Southampton Water to Chichester Harbour - Gavin Millar

Bounded by the Hampshire coast and the Isle of Wight, the Solent extends some 25 nautical miles from a large beautiful natural harbour, near Chichester, to the Hurst Narrows in the west, 3 miles from the Needles. In between are large areas of fairly open and more sheltered waters, a variety of attractive rivers, nature reserves, marinas and a wide selection of coastal towns and villages, as well as many opportunities for a small boat sailor to escape to quiet anchorages and creeks.

I’ve sailed on the Solent, on and off, since my teens. At first, day-sailing or racing in dinghies then later, cruising the Solent and across the Channel in yachts. Canoe sailing is more recent and although I’ve attended a fair few OCSG meets and participated in two long expeditions in the Hebrides, my Solent canoe sailing had been previously limited to pottering on the River Itchen, a few day-sails further afield, and racing occasionally at Netley Sailing Club. A dearth of places to camp ashore seemed to rather limit the possibilities for more extended cruises. Besides, I didn’t know anyone who wanted to regularly sail small boats in company, in the Solent.

Several years before, I’d been lucky enough to have a chance conversation about small boat cruising with Frank Dye at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth. Later, books written by Frank Dye and his wife, Margaret, sparked an interest in the Dinghy Cruising Association (the DCA). Dinghies tend to be too heavy to get ashore conveniently without a trolley, so camping on board tends to be the preferred option for DCA members, especially in sailing areas where the high value of shore-side real estate tends to mean there is little or no suitable waterside camping. Discussing this last year with Dave Stubbs and Dave Poskitt at Ullswater sailing club lead to a design for a Shearwater sailing canoe boom tent which they made up for me in lightweight waterproof ripstop fabric. However, work, life and other sailing interests meant I didn’t manage to try out the boom tent last year but the desire to explore the Solent some more remained. Joining the DCA seemed a good way of learning more about the small boat cruising possibilities on my doorstep and of sailing with others with a similar interest. I was made very welcome on two winter DCA day-sails so joined the Association and arranged to attend the first weekend rally of the year in Chichester Harbour.

The destination was East Head, a National Trust protected area of extensive sand dunes and beaches near the entrance to Chichester Harbour, and about a mile’s walk from the nearest public road. DCA rally participants sail to a chosen destination, often from varied starting points, and it is assumed each sailor is largely or entirely responsible for their own safety. My plan was to camp at Netley Sailing club on Friday night and next day, sail 20 nautical miles to East Head to meet up with other DCA members, sleep on board and to sail back the following day. As I bedded down for the night in the camper van I worried whether this solo sailing trip was a little over ambitious and how long it might take to reach the shelter of Chichester Harbour.

However, I awoke refreshed to finish loading supplies and overnight camping gear into the boat and pulled on my drysuit. At 7.30, under a grey sky, a force 4 to 5 chilly breeze was inconveniently blowing from the South East as I set sail with two reefs and tacked down Southampton Water. An hour later saw me only 3 miles closer to my destination and passing Hamble Spit buoy marking the entrance to the River Hamble. Here, is usually a stream of yachts and powerboats going to and from the Solent but near the beginning of the sailing season and early in the day, it was largely deserted. The wind began to veer to the south as I’d hoped, so I was able to shake out the reefs and was soon crashing through short waves on a close reach at over 5 knots. The self bailer made short work of spray and the odd wave coming aboard. A small blue yacht going in the same direction provided a sort of company for a while before it headed toward the small mainland harbour at Hillhead. I pressed on with Gilkicker Point on my port bow and the greyish outline of the Isle of Wight to starboard. As I passed close by the Victorian granite walls and 21st Century radar aerials of Fort Gilkicker, the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour opened out to port, the wind unexpectedly died and the sun came out. After ten minutes becalmed with the sail flapping, I started to row. The Southsea to Ryde hovercraft whizzed by three times and a small fleet of yachts ‘racing’, with bright yellow and white spinnakers hanging limply, drifted past in the sunshine as I rowed across the wide harbour entrance towards Southsea. Gradually, the sails of the yachts, now behind me and further out to sea, began to fill and after an hour I shipped oars and set sail again.

Course of the trip – Netley to Chichester Harbour (not used for navigation!)

South Parade Pier complete with funfair drifted by at 11.15 as I continued east, close inshore, with the tide now setting against me. A long line of anglers on the shingle beach watched me sail by on the other side of the breakers. As I left the shelter of the Isle of Wight a strong swell from the south continued to build and 2 miles ahead of me I could see the white lines of waves breaking over East Winner shoal extending just over a mile to the south of Hayling Island. I consulted my charts and altered course so as to pass seaward of Langstone Fairway Beacon and the breakers. My tidal atlas said the tide was now running at just over half a knot against me and the GPS gave a speed of just over 3 knots across the ground.

The hull of a nearby yacht, heading the same way, alternately disappeared and reappeared as we rose and fell in the lines of long slow swell parallel to our course, as if someone had pressed ‘play’ in an Edward Hopper seascape. In the distance, ahead of me, two fleets of small racing dinghies, with attendant RIBs, raced around orange buoys close to West Pole Beacon, which marks the start of the mile long approach to the Chichester Harbour entrance.

Around 1.30, as the wind picked up again, I turned to port at the beacon and sailed northward up the channel bounded each side by waves breaking with a muted roar over East Pole and West Pole sands. The tide was now ebbing fast and with wind against tide, the passage over the bar was moderately rough as I ran downwind alongside a large ketch. Just inside Chichester Harbour I made the mistake of slightly cutting the corner across a shoal and ended up surfing very fast for a few seconds down a rather large but gently sloping wave running northward. Shortly after, as I rejoined the main channel, a couple on a yacht going the same way, looked at me intently. I tried to appear nonchalant and gave them a wave. Later, I found the GPS showed a top speed of 11.6 knots.

Just after 2.00 I landed on the sand at East Head and wandered the dunes while waiting for other DCA members to arrive. Eventually several dinghies appeared including; a Gull, a Cormorant, an Enterprise and a Mirror, and we moved round the corner to the sheltered anchorage at Snowhill Creek. After rigging the boom tent and cooking and eating a meal, I left Astrid on anchor while several of us visited a pub 2 miles’ walk away. As we returned to the creek in the moonless night, Astrid dimly appeared in the torchlight, across the other side of the creek. I’d laid a second anchor ashore so was able to retrieve my cockleshell home for the night and was soon snug in my sleeping bag while the wind pushed the boat sideways into the flooding tide. I listened to the water gurgling under the hull and occasionally peered out from under the awning at the dark outlines of dinghies and the dim silhouette of the dunes, to see if the anchor was dragging, before eventually falling asleep.

I awoke to the calls of Curlew, feeling warm and relaxed. The only disturbance in the night had been a slight bump when Astrid settled onto the sand as the tide went out. I looked out into the foggy and windless dawn. Tessa, Liz Baker’s Cormorant dinghy, seemed to loom close above me. Abandoned by the receding tide, they had settled just at the top of the creek bank whilst Astrid and I were at the bottom. The thought of leaving the cocoon of the sleeping bag was unappealing and I justified to myself; with little or no wind, rowing down the mile long harbour entrance channel against a strong flood tide and swell would be arduous and likely not possible. I returned to sleep.

Astrid and Tessa in the morning – camping aboard in Chichester Harbour

Later, as a slight breeze dispersed the mist and the sky brightened, I breakfasted, packed up and made ready to sail. The wind was forecast to be from the south west, increasing in the afternoon to a force 3 to 4. Sailing back to Netley, against the wind, would mean a long arduous day, so it was time for an alternative plan. As I discussed the options with others, Steve Bradwell generously suggested if I sail the 5 miles or so to Langstone at the north east corner of Chichester Harbour, he would give me a lift to Netley to collect my van. Liz very kindly called her brother, Peter, at Langstone sailing club and fixed for me to leave Astrid there for a time. So it was all arranged, and at 10.30 I set sail for Langstone. Steve was bound for Emsworth, close by, where he’d left his car and trailer. So we sailed in company up the Emsworth channel in the hazy sunshine and light breeze. The flooding tide meant we made good speed in the light conditions and by noon I’d hauled out at Langstone Sailing Club on the small trolley I’d carried onboard. Peter made me very welcome at the club and soon after lunch taken next to the Langstone Bridge, Steve arrived to take me to Netley.

Gavin – Departing East Head for Langstone


Was sailing 20 miles solo in the Solent in the conditions too risky? The forecast was for the wind to gradually moderate and veer to the west. My passage plan was sensible and I was clear about the navigational hazards and had the necessary experience. My Shearwater sailing canoe was well prepared and, with outriggers, very unlikely to capsize but also importantly, in the event of a capsize, comparatively easy to right (dry) and climb back aboard. If the weather had deteriorated there were several safe havens en route. My means of summoning assistance included flares and, carried in my buoyancy aid, a buoyant marine VHF radio and a personal day/night flare. Falling overboard and becoming parted from the boat does concern me but I have reservations about the entanglement risks of a lifeline. However, for comparable solo trips in future, I will buy a Personal Locator Beacon (a personal EPIRB) so that if all else fails in an emergency, or if I became separated from the boat, I can send a Mayday with my exact position, via satellite.

Oars or a paddle?   Compared to paddling with a long twin bladed paddle, I’m able to row faster for longer against a foul tide but the oars do get in the way a little when camping aboard. In spite of the hour’s row I’d have been better off without them on this trip and it would have been easier to sustain a good paddling rhythm in the lumpy conditions off the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour. However, if it had been necessary to get down the long harbour entrance channel against the flooding tide, rowing would have been preferable to paddling.

Surfing?    Very shallow draft means sailing canoes can frequently go places other boats cannot but it was a mistake to cut the corner inside the harbour entrance. If the wave had been breaking I may have capsized. As it was, sheeting in hard as I accelerated and the apparent wind came ahead, meant I could ride the wave into deeper water where it subsided. In future, I’ll be much more careful when near shallow water and swell.

How is sleeping aboard a sailing canoe?    The ‘living space’ available on my sailing canoe under the boom tent is more than double that of lightweight backpacking tent and I was able to easily reach the fore and aft storage/buoyancy compartments, which were also under cover. The cockpit is almost seven feet long and as wide as a standard sleeping mat, so plenty of room to stretch out. However, in spite of trying to pack light, I did take too much and made the mistake of using large drybags, making finding items I needed difficult, without much space to lay out my kit. Next time, I’ll take less and pack in more but smaller drybags. The boom tent made by Solway Dory is excellent.

More sail area?    A 5m mainsail and the low drag of a canoe hull allows me to keep pace with most cruising dinghies but I have considered a small asymmetric sail for reaching and running. On this passage a bit more speed when I was reaching in light winds would have meant less sailing against a foul tide and so a significantly earlier arrival at Chichester Harbour.

Why a sailing canoe and not a dinghy for coastal cruising?    This question is worthy of a much longer discussion than possible here. All small sailing boat designs are compromises but the virtues of sea going sailing canoes which interest me are; portability, no need for an outboard motor, relatively fast under oar or paddle, ability to portage on a small trolley carried on board and closeness to water and wind. Is this the small boat cruising equivalent of ‘Alpine style climbing’?

For more on Chichester Harbour see 

Gavin Millar