Monday, 30 September 2013

Next time, we'll get the ferry

Our Hydrovane (minus wind vane), securely bolted in place
 We're in France!  We left Falmouth Marina as soon as we had finished installing our Hyrdovane.  For those that don't know, a Hydrovane is an absolutely wonderful piece of equipment that steers the boat using the power of the wind alone.  It keeps you on a course relative to the wind, rather than on a compass course.  It might not sound like this is a good idea, but when you're sailing, it's actually really useful as you don't have to adjust the sails every time the wind shifts a bit and on average you head in the right direction as the wind goes back and forth.

Although the installation boiled down to bolting a lump of metal onto the transom (back of the boat), it took absolutely ages to actually do, as everything had to be perfectly aligned, due to the huge forces that the device will be put under while steering the boat.  Plus, the hard wood that we used lived up to it's name i.e. it was hard.  Very hard.  Cutting, filing and sanding it to the exact shape required, by hand, took over two days alone!

Our nice anchorage at St Just, where we waited out strong winds

Once we no longer needed to be in a marina, to avoid additional mooring fees, we motored a few miles to a lovely little bay at St Just and dropped the anchor.  We carried on doing boat DIY while waiting for howling gales to pass.

As it turned out, we didn't quite wait for the strong winds to pass completely before we left to cross the Channel.  We could only leave at two times each day, as we needed to arrive at the Chenal du Four, in France, going with the tide.  There was only a small break in the weather followed by even worse weather, which would have kept us in the UK for at least another week.  As we were frustrated with how little progress we were making, having been in Falmouth for three weeks already, we decided to leave during the tail end of the high winds, allowing us to catch the tide in France and be over there before the Channel turned back into a maelstrom with renewed vengeance.

Once the storm was over, Kate filled in the log book retrospectively

So it was that we left Falmouth with stronger winds blowing than we would usually choose to go out in.  As soon as we left the shelter of the land, it was as though we had sailed into a tumble dryer, except that it was a 'tumble wetter' instead.  The wind was forecast to be Easterly, which wouldn't have been so bad, but it was actually South-Easterly, which meant that, as usual, we were close hauled.  While sailing west down the Channel, we would have loved a S-Easterly, but were always battling against S-Westerlies.  Typical.

The short of the long is that we were on an uncomfortable point of sail, heeled hard over, bumping up and down the biggest waves we've ever seen.  They might not have seemed like much to seasoned cruisers, but to us, on our first international journey, in little Firebird, it seemed like sky scrapers were rolling towards us.  The funny thing is that we got caught up in a yacht race as we left the river mouth.  We happened to cross the start line just as the start horn went off and for a short period, it seemed like we were doing OK.  I had visions of being presented a huge golden cup, showering champagne everywhere.

Firebird in France

It soon became evident that there was no way we were going to keep up with the racers, who had full sail set and went thundering off into the swell with their crews sitting dangling their legs overboard on the upwind side.  Although a request to Kate to leave the relative safety of the cockpit and sit facing the full fury of the watery onslaught might have helped improve our speed, I suspected that it would have more likely ended with me being dragged along behind the boat by my safety harness, so I thought better of it and retired Firebird from the race, setting our Hydrovane to point us due south.

Even through the rough and tumble of those first few hours, it felt great to be finally heading south.  What didn't feel great was eating, or, in fact, being alive at all.  We were both soon feeling as rough as the sea state and took it in turns to feed our sea sickness tablets overboard to the fish.  Fat lot of good those did us!

Hoisting the French courtesy flag
To make matters worse, as daylight faded, we got engulfed in fog.  Luckily, the wind had begun to die down by this point, but the waves were still large and neither Kate nor I felt like doing much, especially not dancing a tango with a French trawler whose engine I could hear chugging away through the gloom but who I couldn't see.  He tried calling us on the radio, but didn't say much and just ended up confusing the matter more.  In the end, as his engine noise grew ever louder, in something of a panic, I turned us round and headed on a reciprocal course for a while.  Retracing our hard-earned steps through the bumpy sea was the last thing I wanted to do, but that seemed preferable to turning Firebird into flotsam on the fishing vessel's bow.

The next daunting item on the menu was the shipping lanes.  Luckily, by the time we hit these, the fog had cleared a bit and the wind and sea had continued to calm down, so playing real-life Frogger went well and we didn't end up getting squashed by a super tanker.

I wonder where the blue part came from?
Also, has anyone seen my favourite blue t-shirt recently?
As we approached French waters, it was time to put up our courtesy flag.  We hadn't originally planned on going go France, so before leaving our anchorage in Falmouth, we had to quickly turn an old Italian courtesy flag we had into a French one.  Kate did a fantastic job and I don't think that even a sharp-eyed French official will spot that we are actually flying a tattered Italian flag, with the green stripe patched over with part of a t-shirt!

By the following morning, the wind had died away altogether and we had to turn the motor on.  By the afternoon, the sea was flat enough that we could think about eating for the first time.

We dropped anchor at Camaret, in the gloom of the late evening, about a day and a third after leaving Falmouth.  We are very glad to be here!

The only thing missing from this French scene is a beret.  Maybe some onions as well

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Waiting in Falmouth

We have been in Falmouth for about a week now.  We sailed here non-stop from Weymouth Bay, which took the best part of two days.

Measuring the piece of wood to replace
On the first day, we had lovely weather, which meant that while sailing along, we could also get on with other bits and bobs.  Up until now, we have usually been beating into strong winds, rocking and rolling all over the place.  In those conditions, doing anything other than sitting in the cockpit trying not to feel ill has been a challenge.  This time, though, Kate did some fishing and caught us three mackerel while I did some soldering and got the auto-tiller that came with the boat working.  This is a device that attaches to the tiller and maintains your compass heading for you automatically.  Once this beauty was up and running, our lives got a whole lot easier.  On previous journeys, we had to steer by hand, which gets quite tiring.

In the evening, I cooked up the mackerel in a nice sauce before getting some sleep while Kate took the first watch of the night.

I was sleeping lightly, monitoring the VHF with half an ear as the coastguard was searching for a missing RIB that had failed to return to their home port for the day, when, through my dreams, broke "Alex.  Alex.  ALEX!  THERE'S A REALLY FAST BOAT COMING TOWARDS US WITH A FLASHING RED LIGHT"

Feasting on the way to buy a new piece of wood
I scrambled out of bed and just got out through the hatch in time for the low-flying coastguard helicopter to light me up with their really bright spotlight, standing there in the cockpit wearing nothing more than my under crackers.  Satisfied that we were not the missing RIB, and no doubt chuckling about what they just saw, the helicopter sped off into the night again.

We're waiting in Falmouth for a weather window for our crossing to Spain, but whatever the weather, as always, there is critical DIY work to be done before we leave.  The job that we're working on at the moment is to replace our anchor with a bigger one, which means replacing the bow roller that it sits on, which means replacing the rotten wood that the bow roller bolts seems as though every task we try to accomplish goes down a similar route with a seemingly simply job stretching into days of effort.

New wood and a Cornish Pasty.  What more could a man want?

Being 'stuck' in Falmouth isn't bad, though, as the people here are super friendly and we have become
addicted to Cornish Pasties.  I have also become particularly fond of the Cornish Sundae, which is found in Wetherspoons, where we go for free Wi-Fi.  Hopefully we'll leave soon or else our next boat job will be to cut a bigger hatch for us to fit through.

The mighty Cornish Sundae

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Love Me Tender

Well, a month into our great adventure, I feel it's time that I wrote a blog entry rather than just sitting back and enjoying Alex's hard work. It is tempting for me to just let Alex maintain the blog as he is very good at it, but I should at least try once in a while to write a post, to ensure I don't lose the ability to type and form sentences, if nothing else!

So, following our long awaited passage to Swanage Bay from Brighton, we spent some time in Swanage relaxing and soaking up the sunshine before heading on to Weymouth. Ok, you got me. We did nothing of the sort! We spent every waking moment getting the wind generator installed before continuing on our travels. Swanage was a very sheltered anchorage so a good place to do this, but it was still a little nerve-wracking hanging off the back of the boat with a 15-20kg, 2 metre windmill, trying to bolt it in place before it had chance to slip to the bottom of the bay. Alex has been angling for us to get a super strength magnet in order to retrieve the ever-increasing number of metal objects that we lose overboard during our DIY, but I think that even that would have hit its limits had we let the wind gen slip. Thankfully, on this occasion, we completed the installation without incident.

Fair winds on our passage to Weymouth,
with our newly installed wind gen!
We left Swanage Bay bright and early, excited by the prospect of  a pleasant day sail to Weymouth Bay and a forecast of pleasant winds. It was really great to turn west into the channel and be able to see our destination on the horizon. For the first time, the forecast was true and we were blessed with a lovely sail to Weymouth; the first sail so far whereby we have arrived at our destination feeling great and able to anchor in a leisurely fashion, as opposed to feeling battered by the wind and waves and in a hurry to seek shelter in the fastest possible manner. On a real high, we tidied up Firebird and decided to take the rest of the evening off.

A view of Firebird from the tender
Alex took our inflatable tender out of its bag and inflated her on deck, ready to take ashore. Many people call their tenders "TT <boat_name>" so ours would have been TT Firebird, with TT standing for "tender to". However, we decided against this naming convention as we theorised that anyone with a criminal mind could see our tender ashore and surmise that Firebird herself was empty and a good target. So, we decided to incorporate the TT in the name and called our little tender Trinity. Once backed by our 3hp Yamaha Malta outboard (named Yammy), she is a fine little vessel, perfect for ferrying us around whilst at anchor. We launched Trinity and Yammy into the water, clambered aboard and headed for the beach.

Our first beach landing
As we headed in towards the beach, past a large pier lined with fishermen, we discussed where we should moor/land Trinity. At first, we thought that tying her to the pier might be a good idea as there were ladders up the side that we could use to exit by and lock her to, and she would be relatively inaccessible for thieves. However, closer inspection of the pier revealed lots of sharp barnacles that we thought might damage her, so we aborted this plan and headed for the beach. On arrival, we carried her up the beach and locked her and Yammy to a metal railing using my old bike D-lock and cable, before heading in search of fish and chips.

Dinner with a great view... of the tender!
We had planned to get some dinner and then find an internet cafe/pub to relax in but, try as I might, I just couldn't bring myself to leave the seafront. I was so paranoid that someone would try to steal the tender and/or outboard, leaving us stranded on shore and out of pocket. We found fish and chips on the main promenade and I sat in a spot that had a good view of Trinity, getting paranoid every time anyone or anything (dogs included) went anywhere near her. I remember being similarly paranoid with my first expensive mountain bike, to the point of never really being able to leave it anywhere, despite having bike insurance and an oversized Kryptonite D-lock. As Alex so rightly said, you just have to stop worrying about it, as otherwise there is no point having it. We just have to use it, lock it up and take the risk. Easier said than done though!

After dinner, Alex prised me away from the seafront for a five minute excursion down a side road, before heading back to the beach to find Trinity and Yammy both in one piece and ready to take us home.

Super fast ferry to the Channel Islands, leaving
Weymouth harbour whilst we do more DIY at anchor
The next evening, after a full day's DIY, we headed back to shore and this time headed for the pier, equipped with fenders to protect Trinity from barnacles. We were just preparing to tie up to one of the rather dodgy looking metal ladders when we saw an orange RNLI rib heading straight for us. A couple of nice young lads told us that we were not allowed to use our outboard in that area, and also informed us that the ladders along that section of the pier were condemned due to being so rusty. They pointed us around the corner to the pleasure pier, where they said there were concrete steps and much better access, so we headed there instead.

We toyed with the idea of leaving Trinity tied up in the water, but passing vessels were causing quite a disturbance so we carried her up the steps and onto the pier. There was a group of teenage boys jumping off the pier into the water nearby, who found it quite amusing that we had just emerged from the other side carrying a boat. As we locked her to a railing and the boys tossed the pier's orange emergency life buoy around behind us like an oversized frisbee, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach at the thought of leaving Trinity in this exposed area. I considered suggesting aborting the mission and heading elsewhere, but Alex had his sights firmly set on a gingerbread latte from Costa, and we had less than thirty minutes left before closing time so I kept quiet. We walked away and I hoped for the best.

All present and correct at the end of the evening
Some few hours later, we returned to the pier, amongst the smell of burning rubber and the sound of engines revving and tyres spinning - it appears that this pier is the place to be for the youth of Weyouth, particularly those with souped up cars. Surprisingly, as we passed these "boy racers", we found most of them to be girls, so had to reconsider our initial labelling of them. I hoped that they were all too interested in their cars to have been hunting around the pier for a little boat and meagre 2-stroke outboard engine, and as we rounded the corner to see Trinity and Yammy untouched, I took a sigh of relief to see that my hopes were well founded.

As we headed back to Firebird, I hoped that this would be our last time ashore in Trinity in the UK. Somehow, it seems that it will be safer to use our tender and leave her ashore once we are in more remote, exotic locations with fewer people around to stumble upon her and the opportunity to steal her. It may be that I am completely wrong and that, in fact, she will be more desirable in these more remote locations. Who knows! I guess I will just have to get used to the fact that we will be leaving her locked up ashore along the way, and hope for the best. Or, perhaps concentrate my efforts on convincing Alex that a motion sensing alarm or remote tracking device would be a good idea and should be installed and incorporated into Boat App... now there's a plan...

Big Brother's Watching...and so can you

You can now track Firebird's current location online:

That link should show you our boat on a map.  If you play around, you might figure out how to display our track and other things, although I haven't had much time to play with it myself.

Firebird's track into Falmouth

A word of warning: Although possible to view the MarineTraffic web site on my phone, it works incredibly badly, so you're best off using a big computer.  The conspiracy theorist in me thinks they have made it this way on purpose, to push you towards using their mobile app (available on Android and iPhone), which is quite good, but costs around £3.

The technology that makes this possible is called AIS (Automated Identification System) which is a brilliant system that allows ships to share their location, speed and course with surrounding ships by sending out small bursts of data every minute or so over a VHF radio.  There is a worldwide network of people (i.e. computer geeks), who have installed AIS receivers on top of their houses and plugged them into their computers, so that they can receive the AIS transmissions from passing ships and put them online for everyone to see.  When we are out of range of one of these shore-based receivers, our location will not be updated on the MarineTraffic web site.  This will almost certainly be the case when we cross the Bay of Biscay in the near future, so don't think that we have sunk when we move out of range and disappear from the map!

It is compulsory for large commercial vessels to have an AIS transponder installed, which makes it really easy to keep clear of these huge, fast container ships.  As a pleasure vessel, we aren't required to have any AIS equipment installed.  These days, though, lots of yacht skippers have installed AIS receivers, so they can keep track of the large vessels.  We opted to pay a bit more, though, and install a full transponder, rather than just the receiver, for the peace of mind it would offer us.  Any ship with an AIS receiver will be able to see us on screen, which is important as, for example, in bad weather, we might not be able to move fast enough to get out of the way of a large container vessel bearing down on us.  He may well not be able to see our small fibreglass boat on his radar, nor our nav lights, way down from his towering bridge, hidden by waves and spray.  Even in these conditions, however, he will be able to pick up our AIS transmissions from many miles away and will more than likely receive an automated collision warning if there is any risk.

This investment has already paid off.  While making a night passage in thick fog, I could barely make out a light off our starboard bow as we motored slowly forward.  I altered my course to steer clear of the other vessel, but soon afterwards got a call on the radio from a friendly fisherman who could see us approaching on his AIS display.  He warned me that my course alteration was not sufficient to clear the long length of fishing gear that he was trailing behind his boat and suggested a further course alteration that would see us safely clear of it.  He wished us a pleasant trip and disappeared off into the gloom.

In days gone by, I could easily have run into the fishing gear and jammed up our prop.  I guess Kate should be the thankful one.  After all, it's hardly a captain's job to dive down under the boat, in the cold English Channel, to chop a fouled rope off the propeller.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Chain-Eating Monster Fish

Bob the welder, fixing it
We finally left Brighton!  After almost two weeks there, our stern frame is all finished and is as sturdy as a rock.  Bob, the welder we found, did such a good job and we're now confident that our solar panel, wind generator, and any soggy clothes we have hung up to dry won't drop off and sink to the bottom of the ocean, along with the frame, at the first bit of heavy weather we get (which was our worry before we got Bob involved).

We left Brighton in the late afternoon on Weds 28th Aug and put our first night sail under our belts, which was great fun.  I have already spent a fair number of nights ghosting along under canvas through the inky black and I really enjoy it.  You have an amazing view of the stars and can spend the quiet time on watch gathering your thoughts, contemplating the hugeness of the universe, and watching phosphorescence glowing in your wake.  This was Kate's first night sail, though, and was also her first time in charge of the boat on her own.  She handled it like a pro and kept us on course and clear of ferries, fishing boats and the rocky shore while I counted sheep below decks.  We ran a 3 hours on, 3 hours off watch system during the night and 4 hours on, 4 hours off during the day.  After 31 hours, we dropped our anchor in Swanage Bay.

Funny swans at Brighton Marina.  The male is called Colin
Kate commented on how hard it was to stay awake during her night watches, which she had spent staring out, non-stop, into the pitch dark, straining for any glimpse of approaching vessels.  When she heard from me that I had spent most of my time on watch reading my book, and that being on watch doesn't mean you have to literally be watching out into the darkness the whole time, she was not impressed.  She thought this information should have been volunteered much earlier on in the proceedings.

Another first was catching a fish.  Kate caught a mackerel which went straight into the frying pan and tasted delicious.

Approaching Swanage bay near midnight was a little tricky, as there were lots of boats on mooring buoys that we could only see when we were almost on top of them, as they don't show lights like a boat at anchor would.  We managed OK, though, and after resetting the anchor which didn't seem to be holding properly on the first attempt, we got ready for bed.

This was when we noticed a strange sound coming up through the hull.  It sounded like the sea was full of Rice Crispies, which were snap, crackling and popping underneath us.  Kate was worried that it might be 'chain-eating monster fish' working their way through the feast that we had just dropped off our bow to hold us in place, but I reassured her that we don't have to worry about them until we get to the Pacific.

Caught it...

...cooked it...

...ate it!

Passing The Needles, on the western tip of the Isle of Wight

Kate eating vegetable curry

Anchored at Swanage Bay, the evening after we arrived