Ray Lein tries to outrun Storm Babette in his Atlanta 25, before taking shelter behind Worm’s Head in the Bristol Channel

Strong winds were forecast, it was October 2023 and I was preparing to leave Manorbier Bay on the Bristol Channel to reach Worm’s Head aboard my Atlanta 25, Dobbin, writes Ray Lein.

Why, didn’t I feel this anchorage was safe enough?

I asked myself this and a million other questions as I stood on the bow of the boat in the dark, bobbing around, trying to make sense of the rock shadows ready to sink me if I didn’t get it right.

I got on my knees and reached through the pulpit to grab the anchor chain, then struggled to my feet.

Bending my knees, I hauled hard, trying to get the momentum going for Dobbin, so I could reel her in.

Hand over hand, links of galvanised chain fell from my hand into the locker.

An Atlanta 25 sailing boat moored by a pontoon

The Atlanta 25 Dobbin takes a breather in Oban, before her voyage south to Cardiff. Credit: Rey Lein

Would the anchor trip? I sure didn’t want to lose it. Not with a two-day blow coming.

Like a fish on a hook, I could feel the tension. Then… Dobbin tripped.

It felt good. Hand over hand, faster now.

Back on my knees, hands through the pulpit I grasped for the small 6.8kg anchor; the prize.

On my previous voyage to Scotland and back, she had seen me through more than a couple of anchorages.

Careful now not to have the anchor swing and chip the gelcoat, I grabbed the shank and hoisted it onto the mounting.

Breathing hard, I wondered how many more of those did I have in me?

I didn’t have long to ponder, I was trying not to trip and fall into the drink, which would end all my troubles – not least of which, how to get from Manorbier Bay to Cardiff without a healthy engine.

Engine loss on my Atlanta 25

I had been 400 miles up the line, coming around the Mull of Kintyre, broad beam to a mountainous swell and in the dark, when my engine alarm began shrieking.

The problem was a pinhole in the sump pipe, which saw all my oil leak into the bilge.

It was a rusty pipe, almost 50 years old, that I should have replaced long ago, but at that moment all I could do was shut the engine down.

Later that day I pulled into Ballylumford, near Larne, Northern Ireland, where fishermen helped me jury rig the leaking pipe.

It worked for about a day then the drip resumed.

A man smiling while sailing a boat

Happily free of the current off Bardsey. Credit: Ray Lein

Now, leaving the anchorage, I relied on my sails to carry me away from the pounding surf and crashing waves ashore, which I could hear but not see in the early morning darkness.

I loosened the furling halyard then tugged on the jib sheet. A swoosh then the crackle of sail as it unfurled.

Close-hauled, I half convinced myself if I could just get out further, the current alone would push me eastward – it was a spring tide, with a Force 5 south-easterly wind – this was one way to find out.

Clearing the rocks, the pulsating white light of Caldey Island greeted me. It felt friendly somehow. Maybe it was the thought of all those monks in the monastery praying. I sure could use a few prayers.

What was I thinking? The two-day blow was coming. I was on a 50-year-old, 25-footer heading out into about the most depressing sight of nothingness one could imagine.

My pessimism did not influence the kind faithful heart of Dobbin. She might not have looked like much but she had grit.

A chart of Ireland and Wales

A chart showing the voyage of the Atlanta 25, Dobbin. Credit: Maggie Nelson

Like now, close hauled, spray drenching her foredeck, she bashed ahead, got driven back, yet, quick footed, found her balance then bashed back against a force far more powerful than herself.

I didn’t even have my hand on the tiller. Close hauled, she helmed better than me. No mainsail, either. It was too much trouble.

Something would go wrong and I would end up stumbling around on the cabin roof fixing the little runners that popped from the groove on the mast.

Sure I was stupid to be out there but hoisting the mainsail was just plain dumb.

Draping the crook of my elbow around the winch helped stop me from being thrown out of the cockpit.

With Dobbin on watch, I even entertained the idea of taking a nap. My drooping eyelids didn’t last long.

The wind picked up and Dobbin was rounding up that much harder. Time and again, weather helm got the best of her.

I reached for the furling halyard which had grown fuzzy with age.

I got it in my hand and then said a little prayer hoping it wouldn’t snag on the stay rigging. I eased the tiller away, unwrapped the sheet from the winch then tugged it to save my life. The halyard ran true.

Merry hell came to play with the sail flogging as if to shout ‘What are you doing, you idiot?’

My hands burned from hauling the halyard. I gave it a couple more good tugs.

Soon the red balls, near the tack, ravelled up inside the folds of the jib.

Cleated, I brought the tiller my way and again, good ol’ Dobbin was on her way, seesawing on the crests of waves immune to the danger they held.

Even with the Caldey light falling astern, I didn’t feel like we were making any headway.

After an hour and a half, it was time to tack. Blowing Force 6, I swung the tiller. Something went wrong. I don’t know what.

The sail of an Atlanta 25

Genoa fills with north-west wind off Bardsey Island. Credit: Ray Lein

Perhaps by human error or fatigue, the jib got caught and then wrapped itself around the forestay.

Yes, it was one of those, in-the-dark-of-night predicaments.

To make matters worse, the force of the sail ripped the sheet through the block.

Waves crashing, boat pitching, sail shouting ‘Get me fixed, stupid’, the air was filled with the sound of fury, the fury of one man’s attempt to get his little boat that much closer to home.

Home being Cardiff where my wife and child were. I wasn’t wearing a lifejacket.

At my age, It was just one more strap to undo when I had the urge to relieve myself.

Possibly a bad idea but it sure made it easier to take a leak.

These thoughts and others careened through my mind in a split second as I made my way forward as if to the gallows.

Crouching low, spray whipped my face like a cat o’ nine tails. Had the two-day blow, begun early?

Continues below…

A boat being sailed through a storm

Sailing in storms and squalls

One crew's brisk breeze and exciting sail can be another's gale, even if sailing similar boats. So what makes the…

The sheet was around the forestay and I needed to reach it before it blew away. I managed to grab it and hauled it in.

Progress I could barely believe it but Caldey Island light was falling below us. We were actually making headway.

At the break of day, Dobbin and I were so far above the Caldey light, that I could hardly make out the island that it sat upon.

We’d reached Carmarthen Bay and still the tide was behind us. It had slackened and was coming to an end, but if I could just rely on Dobbin for one more favour, we could get into an anchorage tucked safely within the confines of Worm’s Head.

Dobbin worked the shoreline like a spaniel flushing grouse. I didn’t even hold the tiller.

From the cliffs of Worm’s Head to Burry Holme, first one way then the other, she would round up then bear way till we reached 10m at high tide where, job done, I dropped the hook.

I did not intend to stay there for long, I was already getting an itch to catch the next tide, the one that would bring me closer to the ones I loved.

It was long overdue – I’d set sail six months before looking for work and had finally found some in Scotland.

I got the weather now. Windguru had it in the purple, 40-50 knots.

Storm Babette was her name and she was going to wreak havoc, bringing the UK to a mighty halt according to the news outlets.

Stormbound aboard my Atlanta 25

In an Easterly wind, there isn’t a better place to be anchored on the Bristol Channel.

Reading the news on my smartphone, I wandered forward and let out all the chain.

That’s when I found out how dangerous it really was wrapping the chain around that forward cleat, and how if you lost the links around the horn of the cleat, it would all come spilling out.

The last thing I wanted was to get a finger, leg or wrist trapped so decided to leave it well alone.

That was the mistake. I should have dumped the whole thing in.

By the time I figured that out, however, it was too late.

The sun shining on a sea

Anchored at Worm’s Head. Credit: Ray Lein

So, how do you while away the hours, while riding out a two-day blow aboard a 25ft boat? I hit the rack.

The previous week, on the run, I’d forgotten what sleep was.

As soon as I took my clothes off to lay down, there was a mighty banging sound up forward and a clatter like something was broken.

On went my clothes, boots and oilskins but as soon as I was ready, the noise subsided. I lay on the cabin floor fully clad in case the anchor broke loose.

It was blowing now, and the cacophony produced by the boat was ringing in my ears, each sound different, although a persistent pounding sound emanated from the chain itself.

With each gust, the chain would stretch.

In interior of a Atlanta 25 yacht, with a sleeping bag on a bunk

Dobbin’s interior, ready for the cold snap with double sleeping bags. Credit: Ray Lein

Staring out the window, studying a transit ashore, it seemed like it was lengthening 20m.

The chain’s tension, transmitted through the anchor chain like a telephone cable to the little fibreglass boat riding out a storm, sounded like a bass drum being pounded.

At least, if I couldn’t sleep, I had Robert Caro’s biography on Lyndon Baines Johnson to read.

The guy came from South-west Texas out in the middle of nowhere where, like everybody else in the United States of America, he had a dream to be the President. This he succeeded at when John F Kennedy got shot three cars ahead of him in Dallas, Texas.

Minutes before, his career was ebbing worse than a spring tide on the Bristol Channel.

As for food, I had three cans of beans, a half bag of rice, three cans of custard, two bananas, two potatoes, and chocolate.

Anchors away

On the third day, at about midnight, the wind changed. It woke me from my sleep.

The rigging was alive like a tree full of starlings, shaking and stirring and making a lot of racket.

I climbed out of the cabin. If I set sail now, the wind would be abaft the beam and wasn’t the tide due to turn in about an hour?

Why did it have to be in the dark? I muttered to myself with my oilskins on as I hunched over the pulpit up on the bow and grabbed the anchor chain.

South-west wind, on the nose, the boat was heavy.

Hand over hand, I hauled the chain up, dropping it into the locker below.

Bending my knees, using my legs, my chest was heaving. That heavy wind had embedded the anchor into the sand like cement.

A man wearing a hat and headtorch smiling on a boat

Until 10 years ago, Ray Lein’s boating experience was limited to his father’s Sea Master, as a commercial fishermen on the west coast of America, north up to Alaska and far south towards Antarctica. Since coming to Britain, he has sailed yachts, fishing boats, and his Atlanta 25. He is now working on a dredger near Brighton. Credit: Ray Lein

I got her as tight as I could but when the swell passed and the tension increased, the chain slithered through my hands burning them.

I tied the chain to the forward cleat. Careful with your fingers I said. Careful.

Before I could wrap it around the horn, a swell came rolling through and with a manic clickety-clack it streamed out, back into the water.

I dragged several feet in again and got it around the cleat.

Like a lassoed wild animal Dobbin bucked, ripping the bolts holding the roller an inch out of the deck.

Connected to the forestay holding the whole rigging up, that was a precarious situation.

Still, the anchor wouldn’t trip.

I reached into the chain locker, grabbed the rode and cut it with my knife.

I threw the chain over the side and lost the anchor. Sorry to see it go.

As I sailed into the darkness, I said to myself, “So that was a two-day blow.”

Lessons learned

  1. Replacing 15m of galvanised 8mm chain which cost £250 from Force 4 chandlery. Ouch!
  2. With that big blow coming on, I should have chucked out all the chain and all the warp. Had I dumped the warp it would have increased the scope and perhaps lessened the pressure on the anchor stopping it from digging in so bad.
  3. In hindsight, I would have been better off paying the extra money and taking a berth beside a pontoon in a safe harbour. I know it would have cost me less in the long run.
  4. Be careful about the wind swinging around. When it does, so will the swell. Anchored in close, be careful the swell doesn’t break on you.
  5. Wear a lifejacket so if you do fall overboard, they’ll be able to find you a lot easier.
  6. Always take a good book on board, for whiling away sleepless hours.

Expert response: Joel Innes, spokesman for the RNLI Water Safety team

Joel Innes, spokesman for the RNLI Water Safety team

Joel Innes, spokesman for the RNLI Water Safety team

This is an excellent anecdote of how things can quickly go wrong while at sea.

I’ve been an RNLI crew member for quite a few years now and have seen this situation unfold many times, though in this incident Ray luckily didn’t need the help of the RNLI, or HM Coastguard, but it could have easily escalated.

The RNLI regularly must respond to callouts during storms, and while we are trained to respond in emergency situations, even in extreme weather, sometimes these could have been prevented.

With most storms in the UK and Ireland, the RNLI sends out press releases, reminding the public that storms bring different complexities to even the most knowledgeable mariners.

Ray reflected in his article and said, ‘What was I thinking?’, this thought must go through many sailors’ minds at some point and if everyone takes the time to really evaluate the situation before setting sail, then many incidents could be reduced.

If it looks and feels dangerous, then it more than likely is dangerous.

It sounds obvious, but please do think twice before setting out in extreme weather – look for that safety option.

Finally, Ray mentions lifejackets in his reflection points.

It sounds silly to keep saying, but I can’t stress enough how vital wearing a lifejacket is.

We also recommend carrying a means of calling for help, none more suited than a personal locator beacon.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen fatalities where the person wasn’t able to call for help and we just didn’t know they were in trouble.

If you’re able to carry a reliable means of calling for help on your person, you have a far higher chance of alerting the rescue services you need help and where to find you.