RAMSGATE TO WELLS NEXT THE SEA - 152 miles
Sunday May 22 2016 - Ramsgate to Harwich 49 miles
After the high winds and thunderstorms of yesterday, Sunday dawns overcast but the wind had eased. The next leg across the Thames Estuary to Harwich, will take 8 hours but there is no point of an early start since the tide will not become favourable until 11.00.
Crossing the Thames Estuary in a northerly direction means cutting across the main commercial shipping channels and the long sandbanks which run from a south west to north east direction.
The pilot books warn of the dangers of running aground on the hard sand and emphasise the the speed at which, commercial shipping can appear in the channels, especially from behind! So I make a detailed passage plan marking the important turning points at buoys which have ominous names like Black Deep 2 (I never did find Black Deep 1) and Sunk.
Not a sign of life
The sea is flat calm progressing up towards the white cliffs of North Foreland, under engine and mainsail. Two pilot boats hurry past on their way to the River Thames. Away to the right the skyline seems filled with wind turbines.
From then (10.15) until 16.15 arrival at Harwich, I do not see a single yacht, fishing boat, tanker, cruise liner. Not a living soul! The weather is overcast and it eventually rains hard but the sea stays flat calm. It is an extraordinary experience. Dark Star seems hemmed in on all sides by wind farms, but not a single turbine blade was turning.
Being out of sight of land can be disorientating and usually you rely on the compass. However with the tide now running fast to the north, when I turn to cross a channel in the sandbanks, the boat is pushed sideways quite disconcertingly.
It is a long day, but eventually the giant cranes of the container port at Felixstowe rise unmistably on the horizon and I count the buoys as I skirt the outside of the deep shipping channel as I cautiously make entrance.
It's growng dark by the time Dark Star enters the lock at Shotley marina, directly across the harbour from Harwich and Felixstowe. Booking in formalities completed, it is hard to pass the nearby yacht club with the promise of a celebratory pint and to renew contact with humans.
It's nearly 21.00 and the place is closing up, but the offer of scampi, peas and chips is readily accepted. Ugh horrible, probably been heated twice in a microwave but it filled a hole and the place offered free WIFI for which the password is "shipwreck". Just about sums up the food.
Monday May 23 2016 - Shotley Marina
Oh no! The wind has turned to the North, right on the nose and even worse the tide willl be running against the wind -not comfortable. I decided last night to stay in the river Orwell till the wind changed before making the 40 mile trip to Lowestoft. However by morning the wind does not seem too bad and I feel a bit of a "woose".
So all preparations are made to leave, course plotted, waypoints entered, fuel and water taken, sandwiches prepared, flask filled etc. Then a local yachtsman chances by and I mention that I am off north to Lowestoft. "It will be a hard slog with the wind on the nose, mate".
Just then a gust of wind blows away what remained of my faint resolve. And so I find myself on the little ferry plying from Shotley Marina over the harbour to explore the great city of Harwich. Sorry to say Harwich makes Gosport look quite prosperous.
Tuesday May 24 2016 - The Orwell
More strong wind warnings, wind straight from the north and forecast to stay there for several days. However, there appears a window on Wednesday and Thursday for Lowestoft.
Lowestoft is the most easterly point in England but here the chart system changes from England east to England north east, with Berwick on Tweed at the top.The next chart system is Scotland although at present rate of progress, that seems a long way off!
Some have queried why a 40 mile trip seems such a big deal in a small sail boat. Basically its all about speed. Dark Star cruises at an average of 5 nautical miles per hour. So in eight hours Dark Star covers 40 nautical miles. Your car cruises around 60 mph and in 8 hours you could drive 480 miles. So an eight hour, 40 mile sea trip is the motoring equivalent of a journey from Edinburgh to Brighton.
Sailing up the East coast requires several 40 mile trips (sometimes further) due to the relatively few all-tide harbours. There are some smaller harbours but they dry out as the tide falls and when sailing north, you are moving with the falling/ebbing tide. Once past Grimsby, the ports are better spaced and it should be less of a slog.
Back to the activities of Tuesday 24th. The River Orwell runs north west from Felixstowe and Harwich. You you can sail nine miles right up the river to the city of Ipswich. In the breezy north easterly winds the river Orwell provide a lovely sail on a beam reach. Engine off, sails at full stretch on flat, sheltered waters, it is very relaxing.
It's amazing how quickly the giant container port of Felixstowe soon gives way to a completely rural setting of mixed woodland and pastures. Returning down river, there is the option of staying overnight in the marina at Levington but the Suffolk Yacht Harbour lay a couple of miles from the harbour mouth and a morning departure would mean plugging into a stiff incoming tide. So it's back to Shotley marina for the night to prepare for the 45 mile trip to Lowestoft.
Wednesday May 25 2016 - Harwich to Lowestoft 45 miles
The wind is from the north west and on the nose all the way to Lowestoft. However it never varied from a Force 3 or 4 and with just the mainsail up, the engine does most of the work.
Leaving at 11.000, the first two hours against the tide are slow, just 3 knots, but once the tide turned, 7 knots are soon on the log. We sweep up past Orford Ness, Aldeburgh, Southwold and Sizewell Nuclear Power Station. I think that's the third nuclear plant on the trip plant so far, folllowing Dungeness and Bradwell.
On phoning ahead to the marina in Lowestoft (the Royal Suffolk and Norfolk) it sounds like the butler who answers my query. "Sir the visitors' moorings are rather full, but if you continue past and turn sharply to port you will find a very new set of pontoons, right under the members' club and bar".
At 18.45 I putter past the busy visitor berths where they are rafted two/three out, turn left and glide gently onto the new pontoons in splendid isolation. Dinner in the members' clubroom is pan fried sea bream with saute potatoes and savoy cabbage. A good day withgout drama and 185 miles covered since leaving Shoreham on 16th.
Thursday May 26 2016 - Lowestoft to Wells Next The Sea 58 miles
This 58 mile trip looked the trickiest and longest so far. Wells lies up towards the Wash, 25 miles north of Norwich, but it's a drying harbour with an infamous and tortuous entrance. Leaving Lowestoft at 09.00, a probable 11 hour trip will mean arriving off Wells around 20.00 just as the light fades.
A phone call to Wells Harbour brings a promise of being shepherded through the channel if I arrive at off the marker buoy at 20.00. It is grey and overcast and progress against a foul tide is just 2-2.5 knots. The estimated time of arrival is showing as 04.00!
It is necessary to grind on until the tide changes around 13.30. Running a couple of miles from the coastline, Great Yarmouth eventually come abeam around 12.00 but only 6 miles has been covered in 3 hours (the paddle wheel log shows 15 miles!). Just off Caister on Sea comes the reward for patience. The sun comes out, the wind swings behind to the south east at 12/15 knots and all sail is set.
45 miles in 7 hours
At 13.30 the speed rises to 5 knots - the tide has turned. To arrive at Wells by 20.00 means covering 45 miles in about 7 hours so under all sail, plus engine, up the coast we fly, past Winterton, Eccles on Sea, Happisburgh, Walcott, and at last, Cromer. Cromer marks the point at which the northerly course changs to westerly as we turn left towards the south shore of The Wash.
The estimated time of arrival now shows as 20.00 and speed over the ground which has been 6.5 - 7 knots over the past few hours, is now dropping as the favourable tide weakens. The setting sun was right in line of vision, but it picks out the pole marking Blakeney Harbour to port with Wells just over 4 miles further on.
At 20.10 I arrive off the Wells marker buoy and a call to the harbour master gets an immediate reply. He will come out to guide the way in over the bar and entrance channel which he warned is pretty bumpy as the result of a steady breeze that had been blowing since mid day. However there will be a delay since another yacht is expected and the plan is to enter in convoy.
Surfing the bar
Eventually the yacht, with a dark blue hull similar to Dark Star, appears and we both gill around in the swell waiting for instruction. The second yacht turns out to be crewed by a Scottish couple who are on their way south. The shepherd arrives in a powerful rib and signals "follow me".
I take up the rear as the three craft wind through a tortuous channel in the sands, but it is well marked with red and green can buoys. Eventually we swing towards the shore which now looks alarmingly close. In the narrow channel the swell is breaking on the sands on both sides of the boat. It's a bit like shooting a gap in those South Sea Coral reefs. It's exciting....
Near Collision and a grounding
Pretty soon a sharp turn to starboard takes us into the calmer waters of the outer harbour - but then near disaster looms. We are running at 5knots in close procession behind the guiding RIB.
Suddenly the yacht in front comes to a dead halt as he runs aground. "Reverse, reverse" the skipper screams as I bear down on his stern. Doing 5 knots with the the tide pushing me along fast, reversing is hardly an option. My fellow Scot's yacht has a stern crammed full of expensive looking self steering gear.
With consummate skill a expensive collision is avoided. Well, actually, I swing to starboard just in time to shave down the side of the horrified Scot. It turns out his yacht has a fin keel drawing 1.5 metres whilst Dark Star's twin keels barely draw 1 metre.
Eventually the rising tide floats off Jock McBoatie (can't remember the yacht's name as it was very odd) and we are soon safely tied up on our allotted berths on the pontoons close to Wells Quay. It was close to 21.30 but I settle for just cheese on toast and a welcome cup of tea before collapsing thankfully into the sleeping bag.
Friday May 27 2016 - Wells Next the Sea - Rest Day
After covering over 100 miles in the last two days, a rest day with a lie in is most appealing. A walk into Wells revealed a very attractive, traditional little seaside port.
On the quayside are stalls selling fresh seafood, coffee shops aplenty and Frenches Fish & Chip shop, runner up in the 2015 Britain's Best Fish Shop competition. Even better, less than half a mile away a new Coop supermarket has just opened - a godsend for the sailor running low on supplies after 11 days afloat.
In the other direction there is grand 3/4 mile walk on a raised walkway down to the harbour entrance where the view from the Coastguard Lookout confirms the tortuous nature of the entrance "channel". A relaxing day finishes with fish and chips from Frenche's whilst watching England V Australia on the TV. Yes, there is one aboard.
Saturday May 28 2016 - Wells Next the Sea - I am really stuck!
A lovely day of sunshine with a cool breeze. Wells is a charming spot and should be full of visiting yachts. However the nearest port to the north is Grimsby 45 miles away and to the south, Lowestoft is some 60 miles.
It's a full day's sail ending with a drying harbour and tricky entrance to negotiate. The result is uncrowded and quiet moorings for those visitors who do make it. So far over 250 miles have been covered in 10 days but that good run will end here for the time being. The problem is that exit from Wells is limited to two hours before/after high water.
The forecast for Sunday/Monday is not good. By Tuesday the high tide is close to 15.00. The next 45 miles to Grimsby will take 9 hours and include sailing in the dark from 2100 to 24.00. Sailing in the dark in proximity to the coast is unwise for the single handed sailor due to the number of fishermens' nets, pot buoys, lobster traps. Getting caught in these nets or ropes is to be avoided at all costs.
Professional fishermen mark their gear with flags which are clearly visible by day, but not at night. However there are many part time cowboys who put down gear without marker flags, just plastic containers or small buoys which are almost impossible to see, even in best daylight or when a strong tide pulls them below the surface.
It looks that I will be stuck in this nautical paradise until leaving on the early 06.00 tide on Thursday June 2. Four more days of lazing around!. Today after lunch of fresh prawn and crab salad and a large glass or red, eaten in the sunny cockpit, I fall fast asleep.
The stress of it all is just about bearable. The next 250 miles should take me close to Aberdeen - well when I get started again.
Thanks for reading this.