A short passage to Dartmouth

7 – A brief moment on the passage home

I had plenty of time to reflect on single-handed sailing during the week away. I passed many yachts, some with large sociable crews, more with large racing crews. They are the norm. So what about single-handed? Is it about sailing from A to B with no crew or is it something else – sailing for the sake of it, a little of which can be illustrated on camera but most of which remains in the mind of the sailor? The following records a few moments on the passage back from Dartmouth to Plymouth on that Friday evening.

It’s 1800, the wind is force 5 – gusting 6, the visibility is poor. I can make out Hilsea Point about one mile away and can just see the Great Mew Stone  two and half mile beyond.

I have heavy weather gear on, including life jacket and tether, warm dry socks and sea boots.  It is raining intermittently – I prefer the hood down so that I can look seaward easily but put it up in the heavier showers to keep my glasses clear. There is a lot of movement and the helm is heavy. I ease the mainsheet slightly to reduce the pressure. This helps.

We were on a line between well-used waypoints – Gt Mew Stone SW, Hilsea Pt clear and Bolt Tail S. Along the way I have been meeting boats from the Fastnet Race, making their way home from Plymouth in ones and twos, all following this same line.

Half an hour ago, when I saw the weather closing in from the south west, I hove-to to stow gear that had come loose below, disconnect and house the self-steering and give myself a breather.  We drifted inside that line of waypoints, perhaps the tide took us, and the yachts are now passing half a mile to seaward of us.

I am on a close reach working into a ‘moderate swell’.  The wind is getting up. The boat is moving at 6 knots plus, heeling about 15 degrees. I set the working foresail this morning in preference to the genoa.  I have no reef in the mainsail – I considered it when I hove to but at 6 knots we will pass the Great Mew Stone in approximately 40 minutes before easing away towards the entrance to Plymouth Sound.  I can handle it. This is the weather that Blue Mistress was built for.

As expected, visibility then clamps down. I can see neither land nor approaching yachts.

I have a compass bearing but wonder if the tide might be taking us towards Hilsea Point, in which case the same bearing will be wrong if we are to stay clear. I turn five points to seaward thinking “if I’m doing 6 knots and the yachts coming the other way, fully crewed and race-trimmed, are doing more, I do need to keep a keen watch”.  Although the motion of the boat and the need for full hands-on control makes it difficult to view the small screen, the hand-held gps shows I am still inside the line of waypoints.

We, this boat and I, are now in a world of our own – the air is full of heavy drizzle with little distinction between sea and sky, the colour is predominantly grey with flashes of white, broken water at the bow and along her sides as we breast the oncoming swell. The long keel gives a confident, steadying feel to the movement. Occasionally Blue Mistress dips her bow and lifts a little green water back to the fore-hatch; a heavier swell breaks against the side of the boat and throws thick spray over the cabin but the rain-washed cockpit remains free of sea water. Off to port, a stunningly white gannet stretches black-pointed wings as we fly past him.

A balance develops between the sea, the wind, the rain, the boat and me – an exhilaration – a feeling that this is what I live for – the full physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual cocktail is distilled into these moments.

Does it last? It doesn’t need to – to experience it every now and then is enough.

There is a paradoxical question that needs answering here: “If sailing alone is so important to you, why don’t you keep it to yourself, why are you so prepared to talk about it publicly?” The answer is that solitude is a private choice, not a secret one. For me, that occasional dose of solitude strengthens my resolve in dealing with the crowded world to which we all belong.

We reach Great Mewstone and ease away towards the next waypoint, (Plymouth SE approach),  before turning due north towards the entrance to Plymouth Sound itself. I see nothing until Shag Rock emerges to starboard – and a yacht heading out, five crew aboard. Then the East Tinker buoy appears and, finally, in the gloom, the eastern end of the Breakwater. And all is well.

A little later, motoring up the Cattewater, passed Queen Anne Battery, the celebrations for the end of the Fastnet Race are in full swing at Plymouth Yacht Haven – the complete works: yachts covered in flags, marquees throbbing with people and music and a DJ – the antithesis of my experience of an hour or so before.

I had intended spending the night on the boat but the celebrations followed me up the Plym to the mooring I had left five days previously. I changed my mind. By midnight I was safely back in Teignmouth.

I left Dartmouth at 0800 that morning and picked up the mooring at Oreston 2030. To avoid short tacking towards Start Point against wind and tide, I headed straight out to sea, which gave me a chance to test the newly repaired self-steering – close-hauled over a distance. I turned onto a port tack ten miles out and followed the same tack to Plymouth. first close-hauled towards Prawle Point then easing to the close reach mentioned above

South of Start Point, I had to tack seaward for a mile towards another yacht to avoid a container ship that appeared  out of nowhere astern. She passed to landward of me.

The total mileage at the end of the passage was 50.4 nautical miles at a moving average of 4 knots, (max speed 8.4 knots). The tide turned in my favour around 1500. There was no weather or leisure time for photography, although I took images of the entrance to Dartmouth below as I left, plus the container ship. The images of the buildings and the crab fishermen were taken on the Thursday.

(Click on image to start slide show)

(Images by Bill Whateley)

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