When exactly will you arrive?” It’s a question that made us smile, given the variables of British weather and tides. We tried not to promise any of our crew exactly where we would be, and when. But people do need to make a plan.
Rashly, before our departure we had therefore circulated a detailed itinerary of our entire voyage, with dates and locations getting gradually more vague. Relying on this, my cousin from New Zealand had booked her flights to join us in Milford, together with Dai, a friend whose Welsh roots drew him back. They both needed to leave us in Bristol a few days later. Now, we had to deliver.
It’s hard to explain to non-sailors how long it takes to prepare a single day’s sailing. Most days, Anne, as chief navigator, spent up to two hours of passage planning and research the old-fashioned way with tide tables and pilot books. For the Irish Sea and St George’s Channel, that included my grandfather’s 1962 tidal stream atlas (above); the moon, after all, hasn’t shifted much in half a century. Then we went through the plan together and I cross-checked with tidal information on an iPad, double and triple-checking the timings and guidance for each port and discussing back-up plans. Finally I entered waypoints on the iPad and transferred them to the plotter. It was exhausting, especially at the end of a long day’s sailing.
If we had consulted the tidal atlas for the Bristol Channel months before, we would have discovered the flaw in our published itinerary. In our chosen week, eastbound tides were getting late in the day. As we looked closely at the tide tables we realised if we were to set out even one day later than planned, we’d be arriving in the dark at an unfamiliar port or anchorage. Luckily for us, right on cue, the weather eased and we departed from Milford in the early evening of 31 August, sailing to Dale in the remains of the strong southwesterly breeze. As we anchored for the night, the chain rattled on and on until we’d let out enough scope to allow for the 10 metre tidal range.
Next day we set out against the tide, catching a favourable eddy in Freshwater West through the firing range (closed at weekends). We rolled and bounced slowly around St Govan’s Head and then as the tide turned we broad reached in sunshine at speed past the bays and beaches of Pembrokeshire’s stunning coastline. Through Caldey Sound, Tenby’s pastel-coloured seafront came into view. On local advice, we picked up a substantial mooring in time to go ashore and sample some of the wonderful local delicacies.
The next two days were more challenging. We had picked Oxwich Bay as our staging post en route to Cardiff, looking for hops that could be achieved in a single east-going tide (six hours). Triple-checking our options, I turned to my latest app, called Savvy Navvy. It is made for this kind of puzzle, combining wind and tidal predictions to propose a route with clever algorithms that compress hours of planning into seconds. The results are best used with judgement, to check other calculations, and the early versions of the app had some odd quirks, but it is a hugely valuable secondary aid.
We’ve learned the importance of local human wisdom too, and after a phone call to the local RNLI station for advice on rounding Worm’s Head (“go outside the cardinal mark, not through Helwick Swatch”) we set out at 2pm. It was a fast passage in a Force 5–6 but I wished for less south in it. Rounding the point into Oxwich there was nobody else at anchor and I was afraid the swell, which typically curves around corners, would find its way right into the anchorage. If it was untenable, there would be no alternative but to continue into the night. Fortunately the anchorage was calm, if rather brief. Four different alarm ringtones woke us at 3.30am and we set out in the dark at 4am. Racing past the lights of Port Talbot at almost 10 knots (ground speed), we were in Cardiff Bay by 9.30am.
In his article Shipshape and Bristol Fashion, Tim Bryan (director of the Brunel Institute at the SS Great Britain Trust) tells the story of Bristol’s port from its origins in trade with Ireland, through years of fame in exploration, infamy at the heart of the slave trade, the relocation of the big-ship port, and finally the C20th regeneration of the city’s docks as it became the hub of creativity and enterprise it is today. bit.ly/12ports-Bristol
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