Excalibur: October sail – Many lessons learnt

A repeat post from halmatic30.com site

Last week myself and a good friend Oliver planned to take Excalibur up to London for the winter, however the forces of nature did it’s best to scupper our plans.

We learned many lessons last week and experienced some some pretty awful conditions. I thought I would write up our trip mainly to keep a record for myself, and perhaps it will be of interest to others. Certainly there are many things we will both do differently in the future.

Our plan was to break the journey up into 3 legs. Chichester to Brighton, Brighton to Dover, and then Dover to London with a stop in Ramsgate if time allowed.

Chichester to Brighton

We left Birdham Pool Tuesday evening on a clear starry night, and stayed on the visitors pontoon at the Itchenor as we planned to make the most of tide the next morning to Brighton.

We left Wednesday morning at 5:30am, and due to the early start we left before making a cup of tea or having breakfast. The weather forecast was a force 4-5 South Westerly which would give us a nice downwind sail to Brighton, and comfortable conditions to get a brew on etc on the way. There was barely a breath of air as we motored towards the entrance of Chichester Harbour.

By the time we got out of Chichester Harbour and to West Pole the wind had picked up to 30-35 knots, it then became apparent that the wind was infact coming from a South Easterly direction, meaning the wind was on our nose and we would have to motor to Brighton.  We let a bit of genoa out to steady Excalibur and continued to motor on. We discussed whether or not to head through the looe channel to save time, and although it was wind against tide we decided that the sea would not have picked up sufficiently by the time we reached the channel.

Although uncomfortable, the looe channel wasn’t too bad and once we passed it we thought the biggest challenge was over. Soon after Oliver became uncharacteristically sea sick, to the point that he was incapacitated and had to lay on his back in the cabin to try and quell it.

I spent the next 4 hours or so helming, no water, no tea no food, big mistake. I was unable to leave the cockpit and thus couldn’t make a brew or more importantly any log entries. I took a good few waves in the face and Excalibur slammed spectacular over some waves on the way to Brighton which probably sounded 10 times worst down below.

I generally felt safe in Excalibur but found she was wetter than I expected. Having covered quite a few miles as crew onboard Oliver’s Rival 32, I hadn’t experienced as many waves into the cockpit as I did in Excalibur. Perhaps the point of sail was to blame, but I was surprised nonetheless and a litte bit disappointed. The wind was a steady 30-35 knots and gusted to 42 knots a few times.

The scene that unveiled as we approached Brighton Marina was enough to bring Oliver out of his sea sickness, and for my jaw to hit the floor. The waves were rolling in from the South East and crashing up against the long concrete breakwater, rising straight up into the air and being blown over the wall into the marina behind. The tops of the waves were being blown off and the wind was gusting to about 35 knots. The concrete high walls are pretty imposing, and even more so as we watched wave after wave ride straight up the face of the walls.

The pilot book warned us against entering Brighton in a South Easterly, but by the time we had entered through the looe channel we were short of options and the only other choice now was to carry on to Dover, an unpleasant thought given the rough passage we had already been through.

I took Excalibur in closer so we could have a look at the entrance. Oliver said to turn around as we saw a large wave roll past us. A brief quell urged us to have a go, so I started to head for the entrance, Oliver then took over incase I broached the boat (Oliver being the more experienced, I didn’t argue). As we rode the waves in, our worst fear was to broach the boat as you have a large concrete breakwater to port and a sandbank marked by green buoys to starboard. For what seemed like an eternity we eventually got around the buoys and motored into the safety of the marina.

Needless to say we needed a strong drink afterwards.

Things we learn’t or were reminded of:

  • Weather forecasts are not gospel, and can have serious consequences (ok so first point is not rocket science)
  • Always prepare a flask of tea before setting sail, whatever the weather
  • For longer passages prepare lunch beforehand, it was impossible to make any food once we realised the wind had shifted.
  • Seasickness tablets are a must, it was lovely and serene in Chichester Harbour and we expected a nice downwind sail, but before we knew it the conditions had changed and we could have both done with topping up.
  • Most importantly take heed of the pilot book! We knew it wouldn’t be pleasant by the time we arrived at Brighton, but our main focus was getting through the looe Channel. After 4 hours of a force 7-8,  the seas around Brighton were in full swing. Now we know to take more notice of the pilot books, we wouldn’t have attempted it otherwise.
  • Most people talk about bolt holes, ie where to tuck in if you can’t make your final destination. But what if you can’t get into your intended destination? do you have a plan B? It would have been a good idea to have continued the passage plan to Dover incase we couldn’t get into Brighton.

And finally. We didn’t have time to take any pictures unsurprisingly, but I did find this picture online which best depicts what we were in.




Brighton to Dover

The next day we readied ourselves for the next leg of the journey, but this time we would be ready. 1 flask of tea, 4 pre-prepared wraps and 4 hand held flasks pre-filled with tea bags and sugar!

Our plan was to sail through the night and arrive at Dover early the next morning. Oliver’s theory was that it’s better to arrive somewhere as it’s getting light than the other way around.

HW @ Dover was at 23:11 BST, which meant we had to leave at 6pm. With a quick stop at the fuel pontoon we started to make our way out of the marina. Earlier we met David Wheatley in the marina, as we motored past he was there to wave us off and very kindly relayed that he would follow us on AIS. The AIS transmitter has been a good investment, aside from the obvious additional safety benefits, giving friends and family the opportunity to follow us online has been a great reassurance. For those wishing to follow me in the future, the site you need is http://www.marinetraffic.com/ais/ and you will have to select the general area that I will be sailing in order  to avoid picking up boats with similar names in the US.

There was an air of apprehension as we drew closer to the entrance. Spray was still appearing at the top of the wall and blowing over, but of course we were  inside  the marina so gauging what the conditions were outside would not become apparent until we got out there. The sea state turned out to be perfectly fine and apart from wrestling with my halyards and my mast steps (a reoccurring theme here), we got the main up and with a WSW wind blowing at 16 knots we started to head to Dover downwind.

We had a lovely quiet sail, clear skies and nearly a full moon. The white cliffs seemed almost luminescent in the dark, and every so often a seemingly innocent lobster pot would drift past. The areas around Brighton are full of lobster pots as per the pilot books states. We passed a few fishing trawlers, giving us a chance to refresh out lights, though from a distance they just seemed like something out of close encounters of the third kind. 

Eventually the wind died at 23:00, so we reluctantly put the engine on, and Oliver went down for a kip.

By 2am the situation had changed once again. We were in thick fog, pea soup. This was my second time approaching Dover in thick fog, but this time we were not crossing the TSS. Out came the almighty triumphant fog horn. Oliver eyeballed the fog horn with suspicious contempt, and puffed away. The sound that came out of the fog horn closely resembled something from a 5 year olds birthday party. Far from warning fellow mariners to keep a safe distance, the sound was more likely to encourage hungry fisherman looking for cake to take a close look. The birthday trumpet served little to no use, and will be replaced as soon as possible.

As we approached Dover the fog had lifted around us momentarily. We watched as a thick blanket of fog  slowly and very eerily slide down the cliffs and into the sea behind us. Infront the entry lights turned to green after requesting permission to enter from the Dover Port Authorities. We got in just in time as the fog closed in, and moored up without incident.

6am, Time for sleep!


Things we learn’t or were reminded of:

  • My log book is too basic and the columns are too narrow. I have the small A5 red logbook that you find in your average chandlery.
  • Having AIS was a great comfort, and being able to transmit our position to other vessels in the area fitted with AIS receivers was an added bonus. AIS of course is just an added layer of safety, and was not a substitution for cautious motoring I would like to add.
  • I need a automatic fog horn, perhaps one that connects up to the VHF
  • When you set off well prepared nothing will happen.


Dover to …

After the previous nights relatively easy leg we were back to our old selves. We were geared up and ready to go, we had done Dover to London a few times and didn’t foresee anything happening out of the ordinary.

The weather forecast was perfect F4-F5 South Westerly. We expected to be able to sail pretty much all the way, and as it was now Springs we would shoot through Goodwin Sands! HW was at 23:45 so we aimed to leave at 23:00 and arrive at 14:00 the following day. Our plan was to get through Goodwin Sands and then I’d get some rest and swap over once we got to the Thames Estuary.

I failed to mention that the Henderson MK5 manual bilge pump broke on our first day of departure. I wasn’t particularly happy about being one bilge pump down, but I have a automatic bilge pump which did a terrific job on our journey to Brighton so I was confident we wouldn’t be facing anything like that on our way to London.

Once again before departure I made up a flask of tea, pre-filled the mugs with tea bags and sugar, eager not to make the same mistake as before, and readied some snacks for the journey. Before each trip I have a quick scan around the cabin and tidy everything away, everything looked good.

We departed dead on 23:00 as planned and slowly motored towards the western entrance. We could tell the wind was perhaps gusting more than forecasted so we decided we would get out there, motor past the eastern entrance which the Dover to Calais ferries use, and then get the main up with a reef or two in.

Oliver called up the Dover Port Authorities and requested permission to leave.  The traffic lights turned to green, so I gave Excalibur a few more revs and set off. We were both standing on the lockers keeping a lookout as we got nearer to the entrance. As we got closer I suggested we both clipped on as I could just make out it was a bit bumpy, getting closer still I got down into the cockpit, and took a cushion to rest my knee on a locker whilst helming. I suggested to Oliver that he might also want to join me in the cockpit, and actually why not put the wash boards in, its looking a bit lumpy out there. Oliver put the washboards in and we were set in ready for perhaps a few lumpy slams and then we’d be on our way, I even recall saying ‘here we go!’. What could be worst than Brighton?? This gun-ho attitude was soon punched out of me…

The wind suddenly increased to force 8.  With a fast ripping tide moving North East and a Southerly Wind the water was a cauldron of confusion. The waves were steep, and the troughs deep. Excalibur took a few of these short steep waves head on, but it didn’t feel right and I can only say the situation felt wrong. We decided to head out further to try and escape the confused seas but this was no good. The waves seemed to be coming from all directions, and suddenly Excalibur was rolling from side to side. Each time we listed over it seemed further than the last time. You know its bad when you see the windows go under water, and when you list so far over the water is nearly at the same height as the bottom of the winch, so close that it can’t be long before it fills the cockpit. One particular wave came from nowhere and filled the cockpit up to the height of the lockers. Anyway, enough was enough. Oliver quickly called up Dover Port Authorities and explained that we were having some issues and needed to return straight away. Dover Port Authority gave us the green light to come back, and to let us know if we needed any assistance. I think the warble in Oliver’s voice said it all. We were both overwhelmed by the situation we were in. Oliver took over for the second time in 3 days to ensure we didn’t broach. We now had to fight the tide, and keep the boat as steady as possible, and crab back through the entrance. It was a seriously intense time, we had drifted with the tide already to about 1 mile – 1 1.2 miles out. Fighting the tide we could only make 2 knots, and we were still in the thick of it. Our worst fears were that the engine would cut out. We were still listing to perhaps 45 degrees, and if the engine cut out we would most likely be taken into the side of the Dover breakwater. The engine would rev higher after each bout of tossing (I still don’t know why). Engine manufacturers state that the maximum listing for a engine to function to be 30 degrees, if the engine continued to work above this then it would be down to good luck I guess. We edged painstakingly slow to the entrance, we were both waiting for that one big wave to push us over, and we were both wondering how much abuse the tiller could take as Oliver wrestled the boat after each wave.

We made our way slowly towards the entrance, crabbing along sideways until things gradually calmed down and then we were in. F*ck me, was my reaction. I still can’t believe my most harrowing experience started about 200m from the entrance of Dover.

Shaken and stirred we motored back to our berth, it took me a while to calm down enough to be able to berth Excalibur.

Once we moored up, it was time to assess the damage. The nav lights stopped working which turned out to be a blown fuse.

Down below was a mess. I knew I hadn’t imagined the whole thing when Oliver started relaying the scene to me. The box at the top of the companion way had dispersed my tools, boxes of nails all over the floor, and curiously a multimeter which had switched itself on. The flavel cooker emptied all its contents. The electric kettle and toaseter which I keep in the recessed area by the galley was on the floor. Items in the trot box went everywhere. Terry the teddy bear had taken a dive and had wedged himself upside down under a door. All in all things had become displaced which I would never have guessed would have budged.

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We went through 3 bottles of wine that night, and talked in depth about the things we had learnt. It felt we had been given a intense training course in heavy weather sailing. Suddenly things became apparent, and we realised the importance of the positioning of life saving equipment, and keeping things ship shape.

Things we learn’t or were reminded of:

  • EPIRBS, liferafts and flares are absolutely useless below deck. We had zero time to go down below when the situation arose we . All life saving equipment belongs up in the cockpit (secured obviously).
  • Keep drain holes clear. Simple thing but easily forgotten.

  •  I believe it would be beneficial to put the switch panel on a hinge with catches on to make easier to open up and change fuses.
  • The little cupboard in the top step needs a catch.
  • The tiller nut tends to come loose after a while, I should really have had a locking nut on it.
  • The electric bilge pump did an excellent job, but going out without a working manual bilge pump was foolish. I have subsequently replaced the bilge pump which took about 40 minutes to replace, not long for such a vital piece of equipment.
  • Lockers should always be closed properly whilst en-route. The seals held up, but it highlights the importance of good seals to prevent the boat filling up.

  • A split pin of some sort would have been useful to prevent the cockpit hatch from sliding forward.
  • A 18hp engine gave us 2 knots against tide. When in a situation like this Excalibur would have benefited from a more powerful engine to get back in as quickly as possible. May consider a 30hp Beta engine next year.
  • The Genoa line came loose and trailed in the water. Luckily it didn’t get wrapped around the prop! Lines such as these should always be secured when not in use, but like it or not they can easily come loose like on this occasion.
  • One thing we did have right was having the washboards easily accessible. Oliver was able to grab them from the wetlocker with his harness still attached.

We spoke to the marina staff after, and I have since spoken to a couple based in the marina, the response  is generally the same “It can be a bit choppy”. It’s quite disparaging to be told it can be a bit choppy, when it was anything but a ‘bit choppy’, I guess only Oliver and myself  will know the true extent.

The biggest lesson we learnt from the overall trip is that when things turn bad, they happen in an instant, and by that time there is no time to do all those things that you thought you could do if things turned sour. Preparation is the key. From now on I will always prepare for the worst, which isn’t such a bad thing as it keeps a tidy boat, and most importantly, flask tea doesn’t taste that bad! 🙂

ps. Terry the Teddy Bear is doing well, and will be returning to the BVI’s soon for a bit of R&R

pps. I would like to say a big thank you to Oliver. I wouldn’t want to have faced such conditions with anyone else! I’m sorry we didn’t make it to Ramsgate!




Author: Tim Butler

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