RAF Yacht Club rally to Cherbourg

Thursday, 31 May 2012 – Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Seasoned Skipper Pete has crossed the Channel, but not as a skipper.  First mate Julia hasn’t.  Whinchat hasn’t.  So what better way to make the maiden-ish voyage than with the comfort of being a fleet from the Hamble!

There was much exchange of emails in the days before we departed – which way to go, what the winds might be doing, what day we might set off.  Pete seemed to change his mind every time I asked him what the plan was…. not uncommon when one is at the mercy of the elements.  We were fortunate that we could make any date from Thursday onwards, and we weren’t tied at the far end of the long weekend.  In the end, we opted to cross on Friday, from Yarmouth.  On Thursday we set off from our mooring.


Thursday 31 May

Hamble river mooring – Yarmouth

WSW 6-7, bouncy seas

25 NM (longer because of the endless tacking!)

 We had decided to just go for it when we got up that morning, with the emphasis being on the Channel crossing, and not necessarily the passage to Yarmouth.  The forecast was for brisk winds, but we knew that in the Solent, it would be relatively sheltered.  What we hadn’t really taken notice of was the tides.  At least, we knew what they were doing, but hadn’t really reckoned on the impact on the journey.

We refuelled at Hamble Point Marina, in relatively calm conditions, took delight in the choc ices provided by the fuel attendant (it’s hard to imagine the sunshine now; it is pouring outside right now), and were raising the main as we came out of Hamble river.  All going very well.  We unfurled the Yankee and sped off… through the water!  I was helming, and at times it was a little heavy, but Whinchat seemed to be loving it, the decks were getting a good slush, and Pete was getting a good workout as we tacked over to Calshot.  Here, it all got a bit mad, harder to control, but flukey winds happen around the headland.  Nevertheless, Pete dropped a reef in the main, which meant that Whinchat wasn’t like having to control the preverbial two rotweillers wanting to go in different directions.  On we tacked, up the channel, almost over to Cowes, and then back again, almost to Calshot.  It was fun; we were in no rush.  Pete took the helm, and we decided to reef the Yankee… switching it for the StaySail.  We didn’t lose much speed (through the water), and the process of tacking was so much easier.  We wondered at those boats around us, motoring and not sailing.  On we tacked, marvelling at the speed of the traffic surfing past us the other way, seemingly on a hankerchief of sail.  I think that I was the first to notice that our positive, forward direction was a bit slow.  We’d been sailing for four hours, and hadn’t reached Newtown Creek!  GULP!  Pete said that we could motor, but I said we should go on until 5pm.  Half an hour later he said “let’s roll away the sails, we’ve done half a mile in 20 minutes…”  Both of us wanted to be as fresh as possible for the crossing, so reluctantly (at one level) we put away the sails, and continued under engine power.  Don’t get me wrong, it was still a bit of a plug, but at least the progress was a little more positive.

We arrived at Yarmouth at about 18:30, an epic journey that had taken five-and-a-half hours.  Not exactly anything to be very proud of in racing terms, but we’d enjoyed it, it was great to give Whinchat a bit of a stretch, and we were certainly in time to make sure we had a decent rest overnight.  Yarmouth Harbour was very quiet.  I’d radioed the Harbour Master, who’d misheard our length, so after a bit of confusion, we tied up alongside the pontoon next to the Lifeboat.  We had a couple of things to sort out, and then took the chart tables to the pub – oh, who says that romance is dead?!


Friday 1st June

Yarmouth – Cherbourg

SW 2-3, calm seas

71 NM

 We were up with the larks, well the sea gulls, and slipping our mooring lines at 06:30.  There was not a breath of wind!  I was feeling a bit mixed about this – of course we prefer sailing to motoring, and Whinchat certainly does, but no wind would mean a very benign crossing.  Potentially very favourable for my first Channel trip?  We caught a back eddy of current hugging the coastline of the Isle of Wight, and made for the Needles.  There wasn’t much about, with only the sight of a couple of yachts ahead of us.  All email traffic had gone quiet, and we had no idea where any of the RAF Yacht Club fleet were.

At 08:00 we were clear of the Needles, and on our way into the Channel.  There were 60 miles ahead of us, and we wondered whether we would find any wind.  Pete suggested that we operate a one hour on/off ‘watch’, as we had done last summer.  The sun was trying to shine, and the wind was trying to blow, and the sea was it’s benign best, perhaps a little movement, but not the “Channel Chop” that I’d feared. It wasn’t even that cold – we were in jeans, a T-shirt and a coastal jacket.  Hardly heavy sailing clothes. Hour after hour passed over, without incident.  With all the technology available, we could see all ships around us on AIS.  In fact, most of the way, the visibility was such that we saw the contacts on the screen long before they loomed on the horizon.  At the border with French waters, Pete went forward and hoisted the French courtesy flag.  There seemed to be a little more wind, so for a couple of hours we were able to sail, in fact, I think we technically sailed into France!  The wind that blew was only about 12 knots,  and then it seemed to give up.  About the time that the visibility dropped, as we heard the sound of fog horns echoing around us.  We still had AIS to pinpoint these super sized boats, tankers, transporters, ferries, seeing them loom before us when they came within a couple of miles.  Those that were outside of the line of murky mist, gave out their ghostly sound, and slipped past us, unseen.

In the approaches to Cherbourg, it was difficult to make out the fortress of the outer wall, and when a ship emerged, under guidance, we hung back a little.

It is always disorientating when you arrive at a new port.  You have a fix in your mind of the layout – desperately imprinted in your mind’s eye from the Pilot book – but the reality is always different.  As we approached the pontoons, I could see TigerFire, and was I ever relieved to see her!  Mark very kindly came and took our lines, as we tied alongside the very short finger-pontoons.  We decided that it was too short, Mark telling us that these were usually favoured by smaller boats – and not our beamy Whinchat!  So, we untied here, and eased around to “Q” where the bigger boats hang out.  We were very grateful for Mark’s assistance.  We’d made the crossing in something like 10 hours.  All good.  It’s really hard to put into words how pleased, how proud, how excited I was to have crossed the Channel under our own steam.  It was something I hated doing in a car ferry as a child, and it was something that I never imagined that I’d do in my lifetime.

The evening’s activity hadn’t finished.  Within moments of us arriving, I had the Ramoska on the go, and a beer poured.  We had a delicious meal on board, and slowly we noticed more of ‘the fleet‘ in the marina.  As the hour passed, so did the thickness of the mist…..

Ian, our Commodore, and his son, Tom, came on board for a drink, as the mist thickened into fog, and it was barely possible to see across the marina.  At this point, Sandpiper was outside the inner wall.  Ian was talking to them, and Pete was watching them on AIS.  I went and stood at the end of the pontoon with a mega-torch and guided them in, lady of the lamp.  We were able to tell them to rig for a starboard-to mooring, and with four of us to take their lines, they were mighty relieved to tie up.  The evening ended with us drinking champagne, to celebrate the maiden voyages of me and Whinchat.  Ian threatened to immerse me in the water, but thankfully that never happened.  We went to bed, very happy.


Saturday 2nd June – Monday 4th June

Shore leave in Cherbourg

Gradually the RAF Yacht Club fleet assembled over the day, the winds having behaved as forecast, so those arriving had the chance to sail.  None quicker than the eight-nine hours of one crew!  Impressive!

Pete and I spent the morning mooching around Cherbourg, buying local provisions from the market, enjoying lunch on the quay and finding some wine in Carrefour.  Cherbourg is a funny place.  It is more than a ferry port, but it’s not quaint.  The town, around the market, was buzzing on Saturday morning, but at other times it was very sleepy.

The evening’s pontoon party was also quiet – many of the boats hadn’t come in, so numbers were down, and, of course, it rained, which rather spoiled the party!  We ended up wandering to find somewhere for dinner with about 13 of us!  Slightly improbable.  After several attempts we split, leaving a smaller group to the linen table cloths, as we opted for plastic chairs and priceless entertainment by the waiter.  The crews of Whinchat, Sandpiper and Katswiskas were much revived after Muscadet!  We ended up back on board Whinchat, Ben bringing his guitar and song books.  We had such a fun evening singing ‘rock’ until the small hours of the morning.  There may well yet be an RAF Yacht Club rock band…. Watch this space!


On Sunday, rather unbelievably, we began the day with wine-tasting!  10:00, right through to lunch! 16 available to taste, and purchase!


The hardier wine tasters, going for more!

We bought 24 bottles, and a case of beer, which was delivered to the boat later that evening.  It’s great business for the wine company, and if you’re ever in Cherbourg, then Normandy Wines is a good place to go…

Lunch saw 45 of us together, about 20 boats having made the crossing.  It was an excellent, and very relaxed affair.

The talk of the lunch, as usual, was the weather forecasts and when the best time to leave might be.  This would continue into the afternoon and evening.  The crew of Captiva suggested a second pontoon party, a Pimms party, as several boats hadn’t made port in time for Saturday’s, so we assembled.  Would you believe that it began to rain, again?  The party split into a couple of boats, with about 20 of us ending up on Katswiskas.  We weren’t sure if we were leaving on Monday or might defer to Tuesday, so both of us were moderating the Pimms intake.  We had the most hysterical evening on board, courtesy of near stand-up comedy from the crew of Calsara, Paul and Chris, with main staging by Ben.  It was one of those ‘you had to be there…‘  We left at 23:30, not knowing if we or anyone else would cast off in the morning.

Pete was up early to check the weather, and saw that Whistler had gone.  And almost no one else!  Pete went to get some bread/croissants and on the way back heard that Sandpiper was returning to port – it wasn’t pretty out there.  We also heard that Simon was sailing with a double-reefed main.  And so began another day in port… We had Dave, VC, on board, so the day passed by with the three of us migrating from lunch to the “City of the Sea”, including an interesting tour of a nuclear submarine, a good exhibition of the Titanic and a very bizarre film experience….

Pete and I had dinner in the place that our friend Tim had recommended, and with all weather reports checked again, we decided that we would leave at 06:00.  And that’s what we did.


Tuesday 5th June

Cherbourg – The Hamble

SE 5, choppy, quartering seas

85 NM

We were glad that we’d delayed a day, as the wind had swung round as we’d expected, meaning that if the strength did as it should, we would have a beamy reach all the way home.  At first, there was little evidence of the said wind, but as we eased away from the shelter of the French coast, the south-easterlies came into their own.  We were soon able to kill the engine, and we sailed all the way – including up the Hamble river.

Pete didn’t define a ‘watch’ system, but we rotated.  Dave and Pete rigged a gibe-preventer, as the wind was seeming to veer a little, which got de-rigged, and then re-rigged, and then …..

With the increase in wind, of course, comes a bigger sea.  Not really big, but choppy in places, particularly when Pete went to make lunch.  The sea was really rolling in over, quartering.  It wasn’t very pleasant, and I chose the time to effect a mini-snooze.  There was rain forecast, and boy did it. I thought that we were lucky that it didn’t rain from the off, but certainly the second six hours were very soggy.  The re-proofing of the foulies hadn’t worked; Pete’s legs were very wet by the time we made it back to port.

The passage passed, with Doris coping well with the sea and the wind strength.  Dave was impressed!  It was great having him on board, as he was happy to muck in, and certainly provided some great stories to while away the hours.

By the time we’d passed Bembridge, it was time to take down the mainsail, and we cruised in on the Yankee and the Staysail, saved having to gibe.  We’d made some great times, our best hour covering 8.9 miles.  However, we hit the adverse tide, so the time back to the Hamble seemed to go on and on… and on!  By this time we were all damp and cold, and hoping that we’d make the launch back to the Club!  We did!  Our crossing was twelve hours; very satisfying.  We had a minor panic about the car key, but nothing serious.  By the time the launch arrived, I think we were all looking forward to getting warm.  Dave and I both managed to cut ourselves when we were mooring, leaving a trail of blood on deck!  Pete set about with a cloth, as Dave and I raided the first aid box, layering plasters on damp skin.  We all had wrinkly hands due to the nasty conditions.

Pete and I arrived home about 20:30, and we both had a bad attack of sea legs.  The land was moving so much.  I managed to eat something, and after a glass of wine was ready to crash.  I slept the sleep of the dead, cold, exhausted, but rather satisfied.  We had made our first crossing, 24 hours at sea in a matter of days.