The Solent Rally

Saturday, 28 August 2010 – Monday, 30 August 2010

This is the first RAFYC rally that we’ve done, so we set off not really knowing what to expect.  Tom was on board, adding a certain credibility in the “RAF” bit!  The two stop rally of Chichester and Cowes (up the Medina river to Island Harbour) had an added complication of being tidal, meaning a window of time around high tide when you can get access in via a lock.

Saturday 28 August

Hamble – Chichester Marina

19 miles, mostly a gentle WNW (Force 3-4) and slight seas

 The marina was full of life when we arrived – in contrast to the other night.  We met our berth neighbours who said that they were breaking their own code of sailing over the August Bank Holiday when it was too busy.  That hadn’t even occurred to me!  We watched them leave and then we slipped our mooring, around 10:15, very neatly, and eased out of the Hamble.  Universal is almost at the top of the Hamble, so it took 30 minutes to get to the mouth (about 2 miles).  There was a breath of wind, so we hauled the sails and we were sailing!  Our berth neighbours were right – the Solent was full of boats; quite a sight.

The wind was more or less behind us, nudging us along as we goose-winged out.  Pete had planned a route through the Northern Channel, but got nervous about it when he saw that no one else was doing it…  Our knowledge of sailing the Solent is, well, very little, and there are many sand banks and navigational hazards.  I was surprised how shallow the Solent actually was in places. Anyway, Pete double checked the passage, and we went for it, reassuringly with others following.  We were making gentle progress, but certainly not the 6 knots that he’d planned for!

At around noon, Pete decided that it was prime conditions to fly the cruising chute.  My heart sank!  The boys rigged the chute, and tried to fly it.  I have no idea what happened, but it was reluctant to fly.  Pete was at the bow, pulling and pulling on the sheets to unfurl it… then suddenly it billowed out, but it wasn’t really setting very well.  We needed to change course, so we then gibed… or tried to.  Tom was at the bow trying to push it through, but it wasn’t rigged right, so Tom came rushing back with one of the sheets re-setting it.  Somehow, the chute filled, and Pete was trying to goose-wing with the cruising chute out.  It wasn’t happy, so we needed to gibe it back… where it got in a right pickle, wrapped around the furled yankee.  All very stressful.  So Pete yelled for me to drop it; even if it meant  that it would get dunked in the sea… which it inevitably did!  Tom was sitting on the deck trying to pull the sail in, with the wind catching it and trying to fly bits of it.  I’d rushed forward to help pile it on board, which was a slightly hairy moment.  Once we’d got it on deck, we decided to pack it back in to the fore-cabin and get it out of the way.  I went down below and fed the blessed thing as Tom stuffed it through the hatch.  One slightly damp sail firmly out of the way.  Nightmare!  This had done nothing to persuade me that the cruising chute was anything but hassle – our biggest and most beautiful sail seems to have a mind of its own.

Back with the two sails we coasted along towards the entrance to Chichester Harbour.  We knew that the entrance contained its own navigational hazards, which required holding as close to the port channel markers as we could.  The rules of the road say that you ‘drive on the right’ and pass port-to-port with other boats, which makes holding tight to a port marker going in to the channel interesting!  Again, this was somewhere that we hadn’t sailed before, and it’s hard to judge what reality is (local knowledge and all that).  We were sailing into the harbour, overtaking boats as we went, as well as dealing with boats coming out, and the relatively narrow channel, all becoming a bit exciting.  I noticed that we had more sail out than anyone else, which accounted for our relative speed, so we furled the yankee which helped a bit.  The point where there was two fleets of dinghies racing, coming at us from different directions caused us to revert to the engine, where we knew we’d have more control.  Another heart-stopping moment as the engine wouldn’t start!  Eeek!  Pete was frantically turning the key, when suddenly it kicked in.  Big sigh of relief.  We dumped the mainsail, and Tom drove us in.  It took an hour to get to the marina entrance.

Pete took the helm, taking us into the marina.  There is a lock that is used to manage entry according to the state of the tide.  When we approached, we saw that the lock was open, or in ‘free flow’, and with a green light we were able to proceed straight through – we were swept through with a strong tidal stream.  We had been allocated a berth, starboard to, which we edged towards.  Our mooring wasn’t our finest (again).  This time close enough to get onto the pontoon, but a little too close.  We grazed the wooden pontoon where the fenders hadn’t done their job.  Pete was really upset.  Our first marks on the hull.  Fortunately the pontoon is soft wood, and I thought the marks looked more like smudges in the coating of salt from the sea… so I set about hosing the hull which made a big difference, and I think lifted Pete’s mood a little.

At around 17:00 we were in the midst of a pontoon party.  20 boats from the RAFYC and their crews drinking wine and eating snacks.  It was very high spirited and we met some lovely people.  Simon, the rally organiser, had said that there were a few rally ‘virgins’ so apparently lots of new faces to everyone.  From there we went on to eat dinner at the yacht club, and drink more wine.  In my case, far too much than was sensible!  I would regret it and pay for it the following day.

Sunday 29 August

Chichester Marina – Cowes, Island Harbour Marina

22 miles, mostly a stiff W (Force 6-7) and moderate seas

My head was thumping a bit and I felt sluggish, revived for a bit by the bacon sandwich and coffee.  We were aiming for a 10:15 departure, when we thought there’d be just about enough water.  We radioed up and were told to wait a few minutes and then proceed… We proceeded to see the lock gates close and a red light!  This meant hovering until a green.  There were boats coming up behind us, and the wind was gusting straight at us, so it was very hard for Pete to maintain a stopped position in the wind.  He tried to hold it, but lost the bow through the wind so we ended up sort of circling around.  Pete’s cortisol levels must’ve been very high, but he did brilliantly.  Finally, the green light appeared so we were called into the lock – where a small army of lock staff were there to help.  There are many lines down from the lock, which you secure.  He told me to put it around the winch and ease it as the water lowered.  Tom was on the bow.  The complication of wind and additional boats being crammed in made it quite exciting – not stressful in itself, because it was all very good humoured.  There was a small boat behind us, who got nudged forwards, I noticed the bow poking through our railing on the stern..  I cheerfully smiled and pushed them backwards, much to the relief of the skipper!  The trouble with being first out of the lock, is that we were first into the channel, which we thought would have enough water but that was still to be tested.  Pete edged out, and the depth meter hit 1.8m – exactly what we draw!  Eek.  We didn’t graze any mud so we were good to continue.  The two miles out on the way seemed longer – Pete was ready for a second coffee now the worst of the departure was over.  I set up the log for the day.  We all watched with interest the wind readings – around 25 – 30 knots from the west!  Who ordered that?  It meant a beat all the way to Cowes.

Once out of the harbour, we raised the sails.  With so much wind Pete put a reef in the main (with the halyard slipping so he had to winch in twice) and we opted for the staysail, effectively giving a reefed foresail.  Well, the wind was really blowing and giving Whinchat a different workout – most of the sailing back from the west country was from behind us.  This is the most ‘tippy’ point of sail, and with the sea being quite lively, Tom forecast that we were going to get wet! And boy did we!  Tom helmed the whole way, clearly absolutely loving it.  He was standing on the helmsman’s seat (he’s too tall to look through the spray hood) with his face in the elements, constantly getting sprayed by waves, and very occasionally a dousing.  Pete had the biggest wave dunk.  We’d forgotten the perfect timing to tack the staysail, which is slightly after the wind has gone through the bow, and controlled in order to stop the sheets catching on the spinnaker pole.  On one tack, when it did get caught, Pete went to the fore-deck to sort it out – on the way back I saw him disappear under a wall of water as a wave broke over him.  He was absolutely fine as he was gripping on, but wet from head to toe, and laughing…. not quite as loudly as Tom was!  I was buried under the spray hood.  Pete was actually to get more wet later – even I got a soaking!  Pete was sitting beside me half under the spray hood, when a wave launched at us from the side – sending water over Pete and a bit of me.  Pete’s foulies were undone, meaning the sea poured down his back wetting him from the inside!  Nice!

Beating through the waves is hard work – more for the crew than the boat (though Tom showed no evidence of tiring).  The constant pounding wasn’t doing my recovery any good, and I grew paler and paler and more and more useless.  In fact, I put my lifejacket on because I didn’t trust myself.  “I’m not at my sharpest” I said to Pete…. Note to self – never ever sail with a hangover!

We were racing a bit against the tides, because Island Harbour is another tidal marina, with a lock to go through.  It was touch and go whether we would make it – Pete was stressing about it, but we took that one away from him.  What can you do against the forces of Mother Nature?  After what felt like hours on the water, we eventually arrived at Cowes, and were able to drop the sails and ease up the Medina River.  There was a monster speed boat clearly with some kind of mechanical problem as we were dropping the sails – revving like anything but not going anywhere!   It turned out that Cowes was full of these mega-fast boats; some kind of race from Weymouth… in those seas it would have been horrible!

I called up the marina on the way up, and the lock was in free-flow.  We probably had 30 minutes to play with, so in some respects our timing was perfect!  It’s some way up the Medina (past the Folly Inn); further than I was expecting, and not really Cowes at all in my view.  We weren’t the first to arrive, and it was a relief to see that we weren’t the only ones there.  All of us were on “delta” pontoon, and we had fellow yachtees to help us in.  Pete had opted for a port-to tie up, to maximise the suitability to Whinchat, but the wind was so strong that we ended up being blown sideways to a starboard-to tie up – not a problem as no one else was there, but meant a mad couple of minutes as Tom and I retied the warps.  All safely tied up and me on the dock certainly very happy to step on land!

Did we abstain that night?  No!  I was much more careful…  We joined the pontoon party – less in numbers as some boats hadn’t made it across the water, diverting to Portsmouth or even staying in Chichester.  We had another rally dinner at the yacht club, which was most excellent, and we met different people.  I was ready for bed, and happy that the wind had seemed to ease off, although I didn’t think that very much would disturb me that night.

Monday 30 August

Cowes, Island Harbour Marina – The Hamble

10 miles, mostly a fluky wind (Force 3) and slight seas 

We didn’t leave Island Harbour until around 14:30  – we had to wait for highish water  – so it was a fairly lazy start to the day.  Tom more or less did every puzzle in the paper and Pete and I went to watch the chaos of the boats that could leave (as their draft is less than Whinchat’s) going through the lock system.  There was a kind-of order going on, but a very small pool for boats to wait to be called forward into the lock…  meaning that boats had to try and circle each other.  No mean feat!  How it went on without anyone bumping into each other, I have no idea!  We decided to wait for ‘free flow’ which is when there’s sufficient water not to need to lock-in on the lock…  Hence why we departed at 14:30!

Guess what the wind had done?  Switched, again, which meant that we had another beat back to the Hamble.  The NW had arrived that was due in yesterday, thankfully without it’s power – although waking feeling refreshed after my sleep, it would have been no bother.

I ended up on the helm for the sail back, and was very much frustrated by the wind… which seemed to bend around meaning that it was hard to hold a course.  It was also hard to sail very close to the wind at times – Tom couldn’t believe that I could only get about 45 degrees to it at one point.  I also had a kind of lesson in choosing a tacking line – I think a racing technique.  Pete got frustrated that we tacked too late (I suspect he had mentally been racing another RAFYC boat) and lost some ‘advantage’.  I ended up shouting at him because this was all new to me; and in his frustration he didn’t chose very well how to describe it to me.  “Just follow their line” meant absolutely nothing to me.  He had to deconstruct it.  I certainly don’t remember being taught it before so it was perhaps a costly lesson in the ‘race’ that was taking place back to the Hamble.  It was a challenging sail in a very different way – clearly a helmsman who wasn’t up to ‘racing’ and a wind that couldn’t decide where it wanted to go.

Our biggest mishap would be mooring in the marina.  It was the day that Whinchat got her first proper dint.  Pete was beside himself – really dejected.  The conditions were really tough – a strong tidal flow and this starboard-to mooring.  I’m not sure what happened, as I spent most of the time on Whinchat with my leg wedged between us and the boat on our left.  A combination of the tide, wind and Whinchat’s severe kick to port in reverse (you have to slam into reverse to stop a boat) meant that she wanted to park on top of our neighbour.  Tom had a real job to get her alongside, and in the commotion, Pete had driven her forwards into the pontoon.  I’m sure it’ll be polished out – and my wisdom says it was bound to happen.  It was a horrible way to end the rally – not really the lasting memory that I would have chosen for Pete.   Like anything in sailing – there is always a possibility of learning, and this was no exception…

Update:  Thursday 2 September

We’ve spent the day out on Whinchat – Pete doing some close-hand manoeuvring (we were going to do it in Falmouth, but the great sailing days kept on presenting themselves) so Pete now feels much more in tune with Whinchat.  We also moved berth at the marina!  We have a port-to mooring, which we ‘practised’.  How smooth were we?  When we came to dock after a few sunny hours on the water, it was model mooring.  Not a raised voice, nor any frantic leaping around.  Wonderful.