race but I don’t miss it completely. A break appears in the sea ahead. The moment we cross it, the motion of the boat changes, the sound of the sea changes, the quality of the wind changes. Instead of regular swells, the surface dissolves into irregular waves. They slap against both sides of boat at once. The mast swings and I have to watch the sails carefully to avoid an accidental gybe – (the mainsail swinging over violently as the wind catches the wrong side of the sail). We slow down a knot or two. A line has been crossed, the equilibrium of the morning has been broken.

In the section above, I describe a tidal race as a dynamic element in the life of the planet. The few minutes it takes to cross the broken water reinforce that image. I have no way of controlling this wildness, I can only go with it.

Further on, the sky darkens and I feel of the wind on my cheek as I turn towards Prawle Point. Bolt Head opens up and then the final nineteen nautical miles to the mooring. The wind begins to drop. I motor sail. Later in the afternoon, the sky clears and the sun comes out. The wind dies completely. Off Burgh Island, I take the sails down and motor the rest of the way home.

Blue Mistress is on the mooring at 1730 and I am back on the A38 by 1800, passing South Brent . . . Buckfastleigh . . . Ashburton. I gaze through the windscreen at a human-built world. I search for signs of the planet.

(All images taken by Bill Whateley)

(. . . End)


2 thoughts on “Brixham to Plymouth – reflection – tidal race

  1. Pingback: Teignmouth to Brixham ~ weather bound ~ unexpected problem ~ change of plan | Beyond Steeple Point . . .

  2. That tidal race around Bolt head can be really tricky, I remember we came round when it was going full pelt pulling some of the lobby pot buoys under the surface, another boat had hooked one and was well and truly stuck in a very nasty situation with no chance of cutting loose until the tide stopped. Fortunately there was almost not wind and flat calm which is why we were motoring and probably why he got caught.

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