Well, we eventually got home. For two weeks NE'ly winds, gale force at times and fog, kept us locked up in St. Peter Port marina on Guernsey. Before that head winds had prevented us crossing from North Brittany to Guernsey and before that 'the wrong sort of wind' delayed our passage from Granville to St. Malo. No matter where we wanted to go the winds changed to thwart us. Is this what sailing is like? According to others, yes.
Well, as a small crumb of comfort I'm told that the stationary high over the UK responsible for the latest strong NE'lys is pretty unusual and we were unlucky. We had just a one-day window of westerlies to cross from Guernsey before the winds veered to the north again. As we emerged from St. Peter Port harbour at 7am we discovered we were part of a small flotilla. All the boats had been held up in Guernsey and were seizing this opportunity to make a run for home. There was quite a procession up the Little Russel and we were joined by a couple more boats as we all shot through the Alderney Race. We peaked 11.9 knots through the Race as Jo and I were willing Starquest to nudge into 12 knots but no, 11.9 was the peak.
It was a fast but uneventful passage and the Race threw us out into the Channel and we maintained 10 knots for at least a further hour. This help from the tide early on certainly gave us a good start as we headed for Blighty.
The crossing from the UK was quiet with few ships sighted but the return was different. Although our route did not take us through the large ship separation zone we were crossing as ships position themselves to enter the zone and we noticed that ships behave remarkably like buses... there are gaps when none come along then all of a sudden three or four appear at once.
The most 'interesting' time was when four ships were running east almost line abreast and our track took us through the lot! Thank goodness for AIS which made calculating our relative positions easy and certainly took a lot of stress out of that bit of the journey. I just hoped that whoever wrote the software to calculate 'closest point of approach' didn't have a hangover when he wrote that bit of the program. The closest we got to any ship was 0.6 nm - still close enough when you see this vast block of flats passing astern.
I made sure our SeaMe radar responder was on and trusted that someone on the bridge of each ship was plotting our course. We did think one ship nudged a few degrees to give us a bit more room. God bless you sir. We would not fancy doing that in the dark.
The west-bound traffic was also quite heavy but more spaced out. I remember one of Chloe's friends asking about shipping lanes and I explained that they run more or less, east-west and we cross north-south. "Oh" said Alice, clearly taking in the image. "So it's like they are on the motorway and we are the hedgehogs?" Very neatly put, I thought. I remembered that analogy when we were in the middle of all this heavy-weight maritime ironmongery.
Once past the big ships life got easier and I snatched a bit of a rest as Jo took the helm. There was quite a swell throughout the crossing. It's difficult to measure swell because there are no reliable references but we reckon it must have been around six feet with the occasional 'big one' maybe twice that. The seas were not rough, we didn't have 'green ones' breaking over the deck, far from it, but the beam swell from the west did make it pretty uncomfortable. Neither of us were too keen on going below to make a meal. Jo did, however, manage to produce some hot food by running below, putting things in the oven or one the hob, then rushing back on deck until the next flying visit to the galley was needed. I have to say a jacket potato with cheese and ham tastes mighty good mid channel.
Although we had clear skies for most of the crossing cloud had formed over France as we left and as we approached the UK cloud was clearly visible over the Isle of Wight and Dorset. We could not see land but knew it was there under the blanket.
It was about 6pm that we first caught sight of land, well we think it was land. Sometimes cloud on the horizon can look awfully like land. We needed someone in the crow's nest with a telescope and a bandana shouting 'Land Ahoy' but being unable to press gang a Guernsey donkey in St. Peter Port we were lacking a masthead lookout. Eventually the dark shape of St. Catherine's became clear and almost immediately the white cliffs on the sw coast of the Isle of Wight by the Needles appeared. The St. Catherine light seemed very much like a 'welcome home' signal.
Darkness fell, the lights of the Isle of Wight, Bournemouth and Poole became very obvious as we headed for the Needles Fairway Buoy. We anticipated that the Needles Channel would be a bit lumpy in the swell and as the tide would be rushing through about the time of our arrival I opted to enter the Solent via the Needles North Channel. It's a bit tricky and I've never done it at night before. This was to be a death or glory moment.
We passed the Fairway Buoy, continued for about a mile, turned east and all of a suddent the sea became a lot calmer. The difference between having the wind and swell on the beam and then having both astern was dramatic. The tide on the Solent approach was going to be strong so we thought we'd take advantage of this quiet spot to drop the gib. I released the sheet and pulled on the furling line and it was stuck. I uttered a prayer to Neptune, who totally ignore me.
With safety harness on and full deck lights (we must have looked like Blackpool illuminations) I went up forward to sort out the furling gear. We have a rule that no one goes forward at sea and especially so at night but there was no option. The sail was stuck and we had to free it before we got to Yarmouth and this was going to be our calmest bit of sea.
I made my way carefully forward and I have to say the magic of being up front cruising along at six knots into an inky black sea was quite awe inspiring. When I got to the furling drum I could see what had happened. The gib had unfurled very quickly and the line was caught around the drum. It took half a minute to free and then I carefully moved back to the safety of the cockpit. The only 'drama' of the trip and all resolved in less than a minute. Maybe Nepture was listening afterall.
We arrived off Milford on Sea where a sharp right turn is needed as you sail very close to the shore along the western edge of Hurst Castle to the western entrance of the Solent. We had several tide 'windows' to hit on our trip. Firstly there was the Little Russel out of Guernsey, then the Alderney Race and finally the entrance to the Solent. With luck we'd reach all at the right time but as we were now running ahead of schedule (winds and tides had been kind) I wondered if we might not get any benefit from the Solent tide. I neeed not have worried. We sped along the North Channel at 10 knots and popped out into the Solent approach by Hurst Castle and carried the tide into the Solent and to Yarmouth.
Yarmouth was a blaze of lights and we noticed a Chinese Palace leave the harbour. Now, it's some months since we've been to Yarmouth and I don't remember any floating takeaways operating there so guessed this must be the Yarmouth-Lymington ferry. It was. We then noticed another Chinese Palace leaving Lymington and heading for Yarmouth. Would we beat it, we wondered? It looked as if we would although it was tempting to let it go in first and follow her in. A quick check on the AIS and we were well ahead so we opted to go in and let her follow us. Jo picked up the entrance lights before me and she guided us in. Must be all those carrots she's been eating.
We entered the harbour just after nine o'clock, fourteen hours and 95 miles since we left St. Peter Port, a really fast crossing thanks to some helpful tides and winds. The harbour was very busy although when I phoned the day before I got the impression it was quiet and we'd not have any problem finding a mooring. We tied up alongside a very solid Aquastar which, appropriately, was built in Guernsey. Lovely old boat, solid as a battleship and the sort of motorboat yachtsmen buy when hoisting sails becomes too onerous.
We were in Yarmouth in time to get to the pub which was quite an achievement as we were estimating a midnight arrival. However, we both felt pretty tired and gave the Yarmouth pubs a miss...will Gabby and Eddie ever forgive us?
Next morning we were rudely awoken at 6am when a boat, attempting to leave the harbour, underestimated the tide and almost collided with us. The 'thump' we heard was someone stepping on our deck to fend off the runaway yacht. She was eventually winched back onto the pontoon and three very sheepish sailors went below to work out how to leave without capsizing the rest of the boats on the mooring.
Having been disturbed at 6am we were half awake anyway at seven and decided to take advantage of the early rise and head down the Solent for Gosport. We had the tide behind us, there was nil wind, so we motored and three hours later we tied up at Gosport Marina just as it started to rain. Welcome home Starquest.
It's been fun, it's been an adventure. We have learnt an enormous amount about what we need of a boat if we are to live on board for six months of the year and although the weather has been dreadful we still enjoyed it.
We have met some really nice and interesting people, seen some amazing sights, cruised some challenging waters, had unbelievable highs when things went well and some miserable lows when the weather curtailed our plans.
We can't wait to go sailing next year. Roll on 2010.