Last Thursday, a group of work friends and I sailed to Cherbourg, France to raise money for Help for Heroes. Over the course of 35 hours we navigated a Moody 31 sail boat across the English channel and back, facing challenges such as passing through two shipping lanes, night time navigation, poor visibility and a lack of sleep. It was a fantastic experience and I wanted to reflect on some of the highlights of the trip and the things I’ve learned. But starting at the beginning…
The company I work at (Boats Group) came up with the idea of giving each individual at the company 4 “volunteering” days where rather than coming to work we could donate our time to helping out in a local community or a charity.
Our head office is in Miami, where there are an abundance of short-term (day long) volunteering opportunities. However, in the UK there are less opportunities like this. Charities and non-profit organisations tend to want longer term commitments of your time. Therefore, we came up with idea of doing a sail to raise money for a charity and chose Help for Heroes as the charity to back. We had a rough plan that we would sail in October and spend the time leading up to then learning what we needed to know and getting out on the boat to train.
Training - Friday 15th June
Went for a training day with skipper Al on 15th June. Over the course of about 6 hours we learned the basics of sailing: - How to hoist the sails - Points of sailing and the no go zone - Stearing the boat using the tiller under power and sail - Basic rules of the road - Knot tieing etc
Competent Crew Theory
In my spare time leading up to October, I bought a “Compentent Crew” theory book (“Compentent Crew” is a certification you can gain from the RYA).
The book takes you through basics of what to expect on your first sail: what to bring, what to wear, how to be helpful. As well as: - Basic terminology - port starboard, main sail / genoa, fore aft, hull keel etc - Tides - Reading Charts - Buoys - some mark entrance to harbours (red and green = port and starboard when entering), others (like cardinal buoys) mark dangers to avoid (at night these buoys flash, with east most danger markers flashing 3 times meaning 3 o’clock) - Safety on-board - wearing life jackets, operating a VHF (radio used by marine traffic, coast guard etc to communicate), using a fire extinguisher
Prep - Thursday 4th October
We arrived at the marina about 10am. The boat we were preparing for sail was a Moody 31, a sail boat that sleeps 6, has a small galley (kitchen) and navigation area below. We had a list of tasks to perform from the skipper. Everything from raising the Help for Heroes flag to checking the diesel fuel levels and scrubbing the deck.
We stocked the boat with food and drink. Small nibbles and snacks, which are easy to stow, don’t go off on the voyage and easy to keep in the cockpit and snack on when on shift to keep us going.
Our Skipper arrived around 4:30pm and we set off as soon as the lock gates opened at 5:30pm. We had an hour or so of daylight motoring past the eastern side of the Isle of Wight weaving through a bunch of anchored container ships.
Since there were 4 of us, we decided to do 3 hour shifts with 2 people in the cockpit at all times, whilst the other 2 were sleeping. Paul and I took the first shift until 9pm. We would be passing the west going shipping lane traffic. Sunset was fast upon us but visibility was good. There was a sky full of stars and we could make out the horizon line. It’s a shame taking a picture of the night sky from a boat is so difficult. It was an amazing view.
After a couple of hours, boats appeared on the horizon line on our port side. The AIS system in the cockpit was capable of telling us how far away they were and the CPA (closest point of approach). This is a measurement in nautical miles to assist with avoiding collisions. Skipper Al told us that a CPA of less than 1 nautical mile was a potential collision risk and something we needed to avoid. A number of boats on the horizon were within this danger zone but it was a strange sensation, as the potential collision wouldn’t happen for about 45 mins - 1 hour. Our boat was travelling at 5-6 knots, while the container ships were between to 10-18 knots. Given the speed difference, to avoid a collision we never risked going in front of the other boat. But you don’t want to change course too soon as you end up miles of course, so when assessing a colission, we simply had to keep on course and check every 10 mins or so where the vessel was in relation to a fixed position on our boat e.g. one of the staunchions. If the boat stayed in the same position relative to yours, you knew you were still on a collision course. We aimed at the stern of the boat until we passed behind.
We navigated through the first set of boats until our shift ended and then rested from 9pm to 12pm. Catching some sleep on a travelling boat was quite an experience. The beds are the seating area down below and they’re pretty much at water level. With your head rested, you can hear the water lapping at the boat inches away. The sea state was gentle and the swaying of the boat had me asleep very quickly. Though the noise of the engine metres away does become a little tiring after hours of a voyage.
We were up again for the midnight to 3am stint. This was much more tricky. We met a lot of boats within the 1nm zone, one came by so close it flashed lights at us. Without knowledge of what flashing light communication meant we assumed “get the out of the way” so changed course to go behind it.
Our shift ended at 6am with the lights of Cherbourg on the horizon. In fact, for the last hour or so we could see lights. Your brain tells you you should be arriving in a matter of minutes but we knew there were hours of the voyage left.
We left skipper Al and Dids with a short run to the finish line, arriving in Cherbourg in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Getting some rest on the boat we waited for sunrise. It was a lovely day in Cherbourg, clear blue skies and very warm for the time of year.
We had a much needed wash at the marina, and had a flying visit of the town, stopping for breakfast and lunch. After filling the boat back up for the return journey we set of around midday. Initially we had planned another night crossing but storms were due at some point on Sunday and we wanted to be north of the channel when they arrived.
The weather remained picture perfect for the start of our journey back. Crossing in a t-shirt and sun glasses was definitely not what we were expecting from October sailing but much welcomed.
By the time we met the east bound shipping lane there was still plenty of daylight left. Interestingly, despite visibility being perfect, a day crossing made it much more difficult to see the boats on the horizon we were seeking to avoid.
We kept to a 3 hour on / off shift pattern with Dids and I alternating with Paul and Al. There wasn’t much use sleeping during our downtime between 3pm and 6pm, and feeling more than a little sea sick at this stage I tried to busy myself with other tasks. Tasks like making a cupper on-board, which is more difficult than it sounds. You fill the kettle, start the gas hob, which took me a few more attempts than I’d have liked. Get it boiling, a strange site to see the kettle swinging around on a platform that counterbalances the swaying of the boat. Pour the tea in the galley sink and only fill a cup half full (which prevents burning people when boat sways around). I tried my hand at some chart work and log book entries too. We tooked a lat and long and heading on the hour every hour and noted anything noteworthy. My favourite from Al’s being “found a pencil sharpener”.
By the time of our second shift at 6pm - 9pm, we were donning the foul weather gear and readying for sunset. Once sunset came, visibility was much less clear than the night before. Ships were much more difficult to make out and we were relying more heavily on the AIS system to tell us where boats were. We were navigating towards the southern most point of the Isle of Wight and dependant on updated weather reports would be bearing west for a short sprint to Yarmouth marina on the island or east back to Eastney marina if we felt we could make it before the storm came.
Swapping back over at 9pm, I went back to sleep for what felt like moments before the midnight shift started. Tiredness was really setting in now. During our rest, skipper Al had switched course from sailing west, back to sailing to Eastney. Our task was therefore to round the bottom of the island.
By this stage a fog had set in and visibility was greatly reduced. Added to that, the southern side of the Isle of Wight was very dark. There are a few small towns but until you reach Sandown, it’s mostly coastline.
With visibility so low there were a few hairy moments. As we passed Sandown we were on a bearing of 40 degrees, which should past the eastern most point of the island. We could see two lights through the fog. One flashing many times in a row, the other just a few. We couldn’t figure out whether they were in the water or on land and the charts on the AIS showed that the island jutted out ahead of us. Were we heading toward land or correctly on course? For the next 30 minutes we were constantly checking the lights ahead, our position on AIS, and the water depth (which was fluctuating between 10, 5, 8 metre readings).
I finally figured out that these were cardinal buoys marking a hazard in the water. The closest was flashing 9 times, indicating the western most point of the hazard. We could now see that we would be approaching this marker first, but which way should we take it? Should we leave it on the port or starboard side of the boat? Given we were certain that land was on the port side and these buoys likely marked safe water, we changed course to pass the buoy on the eastern side. As we passed it, the flashing light and its reflection on the water was pretty much all we could see. We followed the same course and passed the eastern most marked on our port side aided by the lights of some nearby anchored container ships.
Our shift was nearly over and visibility was drawing closer. Despite being so close to Portsmouth, the only lights we could see were some green and red buoys on the water marking the the entrance Portsmouth Harbour. At 3am, we left the last hour of the journey to skipper Al and Paul who found a mooring buoy outside of Eastney marina. This was their view (or lack of) when they arrived.
The finish line
The cill opened at 7am so after a short rest we were motoring back into the marina. A fry up with our name on it awaited us in the marina cafe. It was an amazing experience and we raised a fantastic amount of money for a great charity.