The British Isles lies in one of the most turbulent maritime regions in the world. Not only are our shores battered by the depressions that roll in with frequent monotony during the winter months, but every 12 hours the tide turns and billions of litres of water move in and out from our shores. This huge water flow fills and empties the English Channel, pours up into the Irish Sea and on up and down the West Coast of Scotland and up north it finds a way around the islands to enter the North Sea.
The tidal streams generated by this flow can be fearsome, running up to 10 knots in places and when the land gets in the way, impeding the flow of the tide, tide races can generate wild seas that can prove a significant hazard for sailing yachts, with short steep waves, where you can barely recover from one wave before the next one hits you. In benign conditions this need hardly trouble you. Where the seabed rises suddenly, tidal flows are concentrated around headlands or through narrows, and if the tide and wind are opposed, then swell with a long wavelength in open water will slow down and concertina up, making the waves build in height, with much steeper faces, crests that are much more likely to break and with the ability to swallow boats whole. You don’t want to get it wrong.
TACKLING A FEARSOME RACE
Of course the simple answer is to avoid tide races altogether but around our uneven coast, this can be wildly impractical with detours of many miles and hours, or long delays to await better conditions. Many tide races have earned a fearsome reputation, and not without reason, but once you know and understand them there can often be a way through, either at particular times and states of the tide, in certain conditions, through channels of calmer water, or by enduring a bit of uncomfortable sailing. You can usually find the areas where tide races occur by reading the pilot guides or they can be marked on the charts so you can prepare for them but a word of caution here. Don’t follow their guidance blindly. Firstly, think very carefully about going through a tide race at night. It can be hard to assess the conditions ahead and often the best route may be close under a headland inshore where you need good visibility to steer a safe course past rocks and lobster pots. I remember coming up Channel once in the late afternoon in deteriorating weather and thinking about shelter in Portland Harbour. With an experienced skipper we just made it through the inside passage before it got dark but it was a close run thing.
Secondly, remember that it is not only the sea conditions that can be challenging in a tide race. The flow of the water increases because the space for the water becomes restricted and the same applies to the wind so you will usually find stronger wind around the headlands and narrow channels where tide races occur.
Then there is the question of selecting the right tide to go through. Ideally you want to go through a race with a favourable tide so that you speed through, but if the wind is against the tide then you will get much steeper waves and more of them will break and behave unpredictably. Following winds and tides would be ideal, but if you’re going against the wind, then going through at slack water may be preferable. In some races, this switch in tidal direction can be quite short lived, maybe an hour at most. The position of the disturbed water can also change as the tide progresses, so it is no simple calculation. Remember that while tides are predictable the wind is not, so any carefully made calculations will need reassessing for the actual conditions on the day.
You then need to prepare your boat and your crew for what lies ahead. It may be a calm day but you are about to enter an area of rougher water, so the boat should be set up accordingly. Having the engine on and ready for action is no bad idea should you need it in a hurry, or to give you an extra shove clear of the worst of the tide. It may be prudent to put a reef in, in anticipation of the wind increase around a headland, and everything should be battened down and secured for sea just in case. For the crew it should be lifejackets and lifelines on and restrictions on coming up on deck or heading down below in case one of those unruly waves dumps itself on board.
Tide races can be a test of seamanship, requiring good judgement about how and when to tackle them. Often the alternative might be many miles added to the distance you have to sail, so it can be easy for your judgement to be biased towards taking the risk. There can be many factors involved, including the strength of the tides, whether they are springs or neaps, the time of the tides, the wind conditions and forecast, the extent of the tide race area and finally the ability of your yacht and crew to cope with adverse conditions.
TAMING THE BEASTS
I have been through many of the tide races around the British Isles and there is no doubt that an engine gives you a lot of confidence, helps reduce the time you are exposed, and can get you out of difficulties when close in to the shore where the margins for error are small.
Ultimately, with proper planning, a bit of daring, and a seamanlike sense of when to hold back, it’s possible to tame these fearsome tide races, and even use them to your advantage.
1 PORTLAND BILL
Portland Race is one of the most feared areas of tide race around Britain, but it is negotiable. The area has all the ingredients for disturbed water: a headland that juts several miles out into powerful tidal streams of the Channel, converging tidal streams and a shallow ridge that extends out 1.5 miles from the headland. Add in a westerly gale and you have turmoil, and this becomes the perfect area into which I used to take new lifeboat designs to test them. The Portland Race is talked about with reverence amongst seamen and there have been many ships and boats lost there over the years.
One of the problems with Portland is that you have to go many miles out to sea to avoid the Race and on a passage to or from the Solent it adds many miles to the journey. On passage up or down Channel, leave at least three miles offing in good weather, and up to seven miles clearance in strong winds to clear the overfalls, which move significantly throughout each tide. The inside passage offers an appealing alternative but not one to take lightly.
This narrow inside passage can remain passable even when there is turmoil further outside. It offers a relatively calm route because the tidal flow up and down either side of the Bill bypasses this inshore area and the flow is weak around the tip of the Bill. Even so you need to plan a passage using this inside passage with care because there is always the risk of getting pushed out into the main body of the race.
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