Colin Flood experiences bad vibrations while sailing his Sirius 31DS from Dartmouth to the Channel Islands…
Creeping out of Dartmouth before first light for what promised to be a lively sail to Guernsey, the forecast was for a consistent north-easterly, Force 3-4. I enjoy night sailing, but my partner, Jacki, is less keen, so an early start was called for.
Our boat Sunfish is a Sirius 31DS, not perhaps the fastest boat in the world, but well built and comfortable. There is no dedicated chart table – the saloon table suffices – and instruments live in a special box I made, which has been dubbed the ‘skipper’s handbag’.
I learned navigation in 1965 from a wartime minesweeper skipper who, entirely off his own bat, ran evening classes in coastal navigation at Wandsworth Tech in south London, before the RYA concerned itself in such matters.
It was pure navigation, the bible was Reeds, which in those days came in cardboard covers, and included a chapter on Childbirth at Sea. With dividers, parallel rules and Admiralty charts with depths in fathoms, he instilled in me a love of chartwork which has endured. Sailing friends know I don’t go anywhere I haven’t got a paper chart for.
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All was going well until, skirting the eastbound shipping lane, we were getting swept a little further west than was ideal, so I started the engine to give us a bit of a lift. I was at the tiller and Jacki was seated at the inside steering position in front of the plotter, when she turned and said: “What’s that vibration?”
In the cockpit I could hear or feel nothing, but sticking my head in the saloon, I certainly could. I yanked the gear lever into neutral, and listened to the engine ticking over normally, but putting it into gear and increasing the revs caused a violent vibration.
I had twice before been on boats that had picked up discarded fishing gear round the prop and on both occasions it had stopped the engine dead. But ours was ticking over normally, so I looked for another reason.
Could our folding prop have shed a blade? I checked the engine compartment but all seemed well. Going over the side was out of the question, so from here on we’d clearly be without power.
Back on the tiller I pondered over what, in the circumstances, a good skipper should do. Reassure the crew! I gave Jacki a hug. “We’re fine” I said, “we’re sailing nicely, and the boat’s sound. We’ll need a bit of help the other end, but that’s all.”
I hope I sounded a bit more confident than I felt. I thought it might be a good idea to inform Guernsey Coastguard, but after several attempts, there was no reply. We must have been out of range.
Such are the vagaries of VHF… I’d been sailing in Lyme Bay once and picked up Cherbourg Harbour Radio. Neither of our mobiles, on different networks, had a signal.
Suddenly, the VHF radio crackled into life. “Sunfish, Sunfish, this is Border Force, we are shadowing you.” I turned around and saw the cutter which I should have seen earlier, about half a mile astern, and closing fast.
In a moment they were off our port side, and I explained to them why I had been trying to contact Guernsey. Naively, I rather thought they had turned up to offer any assistance if it was needed.
Not so, they started asking questions. “What was your last port, where are you heading, who is on board?”
Then something else happened. Coming off a wave, the fridge door flew open and two bowls of Jacki’s eagerly anticipated curry shot out and started sliding around the floor, amazingly with their tinfoil covers still on. As Jacki slid around after them, the Border Force questions kept coming and I began to get a bit fed up.
“A few days ago,” I said, “I filled in form C1331 notice of departure and sent it off to Dover as required. You already have the answers to all these questions.” Back came the reply: “We do not have access to that information.” And my reply to that got lost in the wind.
“Well,” they said, “we can see you have the situation under control”, and in a burst of power and smoke, they veered away heading north. I gazed wistfully after them. Surely they had better communications than us and could have let Guernsey know… or perhaps they just didn’t want to give their position away to anyone else.
Anyway, with the curry safely stowed, we sailed on. In time we were able to raise Guernsey. I must have over-egged it a bit because she asked “Are you in distress?” I’d been careful to avoid the ‘d’ word because I knew what it would mean.
Over the years, I must have contributed enough to the RNLI to have paid for at least one rescue, but we were not in distress, no-one was in imminent danger.
For some bizarre reason, I remember thinking that if the lifeboat came out, the crew would miss their supper! The radio operator asked us to report in with our position every half hour.
In due course, the wind veered a little and increased in strength, and another problem presented itself. The Grand Brayes are a set of rocks off Guernsey’s north-east coast which look like shark’s teeth. Even in calm weather they look vicious.
As if reading my mind, Jacki asked: “Are we going to clear those rocks?” She took over the tiller, I reached for my handbag, and studied the chart.
From the chartplotter, I transferred the bearing to our waypoint at the top of the Little Russel, and our COG. That told me we’d clear the rocks by a safe margin. “We’ll be fine,” I said.
Back on the tiller, I pondered Plan B. We could tack back towards the shipping lanes which would take us directly away from our destination, or we could bear away down the west and south coast of the island and take the long way round. We’d done this before, but it would have added hours to our journey.
It was getting rougher when Jacki, looking at the plotter, asked nearly the same question again. “Are you sure we’re going to clear those rocks?”
We were certainly making more leeway, but that was hardly surprising, had I known what we were towing. Again we swapped places, and again I went through the same exercise, with the same result. Why was the chart telling me we would be clear, but the plotter screen was suggesting otherwise?
I stood there desperately wondering if I was making some basic error. I realised I was tired, I had been on my feet for 11 hours, because I can never rest when I’m skipper. It was time to make up my mind. I sensed the old minesweeper skipper looking over my shoulder, and decided – we would sail on.
A while later, the rocks were off our starboard beam. I radioed Guernsey and told them that we’d shortly be turning down the Little Russell; she transferred us to St Peter Port Control who were aware of our situation, and promised help at the harbour entrance.
We ghosted down the Little Russell with the wind behind us on the last of the south-going tide. The Condor ferry appeared from the south, and Port Control told us to wait, so we shortened sail, anxious not to overshoot.
As we drifted in between the pierheads, we heard someone clapping. I looked up and saw the radio operator had left his cabin and was applauding us. “Well done!” he shouted down. A nice touch.
The marina dory appeared, and 15 minutes later we were snugly tied up on the outside pontoon. We were hugely relieved and a little emotional, but I felt elated too.
“We sailed ourselves out of trouble,” I said, “we didn’t inconvenience anyone, and the lifeboat chaps weren’t late for their tea.” Jacki gave me a quizzical look, and later that curry never tasted so good.
1. Always carry paper charts. If I’d gone by the plotter, I’d certainly have taken one of the alternatives with all the extra hours and fatigue that would have entailed. I find a paper chart – a choice that will seemingly not be available much longer – so much clearer than a small screen.
2. Fit a rope cutter. It was the first thing I did with my previous boat. However, the original owner of Sunfish had stipulated a Gori propeller which, on a Volvo saildrive, is a combination for which no rope cutter will fit.
3. Know your limitations. Our boat may be Category A, but we are not. Although both fit, we are in our mid 70s, and get tired much quicker than we used to just a few years ago. We have reluctantly decided on undertaking no more relatively long journeys, at least on our own.
4. Don’t be too proud to ask for help. Determined though I am to remain in credit with the RNLI, I would not hesitate to call for help if I felt we needed it. Informing the Coastguard was the right thing to do, too.
Vaughan Marsh, Royal Yachting Association (RYA) chief instructor – sail and motor cruising – comments: “I find the e-navigation incident recounted in the article both engaging and enlightening.
“The story of Colin and Jacki’s sail to Guernsey aboard Sunfish serves as a valuable learning experience for all sailors, reminding us of the importance of sailing within our limitations and that of our equipment.
“As sailors, knowing our own physical and mental capabilities is crucial for safe and enjoyable voyages. Always let common sense prevail and plan journeys within our comfort zones, seek that safe haven en route rather than pressing on.
“Electronic navigation systems, in the most part, are reliable and efficient if set up correctly and updated but as we witnessed in this account, no navigation option is infallible and can be hindered by a small screen or being on watch for a long time.
“Monitoring our position by all available means is a navigational requirement. Colin and Jacki identified a discrepancy and used the backup navigational option to navigate safely.
“We would always suggest carrying and using a second means of navigation, be that electronic or paper, to confirm our position and route to spot technical failures, or discrepancies. After the passage the next stage would be to check the system for errors.”
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