It's pretty late in the season to be doing a channel crossing for sure - but with our friend Simon’s 50th birthday coming up, Conor and I had been conspiring with his wife Jo for months to find something fun to do together for a week! So when we made the decision to sell up and buy Given Time, we immediately knew we had to go sailing for the week! But where…..
It’s hard to set any plans in stone when it comes to sailing, as it all depends on, wind direction & strength, sea state, weather, time to destination, achievable boat speed, how long you want to be sailing for….. the list goes on…. so in the months leading up we discussed lots of potential routes/destinations to give us as much flexibility as possible, but it would all come down to the few days before we were due to leave when the weather forecast would be reasonably stable, to make our decision…
With two/three weeks to go before departure the weather was truly miserable! One night in the marina saw gusts in excess of 40+ knots, the boat being blown around enough to shift stuff in the kitchen cupboards! If the weather didn’t start behaving itself what were we going to have to deal with on our trip!
Eyes glued to every weather channel/app/forecast we watched as front after front blew in and brought yet more miserable weather….. then with a week to go, the weather forecast showed something of a minor miracle… not only was there good weather coming, but the wind direction was going to be completely in our favour for a hop, skip and a jump across the channel !!
Now our eyes were still glued to every weather forecast, but in a squinty ‘I kinda don’t want to look’ peek through your fingers kinda way! Please don’t change!
Two days to go and Simon flew off to a business conference, this gave Jo, Conor & I some breathing room to get the boat ready and go provision the boat for the week - Jo grabbed her & Simon’s sailing kit from their boat ‘Don’t Panic’ and met us at the supermarket ….. provisioning done we took everything back to Given Time - I think at this point we were all relieved we’d managed to keep the plan under wraps and that in 24hrs Simon would be picked up from the airport and the adventure/celebrations could begin!
Sunday night and a text came in from Jo, she had picked up Simon from the airport and they were on their way, then…..
Jo - ‘Here. In Car Park’
Sarah - ‘YAY!’
Jo - ‘Blindfolded’
Sarah - ‘😂😂😂😂’
Jo had blindfolded Simon as they had left the airport - the plan, after all this time keeping it a secret, wasn’t going to be given away that easily!
Conor went to meet them in the car park and helped lead Simon towards the pontoons ….. much to the amusement of the security guard! and right up to the point the blindfold came off he really wasn't sure where he was….. plan perfectly executed!
Once aboard we had a late supper, some drinks and it was off to bed because we had to be up early if we were to get across to Cherbourg before it got properly dark!
Monday dawned bright, crisp and cold with just a light breeze from the north - we slipped the lines, set off down the Lymington river and emerged into the Solent.
Sails hoisted, engine off, breakfast cooking, we headed towards The Needles - I love sailing through this stretch of the Solent - when you are leaving the Solent it gives you a chance to get your sailing muscles stretched and enough time to get excited about the journey ahead whilst in a familiar, friendly and frankly stunning setting!
Clearing the Needles, we turned due south - next stop, Cherbourg!
With 6 knots of wind behind us we furled away our ‘working’ jib (fore sail) and hoisted the larger drifter but with the wind right behind us were only making 4 knots through the water - this was no good as we still had 60 miles to run and that would make for a very late arrival!
Time to deploy ‘BIG RED’
Big Red is our large asymmetric and is twice as big as the drifter! So with 6 knots of wind being right in the middle of it’s wind range - once deployed our apparent wind speed went up, the wind came onto the beam and we were quickly clipping along at 9 - 10 knots boat speed in just 6 knots of true wind …. which is just incredible!
(Ok, the above sounds like greek if your not a sailor, and I admit it was the same for me up until a few years ago so let me explain….. imagine you’re about to go for a run - your true wind, is the wind speed and direction you would feel if you were stood still, so imagine that it’s blowing from behind you - now when you start running, the wind feels like it’s blowing more from the front/side, that’s because your now pushing through the air and generating your own wind. This is the same principle that occurs in sailing, but when this happens it’s called your apparent wind and it is a combination of both the true wind speed/direction and the wind speed generated from the boat moving through the water and it makes it appear that the wind speed/direction has changed/moved)
(the ‘beam’ just refers to the mid point on the side of the boat)
With ‘Big Red’ doing its thing, our slow start was quickly forgotten we were able to sit back and enjoy the wonder that is sailing a boat that goes faster than the true wind - even when the wind dropped to 4 knots we were still making over 7 knots through the water - amazing and a true credit to the incredible team that designed and built GIVEN TIME.
There is no traffic separation scheme ( think of it as motorway lanes for cargo ships ) directly between the Needles fairway marker and the Cherbourg breakwater - but the shipping traffic tends to stay in what would have been their lane and follow the same path from one separation scheme to another. As you get closer to these ‘motorway lanes’ you have to watch the horizon - because the ships you can see in front of you won’t be the problem - It’s the ones you can’t see yet, as they are travelling at up to 20 knots and they will creep up on you!
Now 20 knots is about 23mph, which seems like a snails pace in driving terms…. but, these things can be anywhere between 250-500m long and weigh 70,000+ tons - they take miles to stop and aren’t easy to manoeuvre/change direction, so you really do not want to be in the way when one of these things come through!
AIS (Automatic Identification System) gives you information on a vessels speed and heading - our plotter also gives us a CPA (Closest Point of Approach) i.e if neither of you change course or speed how close will you get! (Ideally you want to be at least a couple of miles apart!)
In the Solent you can be reasonably sure that most vessels are keeping a good watch and the reality is that in a relatively small cruising area, merchant vessels and cruisers get quite close to each other as a matter of course. Ironically, mid-channel with way more room, it's actually more dangerous. Many vessels set a course and only periodically check the horizon or set alarms based on AIS CPA or Radar track CPA - So you can never assume you have been seen!
As we got closer to the shipping lanes all of us were on heightened alert, closely watching vessels through the binoculars and on the AIS system. We were set to get very close to a few, anything less than 1/2 mile when they are doing 15 - 20 Knots and we were doing 10 Knots, is too close! We had to make several big changes to our heading to help increase the CPA - frustratingly one vessel showing an initial 50 yard CPA, still showed 50 yards even after a big heading change - in short - we had made a big change to go behind him and at exactly the same time he had made a change to go behind us - the net effect was cancelled out!
With a good 10 minutes before our closest CPA we held a steady course and he again made a change to go behind us. On Given Time we have a standing rule that we make early and obvious changes of course to avoid other traffic especially in heavy shipping areas. If we still look close with less than five minutes to go then we get on the VHF radio have a chat so, 1: You know they have seen you and 2: To let them know what your intentions are.
Clear of all the East and West bound ‘shipping lanes’ we could now concentrate on our entrance to Cherbourg - 20 miles out and France popped up on the horizon and with 10miles still to go the Cherbourg breakwater appeared - today’s visibility was very very good!
With the wind coming round to the South West we dropped Big Red and set our heading so that our track, including tide, had us arriving just right of the westbound entry of the breakwater.
As the sun said it’s goodbye for the day, it seemed to take an age for the Navigation lights in Cherbourg Harbour to come on!
When they eventually switched on, they were incredibly difficult to pick out amongst the myriad of lights in Cherbourg Town! Bright red brake lights of those sat at traffic lights & the bright green Pharmacy signs within the city, were constantly trying to lure our tired eyes away from the red & green lights of the harbour!
Safely into our Marina, now we had the task of trying to tie up the boat to what seemed like the worlds SMALLEST & LOWEST finger pontoons…. Conor had the job of guiding the boat into the space whilst the rest of us handled the lines - Conor said he did get a little freaked out when I went to ‘step’ off the boat onto the finger pontoon and I just kept disappearing over the side, ending up with me hanging off of Simon’s arm just to reach the pontoon! No Joke ….
Once tied up and checked-in, we tucked into a late dinner and all of us crawled into our beds!
The next morning we woke up and summer had returned! for traveling 60 miles south the weather was waaaay warmer, so much so, we had to dig out the old shorts again! Woohoo!
We ate breakfast in the cockpit, soaking up the Sun’s rays - aaah you’ve no idea how much we were tempted to just keep on heading south !!
Tuesday and Wednesday ( aka Simons Birthday ) were brilliant! We had so much fun in what is a great place for cruisers to visit! Cherbourg Town has lots of lovely places to eat and drink - plus I got to go explore the supermarket, Carrefour! I love european supermarkets, especially the incredible choice when it comes to fruit & veg!
Once in the supermarket the aim was to gather the last few bits for Simon’s birthday, we bought some lovely bread, cheese and grapes, and the finishing touches for the cake we had planned to bake. Now, I’m Gluten Intolerant, so I always keep Gluten free alternatives stashed on board, so, I’d said to Jo that I already had a GF cake mix on the boat that we could quickly whip up and shove in the oven - queue to baking time, when I pull out the box and realise that I have actually picked up GF cookie mix …… what a numpty! Oh well, we made it work, and Simon had a GIANT 50th birthday cookie - Happy Birthday Simon!
After two days of celebrations and partying, we had our eye on getting back to Blighty for the weekend! So we set off early Thursday morning to make the crossing back.
Again the wind was from directly behind us, but stronger and set to increase, then due to come around to the North West as we went across.
Leaving Cherbourg breakwater we were greeted with some very confused and lumpy seas, the sun had decided to hide behind thick clouds and rain was visible on the horizon - not sure we were going to have the ‘Champagne’ sailing we treated to on the way over!
In weather like this when the wind is shifty due to various weather fronts pushing through, it’s always tempting to put out more sail to increase your boat speed and help stabilise the boat in the lumpy seas - but then a rain front comes through, brings high winds gusts with it and you would be so glad you didn’t!
Eight uncomfortable hours later with the sun setting in the west, the Needles came into view! We had timed our journey just right and arrived at the entrance to the Solent just as the tide switched and started ripping through the Hurst Narrows, hurtling us through with it!
Tired from the rough crossing, the entry to Lymington was a welcome sight but with a moonless night it was frankly hard and I hate to think how many yachts have fallen foul of the string of lights that greet you as you look down the channel! Even as our home port, and having done the entry many times before, at night it is a completely different ball game and we all found it challenging.
We got Given Time back alongside in her own berth and put her to bed - Luckily, Jo and myself had made dinner before we left Cherbourg, so all we had to do was heat it up and tuck in!
Although this wasn’t the first time we had completed a long passage or crossed the channel - this was the first time we had done both of these things in Given Time, and all I can say is she behaved in the most graceful way, handling the weather conditions beautifully.
In light winds and slight seas, she picked up and flew, travelling faster than the wind! and in high winds and confused seas, she took it all in her stride - it was still uncomfortable for the squishy organic human components, but I would not have wanted to be out there in anything else!