Monday, 9 June 2014


Now, I hope you are waiting on my every word, to find out about the voyage from Inverness to Helmsdale. Before I start on the details (which could be the beginnings of one of those 'I learned from that' episodes in some of the popular boating magazines), let me describe the scene in front of me.
I'm sitting in a Wetherspoons pub in Wick having coffee - this chain has got here but I can't find a Costa - at about 11:30, having looked up the weather for tomorrow.  In front of me is a large 60 yr old chap just downing a double whisky chaser.....

But I digress. Let me take you back to Inverness marina at 07:00 last Saturday. Had you been standing on the quay side, you would have seen Vagabond depart and head NE under the Kessok bridge, with Freddie barking with delight. There was a light breeze from the NE and the forecast was that it would veer round to the South East during the day, strengthening at about midday to F5 (possibly 6) and then dying down to F3 by the early evening.

I had two destinations in mind - Cromarty, about 15 miles NE of Inverness, or, possibly, Helmsdale, a further 25 miles to the NE.

The wind remained light and we motored the six miles up the firth into the wind and passed through the narrows, where we could alter course a bit to the north, so the sails were hoisted and we motorsailed on. We were doing so well that we came up to Cromarty by about 10:30. The sun was shining, the wind had turned to the East and Freddy had been turned off - it seemed too good a day to waste, so Cromarty was passed and we headed up the coast. 
Cromarty Entrance:

As we passed Tarbet head at around midday, the wind strengthened (as forecast) but stayed resolutely in the East. We were now beyond the protection of the Murray shire coast and the waves began to increase. As did the wind. The foresail was rolled up. The first reef was taken. The second reef was taken as the wind gusted to 22 knots (true).  

'It'll be OK' I thought 'the forecast is for it to drop'

We still had about 20 miles to go. White horses appeared as the waves mounted, running at about 40 degrees to our course. (Our  course was about 055, close hauled*, so the waves were running at about 095). The bow would rise and we'd roll to port. The bow would reach the crest and we'd be through and roll to starboard, slumping into the trough. Then the waves began to show streaks of foam, running downwind. I eased off the main a bit but we were still tramping along at about 5 and half knots. 

I suppose the waves were about 4 to 5 feet from trough to crest, but seemed much higher. Every now and again we'd rise to a crest just as it decided to break. So we'd have spume and more into the cockpit. I was soaked through and realised that I should have put my blue survival suit on some time ago. 

I turned into the wind and, whilst everything thrashed about, struggled into the suit. Feeling dryish (apart from my wet pants) and more snug, we resumed course.

The sun shone but the wind stayed resolutely in the East and showed little sign of abating. 

The Ipad told me it was running out of battery and shut down. So I'm now down to one means of navigation. 

The Garmin told me it had lost position and reverted to motoring mode. Now we had no means of navigation apart from a compass and a rough sketch map I had made of Helmsdale approaches. I took the battery out of the Garmin, removed and replaced the memory card that contained the chart data and, with fingers crossed, restarted the thing...

It cheerly welcomed me, told me it had found the charts and that all was well and that we were on course (we were,actually).

By about 6 o'clock, Helsdale hove into view. The Clyde cruising club guide says that the entrance to Helmsdale is DANGEROUS in strong easterly winds; if a red light showed on the harbour wall the harbour was closed. I began to wonder how much longer it would take us to get to Wick, shou we find the light red.

Finally, we were close enough to see the leading marks, and there was no sign of a red ight, just waves crashing against the harbour wall. Freddy eventually was pulled into life, the sail was dropped into the lazy jacks** and, for once, the reefing lines didn't try to garrotte me *** and we follwed the marks into the harbour entrance. 

Once past the wall, there was a hard turn to starboard and we were into the comparative peace of the harbour. I took the last space on the pontoon and realised I was in for a bumpy night. 

A plate of scampi and a pint of Abbots Finger (brewed in Faversham, in Kent) in the Bannockburn Arms restored my peace of mind and by 21:00 I was in my jim jams and sleeping bag, just in time for the heaven to open as rained stair rods. The wind finally read part of the forcecast in the early morning, when it dropped to a gentle (but still easterly) breeze.

* Close hauled means we were sailing as close as we could to the direction of the wind. Anything between 40 to 60 degrees off it, depending on the type of boat.....
** Lazyjacks are pieces of sail cloth that hand off the boom and catch the mainsail as it's lowered. Without them, the person standing underneath the sail gets smothered in wet sails.
*** One of the benefits of sailing with a reef or tow in, means that the reefing lines are pulled tight to control the size of the sail, so there's no slack to fall over you when the sail is lowered. The reefing lines run outside of the lazy jacks (but I wonder if I can change that).

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