Here we go again…

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Just before Christmas 2013, Lynn, my chief number one crew and I headed off to a small island off the Brittany coast. We were going to tackle the obviously impossible task of moving a boat up the Bay of Biscay in a tiny gap in the disastrous weather we’d been suffering for weeks. When I wrote about the trip I entitled it, ‘What price a life?’ as it made me think very seriously about the merits of going out to sea when it is rough.  Well, would you believe it, here I am again to tell you about the same route, the same model of boat but much, much better weather?

One of the things I learned about this trip the last time I made it, was that accessibility to this section of the French coast line is not easy using public transport. I don’t think I’ve ever used so many coaches and trains getting back and forth from a boat.  Fortunately, this time it was quite straight forward but still, more involved than just getting into a car and driving to the marina. I set off on Friday evening, on the ferry to St Malo.  Staying overnight in a hotel opposite the station made it easy to stroll across the road the next morning and virtually walk straight onto the waiting train without so much as adjusting the speed of my step. Less than an hour later and I was in Rennes. The next train got me to Nantes and then a coach took me the rest of the way to Noirmoutier.  Not bad really but when you consider I started travelling on Friday evening at 18:30 and it was now 16:30 the following day, it does seem like a long journey for such a short distance across the globe, especially when we keep getting told how small the world is these days.

So, Bill, the owner of the new Swift Trawler 50, was waiting to greet me when I arrived. As we walked to the boat, we discussed the plan and the weather and came to an amicable agreement that we would go ‘balls out’, given the favourable weather conditions, to get to Guernsey on the second day to collect Bill’s wife.  Jane was planning to come across on the ferry from Poole and complete the last leg with us.  Personally, given the distances involved, I would have preferred to have split the trip into three legs, allowing a day for each but Bill was on a mission and as long as it’s not dangerous, I’m happy to help.

The following morning, at 06:20 sharp, we left the marina on the first leg of our trip.  It was supposed to be 06:00 sharp but neither of us had had much sleep – new boats don’t come with bedding and pillows and rolling clothes up to make a pillow is only slightly successful. It started off fairly flat but as we got a couple of miles off we encountered the standard swell from the SW that plagues Atlantic facing shores and what was left of the previous few days wind blowing at a slight angle across the top of the swell.  This made it slightly lumpy but the semi-displacement keel on the Swift Trawler kept it comfortable.  Our target was Roscoff and if we could keep up a steady 12-15 knots this was going to take us about 12 hours – long day, especially after a night of very little sleep.  As it happened, we had patches of extremely smooth water and made the Raz de Sein just after 13:30.

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Lighthouse & West Cardinal marker at the Raz de Sein

Skimming across the water at 18 knots and over the ground at 15 knots was a little disappointing but we’d had a good run so far and it was inevitable we’d hit some foul tide at some stage. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before we’d passed in front of Brest and made our way around the westerly tip of Finistère. We were now on the home run into Roscoff.  By the time we got in, the sea was like a mill pond and what wind there had been, had subsided. At this time of year, this really should have been a clue…

A tip for any motor yachts thinking of staying over in Roscoff – the diesel pump will only dispense €300 worth of diesel in one go.  We had to go through the process for refuelling eight times before we had filled the boat up!

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Sat on the fuel berth after our lengthy filling up session

Roscoff seemed to be a sleepy little marina – quite clean and contemporary looking but nobody about.  The restaurant stopped serving early so we had no choice but to stroll into town.  In fairness, it was only the 20 minutes the restaurant owner said it was.

Over the hill and down towards the town centre is a lovely and clearly affluent street of houses, punctuated by something I’ve not seen growing in such neatly aligned rows and in such quantities before – a field of Artichokes!

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Past the artichokes and a little further towards the ‘centre ville’ and the vista opens up to reveal the old port (drying) and the town tucked behind it. Here’s a couple of shots of the entrance to the old port.

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The next day we woke up to pea-soup fog! Advection Fog is common at this time of year. The warm, moist winds coming across the Atlantic are chilled as they encounter the waters around northern France and the UK which are still cold from the winter.  (Water takes a long time to change temperature and is at it’s coldest in the early months of the year, not warming up properly until September, October).

In busy commercial waters I would be very hesitant about setting sail in thick fog but this was a week day now and the only craft we were likely to meet were the local fishermen.  We had radar, AIS and two huge plotters to view it all on – off we jolly well went.  I reckon we were the only boat blowing it’s horn out there but it made us feel righteous. After an hour, we drove out of the fog and left it hanging in the air behind us. We had popped out into a sunny day of cloudless blue skies and flat calm waters; how lovely, Guernsey here we come.

Sadly, Jane couldn’t make it in the end, which was probably just as well as it got really lumpy going around the Les Casquets . The tide would have been against us going through the Alderney Race and with a slight wind over tide effect it would have been pretty rough there too, so we chose the Casquets route but honestly, it was rough enough to slow us down to 7 knots at one point and I seriously wonder if the Race might have been a better option.

Once we’d crossed the shipping lanes and made it to half way across the Channel it smoothed off enough for us to get back up to 18 knots.  From there on in it was pretty uneventful and so, just after 16:30 we arrived in Poole. A successful , speedy, slightly foggy crossing and one very happy owner!

This has been another Captain Corbett’s Adventure.  If I’m not on Jersey teaching a private tuition Day Skipper theory or Yachtmaster theory course, then I’m either spending time with someone on their boat, giving them the confidence to take their boat out with their family and friends on board or I’m off somewhere exotic delivering a boat. Either way, I’ll write it up and put it on the Blog for you all to see, so keep popping back to see my most recent adventures.

 

Skipper’s Tips #15 – Whether the weather is hot…

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This subject is truly extensive.  There are a huge number of books that have been written about weather and there are many, many people far more knowledgeable than I, who can wax lyrical about world weather systems.  That said, I do know some of the pertinent bits and that’s what I hope to pass on to you today. 

It goes without saying that it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the weather.  Nobody wants to be caught out in bad weather and frankly, with so much good quality forecasting these days, it’s almost inexcusable.  Weather forecasts can be found in newspapers, on the radio and on the television, on regular VHF broadcasts, on the internet, but even easier than all these options, try using ‘Mk 1 eyeball’; stick your head out of the window!

Essentially, as boaters, the weather we need to know about falls into three categories.

  1. Depressions
  2. Sea breezes
  3. Fog

Depressions occur when warm, wet wind crossing the Atlantic, picking up moisture as it goes, comes into contact with the Polar Front, which lies generally to the north of our latitudes.  The cold Polar winds will get underneath these rising, warm, wet winds from the southwest and set up an anti-clockwise, upwards spiral of wind.  As the warm, wet winds rise, they cool. Cold air isn’t capable of carrying as much moisture as warm air and so eventually, the moisture is released as precipitation – that’s rain to you and me.  The difference in air pressure from the outer edge of the depression to the inner centre varies hugely over relatively short distances – we can see this when we look at synoptic weather charts showing the clustering of isobars around the centre of the depression. These tightly packed isobars indicate the large pressures gradients involved, which to you and me essentially means strong winds.  In fact, the closer together the isobars, the stronger the winds.  If you can get hold of a print out of a synoptic chart, there should be a scale on it, which will allow you to measure the precise wind speeds.

Here’s something to consider the next time you get a chance to look at a synoptic chart. In the Northern Hemisphere, the wind cycles anti-clockwise around a low and clockwise around a high.  So, if you get a High and a Low next to each other the wind is likely to be great where they meet as you will have two wind systems effectively going in the same direction.  However, when you get two Low’s next to each other, they cancel each other out at the point at which they meet.  The resulting wind, at this point, will most likely be light and variable in direction.

If we know what to look for we should be able to spot a weather system coming and this will allow us to make an informed decision on whether to go to sea or not.  So, what does an approaching depression look like and what are the clues?

The classic timeline of a depression moving through is as follows:

  • Falling barometer
  • Lowering cloud base
  • Rain
  • Reducing visibility
  • Complete cloud cover
  • Veering (clockwise) change in wind direction as the warm front arrives
  • Steadying barometer
  • Easing of the rain to a continuous lighter rain or drizzle, in the warm sector
  • Rising barometer, as the cold front arrives
  • Thunder clouds, often with the thunder
  • Gusty winds
  • Showery rain
  • Veering wind direction
  • Crystal clear skies, with fluffy white clouds
  • Excellent visibility

Keep your eye on the barometer.  Make a regular note of the readings when you fill in your deck log and you will instantly notice a change.  A fall of 6mb in a two-hour period means head for port; there’s some bad weather due soon.

Clearly, given the basic level of our weather forecasting skills (up to Yachtmaster level), I would still recommend that you also compare what the traditional weather sources are telling you with your new found skill of being able to spot a depression – the weather we experience in and around the UK is very varied and subject to quick changes. Weather systems continually speed up and slow down, often arriving early or not at all.  

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Sea breezes occur on sunny, summer days, when rapidly rising air, which has been warmed by the land heating up, sucks in air from the sea, producing the onshore breeze.  The rising air eventually cools, falling back down over the sea and so the process continues until the evening when the sun goes in.

Katabatic wind is the wind that blows out to sea from the land. As the land, which during the day was hot, cools down, it cools the air above it. This, now heavy, cool air tumbles down the hillsides and coastal cliffs, rushing out to sea.  This wind effect doesn’t last particularly long and personally, I’ve only experienced this in the Med. 

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Fog is caused when warm, wet air gets chilled revealing the moisture content as fog. The classic example of this is in coastal UK waters in Spring, we call this Advection Fog or more affectionately, Sea Fog . The waters around the UK are at their coldest at this time. As the warm, moist air coming across the Atlantic meets the cold waters around the UK, the chilling effect reveals the moisture as fog.  It can often burn off by mid-afternoon but occasionally it can hang around for a few days until the wind direction changes and the temperature differential changes.  I’ve seen waves of fog plague islands in the early Summer months and even in August on Jersey one time when I was delivering a new boat to a customer and got fog-bound myself. 

Radiation Fog or Land Fog, as some call it, happens mostly in the Autumn months. After a warm, sunny September day, the land, which has been warming up during the day, will chill down quickly under clear skies.  This chilling cools the air lying over the ground, which in a Katabatic Wind style, tumbles down into valleys and estuaries where it meets warm, moist air lying over streams and rivers.  The chilling effect of this cold air produces the fog – which gives us those romantic looking photographs that people like me love to capture.

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Please don’t base your boating plans on a forecast you had five days ago – 12 to 24 hour forecasts are going to be the most accurate and this is what you should be looking at before you decide to head down to your boat. Then, before setting off on your journey, get the latest forecast as published by the marina.  Remember too, that the weather you’re feeling inside the marina will often bear no relation to what’s actually going on at sea.

This has been another Captain Corbett’s Adventure.  If I’m not on Jersey teaching a private tuition Day Skipper theory or Yachtmaster theory course, then I’m either spending time with someone on their boat, giving them the confidence to take their boat out with their family and friends on board or I’m off somewhere exotic delivering a boat. Either way, I’ll write it up and put it on the Blog for you all to see, so keep popping back to see my most recent adventures.

 

Skipper’s Tips #12 – Fog

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The first time I encountered fog on a boat was in the early days of my teaching career.  We were on the school boat Alpha, just having passed Calshot Spit in the Solent.  I could see the fog ahead of us and determined that we should continue towards our destination; fully expecting it to be a narrow bank of mist which we would soon pop out of as we approached Cowes.  Behind us was brilliant sunshine and in my naivety I wasn’t prepared for just how dense and disorientating it was going to be.  We all had life-jackets on, the radar was working and as we entered the fog bank we slowed down to tick-over.   Despite following the correct procedures I have to hold my hands up and admit that I found myself in a very uncomfortable position.  Everyone on board was relying on my experience and skill to navigate us safely through the fog to Cowes and yet my stomaching was churning – I couldn’t see a blinking thing and all I could hear was the engines of the Red Funnel fast-cat, seemingly headed directly towards us.

My training kicked in and after a sustained squint at the chart plotter it soon became apparent that the fast-cat was actually a mile to the south of us and not on a collision course after all.  With no particular reason to go to Cowes that day and glorious sunshine behind us I made the decision to retreat and we were soon out of the fog and heading for Southampton Water to do some Man Over Board practice instead.

 

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No matter where you do your boating, fog or reduced visibility situations will arise at some time or another.  Don’t forget, that a heavy rain shower or even snow can make it exceedingly difficult to see and truly disorientating, so it is supremely important that as you approach an area of reduced visibility, you make an accurate note of your position and indicate this on your chart: all your subsequent navigation will be based upon this position fix so get it right.

Big shipping, the kind you really don’t want appearing out of the gloom directly in front of you, will be staying to the main shipping channels, it therefore makes sense for you to run outside these channels but only if it is safe to do so, obviously you must check your position on the chart before moving to the shallows.

A really handy tip is to follow a suitable contour line around the coast until you come to a safe harbour. Once you are within 100 yards of the entrance you can normally make out the entry channel markers; get yourselves safely tied up and wait for the visibility to improve.

For those of you with radar on board, the processes of navigating in reduced visibility and avoiding other vessels are that much easier.  However, you are obliged to know how to correctly decipher the information presented to you by your radar screen; if you were to have an accident based on this information and you had misinterpreted what you had seen on the radar screen, you could be found liable for the accident.

 

Here are some of the procedures you might employ when heading into an area of reduced visibility:

  • As soon as you see the weather deteriorating, take a fix
  • Make a note in the ‘Deck Log’ and on your chart of your position
  • Slow down and move outside the main channel if you can
  • Turn on your navigation lights and navigation equipment
  • Make sure everyone is wearing a life-jacket and the life-raft is ready to deploy
  • Sound the appropriate signal for your vessel every two minutes
  • Keep alert for the sound of approaching vessels

Over the years I’ve found myself enveloped in varying degrees of fog, walls of rain and snow storms.  I have to tell you it’s not much fun.  You have to put a lot of reliance on your equipment and if you’re not that confident with using radar this can leave you very dry mouthed.  If you keep your head and follow the procedures listed above you will, most likely, be fine.  I would encourage you to attend a radar course when you get a chance as there have been many instances of people misinterpreting their radar and ending up colliding with other vessels.  Remember that some of what you learn in the COLREGS is based around vessels being in sight of each other – when you are in reduced visibility you are no longer in sight of other vessels.  In situations like this your immediate reaction to avoiding a collision might not be to turn to starboard but to turn to port instead! 

This has been another Captain Corbett’s Adventure.  If I’m not on Jersey teaching a private tuition Day Skipper theory or Yachtmaster theory course, then I’m either spending time with someone on their boat, giving them the confidence to take their boat out with their family and friends on board or I’m off somewhere exotic delivering a boat. Either way, I’ll write it up and put it on the Blog for you all to see, so keep popping back to see my most recent adventures.

 

 

 

 

Skipper’s Tips #10 – Sound Signals

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Happy New Year everyone!  Let’s hope 2015 turns out to be a great year for us all and certainly better than the last few years.  The current economic crisis has put a bit of a downer on a lot of people’s boating but the signs are that things are starting to get better; cheaper fuel is one good sign, keep your fingers crossed for less demanding times ahead…

For those of you who know me well, you’ll be aware that like everyone else I’ve had my own issues to deal with in the last few years.  Going from being fully employed to working freelance again has been a bit of a wrench but I recently had some good fortune come my way in the form of an ongoing contract to run a medium sized motor yacht in the Mediterranean. This certainly takes the pressure off financially and will, I’m sure, prove to be a bit of a hoot too!

Needless to say, you can expect many exciting adventures to come and naturally, my personal thoughts on a whole list of new anchorages and restaurants!

In the mean time, I think a new Skipper’s Tip is long overdue.  Given that it’s winter and we are, yet again, in the grips of some pretty fluffy weather I’ll consider some of the theoretical side to boating…

Sound Signals:

It has to be obvious to those of you who operate boats and are also car drivers that, for the most part, we do not travel down clearly laid out tracks, we are not all going the same way and we do not have brake lights and indicators to make other ‘drivers’ aware of our intentions.  So, how do we let other water users know what we are going to do next?

Clearly, if we are in an open stretch of water, with plenty of distance between ourselves and nearby boaters we can generally see what people are up to by studying their track over periods of 5 or 10 minute intervals – most boats tend to hold a steady course for the duration of their passages, only making turns as they avoid hazards or navigate down narrow channels and a significant alteration of course in an open water situation is quite easy to spot and allow for.  In fact, if you want to make your intentions clear to another vessel, making a bold turn in good time is by far the best approach to safe navigation – everyone can see what’s going on and there should be no need for last minute, panic manoeuvres.

However, we need to take a different approach when in sight of other vessels and in situations that don’t allow for ‘bold manoeuvres’, such as in a narrow channel, in a marina or in a harbour.  This is where sound signals take the place of vehicle indicators. Learning the various sound and light signals that vessels make is vitally important.  Although, as with all the rules of the road, it’s not enough to simply know what lights you are required to exhibit or what sound signals you might have to make, you must also be aware of the signals other shipping may show/sound and what action you should subsequently take.

Though often misused by friends signalling jovially to each other across the water, the horn is an essential navigational and safety tool, that is not to be used indiscriminately. A toot to your buddy could easily be misinterpreted by another craft as an intention to turn…

During periods of reduced visibility or whenever a vessel needs to signal its intentions or position, a horn is essential. There are different meanings attached to different sound sequences and to further complicate matters, some vessels will sound different sequences when in reduced visibility situations.

These sound signals are formed by both the length of blast and the number of blasts in a sequence.

By the way, a ‘Short blast’ = 1 second, and a ‘Long blast’ = 3 to 5 seconds or 4 to 6 seconds, depending on which book you read.

Some manoeuvring sound signals that you should already be familiar with are:

  • 1 short blast – I am turning to starboard
  • 2 short blasts – I am turning to port
  • 3 short blasts – My engines are going astern
  • 5 short blasts – I do not understand your intentions
  • 1 long last – I am coming (normally at a blind bend in a river)

Incidentally, a good way to remember the manoeuvring signals is to think of the word SPA, as in the spring water baths that we get in some UK towns like Harrogate, Bath and Leamington.

In other words, Starboard is 1 short blast, Port is 2 short blasts and Astern is 3 short blasts.

In fog/reduced visibility when we are not in sight of other vessels we use a different series of signals to let other water users know that we are about. Normal power driven vessels, not hampered in any way, will sound 1 long blast every two minutes.  Everyone else and this means sailing vessels and anyone who is hampered in some way will sound 1 long blast, followed immediately by 2 short blasts.  This second group, the sailing vessels and those hampered in some way, are sometimes affectionately known as the ‘Lame Ducks’.  There is a hierarchy into which these vessels fit, determining who ranks highest in terms of expecting other water users to give way to them. Starting at the bottom and working up to the vessels that can reasonably expect everyone to keep clear we have: sailing vessels, fishing vessels, towing vessels, vessels constrained by their draught, vessels restricted in their ability to manoeuvre and lastly, vessels not under command.

Of these ‘Lame Ducks’ the two that probably need some explanation are those that are restricted in their ability to manoeuvre and those NUC (not under command).  Some examples of the type of vessel that could be restricted in ability to manoeuvre would be; a towing vessel with a large or awkward tow (this outranks the ‘normal’ towing vessel, a vessel surveying, a vessel dredging and a vessel with a towed underwater array.  NUC (not under command), is a term used to describe a vessel that has lost all or some of its propulsion or ability to steer.  Clearly, this vessel is unable to comply with the normal avoidance procedures laid down in the COLREGS and therefore all other vessels must make every effort not to impede the safe passage of such a vessel.

So, your bedtime reading over the winter months might include a bit of revision on the Collision Regulations and it really ought to include learning, off by heart, the full list of sound signals.

On a more practical note, it’s worth keeping a portable air horn on your boat, in case the boat’s fixed horn fails.

Lastly, here’s one more sound signal for you to consider.  One long blast, followed by three short blasts. Look it up and let me know what it’s for…

Happy boating folks.  Keep looking in for new adventures and skipper’s tips. Don’t forget, you can always post any questions you have in the comments section of the blog and I’ll answer it as soon as I can.

This has been another Captain Corbett’s Adventure.  If I’m not on Jersey teaching a private tuition Day Skipper theory or Yachtmaster theory course, then I’m either spending time with someone on their boat, giving them the confidence to take their boat out with their family and friends on board or I’m off somewhere exotic delivering a boat. Either way, I’ll write it up and put it on the Blog for you all to see, so keep popping back to see my most recent adventures.