Amble harbour was pretty to the point of perfection when I first saw it on Saturday the 14th of August 2004 after a long journey by train and bus from Essex, but I knew that it had a hidden menace, unknown in my own area; surf on the bar. I was to join my son James and grandson Ryan to complete the circumnavigation of England by the 32 foot yacht Summer Wind. They had been trapped there for three days but hoped to leave today. As I walked along the pontoon, all eyes were on the first yacht away to see if she would go out or come back. A sight of relief went up as she went over the bar under engine and mainsail and we followed at 1500hrs. The wind was south westerly and after two hours of fair tide, progress became very slow. At first we thought the gaggle of tall chimneys down the coast was Blyth but in fact they were well north and the challenge of our 480mile trip ahead was brought home to us. Now that I had joined them, we planned to sail overnight when possible. As I had had an early start while Jim had had a good nights sleep, we agreed that he would take the first watch and I the middle so I bedded down in the fore cabin as the sun began to sink.
When I came on deck, Blyth was well behind us and with the tide about to turn in our favour, I looked forward to passing Whitby which is the northern zenith of my in my sixteen foot gaff cutter Shoal Waters. An hour later I noticed that the autopilot was wandering widely and called Jim who soon discovered that the batteries for the services, as distinct from those for starting the engine, were not being charged. I steered for two hours manually as we discussed the possible actions; carry on without services; charge up in marinas and then sail to the next one or go into Whitby to get things put right. We decided to press on as the first signs of dawn appeared and I got back to sleep. Suddenly Jim gave a shout of joy as he discovered that the trouble was that the ignition key had moved because the cork ball to which it was attached had rolled out under the helmsman’s feet. All systems go again; and joy in our hearts. When I took over at 0800 hrs he thought we were off Bridlington but in fact it was a misty Scarborough and in bright sunlight we slowly crawled past Filey and along the cliffs to Flamborough Head. A few small motor fishing boats were the only other craft about.
The wind was still light from somewhere between south and southwest so we kept the engine going and the mainsail hauled close in, just full, to steady the boat as we headed out for East Norfolk. Hour after hour passed without the sight of any other craft or feature. I was having an afternoon nap when the shout went up that gas platforms were in sight. From then on a steady succession of them came in sight as the tide turned in our favour again; together with a number of ships obviously bound in or out of the Humber. As I took over for the first watch, shore lights were dimly in view fine on the starboard bow and soon a bold light, flashing every ten seconds, told us it was Cromer. Thunderclouds were dominating the sky to the west with flashes of lightening but no thunder claps. It passed ahead of us completely blotting out the shore lights for some time but we only got a few spots. As it passed away to port, the lights of commercial traffic appeared. They seemed to taking a route further off shore but just before midnight a ship with blazing lights overtook us to starboard and confirmed that we were well away from the low coastline. When I came on deck at 0400hrs the blaze of lights at Backton gas terminal and the lighthouse at Haisborough were already astern and we looked for the dimmer red lights marking the offshore rock wave breaks protecting the featureless sand dunes by Sea Palling. The stern light of a vessel about a mile ahead helped guide us inshore of the Scroby sands as first light revealed the offshore wind farm now nearing completion. A few minutes before eight we passed into Lowestoft for fuel (£22) and left promptly for Ramsgate. Candidly I would have liked to slip ashore for a fried breakfast but Jim was determined to press on and we left twenty minutes later. By this time the sun was out and the Suffolk Heritage Coast glowed to perfection. The sea got up as the wind rose and east of the Shipwash buoy we decided not to press on for Ramsgate over a foul tide in view of the rising swell. The alternatives were a mooring in Hollesley bay or a long slow trip to Harwich. We pressed on over the tide and entered Harwich at 1800hrs. Our first idea was to go into Shotley Marina but on being told that we would be the second locking, decided to try the new yacht moorings next to Harwich Pound, which we found very comfortable. Fish and chips and sleep!
Jim set his alarm clock for 0545hrs but I got them going soon after five and it went off as we left the harbour. Bright sun and more wind today. It was on the nose but more westerly. After some discussion, we decided to take the flood towards the Medway (HW Sheerness 1300 hrs) and then the ebb out to the north Foreland. This would give us a chance of a safe mooring in the Medway if it blew up. The rest of the day was utter perfection. The first board took us to Wallet Number Two where we tacked to find Walton Pier well under our lee. For the first time we found ourselves in company with other craft, including a fine Victorian gaff yacht recently restored to her full glory. Jim pointed out her long boom reaching out over the counter stern in contrast to modern main booms. By ten we were passing the Wallet Spitway buoy and I took over as pilot for the trip down Swin between the Barrow Sands and the extensive Maplin Sands extending seven miles off Foulness Island. With short tacks now, I was glad of young Ryan to work the headsail winches. With the spring flood tide pouring into the estuary, progress was wonderful and as the SW Barrow passed to port and the Blacktail could be picked out with my 7x50 Zeis binoculars, I reluctantly went below for an afternoon nap, as we planned another night passage. Soon afterwards they went on starboard tack for the Kent shore and after HW, had the ebb to help them along the Roman Coast. When I crawled out again we were heading east of Recluvers Twin Towers and the Hook Beacon showed that we could not weather the drying sand of the same name, so we had to motorsail a short board southwest to get round the Last Buoy and safely into the Overland channel. Here we freed the sheets and found to our delight that we were doing over eight knots over the ground with the help of the tide. Previous experience had given me a deep respect for the seas south of the Northforeland but in fact we rounded the Longnose Buoy and hauled the sheets to steer southeast in smooth water and a dying wind. Ramsgate came abeam quickly although the flood had not yet started and Jim decided to stow the sails and motor due south to make certain of rounding Dover in daylight. Once round, Jim got his head down and I settled down to look for the light on Dungeness. Ryan wanted to try his luck on a night watch and he took over from midnight to one o’clock. Fortunately we had got past Dungeness and I left him with a clear run towards the Sovereign Light Tower. It was distinctly gloomy with a light drizzle when I came on again; with the tower just ahead and the light on Beachy Head visible. The wind was rising from the south and we had full sail for the long haul to the Owers Buoy and the entrance to the Solent. In rising seas we lowered the mainsail and proceeded under motor and reefed headsail as the seas rose but this boat rode them well with little spray coming over. Certainly, safety harnesses were the rig of the day. By noon we squared away for a long reach into the Solent; enlivened by a thunderstorm with rain coming down in stair rods and gale force gusts. It cleared for the run up the Hamble as we wallowed in the satisfaction of a successful trip.
I reckon we had covered 480 nautical miles in 100 hours (Left Amble 1500hrs Sat; arrived Hamble 1900hrs Wed). With 12 hours moored in Harwich this works out at an average of 4.22 kts for the whole trip.