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North Island to Starboard - Around Britain in a 15ft catamaran

by Liam Thom 21 Sep 2019 01:00 PDT

Why would anybody want to sail around Britain: to endure all the worst that the weather and the sea can throw at you, just to end up in the same place as you started?

Well why wouldn't you?

I could have bought a cheap yacht and sailed round in relative comfort with an auto-helm, a bed and a privy but where's the challenge in that? Much better to take a twenty-seven year old beach catamaran with a worn out sail and no conveniences, modern or otherwise.

Last year's failed attempt to go round Britain was good preparation for my second mission. In 2018 I set off with not enough sailing clothes, too many non-sailing clothes, too much food and the wrong gadgets. I started out in shorts and a rash vest and ended up wearing all my layers and still being cold. My VHF radio would only last about six hours and needed mains power to recharge; I had a similar problem with my mobile phone.

A few weeks before the start of my 2019 journey I got our commodore, Chris Read, to beef up the rigging on Biscuit, my Sprint 15. He strengthened and doubled up the chain plates and shroud plates so I could back up the existing steel rigging with dyneema string. I took the boat's original blue and white sail to Paul Newell Sails to put a reefing point in, allowing me to reduce the sail area down to about half.

I did a small amount of gadget shopping. I already had a Garmin GPS watch which would tell me my speed and heading as well as track my course. I purchased a 24 amp hour battery pack and a solar panel that would unfold to about a foot and a half long. I bought a new hand-held VHF radio with USB charging which I tested at home and knew would last several days between charges. After much ogling of on-line gadget shops I ended up with a £190 Chinese waterproof mobile phone with a 10 amp hour battery. I also purchased the latest digital charts for the new phone as my last lot were missing all the wind farms.

Last year I tried to go anti-clockwise. The reason for this is the sea breeze often veers the wind in your favour in the afternoon. The downside is that the Pentland Firth at the top of Scotland is supposed to be easier the other way. The threat of the Pentland Firth was enough to send me clockwise this time.

A 17th June start fitted in with me being made homeless and also allowed my girlfriend Yvonne and me to take part in the two-up race at Shanklin the day before. We took her boat and dismasted before the start when the rigging snapped. I was glad of my extra rigging on Biscuit.

The first day took me from my base at Shanklin on the Isle of Wight to Swanage. Just 42 nautical miles but my body wasn't prepared for six and a half hours of close hauled sailing. After I got off the boat it took ages to get my back straightened out but after a delicious meal at a beach café I felt much better. I walked up to the top of the downs by Old Harry Rock and noticed the tide was getting a bit close to Biscuit so I had a two mile run downhill to rescue her from the sea.

I launched the next day at 6am with not a lot of breeze but a bit of tide behind me. I paddled between the rocks at Peveril Point and well out to sea to get clear of the unpleasantness at Saint Alban's Head and the firing ranges at Lulworth. I was six nautical miles out to sea when I heard on the VHF "Dart boat south west of Anvil Point, this is Solent Coastguard". I replied and the coastguard said they had reports of a small catamaran out to sea and was everything OK? I said I had to be this far out to miss the Lulworth ranges and all was well. I thanked him for his concern. Shortly afterwards there was repeated machine gun fire behind me.

I had set a course to go close in at Portland Bill to avoid the tidal race. Unfortunately the wind dropped and the tide sucked me away from the coast and straight towards the boiling waters of Portland Ledge. I tried to row the little boat out of danger but the current was too strong and I was taken sideways into the maelstrom. I don't know how big the waves were but they scared the living daylights out of me. Each breaking wave roared and spat at Biscuit and threatened to turn her over and eat us up. I put my legs under both foot straps and just pointed the boat up and down the slopes. After five minutes of turmoil the waves turned Biscuit into a tack but still she stayed upright. There was no end in sight; just white water for miles. All I could do was try and sit it out and make sure I stayed with the boat if she went over. We entered the race at 14:18. We left at 14:28. It was the worst waves I encountered on the trip. The boat stayed the correct way up and nothing broke.

On the 11th July (day 23) I sailed the 46 miles of open water from Port Logan to the Mull of Kintyre with Ireland looking very big and close all the way. There were very strong tides which turned against me as I passed Sanda Island and I landed at 2.30pm on a sandy beach just to the east of where I intended. I was getting used to seeing beautiful scenery but the Mull of Kintyre was the most lovely place I had seen: a huge green mountain reaching out of the sea up to 1,400 feet. I relaunched at 6.45pm to try to get round the headland at slack tide and avoid any bumpy seas. The wind was on the nose but the tide was starting to push me in the right direction and I made steady progress around the headland. As I got to the Mull Lighthouse the mist rolled in and the wind dropped. I was completely becalmed with failing light and no telephone signal. It was going to be a long night. I called Belfast Coastguard on the VHF and asked them to let Yvonne know I was fine but would be out a bit late. They were great although they did want to know things like a destination and an ETA which I had to make up on the fly.

I paddled on through the darkness with the cliffs visible on my right but no concept of how far they were away. I had my head torch but it was better to let my eyes adjust to the darkness and sail without lights. I kept looking at the chart plotter on my phone to keep me away from rocks and it told me I could land around the next headland. As the clock passed midnight the sky became pitch black and I was treated to a magical display of bio-luminescence with fairy dust dancing in Biscuit's wake. Eventually the lights of Machrihanish grew brighter and I pointed the boat at what the Ordnance Survey maps on my phone said was a beach. There was a bit of sandstone at the bottom of the tide and it was not a particularly smooth landing but I had reached terra firma at 1.30am. I ate half a cake for supper.

The next morning while eating my breakfast I was shot at with a golf ball. It missed Biscuit's bow by inches.

This is where the holiday really started. I had a force 5 westerly on the beam to take me to the first of hundreds island that I would be sailing amongst for the next week. I passed between Cara, Gigalum and Gigha and the Kintyre Peninsula, literally whooping for joy at sailing at speed in such a beautiful, remote place. I made great progress through the Sound of Jura with the now north westerly breeze allowing me to fetch along the mainland coast. The intended target was a beach near Craignish where I was to meet Yvonne who was driving up that day. It was four miles away from the notorious whirlpools of the Gulf of Corryvreckan and the water was flowing quickly in many varied directions between a million rocks and islets. I found my way into Loch Beag where I saw Yvonne and where there should have been a beach. I dismounted by an entirely unsuitable place where Yvonne was stood 5 minutes earlier and dropped my sails. Yvonne, however was gone so I looked at my phone and noticed (apart from the lack of signal) that she had sent me several messages telling me not to land there and that there was a much better beach around the corner. So I had to try to pull the sail back up while keeping it off the rocks and then tack my way out through all the whirlpools and back into Loch Craignish where there was the perfect place for a beach cat and a tent.

All the way up the west coast I had been working from day to day, planning where I might land and which course I needed to take and when I needed to launch to make best use of the tide. I had all the beaches marked in my phone and I didn't need to spend much time on planning the night before. However there was one place that was concentrating my mind all the way round. The Pentland Firth divides the north east of Scotland from the Orkney Islands and experiences some of the biggest tidal currents on the planet with 16 knots having been recorded. There is a tidal race called the Merry Men of Mey running the whole 8 miles to Hoy with no gap. There is plenty of advice on-line about how to navigate it but none of it paints a picture of calmness. I spent several hours at the pub in Durness working out when I needed to leave to get through it and I had a long day sailing on the 19th July to get in the right place to start the next day.

I landed at Thurso at 11.40pm with still enough light to sail without a head torch. I ate a tin of cold Ravioli while talking to a drunken Cypriot and pitched my tent on the beach. I was woken at 2am in the morning when the night clubs kicked out and apparently the fact that a catamaran was on the beach was all over social media. Fortunately the youth of Thurso were extremely friendly and having taken some pictures of me and posted them on Twitter I was allowed to sleep.

I launched at 6.30am with light wind and a bit of mist. I was quite happy with that as I didn't want to sail though the Pentland Firth with more than a force 4. However as I headed out towards Dunnet Head (the most northerly point on the mainland) a squall passed over and the wind built to 20 knots; I abandoned the mission for the day and headed to Dunnet Sands. Once the rain passed, the wind dropped to about 10 knots and I decided to take a second look at it. The seas around Dunnet Head were not pleasant but I had been in far worse. Once clear of the point I headed in shore at Brough Bay where the water was flat although small whirlpools were frequent.

The next target was the Merry Men of Mey and my heart was pounding as it got closer. I was aiming to go in as close as I could but there were exposed rocks at the headland and I wanted to go outside all of them. It was just past slack tide and the current was in my favour. There were four foot breaking waves stretching out to the Orkneys but I could see flat water beyond. I pointed Biscuit at the jumps and kicked on. She sailed over them with no problems. I was through. I had sailed a fifteen foot boat to the top of Britain and through the most feared stretch of water in the British Isles. I was overjoyed. I rang Yvonne to tell her I had made it through the race with tears running down my face.

The North Sea was not friendly to me. It was a vile, choppy, snarling, nasty bit of water from the moment I turned south at Fraserburgh to when I crossed into the softer scenery of Yorkshire. Every headland was a battle through chop. The wind dropping was the worst danger as the sails and mast would clonk from one side to the other, stretching the rigging and the patience and sanity of the helmsman.

I passed Aberdeen on the 25th July with a leaky starboard hull intending on landing in Nigg Bay. Unfortunately the harbour authorities had decided to make the bay into a harbour and were putting concrete all over the nice sand. I limped onto a stony cove at Portlethan where I shouted up to some workmen to ask for some help to get the boat onto the beach. They shouted down to say it was OK because they had called the coastguard and a lifeboat was on its way. But they wouldn't help. I anchored the boat and bailed out and headed out to sea to be met by the inshore lifeboat from Stonehaven and the larger lifeboat from Aberdeen. The Stonehaven boat did not have any ice-cream but I did accept some bottles of water from them. The next few miles were slow and bumpy before I inched my way into Newtonhill.

Newtonhill has a very pleasant harbour but you don't want to land a Sprint 15 there unless you have a very friendly, strong person there to help you. Fortunately Stuart Fraser was walking his dogs when I arrived and he and I manhandled the waterlogged boat over the rocks above the high water mark. He had the strength of two normal people and he lifted Biscuit's bows above his head to let the water drain out. It was an almighty struggle to get the boat to a suitable place and after Stuart had left me I curled up on the beach in the foetal position and was close to despair. How was I going to mend the boat and get her launched from such a beach? Could this be the end of the trip? I couldn't find my duct tape to try and block the hole so went to the local Tesco to see if they had anything to fix the boat. They did not. The local pubs were not doing food so dinner was nuts and crisps. The pub did give me some duct tape though. Yvonne was on her way again with gelcoat so things were looking up.

The next morning I tried to get the tape to stick but it wasn't going to last. I met a couple of fishermen on the beach and it just happened that they had a bucket of gelcoat. I applied three coats over the course of the day with a stop for lunch at the pub and a chance to watch England beat Ireland at cricket. It looked like I had fixed the hole. The next morning I got up at 7 and met another fisherman who said I needed resin instead of gelcoat. He mixed me some up and I poked it up the hull with a paint brush taped to a sail batten. It dripped out of the hole like honey and set fast. I covered the outside with more gelcoat and it looked like I was in business. Meanwhile I had gathered a small posse of locals including Will Feasey, who had a wet suit, to help me get the boat off the beach.

We carried the unladen boat onto the water and Will held the bows while I put the rudders, trolley and sail on Biscuit. Yvonne waded out up to her armpits to help. There was no useful wind in the cove and plenty of swell so I sailed the boat while Will paddled like fury. Once nearly out of the bay, Will shook my hand and jumped overboard and swam in. The people of Newtonhill had been absolutely amazing. I could not have mended the boat and launched without them.

I landed back in Shanklin on the 13th August after eight weeks and two days. I had been sailing every day apart from six days including every day without a break from Portreath in Cornwall to Newtonhill on the east coast of Scotland.

I had covered 2,249 nautical miles. I broke two battens, virtually wore out the main halyard and destroyed the metal plate at the bottom of the mast. I wore out an old drysuit, several pairs of gloves and a pair of old boots. My nose was peeling from the sun and my hands were getting very fragile and wrinkled from being constantly wet. Other than that Biscuit and I were in pretty good condition and I was fitter when I got back than when I started.

"Roller coaster of emotions" is a bit of a cliché but it does some up how I felt doing the trip. I went through the darkest despair and experienced the heights of elation. The worst moments were mostly when I was becalmed with big seas. A sail flogging from side to side in chop will drive you mad eventually. I was rarely troubled by too much wind while I was on the water.

The good bits were very good indeed. The west coast of Scotland was far more beautiful than I could have imagined. I landed on some truly amazing beaches, some of which were basically deserted from one year to the next. I landed on five Islands: Anglesey, Walney, Eigg, Mull and Lindisfarne. I saw porpoises, dolphins, a minke whale a yard from the bows and hundreds of seals. I sailed past countless puffins, sea eagles, razorbills, gannets, guillemots, skuas, terns and dozens of other sea birds species that I cannot name.

I am so grateful to so many people that made it possible. Yvonne drove more miles than I sailed to help at the weekends and Chris Tillyer drove round the whole of the south east of England with my kit. Jenny Ball was on call to rescue me if I got in trouble crossing the Thames. I was welcomed into people's homes by people I knew (including Donald Sloan and Paul Craft), by complete strangers, and by the relatives of complete strangers. I was also allowed to sleep in a yacht on a wet night in Port Logan. I was helped up the beach by countless people and chatted for hours to strangers about my journey.

Would I do it again? Don't be ridiculous.

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