Seas the Day

Against all sensible advice ever received regarding safety online, I replied to an ad on Twitter posted by Explorers Connect. The ad was asking for crew for a coastal passage westward along the south coast of England from Eastbourne to Dartmouth aboard Spirit of Worcester (a Fisher 37 motor sailor, for those of you boat geeks out there). The skipper would take crew regardless of experience, so long as they were willing to muck in with daily life onboard and split the cost of groceries, diesel and marina fees among themselves at the end of the trip.

After the year we’ve had, I didn’t need much convincing. The fact that the trip cost me just short of £150 a week made it even more within reach. Despite having very little detail about the skipper or boat, I took a train to Eastbourne to hop aboard, having satisfied myself and the skipper that I wasn’t a covid risk by obtaining a negative result 48 hours before travel and the first of my vaccine jabs the week before.

I arrived at Sovereign Harbour in Eastbourne under heavy clouds and light rain. I was apprehensive as I walked along the pontoon to meet my skipper and boat for the first time. The skipper was doing engine checks as I arrived, but happily stopped what he was doing to put the kettle on for a cuppa and invited me below deck to the saloon. I was relieved. The boat looked in good shape and the skipper, Paul, was friendly and easy going. To be honest, he was probably just as nervous as I was! I was the first to arrive ahead of two other crew who’d signed up to do this leg; both of whom also lived in the West country. Paul’s beloved boat was to be our home for the following two weeks. Four strangers living together in close quarters.

I had not been offshore since I delivered my team’s racing yacht to the Clipper race start in London in August 2019. 21 months had now gone by, so I was apprehensive about my sea legs and knew I’d have to find them again (i.e. feel seasick initially). Slipping the mooring lines from Sovereign Harbour was going to be a bitter sweet moment. I wore my Clipper race issued wet weather gear as homage to all that had not come to pass the previous 21 months. Paul knew about my aborted Clipper race and had stressed to me a few times via email that I might not get on with his boat or trip intentions given we were to moor up in marinas each evening and that the boat was a MOTOR sailor complete with furling headsails. I honestly didn’t care. I wasn’t looking for adrenalin and pushing myself to the limits, I was just happy to have the chance to get offshore and put some of my now, very rusty, day skipper theory into practice and see how many knots and navigational lights and shapes I could still remember.

Over the following two weeks I came to learn that Paul has spent a lifetime on or around the water and I got the impression there wasn’t a sea or ocean he hadn’t sailed to. He has fulfilled one of my life-long pipe dreams, to sail across the Atlantic with the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) and he’s sailed around Britain for the RNLI too. Paul made passage planning look easy and was unfazed by motoring into new marinas and moorings, which is usually when sailors fall apart and couples famously start yelling at each other between bow and helm. He was always the first awake to hear the shipping forecast at 5.20am and despite a taxing day offshore, with a less than competent crew at times, would quietly set to writing a blog post of the day’s adventures and planning the passage for the following day. He also never failed to produce a hearty meal from the galley’s gas oven; spaghetti bolognaise, cottage pie and pasta bake being welcomed and devoured by his crew. In short, Paul seems happiest on his boat, so it’s very generous of him to facilitate strangers sharing in the joy he clearly gets from owning Spirit of Worcester.

I was always very impressed by the meals the skipper seemed to effortlessly cook up in a tiny galley’s gimballed gas oven. There were no leftovers once this cottage pie was served.

Our first week aboard didn’t involve putting any sails up and one too many days in marinas, as strong gales and choppy seas hit the south coast. Typically, the wind was ‘right on the nose’ (i.e. we were sailing straight into it, which can make for a bumpy ride and seasick crew). Paul graciously allowed each of us to have our moment of surrender to nausea and didn’t bat an eye lid about it. I have learnt from Clipper race training that one of the best things to aid recovery from a bout of seasickness is sucking on Haribo or Swizzles sweets. I would never touch such things on shore, but at sea, I am permanently chewing a Swizzles drumstick!

Playing games of Uno, watching the Mutiny series on DVD and staying up to watch Eurovision in the saloon were ways we tried to reduce the impact of cabin fever during our first wet and windy week onboard. Despite the weather forcing us to moor up for a day or two in Brighton, Gosport and on the Isle of Wight, I did love the drama of the skies as the squalls blew in. A few gin and tonics drunk in the wheelhouse to watch stormy sunsets and unexpected opportunities to hook up with a friend and her daughter who live on the Isle of Wight made it all worth it.

At the height of the high winds we found ourselves in Gosport’s premier marina moored up on a pontoon very close to the Clipper 68 training fleet I had trained on between 2018- 2019! Oh, the bittersweet irony! It felt very strange to be using the very marina facilitates I had only ever used during Clipper training and to walk past the race training office (now closed) every time I went to use the onshore toilets. The last time I had been into the office was to collect my team uniform and foul weather kit back in August 2019! At the time I was extremely excited and full of anticipation for the race start and hundreds of crew from all over the world were gathered around the marina office putting together final preparations for months offshore.

So what a funny coincidence (and a blessing I might add) that upon mooching about Portsmouth dodging the rain squalls by popping into shops and cafes for the day at Gunwharf Quays that I should look down to the harbour wall and see Mary Vaughan-Jones tidying lines on the deck of a yacht below. I did a double take, not quite believing it was her, so I tentatively called out “Mary?” A slight pause ensued and then a surprised reply shouted up at me: “Hannah?” My heart leapt at this Clipper connection/coincidence and I was chuffed when she invited me down to her yacht. You see Mary, was one of the round the world crew in my team! She actually got to sail in the entire race before it was abandoned in Subic Bay. She’s young, bold, confident, and in my eyes, very accomplished.

Whilst the rain fell in persistent large dollops on the deck above us, we gossiped about the race over a cuppa in the sanctuary of the saloon below. We chatted about our lives since lockdown and most of all, caught up as best we could with where all the Punta del Este crew were now. It transpires that since the race was aborted in the Philippines, Mary has stepped aboard as Skipper of a yacht owned by the Morning Star Trust; a charity who take young people out sailing. A dream job in my eyes and well earnt by Mary!

The coincidence of meeting Mary in Portsmouth made being moored up in Gosport for a few days during bad weather very much worth it. I had a big smile on my face as I caught the passenger ferry back over to Gosport. It was such a relief to finally connect with someone from the Clipper race face-to-face (and from my team no less) after all this time of lockdowns and limbo.

Another highlight from my time aboard Spirit of Worcester was sailing past Hurst Point and the Needles off the Isle of Wight. As we approached Hurst Point storm damage to the defenses were clearly visible, as were seabirds swooping around the helipad of the lighthouse. Not only are these dramatic, memorable sights of shore, but the sun had come out and we could hoist the mainsail at long last. Then, once we’d rounded Portland Bill and entered Lyme Bay in the English Channel, the sea went almost flat calm. The water looked like syrup. All was still and quiet. I was quite mesmerised. Our destination at the other side of Lyme Bay was Weymouth where we’d called ahead to reserve a mooring in the town’s old quayside. As we approached, enormous cruise ships loomed large. They have been at anchor off this part of the south coast for the duration of the pandemic and I felt for the ship’s skeleton crew living offshore in limbo.

My time aboard the Spirit of Worcester was to end in Dartmouth once we’d moored up at the marina on the Kinsgwear side of the Dart estuary. It was a spectacular approach and I smiled as the Dartmouth women’s gig club were out training in the estuary and passed on our portside looking strong as a team. Whilst Kingswear had two lovely pubs and I enjoyed walking some of the South West coast path that runs through it, all shops are on the other side of the estuary in Dartmouth. So numerous times a day, for the few days I was there, I had to get the passenger ferry. Each crossing only takes a few minutes, but it is quite an event and I had to smile as I spotted a postman disembarking in his van. If only my husband had such a romantic delivery round! The estuary is fascinating because it’s so busy with an huge variety of vessels coming and going; yachts, dingys, gig boats, ferries, power boats, kayaks, SUPs and a delightful paddle steamer!

The paddle steamer Kingswear Castle is the last remaining coal-fired paddle steamer in operation in the UK today. She was built in 1924 at Philip & Son of Dartmouth and plied her trade between Totnes and Dartmouth until 1965 (her engines are even older, dating back to 1904, eight years before the sinking of the Titanic). In her heyday when this impressive ship was the life blood of the river Dart, she could carry almost 500 passengers.

The coastline around South Devon really impressed me; it was so spectacular and reminded me of the rugged coastal coves and mountains of Mallorca or Spain. I left Dartmouth reflecting that those who are lucky enough to call it home, are blessed indeed. But I was blessed too, by arriving in such a beautiful place by boat and Paul had very kindly treated me to an evening meal on my last night aboard the Spirit of Worcester at the Royal Dart Yacht Club. Thankfully, there was no dress code or expectation to be smart, as I only had my by now, quite smelly, practical clothing I use for walking and sailing. Despite this, we were made to feel very welcome and I had a lovely evening setting the world to rights with Paul. He gave me tips on how to get more sailing experience in and said that if Clipper were to resume the race and I decided to go ahead with participating in it, I was to let him know, as he’d be there to see me in at race finish. Who knows what will become of the 2019-20 edition of the race and all us crew who have yet to play our part in it, but I do know I am extremely grateful to Paul for giving me the opportunity to get back on the water. It felt so GOOD and so revitalising after 18 months of limbo and stasis.

As I write this, the current crew and Spirit of Worcester are on the Helford river. I know this because I can locate them on Marine Tracker. I hope they have fair winds and following seas for their journey to the Scilly Isles.

If you’re interested in voyaging with Paul aboard Spirit of Worcester on his future cruises you can contact him via his Facebook page here.