Other PicoMicroYacht

Sunday, 3 September 2017

More mud, the vagaries of the tides and an encounter with danger

On a previous occasion, on the Medway, PicoMicroYacht had to be punted across the mud to reach the Commodore Hard. This was planned. But on this occasion a further experience of the mudflat was not planned.

The idea was to row between Littlestone-on-Sea and Rye, going round Dungeness. I was to start at the Varne Boat and Social Club.

This club has a reputation for being very friendly and welcoming, a pleasant sheltered place to go sailing and fishing They are also a leading watersports club with the moto 'Age is no barrier - the fun starts where the land ends.' PicoMicroYacht would echo that sentiment.

 The Varne Boat Club beach shown at high tide.

Because Dungeness sticks out into the English Channel, the sea can be choppy, so a day with a neap tide and low wind was chosen. Also, the Lydd firing range was not in action.

The tides in this part of the world are somewhat complicated. One reason is a sort of watershed in which the tide runs up the English Channel and simultaneously down the North Sea, meeting off the South East of England.

A normal watershed is the highest bit where the two flows come together and from where the water will then subside in different directions, back where it came from.

But there is a complication because the English Channel also funnels as it reaches the narrow part near Dover. The tide slops over into the North Sea, subsiding back west down the English Channel later than expected.

For this reason at Littlestone-on-Sea the tide starts to ebb down the English Channel about four hours after high tide.

I mention this because my plan was to leave Littlestone-on-Sea about three hours after high tide and stem the last of the east-going tide as I headed southwest down the English Channel.

Three hours was too optimistic because the tidal height by then had reduced too much to launch PicoMicroYacht.  The sandy beach at high tide gave way to mudflats and the sea was receding fast.

But I had a go at pulling PicoMicroYacht across the mudflats, which was successful until I was about 40 yards from the sea. At that point, my back twinged and I had to stop, not wanting to risk damaging it.

PicoMicroYacht stranded on the mudflat with the sea receding

As the sea receded further I sat in the boat contemplating what to do and almost immediately rain clouds formed  just off the coast and there was heavy rain. I took shelter, lying under my boat cover. But then it started to thunder with lightning hitting the sea. I became worried as this was getting nearer and PicoMicroYacht felt very exposed.

Looking back to the shore as the rain clouds came in

I decided to walk to the shore. I was fairly confident of safety. On the way out I had been dragging the boat along a near-dried shallow stream which had a hard bottom caused by the way in which it washed the sand down from the higher part of the beach. If I stuck to this stream bed I could retrace my steps safely. But I went very slowly and carefully. It was all a compacted sand and mud mixture.

However, when I arrived back on land I found out there had been concern that I might have fallen into a mud hole.

A man from the lifeboat station shop said:

‘I was looking out for you using my binoculars. When I couldn’t see you I was worried something had happened. The mud is very soft ..... people have died out at there, even a horse....’ 

He must have looked when I lying under the boat cover. I apologied for not radioing the coastguard.

I now had to wait for the tide to go out and start coming in again. I sat there enjoying the sea view and called the coastguard explaining my situation.

I was not too worried about the mud on my return to PicoMicoYacht because of knowing about the compacted sand along the stream bed. 

Just in case, I went holding my portable VHF radio with my lifejacket on and and remembering what to do if stuck in quicksand. I told someone on the balcony of the Varne Boat Club what I was doing before I left.

The mud stretched for miles, illuminated by the large skyscape.

I got there safely and waited for the tide, contemplating this beautiful landscape whilst listening to the oystercatchers. Inspired by the French sculpture Auguste Rodin, I took another photograph.

A helicopter flew close over the head, having a look at me to check I was alright. I resisted waving, in case this was misinterpreted.

The sea was coming in fast now.

When it came in I slowly drifed to the shore as the sun began to set.

On my return someone from the Varne Boat Club helped me pull PicoMicroYacht up their ramp and also gave me a cup of tea.I met Paul Fowler, the treasurer, and chatted briefly about my experiences.

What should I do if stuck in mud? I found this good advice on Wikihow – how to get out of quicksand.


Or this video here, which illustrates how cautious one should be. This is more of a warning video rather than what to do - don't have nightmares watching this!

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Being at the Wrong Place at the Right Time

The plan was to go from Eastbourne to Newhaven,  via Beachy Head, a voyage of about 15 miles along the Sussex Coast.

I was to start one hour before Dover high tide and planned to take about five hours, passing Beachy Head at about slack water.

The sea state was calm and there was a very gentle wind from the Southeast, so it looked like a smooth voyage for PicoMicroYacht. 

PicoMicroYacht was rigged at the Eastbourne Sovereign Sailing club and as I put the masts up I chatted briefly with Mick Harper, the club Vice President,.

Soon I was out on the water, passing the Eastbourne Pier with its contraversial cupola, painted gold by the flamboyant hotelier who recently restored the pier.

Looking at the chart, I realised that there was an inside passage past Beachy Head, going inside a race, as indicated by the chart. But a local sailor advised not going too close past Beachy Head because of an underwater reef that juts out from there.

So I decided to take a wide berth and go approximately outside the race area. Nevertheless, on the way from Eastbourne I went quite close to the Hollywell Bank seen on this map in the centre.

I could see a stationary bow wave from a passing ship breaking on this bank about a hundred metres away from me. I sat there observing the phenomenon.

As I got opposite the Beachy Head lighthouse, I realised a ship had gone ahead using the inner passage. Further out the sea was choppy, as I rowed just outside the race area.

A military helicopter flew along the cliffs and just over the lighthouse. I wondered what exercise it was on.

Moving on, I looked back at the high Beachy Head. As Nicholas Crane has said 'chalk is one of England's emblems' and the cliffs round here are as iconic as the white cliffs of Dover.

Onwards, I saw the Seven Sisters, the  set of cliffs between Beachy Head and the charming small cove, Cuckmere Haven, in the distance.

Soon I was approaching Newhaven and passing Seaford, with its Martello Tower, a defensive fort built between 1806 and 1810 to protect England from the Napoleonic French. The one rotating cannon was facing out to sea as it would have been all those years ago.

The long pier of Newhaven was infront of me, with the sun setting in the west.

Newhaven is a working port and there were many ships moving around, including those ferrying worker to  the new wind farm further down the coast, the cross channel ferry and the fishing boats.

There was a twist to this story. Two days later, a chemical toxic haze rolled in from the sea covering the  area I had rowed through. It brought nausea, sore eyes and hospital treatment for about 150 people. I dread to think what it would have been like breathing in the fumes and trying to row..

It remains a mystery as to the cause, but I was so glad I was at the wrong place at the right time on this occasion.

Sunday, 20 August 2017


As you sail east along the English Channel and turn left into the North Sea the water turns from blues and greens to blues and muddy colours, mixed with gray.

The colours are all beautiful but if I am really honest I am a blue sea person more so than  a mud one.

But the draw of the East Coast are the magnificient estuaries, with their staggering wildlife.  The closest one to me is the Medway Estuary in North Kent.

The mud can catch you out, as a happened on a PicoMicroYacht row recently. I was at the top of the Medway Estuary, where there is one public launching spot, the Commodore Hard.

Normally the hard is fine, as in the above picture on another occasion, although  it can be quite busy.

But I had gone out at half tide and returned at the bottom of the tide. There was a large sloping mudflat between me and the hard and I was stuck.  There would have been a long wait.

So I found a way to get PicoMicroYacht across the mud. It was no good getting out to push since I would have sunk deep into the mud.

My technique was to punt PicoMicoYacht, pushing over the stern with an oar.

When I tried to get the oar out of the mud at the end of each push, PicoMicroYacht would slip back again down the mudflat. So another technique was to hold the other oar vertically in the mud at the back of the boat and use it as a lever to keep the boat still whilst the other oar was extracted. This is reconstructed below, with me about to push the oar vertically into the mud.

It worked and PicoMicroYacht slid very slowly over about 60 metres of mud until it reached the hard and I was able to get out and fetch the trailer.

As you can see, to be an East Coast Sailor in the South of England you have to like the mud and also be prepared to wash it off.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

For those in peril in the sea

The plan was to row from Plymouth to Looe on the South Coast. Although there would be a light head wind, the tides were in neaps and the weather settled.

As I left the Queen Anne's Battery there were many boats ploughing up and down, including some quite large ones, so I had to keep a good lookout.

But crossing my bow were a large group of sit on kayaks, so I slotted in behind and this helped clear a route out towards  the Plymouth Sound.

The headwind was somewhat greater than I had anticipated and the tide was initially against me but eventually I was opposite the long Plymouth breakwater, built to make the Plymouth safe during the Napoleonic Wars. An irony of history is that Napoleon is reputed to have passed it on his way to exile in St Helena in 1815.

Looking out to sea there were yachts returning from the Eddystone Lighthouse as part of a annual charity race. The leader came in, reaching with spinnaker set.

Further out to sea there was a line of yachts out towards the horizon.

As I approached Rame Head I could see the small chapel prominent on the headland with the coastwatch station just beyond.

Rounding Rame head I switched on my radio, tuning into Channel 16. Although it is no longer a legal requirement for ships to monitor Channel 16, it is somewhat advisory. 

Just as I had switched on I started to hear the coastguards coordinating a rescue, involving a helicopter and the Salcombe lifeboat. They were explaining that a diver had surfaced too quickly from 80 metres and was in trouble,  his dive boat being about six miles off Salcombe.

The Salcombe lifeboat with the HM coastguard rescue helicopter on exercise in Salcombe

I realised the day before I had been in Salcombe standing by this boat and speaking to a diver who was telling  me they were visiting a sunken second world war British destroyer, 70 feet down.

Sadly, it was announced the day after my voyage that the person in trouble, ferried to the Derriford Hospital in Plymouth for decompression, had not survived. The man was 51 years old, whilst I had chatted to a younger diver.

I rowed on, setting a linear course across to Looe, about ten miles away. In the distance I saw the massive Tregantle Fort, one of  many forts built to deter the French from invading England in the middle of the 19th Century.

The wind had lightened, making it easier to progress west. About four miles from Looe I was crossing some shallow water called the Knight Errant Patch when I saw in the distance a smallish bright orange motorboat. 

As it got closer I realised that there were three people on board wearing helmets and this was the inshore lifeboat from Looe.

They told me that they had been in the area to deal with another boat but had seen me and asked me where was I going. They offered to tow me into Looe, which in a grateful fashion I declined, saying I wanted the satisfaction of completing my voyage.

The lifeboat report indicated that both lifeboats had been launched to rescue a 16 foot cabin cruiser who had run out of petrol one mile south of Looe. So the smaller one had travelled three miles further east and spotted me.

After about an hour and half I was approaching the entrance to Looe as the sun was setting.

Just outside two fishing boats were waiting for the tide to rise enough to enter. 

I found the slipway just within the entrance and PicoMicroYacht was hauled out of the water using the portable trailer I had taken with me.