A day-sail in the western Solent in February - Gavin Millar

On Sunday morning the 0600 Inshore Waters Forecast for Selsey Bill to Lyme Regis included a strong wind warning; Force 5 gusting 7, southerly, sea state Rough and then Force 4 to 5 south westerly later. It wasn’t looking good for a sail round the Needles, and especially not for landing at Freshwater Bay on the south side of the Isle of Wight.

Two weeks earlier, at the end of January, Ian Hylton, the new owner of a Solway Dory Shearwater decked sailing canoe similar to mine, had proposed we try a day’s expedition he’d found in a Solent sea kayaking guide. His plan was to launch from Lymington early, sail out of the Solent at Hurst, down the Needles channel with the last of the ebb, turn left at the Needles into the English Channel, on 3 miles to Freshwater Bay, land, portage 1 mile north to the head of the River Yar and then sail back to Lymington via the attractive Isle of Wight port of Yarmouth. A round trip of around 18 nautical miles. Ian is an accomplished Wayfarer sailor and Dinghy Cruising Association member so this was a great opportunity to undertake an adventurous winter day sail in company whilst making full use of our sailing canoes’ voyaging capabilities. I readily agreed.

The evening before the sail it was looking as if the slow moving cold front would not pass over and the wind veer and abate until mid afternoon, but nevertheless we agreed we’d still meet up at Lymington Town Sailing Club and see what we could make of the day. Just before 9.00 the next day, with my Shearwater on top of my van, I followed Ian’s car into a largely deserted Lymington. We unloaded and rigged the boats in heavy rain and gusting wind. Ian noticed Lymington Town Sailing Club was flying a November flag over an Alpha flag – international code for “All races are abandoned. No racing today”. However, he took some comfort from the sight of the Wight Link ferry leaving for Yarmouth. I wasn’t entirely convinced by this line of reasoning. A few sailors on their way home after the cancellation of racing stopped by to look at the two strange looking sailing craft, with small outrigger floats, and to make polite enquiries about the boats and our plans for the day. They were intrigued by the sailing canoes and apparently complimentary about our fortitude but I could tell they meant something slightly different. One or two stayed on for the entertainment of our departure. We agreed we’d put our noses out of the Lymington River into the Solent, see what it was like and if possible sail on to Yarmouth and then up the river Yar. From the mouth of the Lymington River, the course to Yarmouth was about 2 1/2 nautical miles dead upwind but would be more like getting on for double that through the water, allowing for tacking upwind and a lot of leeway in rough conditions. However, we decided we could always turn tail and run back to Lymington under small sails if the wind or the waves were too much.

Boisterous sailing in a strong breeze in the Solent, keeping the bow up to avoid taking on too much water

Just after 11.00, as we tacked down the narrow channel, on the way dodging another large ferry returning from Yarmouth, I soon found three reefs (rolls round the mast) gave me too much sail so quickly reduced the sail area by another roll. Over the bar the short steep waves increased to around three to four feet in height, frequently breaking over the bow, but I found by moving about three feet back from my usual windward sailing position, Astrid’s bow rose to the waves well, keeping most of them out of the boat. I opened my new self-bailer which to my surprise kept the cockpit clear of water as we pounded upwind amidst spray and driving rain. Ian, ahead of me, also stopped briefly to put in another reef but then resumed good progress to windward. So we carried on.

Having found Astrid capable of handling the conditions I relaxed into a rhythm of hiking out hard and spilling wind in the gusts whilst I picked a path upwind avoiding the largest waves. Sailing a bit freer (less close to the wind) than usual helped to keep Astrid moving well and avoided us being stopped by the larger waves. As we crossed the Western Solent Ian and I kept pace with each other but without a self bailer, Ian was forced to stop three times to bail out his cockpit. However, these breaks were also an opportunity for me to sail to and fro on a reach at high speed and for Ian to try to snatch a few photos, whilst being bounced around the waves and buffeted by the wind and rain. As we approached Yarmouth and the lee of the Isle of Wight, the gusts increased in strength but the wave height diminished. We sailed into Yarmouth harbour just after 1.00 and at the slipway beside the Lifeboat station, we pulled our boats out of the water on the small Solway Dory launching trolleys we’d carried in our canoes’ forward buoyancy compartments and parked at the top of the slipway.

Tough sailing in the Solent, well reefed in a strong breeze

To warm up and to recover we huddled in the nearby bus shelter and ate our sandwiches whilst contemplating the harbour and watching the seagulls flying on the spot in the breeze. Our next leg was to take us 1 1/2 nautical miles up to the head of navigation of the River Yar. Apparently, talking in geological time scales, the River Yar was once a much longer river but then lost its headwaters due to erosion of the south coast of the Isle of Wight. Consequently, it is now a short diminutive river, more of a stream I’d say, but with a surprisingly fair sized tidal estuary which ends only a mile from Freshwater Bay on the South side of the island. After lunch we lowered our masts, launched and warmed up whilst paddling through the harbour and under the road bridge at the far end. We set sail again on the South side of the bridge and tacked upstream with the young flood. The estuary, running through a reeded salt marsh, became progressively narrower and our tacks shorter and shorter. Ian proved much more adept than me at tacking in tight spots whereas I managed to hit the soft sticky mud at least three times so decided to furl the sail and paddle the last 1/2 mile, reaching the end of the tidal estuary just after Ian. He maintained this was cheating but as a Wayfarer sailor I guess he’s not so used to making useful speed under manual power.

Earlier in the day, we’d hoped there was some slight chance the wind would die and veer sufficiently to make a portage and launch at Freshwater Bay possible but it had become clear this was a definite ‘no go’. Even if the wind had moderated, the waves, travelling North across sixty miles of the English Channel from France, would take some time to die away, making launching in a bay open to the South with a return to Lymington the other way round, via the Needles, impossible. However, we’d established it is possible to haul the boats out, or in, at the head of the estuary and hoped to return another day to complete the circumnavigation of the Western tip of the Isle of Wight and Tennyson Down. The bonus of the continuing fresh breeze was that we’d have a swift crossing back to Lymington.

Racing down the River Yar

After a fast run downriver to Yarmouth under heavily reefed main sails we lowered masts, fixed all round white LED navigation lights to our mast heads, raised masts again and set sail for Lymington shortly before 5.00, just as dusk was starting. Ian left the harbour before me but I caught him up as he paused to put in another reef, so we then sailed on together, averaging over 6 knots downwind. As we left the lee of the Island the height of the waves increased again and we were soon surfing down waves, sometimes at over 8 knots. To stop the bow going under when overtaking the wave in front I kept my weight well back in the boat. In contrast to the two hours it had taken us to sail to Yarmouth we passed the race starting platform at the Lymington River entrance barely twenty minutes after leaving Yarmouth and surfed down large waves as we passed over the bar. Due to the conditions I avoided gybing as we followed the curves of the river back to Lymington and chose to tack round instead. At 5.30 precisely we landed, feeling exhilarated but a bit relieved, at the slipway from where we had departed 6 1/2 hours and about 15 nautical miles earlier in the day. Our spectators from before had all long since gone home, but as we packed up in the last of the light and continuing rain we felt we’d had a great day’s sail and found the Shearwater sailing canoes capable of sailing well in conditions which would be a challenge to many sailing dinghies.

Equipment: 60 N buoyancy aid, full drysuit, sailing knife, whistle, waterproof marine VHF radio, bailer, Garmin GPS 60, orange smoke, red and collision flares, 25 metre throwing line in bag, small tool and spares kit, mobile phone in waterproof case, ‘Navlight’ LED all round white navigation light,steering compass, Admiralty Solent Tough Chart, Solent OS map, Solent tidal atlas, twin bladed paddle. Ian was similarly equipped but had an EPIRB (Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon) instead of a Marine VHF.

Conditions: From a poll of three local on-line weather station records (the Brambles, Hurst Castle and Lymington River entrance), the wind was southerly all day, with a wind speed of 22 knots gusting to 28 and sometimes 30 knots or a little more (lower end of a Force 6 gusting to Force 7). Tides were Neaps with slack water at about midday. The air temperature was 8 Centigrade and it rained all day.

For more information on the Dinghy Cruising Association or on Solway Dory Shearwater sailing canoes see;