A dream to sail solo transatlantic is all well and good, but if you’re 14 and your mum says no, it’s time to look for options closer to home.
I had lived on a boat since I was two weeks old aboard Ros Ailither, a 50ft fishing trawler my parents had spent five years converting and restoring. I spent my first year and a bit sailing around the Caribbean and western Atlantic with my parents, hitting my first storm at five weeks old, on the way to Bermuda. Our 50ft trawler was almost completely underwater, and mum was thrown onto the deckhead, from the floor, while trying to change my nappy.
I’d already sailed across the Atlantic by 16 months old, not that I remember it, of course! At 12, I bought my first boat, Falanda, which was practically love at first sight. I saw beyond the mouldy bilge water which rose over the berths, and almost up to the cockpit floor. She had been out of the water for almost 10 years, full of fresh water, so needed ‘a bit of TLC’ as dad commented.
Dad was the one who understood how much I wanted this boat, so after a brief inspection of the hull, I offered the owners £800. I then spent what felt like forever bailing out the disgusting bilge water, before she was launched, and towed 90 miles back to the River Exe.
After the haul-out, the winter of 2019 was spent working on Falanda, after school and at weekends, before she was launched again two days before the first UK lockdown. In the summer of 2020 I set off for my first single-handed sail in Falanda, accompanied by dad, in his new boat, Amaryllis, a 33ft classic yawl. As well as both looking amazing, the pair sailed perfectly together. Four weeks later, we’d safely reached the Isles of Scilly, and I was desperate to carry on sailing.
My dream for as long as I can remember has been to sail across the Atlantic solo, and after four weeks of being alone at sea every day, I’d had a lot of time to ponder my options. It appeared that I could either set off immediately and hope for the best, or hang on for another four months until the season to cross the Atlantic arrived.
Or of course, there was the Mini Transat, which I’d read about after a friend of my parents suggested it might be the perfect opportunity for me to start a sailing/racing career; it seemed the ultimate challenge. At this point, however, mum said no, so I moved on to the next best thing; sailing single-handedly around Britain.
That winter, the rules regarding liveaboards on the Exe were tightened up, so my dad decided that after living on boats full time for the last 37 years, it was time to move ashore. If I hadn’t been determined enough already, it was probably this which pushed me to start my round Britain project for real, so after Ros Ailither was sold, I focused on the tedious passage planning, and getting Falanda ready.
Alongside general schoolwork, starting a yachtmaster theory course and emailing marinas, the boats needed a repaint, so me and dad put them aground on the beach for two weeks – to save the costs of hauling out. Around five days before I was due to leave, I found a couple of leaks which meant getting Falanda craned out anyway for last minute repairs.
The problem of insurance also arose – I am insured while sailing single-handedly, as long as there is a ‘responsible’ adult nearby. This led to massive frustration, as I was adamant I wanted to go around solo, but with 35 marinas to stop in, I was worried about messing up and crashing into £1million boats. So, after lots of long conversions and arguments, it was agreed that dad would follow me (at a distance of 1½ miles) the entire way around Britain… and he did!
On 30 June we were ready to set off. I don’t remember much about leaving Topsham, I suppose I was just desperate to get going, but I do remember seeing masses of people lining the quay to wave me off, and a flotilla of boats escorting us downriver. I hadn’t really thought much about what would happen once we left, or maybe I just hadn’t had any time, so leaving the fairway felt just like setting off for any other day sail.
The first leg was a short one, with not much wind, to Lyme Regis about 30 miles away where we picked up a mooring for the night. Next morning we rounded Portland Bill, which was actually one of the most notorious headlands on the entire trip. Luckily, with neaps and perfect weather, we had a smooth passage round and I was ready to face one of the first challenges – entering a marina.
I had never been into a marina single-handedly on Falanda before (and only once with crew), but despite a little apprehension I found the correct berth and didn’t hit anyone.
Early the next morning we were heading for Yarmouth, a long passage round St Albans Head and past the Needles, which I must admit, was pretty cool once the wind picked up and we were sailing at seven knots. The next day was a short trip to Cowes, on the exact same day as the Round The Island Race, which meant we entered the Solent with another 1,100 boats racing around.
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Prior to her single-handed round-Britain circumnavigation, Katie McCabe sailed her newly restored classic yacht solo to the Isles of Scilly
Teenage round-Britain sailor Katie McCabe will be among the guest speakers at BoatLife Live, which takes place 17 - 20…
It was hectic, but fun, and once we were moored up in East Cowes Marina, (right behind our old boat, Ros Ailither!) we enjoyed watching all the fastest boats return. It wasn’t all fun though, as a blow was coming in and I wasn’t sure whether to stay in the safety of the Solent or push on for as long as possible before it really hit. Dad had agreed to keep out of the passage planning, and therefore I was the one to decide each night where and when we were going the next day.
We carried on to Brighton, which was a pretty windy, wet trip, and as we entered the nasty channel entrance, waves were washing over the breakwater and pouring down over the boats. I was still new to the whole ‘marina’ thing, and remember being surged into the entrance, holding a soggy almanac, and with my VHF radio being washed around the cockpit floor.
I could barely hear the harbour-master reading out our allocated berth numbers, and had no idea where either of these were. I was too busy negotiating the tight entrance and still had to get fenders and ropes out.
Dad was in the same situation, a mile or so behind, so I waited for him then we just pulled into the first available berth and squelched up the pontoon to the marina office. This was one of the low points of the trip, and coming back to the boats, I knew I still had to do the next day’s chartwork, email the next marina, and find a way to dry out the almanac, as well as sorting out the mass of stuff in the bilges.
A warm shower worked wonders and the next morning we set off early, arriving in Eastbourne just in time before the strong winds. We spent the next two days sheltering from the weather, and getting sandblasted on the beach for the true tourist experience! When conditions improved we left at 0430 for Dover. Dover to Ramsgate was done in thick fog, and I must say that the White Cliffs of Dover proved to be incredibly disappointing.
My next big challenge was crossing the Thames estuary. We had non-stop heavy rain and fog all the way across, so after all the worrying about moving sandbanks, shipping, and wind farms, our trip was rather unexciting. Dad was incredibly unimpressed with the rain and was not a particularly happy man as we entered the lock at Shotley Marina, so we treated ourselves to a shower, before returning to our soaking sleeping bags.
Lowestoft was a gentle, downwind hop, and we moored up at the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club – the first yacht club of the trip – before setting off five hours later for my first solo overnight trip. I wasn’t sure how I’d react to the lack of sleep, and setting off at 0200 with the tide, after barely any sleep the night before, probably wasn’t the best way to start it off.
The first night was clear but cold, and followed by a nice sunny day, when I had my first chance to take stock and ‘think’. By sunset we were approaching our third wind farm, against the tide, and with the wind gusting at less than seven knots, it was pretty tedious.
Just before midnight the wind picked up and the tide turned, however we were forced to reduce our speed to under 2.5 knots, as high tide wasn’t until 0800 the next morning. With the locks at Grimsby only open at HW+-2, we couldn’t get in until at least 0600.
Creeping along this slowly is incredibly frustrating, especially when you know the boat wants to go faster. To make matters worse, not only were we approaching the busy entrance to the Humber, but I also hadn’t had a chance to sort out berthing before leaving, due to lack of phone signal and the early morning tides.
In a slightly rushed phone call at Lowestoft to Timothy Long who, at the time, was holding the record for youngest person to single-handedly sail around Britain, he’d promised to ‘sort it out’ that day while we were still out of phone range.
This was brilliant, but still meant that I only knew what was happening when we finally received the phone signal, eight miles from land. At this point it was 0400, and after the busy shipping, and two and a half night’s sleep already lost, me and dad were beginning to lose it.
None of the port officials and no-one at Grimsby was picking up on VHF, so we just hoped for the best, and entered the Humber. Forgetting it was still 0430, poor Tim got a phone call from me, talking about locks, tides, yacht clubs, and crab pots, before I finally got hold of Grimsby Docks. Once finally in, dad basically collapsed into the cabin and after sorting out the berthing, I soon followed suit, on Falanda.
We were then stuck in Grimsby for two days, with bad weather, before leaving again on an overnight trip to Scarborough, during which my autopilot broke. Arriving at 0800 is a weird feeling, but not as weird as waking up the next night, at 0100, completely rested and raring to go. This happened a lot during our trip round Britain, and it really is strange to be sitting down below, or in the cockpit, in the middle of the night, just waiting to get going again.
On the up
The next hop was Scarborough to Royal Quays Marina in North Shields (where they have an actual bath for boaters!) before the short hop to Amble the next day. Then it was on to Eyemouth, the first stop in Scotland, followed by an early start the next day to cross the Firth of Forth.
The entire harbour was asleep, it seemed, when I slipped my lines and we motored out into the dark, through the narrow breakwater entrance and past the jagged rocks lining the fairway. With the sails up, we seemed to be gliding along, and the light on dad’s mast was the only thing out there with us. Unfortunately, at sunrise the wind died and we had to motor the rest of the way, joined by lots of Minke whales and sea birds.
Two of the whales passed directly underneath the boat, and surfaced no more than 10m away, which was super cool, but slightly terrifying. We motored into Arbroath Harbour literally as the gates were closing: they would stay shut for six hours until the next high tide. Next day it was on to Stonehaven, where our little boats looked tiny against the massive town wall.
We arrived at Peterhead the next night, and despite it being about 2300, were greeted by friendly boaters on the pontoons and offered hot chocolate by a family on a big powerboat.
Leaving six hours later, we were followed out of the breakwaters by a motor cruiser, who came alongside to drop off a sausage bap and fruit to dad. After a great sail we arrived at Whitehills where the friendly harbour master took photos of each boat coming in, before heading down to greet us on the pontoon.
That night we properly met the family on the powerboat, after bumping into them at the last six or so harbours and not having had a chance to say hi. It turned out they were also on a round-Britain trip, under power, and after a long chat, they offered to cook for us that evening.
Next day we had a cracking downwind sail followed by a scary entrance into Lossiemouth. We were being surged around all over the place trying to make our way between the narrow breakwaters. Then we headed west to Inverness, in the fog, before my mum and brother joined dad on Amaryllis for the Caledonian Canal leg of the journey.
The canal was stunning, and we had two-and a-bit days cruising through, which was lovely despite the permanent heavy rain! In Loch Ness, the sun finally shone through the clouds, and the wind dropped, so I got a chance to fly my new spinnaker (dad’s old one!) for the first time.
This was great fun, until the wind picked up, and swung round onto the nose, meaning I was left with a mass of oversized material flogging around everywhere. Turned out I had no clue how to properly drop a spinnaker, so as the rain started pouring down again, I just dropped everything and hoped for the best.
Is taking the Caledonian Canal cheating?
Katie’s ‘short-cut’ would not be accepted as a “circumnavigation of Great Britain” the Guinness World Records team has confirmed, but it followed in the wake of Dame Ellen MacArthur’s 1995 voyage when, at 18, she was heralded as the youngest person to sail solo round Britain in 21ft Corribee, Iduna. Mum Hazel said Katie was “stuck for time for school” and wished to avoid the worst of the weather for safety reasons at the age of just 14.
After transiting the canal, it was on to Oban, where my mum and brother jumped ship, and we met Murdoch McGregor, also on his way around Britain but in the opposite direction. We’d heard that, at 82, he was the oldest man to do so and it was great to chat to him about our trips so far, and just talk about our love for boating.
It was that evening that I had a crucial decision to make; there was a big blow forecast about two days later and the weather didn’t look to be improving at all the following week. This meant that we could either stay safely in Oban, and risk being stuck there for a couple of weeks, or continue on as far as possible, and hope that the forecast didn’t change.
After lots of thought, I decided to head for Port Ellen, on Islay, about 65 miles south-west of Oban. We had an amazing sail, with reasonable swell, and lots of wind, so I could finally get Falanda sailing properly. Next morning, according to various weather apps, we had 35 hours until the blow hit, in which time, I figured, we could be in Wales.
We set off, with 175 miles to cover, and around 33 hours to do it in, meaning we needed to keep up at least 5.5 knots over ground. We were going to round the Mull of Kintyre and the Mull of Galloway, both dangerous and with seriously tidal headlands and on only one of them could we have the tide with us.
I chose the Mull of Kintyre, so we had a smooth sail past, before the wind picked up, north-westerly, and the tide turned against us. Wind against tide always makes for a bumpy ride, and at one of the biggest headlands in Scotland, that’s definitely what we got. Approaching the Mull of Galloway we had 3m (10ft-ish) waves pushing us onwards, which was strange because the wind couldn’t have been more than a Force 5.
However, we were still over canvassed with a full main and slightly reefed jib, shooting along at 8-9 knots against the tide. I knew I had to reef, and after an accidental gybe while surfing down a wave I turned Falanda into the wind. I’d been hand steering for around seven hours, due to the conditions, and hadn’t managed to change into waterproofs, or put in the washboards before we turned.
With the waves still breaking, the entire boat was awash within 30 seconds, and everything, inside and out, was soaked. I also hadn’t managed to sort out the reefing system on Falanda yet and could only put in one reef with the current system. I therefore spent 20 minutes wrestling with the main, trying to hook the cringle onto the ramshorn, and lash the leech cringle to the boom. Once I’d made sure everything was secure (and completely wet!), we turned south again, and continued on, fully reefed.
By sunset, the wind and waves were beginning to drop, and we were off Port Logan (halfway along the Galloway headland), where we stayed for most of the night, barely moving, due to the strong tides. At some point in the night, the wind died completely, so I shook out the reefs, and we carried on slowly.
Not long after the wind picked up again, and we were again surfing down 3-4m waves which was much scarier in the dark. When the shackle holding down the tack of the main shattered it went with a bang and left the main flogging around violently. Retrieving the tack was a bit scary, but while at sea there was nothing I could do but get on with it and lash down the sail.
There was busy shipping in the night, but by sunrise we’d finally rounded the Mull of Galloway and were approaching the Isle of Man, with the wind slowly dropping. It wasn’t an option to stop on the Isle of Man because (a) Covid restrictions, (b) with lots of bad weather coming in we didn’t want to be stuck on an island, and (c) I wanted to carry on anyway!
We arrived in Conwy as it got dark, 32½ hours after leaving Port Ellen, just in time to shelter from the blow, and enter the marina while the tide was still high enough. Although frustrating to be stopped, our stay in Conwy wasn’t too bad, as everyone in Conwy was very kind and generous. Various people took the time to visit and drop off food packages (including a home-made cake!), and I got to go out in a 58ft sailing boat, as well as look around a Mini 6.50, the boats racing in the Mini Transat!
A week later a 48-hour weather window arose, so we set off through the Menai Strait heading for Fishguard. Against the wind it was a horrible, choppy ride and didn’t seem to calm down much even once we had entered the Strait. The Swellies, a section only about ¼ mile long, but lined with dangerous, underwater rocks, was as terrifying as I’d imagined.
Thanks to my dodgy tidal calculations and strong headwinds slowing us down, we missed slack water and were sucked through at over 12 knots. Despite the boat being tossed around wildly, we managed to follow the right course and got through safely, but dad was so tired and wet at this point that he made us pull into Port Dinorwic.
At the time this felt like the end of the world to me as there wasn’t another gap in the weather for at least another week. Once through the lock and properly moored up, however, we checked the forecast, and decided that if we left on the next tide, that evening, we could still make it (just!).
So, four hours after arriving in Port Dinorwic, we locked out again, leaving the lock keeper completely baffled as to why anyone would want to leave at 2200 on such a horrible night. The wind had eased a little however and the rest of our passage through the Strait went smoothly. When the sun came up I tried turning on the tiller pilot to visit the heads and found that it was dead, which meant another 14 hours of hand steering all the way across Cardigan Bay to Fishguard.
The following morning a friend drove us to an electronics shop in Milford Haven where they found that the tiller pilot was full of salt water. I hadn’t used it since the Caledonian Canal, so figured it must have been all the spray from the Menai Strait, where it was mounted in the cockpit for easy access. The shop was able to get us a replacement the next day, and we sat out the rest of the bad weather in Fishguard doing some much-needed engine repairs.
Four days later we set off for Milford Haven. It was a gentle sail to Ramsey Sound when the wind picked up, and we had a long Atlantic swell pushing us the rest of the way. Me and dad were already tired as we locked into the marina, so setting off across the Bristol Channel the next day wasn’t something dad was particularly looking forward to.
I, however, had just lengthened the trip another 90 miles, and I couldn’t wait to get going. The forecast was giving no more than a consistent 20 knots of wind the whole way, and it sounded perfect.
We got the forecast 20 knots of wind, however it also came with 2.5-3m swell, making the ride wet and slightly uncomfortable – but exciting! We were on a beam reach the whole way across the Bristol Channel, with enough wind to keep up seven knots through the water the whole way.
At 1800 a pod of dolphins joined me and Falanda, and they stayed with us for almost 10 hours, turning into glowing torpedoes as it got dark due to the incredible phosphorescence. It was an amazing show, and despite the swell, it felt like Falanda was flying, slicing through the waves as they came at her.
At around 0400 the dolphins had left, but I was still enjoying watching the phosphorescence wash over the deck. We were sailing nicely, and Falanda was steering herself. I called up dad on the VHF and, forgetting that it was so early in morning and that we were both soaked, and freezing, suggested the idea of carrying on to the Azores. Dad wasn’t feeling quite as positive as I was, so it was a straight up, “No, love.”
That was the end of the conversation, and we pressed on towards Land’s End, where the tide was still flowing hard against us. As it got light, land started to appear, and so did the waves, which I must admit got me feeling a little seasick for an hour or so. All too soon, we were heading in towards Newlyn, and the passage was about to end, so we had a quick tack around the bay for fun, while the wind was still up.
Next day it was on to Fowey (Polruan), where I originally bought Falanda; then Plymouth, where we happened to arrive in time for the annual firework competition! Then Plymouth to Torquay, sailing neck and neck with a grey race boat the whole way. The next day was our final leg back to Topsham, which was sad for me, but not so much for dad. After seven and a half weeks non-stop on Amaryllis, I think I’d managed to single-handedly put him off sailing, or ‘little’ boat sailing anyway.
We arrived at the fairway early, so we tacked out to waste some time. We were sailing towards France at seven knots, reaching, and the last thing I wanted to do was head back into the muddy river Exe. I think our last conversation over the VHF was basically me begging dad to carry on to France. I didn’t want the trip to end, however he was more than ready to finish at this point.
We were soon sailing up the seafront, caught up in the excitement of the moment, accompanied by a flotilla of around 20 boats. Being waved in at Exmouth docks by a mass of people was an incredible sight, although slightly overwhelming, after being alone for so long. Up the river, the whole of Topsham, it seems, was there to wave us in, lining the quay as the heavens opened, and then waiting outside the local boatyard in the pouring rain to greet me.
The Mayor of Exeter was there, as was my mum, and a million journalists. It was a bit surreal, everyone was there congratulating me but, in my mind, I hadn’t done anything exceptional. The circumnavigation was essentially a load of individual day trips (along with a few overnighters), so it didn’t, and still doesn’t, feel like a major expedition.
The hardest part of all was walking up the pontoon, away from Falanda that evening, when all I wanted to do was turn around and head back down the river. So suddenly I was back at home, stopped, and separated from the boat I had spent so long restoring and living on.
I was really sad that the trip was over; it was hard sinking back into everyday life after such an amazing experience, where I’d had either complete freedom or total responsibility, depending on how you look at it. Returning home felt like hitting a brick wall, so to make it more bearable we took the boats down to Exmouth for a couple of days.
I was able to go sailing every day, and although reluctant to get back on Amaryllis, Dad was happy to spend time with my mum and brother. Instead of chatting with my mum over a cup of tea in the kitchen, I instead took her sailing across the Channel, (and back, we couldn’t stop due to Covid restrictions), where we drank tea while crossing the shipping lanes! We had 29 hours out to sea, (in what mum called rather ‘challenging’ conditions!) and I followed that up with a few more night sails locally.
Meanwhile, my ‘Falanda Sailing’ blog on Facebook was getting more recognition, and I had just been shortlisted for an YJA award for my writing, as well as another for the trip itself. I was surprised to be nominated at all, and even more amazed to win both awards on the night. I was completely awed just to be among all these top sailors; the awards themselves were presented by Shirley Robertson, and Stuart Bithell – two of the most high achieving sailors in the boating world.
Another amazing experience was being taken out sailing for a day on the Mini 6.50 in Conwy, which was absolutely incredible. I had never been on a boat like that before, and after so long on my five-ton Falanda, it took a while to get used to it. I managed to broach around eight times in just one day, but otherwise I really enjoyed the experience, and learned a lot.
During my trip around Britain, I’d seen lots of the Minis, and spoken to lots of people on similar boats. Conversations with Tim Long had convinced me it might actually be possible, and as I sailed back up the fairway in Conwy, my heart was firmly set on racing in The Mini Transat 2023.
I knew it would be a struggle timewise, as one of the first qualifying races is in April 2022, which would mean finding sponsorship, and getting a boat before the winter set in. The first step was to double check there was no age limit, and I soon got a reply from the organisers, confirming there was not.
I had two days at the 2021 Southampton Boat Show, to start speaking to companies and share my idea. It was also where I gave my first talk, which was completely terrifying, and without much of a ‘plan’, I blurted everything out in half an hour!
It was the following weekend that mum suggested triple-checking with the organisers, in case they meant the upper age limit. I had read the racing rules, in which it was stated that participants under the age of 18 needed parental consent, which to me, sounded like it was possible to enter.
I emailed again anyway and was completely devastated when they replied saying there was a minimum age of 18. It really did feel like the end of the world hearing this, and I couldn’t face the thought of over two more years at school, plus college, without having something to really aim for.
In the meantime, dad and I took part in a heritage race at Brixham. It was nice to be out racing on my own, and to see other classic wooden boats again. I decided that although my 2023 Mini Transat dream was over, I could still aim for the 2025 race, and despite Covid, the possibility of taking Falanda to French boat festivals is still there.
I’m now working towards the Mini Fastnet 2023, which is still a big race, before I hope to ultimately take part in the Mini Transat 2025. This still means finding sponsorship – and a boat – before next summer, when I can begin seriously sailing and training. The race is on!
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