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Fast Track Sailing in the Salcombe Estuary - From Gerston to the finish line

by Malcolm Mackley 1 May 2020 10:06 PDT
Henri Lloyd Salcombe Yacht Club Regatta 2016 © Malcolm Mackley

This third and final article about fast track sailing in the Salcombe Estuary follows a part of the Salcombe Yacht Club race track that can be very challenging for certain sets of conditions. Let's consider a long beat starting from the distant Gerston mark number 7 and heading to the finishing line.

Let's make it really difficult by having a strong breeze coming directly along the estuary with the tide rising (flooding) resulting in a 1.5 mile beat against the tide. These are the sort of conditions you will not (yet?) meet whilst virtual racing online, but they do represent real situations at Salcombe that challenge dinghy sailors in one of the most difficult and beautiful estuaries in the UK!

The map of the course shows both the direction of the tide and wind indicated by arrows. It may seem curious that the wind direction changes along the course, however the surrounding hilly shoreline near Salcombe itself can do a great job at curving the wind to follow the estuary. Various possible routes are marked in different colours and your own choice of routing might depend on the type of boat that you are sailing. Merlin Rockets, for example, sail beautifully and fast upwind, which means they are less troubled by an adverse tide than, say, my own Solo.

When the wind is blowing from either the East or West, the region known as Widegates before you get to the Gerston mark 7, is often remembered by dinghy sailors for the fantastic planning conditions to and from the mark (as shown in the photograph of the RS400 above). However... if you arrive at Gerston on a dead run and the tide is flooding (as shown below for a group of Merlins), you know that when you round Gerston, you are in for long haul to the finish line that could be very hard work against the tide, particularly if the breeze is up.

A route favoured by most leading locals sailing dinghies such as Yawls, Solos and the handicap fleet is shown in yellow. Yes, of course there are alternative options and yes, there may well be other boats racing that want to go exactly where you would prefer to be; however, sailing into the main channel against an adverse tide is definitely not the right way to go. The big first decision is whether to take the yellow or the purple routes on either side of the estuary. I have seen both sides work, but provided there is a reasonable amount of water on the yellow side, I opt for this East side of the estuary.

The yellow route does involve fighting the strong tide at Saltstone point and also crossing the tide to Tosnos point, but whichever route you take, (curiously?) ending up at Tosnos point generally seems to pay. If you are not a tide-crossing enthusiast there is the option to stick to the East shore and take the blue route through The Bag.

The next section of the course is negotiating The Bag, notorious to Salcombe sailors for its challenges. If you are on the yellow route, either cross the tide (again!) or take the green route, working your way up through or near the pontoons staying on the Salcombe side. However, taking the yellow route and again crossing the tide seems to usually pay. Head for Ox Point and then work the slacker tide between the moored cruisers and the East shore. If you do take the green route, at some stage you will need to join yellow for the final push to the line.

I perversely often favour the blue route through The Bag as I have difficulty in my own mind to believe that it pays to cross the tide twice; however it usually does and I lose out!

As soon as you reach the main part of the estuary (nearly) all fast routes take you across to the Portlemouth shore with short-tacking between the shore and the Fuel Barge. This is a tricky section where the wind can be gusty and there are many moored boats. Lots of tacking is involved and I have found easing the kicker helpful in coping with the many unexpected tacks that have to be made thereby reducing the number of capsizes and collisions I have experienced in this sector.

The final big decision you have to make is when you are approaching the distant sight of the finish line and whether you choose to stay on the East Portlemouth side or cross to the Salcombe side. The decision needs to be made before you get to the notorious Ferry Steps where the tide is particularly strong. If you do stick to the Portlemouth side, you need to stay close to the landing stage as shown in the photo above. The locals often make the call to yet again cross the tide in order to finish close to the watch house on the Salcombe side. It is very easy to get this wrong or be affected by the presence of other boats and the tide will sweep you down towards the Ferry Inn on the Salcombe side resulting in having to short tack your way to finish line in a similar way shown for the N12s below.

I am fortunate to now live in Salcombe and at the moment the lockdown is preventing all sailing which is hugely frustrating. During this period, I have been using time to attempt to master the skills required to perform reasonably well on Virtual Sailing and this, just like Salcombe dinghy racing, requires a significant learning curve. Both, when mastered, can provide great satisfaction and pleasure - but I do look forward in the future to sailing in the real world with and against other real sailors at Salcombe on one of the great real sailing race tracks of the world.

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