PBR reader Peter Hiscock describes what led him to undertake a summer COVID ‘bounce back’ voyage armed with a recently acquired Powerboat Level 2 and an eagerness to taste salt on his lips. Setting off with his trusty three-man crew aboard their 8m RIB, Peter describes their maiden voyage west, from Swanwick Marina on the River Hamble all the way down to the wild waters off Land’s End.
The many months of restrictions we were all placed under as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic prevented travel of any kind from enriching and refreshing our lives. But with these restrictions eventually easing, I, like many people no doubt, began to consider various possibilities and objectives, and none more so than those relating to my love of the sea. Of course, for some, the prospect of venturing west, down along the south coast, may not represent the greatest nautical challenge available, but for me, someone fairly new to powerboating, it was a prospect constituting no mean feat.
Upon taking my RYA PB2 course last summer, I met fellow boat owner Chris Goodall. Our shared interest meant we immediately had a synergy with, and appreciation for, all things sea-dashed and salty! Our like-mindedness also caused us to get on well together, and so it was largely for these reasons that we ended up buying a RIB together – an arrangement that would have the added benefits of being able to share the costs of ownership and ensure that the boat had the appropriate amount of use it deserved.
Boat & home port secured
Chris was the one who located our eventual boat of choice – an 8.21m Ribeye powered by two 200hp Yamaha outboards. The RIB was also fitted out with a pair of side-by-side Scot Seat suspension seats, a full bimini and a resplendently equipped, state-of-the-art helm console full of goodies – a very comfortable boat at 28ft in length and one whose deep-vee hull is also both sea-kindly and capable. Due to our joint home locations, we agreed to keep the boat at Premier Marina’s dry stack facility at Swanwick. The convenience of the dry stack solution was perfect for our needs, and coupled to the user-friendly service Premier offered and the marina’s first-class location of the River Hamble, our new ‘home port’ had all the ingredients to serve us well.
Initially, Chris and I used the RIB extensively over the course of our first autumn, running over to Cowes, Yarmouth, along to Portsmouth and other similar Solent-related destinations. Likewise, I even ventured out occasionally during the winter months in order to experience harsher, more testing conditions. This was done with the intention of building up my own confidence and ability as well as providing an invaluable opportunity to get to know the new boat’s tolerances and capabilities.
With heightened enthusiasm and my appetite duly whetted, so began the process of shortlisting possible destinations further afield in order to put my steadily growing experience to use. It wasn’t long before Land’s End was identified on the chart as a fitting point of reference to aim for. Once decided upon, next came the enjoyable business of planning the voyage and its related logistics.
My RIB is an 8.21m Ribeye Prime model. It has a maximum seating capacity of 11 people but is best suited to carrying six in comfort. It features four Scot Seats, a lazarette and additional seating on the foredeck. A Garmin chartplotter and depth gauge with Garmin VHF/DSC radio represent the key electronics. There are plenty of lockers aboard and a pop-up table for entertaining. The vessel is powered by twin 200hp Yamaha 4-cylinder outboard engines with pitch control and is coupled to a 310-litre underdeck fuel tank, which gives a range of over 250 miles at cruising speed.
Hatching the plan
The plan was hatched in January, but at that time, of course, we were still very much under ‘lockdown’. Nothing, therefore, we determined, could be done until mid-May, whereupon my family and I, like everyone, hoped to be free to travel again, book accommodation and, most importantly, access the water. Upon the restrictions being lifted, choosing a potential weather window became an important matter, particularly as we would need five days or so of favourable settled conditions in order to achieve our goal. I admit I was ideally seeking a week of milky, flat seas with little or no westerly swell. At this point, I employed the benefits of my favourite guru-like weather site, www.windy.com, and began to almost obsessively check its outlook data with each day that passed. Eventually it revealed what had been hoped for: a period of settled weather that looked set to provide the opportunity I was seeking – a high-pressure system sitting over the English Channel from 28th June to approximately 3rd July.
The voyage is on!
Right on time and just as forecast, Monday 28th dawned fair and blue. The voyage was on! But I had yet to fully confirm the crew. I’d already let a couple of my sailing pals know I was planning on doing the run west and that it could well be a last-minute decision. But like a lifeboat crew whose bleepers had just been activated, each proved ready and willing at my moment’s notice. The final line-up included my son Edward and the son of a very good friend (and an excellent ‘round-the-world’ sailor) Theo Geake.
Before I left home with its good access to the Internet, I double-checked the tides and the winds that were forecast for each day of the voyage. My plan was to set off by car from home near Saffron Walden at 5.30am on the Tuesday morning and then pick up Theo at Sevenoaks on the way down to Swanwick Marina. The Premier staff, as always, showed themselves to be only too keen to help, and so, when we arrived at 9.30am, slightly bleary-eyed, we found the RIB ready and waiting and afloat within the marina. Once aboard and kitted up with bacon sandwiches in hand, we donned our life jackets, undertook a system check and stowed our lines.
Idling down the Hamble River, passing the many moored craft either side of us, I confess, expectations were high. Upon clearing Hamble Point and the fairway speed restrictions, we got up onto the plane with a view to establishing a steady cruising pace of 28 knots or 3600rpm. This meant the Yamahas were burning, on average, a litre of fuel every 0.7 nautical miles. (This was virtually the same fuel consumption the display showed when departing down the Hamble at 6 knots in displacement mode!)
The Solent was virtually flat calm right out to the Hurst Straits and the Needles. Likewise, beyond here, we encountered a wave height of little more than 1 metre on the ebb tide. Now turning west, we determined to ‘dead-reckon’ from point to point and, wherever possible, follow the line of the coast, maintaining an offing of about half a mile or so. My young and enthusiastic crew were keen for adventure as well as a desire to make Dartmouth in time for the World Cup football match being played that day. With every 10 miles gained, the visibility cleared ever more, and as a result, Dorset’s dramatic and timeless features, as seen in the context of Anvil Point, Peveril Point, St Aldhelm’s Head, Durdle Door and Portland Bill, all looked so stately and uniquely beautiful.
It was a little after midday when we forged our way past Portland Bill’s iconic lighthouse. It was a wonderful sight and the overfalls merely added to the sense of occasion. Once clear of the foaming race, one of the crew was assigned to inform the Premier team at Noss on Dart of our ETA and ensure a berth was secured. The marina couldn’t have been more helpful. Then too, after about 20 calls in search of accommodation, we eventually managed to book three rooms at the Royal Castle Hotel in Dartmouth. Success!
Friends from the depths
Known in legendary terms as ‘the bay of fog’, Lyme Bay produced little in the way of resistance. The sea remained settled and it felt as if Start Point, Devon’s own equivalent to Cape Wrath, was going to be gained more quickly than I had first anticipated. But halfway across the great bay, Ed jubilantly declared that he’d seen a pod of dolphins just off the port beam. We slowed, and then, to our delight, they came to make themselves acquainted with us. I’m not exaggerating when I say there must have been about 200 dolphins gathered here, with many leaping beside and ahead of the boat as we proceeded at a reduced pace.
It seemed as though the geology of the coast was changing with each country mile gained – from the white cliffs of Beer Head to the red sandstone shoreline of East Devon where we passed the likes of Sidmouth, Budleigh Salterton and Teignmouth, before we then encountered that proud buttress known as Berry Head, with its dark sea stacks and emerald caves. Indeed, the relatively few miles that stretch from Berry Head down to Dartmouth provide the visiting mariner with their first taste of what lies ahead from a geological perspective. The West Country’s archetypical coastline is hereon dominated largely by the rugged beauty of its native limestone rock. It’s a coastline whose hardy fringes have been forged and carved out over the millennia by the Atlantic Ocean’s unending restlessness and the region’s westerly driven weather systems. One of the most dramatic examples is, of course, the Mewstone, which lies just east of the entrance to Dartmouth Harbour. It’s gothic in form and grand in structure – a fitting sentry to one of the West Country’s most historic and beautiful natural havens.
A favoured haven
The entrance to Dartmouth, with its ancient fortified towers and majestic tree-clad cliff sides, is a vista few places can match. Indeed, the River Dart must be one of the most picturesque estuaries in the whole of the British Isles. Upon our arrival, with Dartmouth town in all its sunny and colourful splendour on the western bank, and Kingswear, its smaller cousin, on the opposite shore, the flags identifying the fuel barge were soon spotted fluttering in the breeze. We dutifully drew alongside and set about recharging our tanks – a convenient but nonetheless expensive undertaking!
Once the deed was done, we continued on our way up to Noss on Dart, located about a mile upstream. Once again, the Premier team on duty were most welcoming, promptly finding us a berth and even helping to locate a water taxi to take us ashore.
The latter duly delivered us in fact right to the waterside steps of the Royal Castle Hotel, where we found pleasant staff and comfortable rooms for all. There was one fly in the ointment though – no large screen for the England vs Denmark match that was due to kick off in just 10 minutes! After a desperate hunt around the nearby pubs for a suitably sized screen, upon finding them all packed to the brim, we decided to hastily beat a retreat back to the tellies in our rooms, while grabbing some cans of beer as we went in readiness to celebrate England’s success.
The next day dawned bright and fresh, and upon stirring my crew and having said our goodbyes, we stood once again on the Royal Castle steps waiting our turn to board the Dart water taxi. But the procedure was slick, and as a result, it didn’t take long before our mooring lines were furled, the kit all restowed and we were idling our way back out to sea with the town gently slipping behind us in the morning sunshine.
Once clear of the estuary’s speed restrictions, we opened her up and established our favoured cruising speed of 28 knots. The sea was slight and there was little, if any, wind to speak of. I think we were all grateful for the prospect of the weather being in our favour, especially this day, on the long leg of our journey down to the peninsula’s most western tip.
Start Point was as dramatic as the reputation that precedes it. Prawle Point, with its great sea arch, of course, and the Salcombe Estuary, with all its dramatic beauty, also called us, but with our mission in mind, we resisted and sped on, soon passing Bolt Head and the likes of Sawmill Cove, before finally emerging in the open expanse of Bigbury Bay, with Hope Cove at its eastern end and the Thurlstone Rock just visible on the shoreline off our beam.
Poor Edward’s experience, though, was sadly being marred by an increasingly troublesome wisdom tooth. It was a concern to us all, and I recall feeling that its timing could not have been more inopportune. We tried to keep his attention diverted, but it was a nagging issue that had the potential to dog the remainder of the cruise.
Mountains and harbour mouths
The course westward fell into an instinctive rhythm at the helm. The RIB powered on in motion with the gentle sea, and the coast off our starboard side proved our constant companion. Our crossing of Whitsand Bay brought us to St George’s Island; then, before we knew it, we could discern the whitewashed cottages of Polperro, nestling in the valley crevice, glancing back at us. Soon thereafter came Fowey and the distinctive daymark of Gribbin Head. Such history everywhere our eyes did rove! We passed around the great and fearsome-looking Dodman Point, and into the shallow waters of Par Bay with its Cornish ‘mountainscape’ of white-capped china clay slagheaps forming the barren backdrop inland. Next came the ancient fishing port of Mevagissey and the lesser-known but picturesque Gorran Haven, at the eastern extremity of the Roseland Peninsula, with its soft, green rolling countryside.
St Anthony’s Point, with its distinctive stark white lighthouse forming the famous starting gate of many around-the-world yacht races, hove into view half an hour later. But we streamed on, out across Falmouth Bay, with the Helford Estuary’s low-lying wooden banks just visible some 10 miles distant. The deadly Manacles Reef, graveyard to a thousand sailing vessels and which in modern times is identified by its black and yellow south cardinal mark, was dutifully passed to seaward as we pressed ever onward, leaving the Fal’s wide-mouthed bay in our wake. Before long, tiny Coverack, with its only bastion against the fury of the Atlantic, namely its fortress-like granite harbour wall that these days gives shelter to a tiny fleet of brightly painted fishing boats, could plainly be seen on the low-lying shore north of our position.
We rounded Gwennap Head on the south coast of the Penwith Peninsula and then met Britain’s seminal southerly tip, Lizard Point, where the overfalls, like Portland Bill, can extend for several miles at spring tides and in contrary weather. The sea picked up here somewhat and so required a little more working of the helm. But the boat proved her capabilities upon clearing the latter without incident, and we pressed on undeterred in a direct line out across the exposed waters of Mount’s Bay toward our ultimate goal of Land’s End.
The ‘Land of Lyonesse’
The actual ‘Land’s End’, or Peal Point to be precise, is for the most part a modest granite headland compared with the nearby headlands of Pedn-men-dhu that overlook Sennen Cove and Pordenack to the south. Of course, besides Land’s End representing the long-distance marker for our own adventure, this famous outpost is synonymous the world over with journeying and the measuring of achievement – Land’s End to John o’ Groats being the prime example, measuring a distance of 838 miles by road. Few may know, but the westernmost promontory at Land’s End is actually known as Dr Syntax’s Head, named after the character Dr Syntax, which was invented by the writer William Combe in his 1809 comic verse The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. The infamous Longships is found here too – a group of rocky islets that lie just over 1 mile (1.6km) offshore, and which, together with the Seven Stones Reef and the Isles of Scilly located some 28 miles (45km) south-west of here, form the mythical lost realm of Lyonesse so immortalised in Arthurian literature.
There was little doubt that our riding the waves of this timeless location represented a meeting with both history and mythology as well as fact and fable. But in some ways, now we had achieved our aim, despite the great sense of accomplishment we undoubtedly felt, the fact was we all suffered a certain sense of anti-climax too. Not that that deterred us nor dampened our desire to claim our victory with a well-earned beer! We savoured the moment but knew all too well that the remainder of our voyage would involve the retracing of at least some of our steps.
Bows to the east
That night, we decided to make the fair town of Falmouth our port of call. The Falmouth Premier Marina facility accommodated us at short notice, and we were given the customary welcome, especially when they learned of our journeying all the way from Swanwick. Upon making the boat secure, poor Edward had to depart in earnest. His tooth had become intolerable, and so he was left with no option but to travel back home with all haste to his dentist for emergency treatment on the mischievous molar. Upon making our goodbyes, Theo and I took a taxi to the Falmouth Hotel – a friendly hostelry with a wonderful view but one that could equally be described as having something of a ‘faded elegance’ about it (I speak kindly, you understand …).
With one crewmember down, our RIB’s co-owner, Chris Goodall, manfully stepped into the frame. Rejigging his work arrangements, Chris jumped aboard a train and set off on the journey from Winchester down to Falmouth at the best pace British Rail could muster. Not such a lickety-split pace as it turned out, but nonetheless, as a consequence, and to our great pleasure, he stood in readiness with us on the pontoon that very next morning, life-jacketed and ready for the ‘off’. It was his wish for us to make the return run a voyage of discovery, and so we determined we would hug the coast wherever possible. Along the way, we once again encountered a pod of dolphins midway between The Lizard and Start Point. Their reoccurring presence was a welcome reassurance that the Channel appeared to be experiencing healthy stocks of migratory fish.
Fresh crab & Sauvignon Blanc
We once again passed by such West Country gems as Fowey, Polperro and Salcombe and only regretted that we didn’t have more time to explore these beautiful idylls. But then, at least we were leaving their discovery for another time with future memories to be made. Dartmouth, however, proved irresistible, and as a consequence, we moored up alongside the town. Then, having come across a ‘pop-up’ restaurant overlooking the water, we ate fresh crab sandwiches washed down with the most refreshingly chilled Sauvignon Blanc. The vista of the river with its busy comings and goings, the old-world charm of Kingswear over the way and the Dart’s dark-green waters, framed by hillsides and riverbanks of ancient oak, could not have been more arresting or indeed more perfect a place to enjoy our waterside lunch.
The final fling
But alas, our COVID ‘bounce back cruise’ once again proved to be as much about the leaving as it did about the pleasure of arriving. Admittedly, we departed Dartmouth a little behind schedule, but still, as we headed back east across Lyme Bay we made it our priority to close the coast wherever possible. This allowed all its variations in landscape and geology to come to life ever more fully. Theo, our man at the helm and a student reading Geography at Bristol University, took great delight in explaining, in some detail, the true import of the sights our favoured perspective was allowing us to see. His insight certainly brought the experience to life.
Upon negotiating the race off Portland Bill, we swung northwards and on into Weymouth for the night. Here we berthed alongside a very jolly party aboard a large motor yacht who revealed that though they were based in Weymouth, they rarely ventured further than Portland Bill aboard their mighty ‘ship’! Nevertheless, their local knowledge of the town and its facilities proved invaluable, and thanks to them, our stay in Weymouth was a most enjoyable one.
The weather on our final leg home continued to hold, and hence Dorset’s coastal wonders, including the likes of Lulworth, Kimmeridge and Chapman’s Cove, all looked resplendent. However, by the time we entered the western reaches of Bournemouth Bay, our fuel meter was shouting red alert. Having not been able to recharge our tanks in Weymouth, we had no choice now but to put into Poole, which, as it transpired, proved a welcome break in itself.
With fuel replenished, Brownsea Island and the distant Purbecks slipped from view as we headed out to Sandbanks and the golden sands of Studland Bay – out through the ferry narrows and then back up onto the plane where, before long, we were speeding back across our home waters of the Solent once more, with Swanwick a mere hop and a skip away on the plotter screen.
We’d had a truly wonderful adventure, and although it was, in reality, something of a ‘dash’, it was nonetheless packed with memories and invaluable experiences gained. Poor Edward’s experience, of course, was less than great and largely proved memorable for all the wrong reasons. But at least he won’t be troubled by that wretched wisdom tooth a second time! Our total fuel bill of £1,250 was, without question, worth every penny spent, for it had ensured that every mile of our voyage was capable of delivering a lifelong memory. Furthermore, it made it clear to us that a RIB is the perfect vehicle for safe, extended passage making to places far and waters new. This time it had taken us all the way to the ‘Land of Lyonesse’, but next time, who knows? Perhaps we might aim for the Channel Islands or even the French coast. Wherever we may next set our sights, I have little doubt that we shall likewise find both delightful and helpful folk, just as we did on this, our maiden voyage west.
- Life jackets for all aboard, worn at all times.
- Wet-weather gear – including deck footwear.
- Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen.
- At least 2 litres of water per person per day plus food rations.
- First-aid kit and all necessary safety equipment including flares.
- SRC VHF certificate.
- Mobile phones in waterproof bags for landside comms.
- Paper charts for intended sea areas plus Reeds Nautical Almanac.
- Hand-held compass and binoculars (the compass and binoculars can help you triangulate your exact position if the instruments fail).
- Means of weather forecasting, including MCA and one’s own choice of weather apps.
Book the hotels and marinas before you set off! We didn’t experience any tension as a result!
- Check the availability of fuel prior to each stop.
- Do not allow your tank to drop to less than a quarter full if possible. You need to maintain a healthy reserve.
- If possible, try to time the rounding of known trouble spots such as Portland Bill, Start Point, the Lizard, etc. at slack water if you have any definite weather concerns.
- Remember, settled weather courtesy of an accurate forecast offers the opportunity of planning an inshore passage, thereby allowing you to experience the coast at its most rewarding. Nonetheless, check the charts for off-lying dangers and know your tides.