What To Do In A Dismasting And How To Prepare

Having recently been dismasted off the NW coast of France, I have been asked lots of questions from fellow sailors about what it was like; what we would do differently; what worked well; what didn’t; how could they prepare. To address some of these questions and hopefully help you prepare should you ever been unfortunate enough to find yourself in this situation, I’ve covered all of the questions I’ve been asked below. If you have any other specific questions, please do leave a question in the comments below, or contact me.

< Read the full story of our dismasting >

Were you scared?

No. If you’ve read any of my blog posts before, you’ll know I am of the belief that fear has no place on a sailing boat. You need to be mentally strong, and mentally prepared, and then no matter what the situation, you will be able to stay calm and rational. Two essential ingredients for a positive outcome in an emergency or ‘intense’ situation.

My advice to all sailors before putting to sea is, think through the risks, prepare for them physically and also mentally. What would you do in X situation? What would you do if Y happened? Put in place everything you can to both prevent it, but also to help make life easier if the situation does occur. If you’ve already thought it through, or envisaged it, then you’ll be one step ahead, and you’ll be calmer.

Equally if you are the skipper, or you are an experienced crew member, people will look to you for that ‘calm‘. If they’re scared, and they see that you’re calm it will help keep them calm. If they look to you and you’re riddled with fear, then they too will panic, and then poor decisions are made, chaos ensues, and frankly it can be incredibly dangerous.

Don’t panic, stay calm, be prepared for anything.

What was in your sailing grab bag? Did you have everything you might need?

We carry two grab bags onboard, they had everything we needed (and more) in case of having to abandon to a life raft. Contents are as follows…

Bag 1 – This is a SOLAS B certified 50 litre waterproof grab bag containing the following:

  • Category C 1st aid kit
  • Thermal protective aids
  • A sea anchor
  • Buoyant orange smoke flare
  • 3 x red had flares
  • Waterproof SOLAS approved torch
  • Water rations
  • Food rations

Bag 2 – This is an additional 30l waterproof bag that we put together containing a collection of items that we thought may also be needed if we need to abandon ship. Contents are as follows:

  • More food and water rations
  • Handheld VHF radio (fully charged)
  • Mini dry box containing AA and AAA batteries
  • Waterproof pouch containing the passports of all onboard (collected at the beginning of an offshore passage)
  • A waterproof torch
  • A sharp knife
  • Spare sanitary items
  • Spare medication for anyone onboard
  • A credit card
  • Waterproof pouch containing all crew details (inc next of kin details and medical history)
  • IP66 waterproof box containing a solar powered battery bank for phones and charging cables
  • Sea sickness tablets
  • Glow sticks

In addition to the above, our life raft comes complete with its own additional supplies. We stow our grab bags in an easy access position, underneath the chart table, at the bottom of the companionway steps.

How did you get help when you were dismasted? Did you lose your comms?

On our yacht (like most yachts), the VHF antenna was at the top of the mast. When the mast came down we lost all radio range on our ships radio, and it also took out our AIS. So raising the alarm was challenging.

We carry an emergency antenna onboard, and at the very least I would recommend this. Albeit, it won’t be much help in an offshore dismasting, as the range is incredibly limited if you are unable to hoist to any significant height. We attempted to use it, but got no response from repeated May Day calls. We also pressed our DSC button, but got no response.

We used red parachute flares, which worked well in the cloudless sky. With a range of up to 40nm, there’s a good chance that they will be seen. Advice is to let one off, downwind, and then let another off 3 minutes later. We believe that one of the fishing vessels that came to our aid, was due to us letting the flares off.

We struggled to get outside help, so we eventually ended up pushing our ’emergency button’ on our Iridium Go Exec. This gave us sat comms, and ultimately the help we needed. This is an expensive system, but proved to be invaluable and is recommended if you are going any significant distance from land.

Onboard, we also have an EPIRB, although we’ve never had to use it. We also have a handheld VHF radio, which was incredibly useful when we had vessels close by that had come to our aid.

How did you cut away the rig when you were dismasted?

Onboard we had a set of bolt cutters. Ultimately these were clunky and inefficient. My advice would be to invest in hydraulic cutters, but also a portable angle grinder (and keep the battery fully charged).

We found it simpler to unscrew all of the bottle screws, and use knives to cut the lines when we were dismasted. This meant we could do it in a controlled and well thought out way, without the risk of highly tensioned cables suddenly thrashing across the deck and causing injury. One issue we came up against was that we had ‘taped’ our bottle screws to avoid clothing snags on the split pins. This proved time consuming to take off (even with knives), and we lost valuable time. ‘Taping’ bottle screws, although common, isn’t something I would recommend or do again.

When you were dismasted was there any way to save the rigging?

For us, the whole mast came away from the deck and the mast head was balanced precariously over the starboard quarter (probably 4m under water). Both sails were unfurled and underwater (fully). We believe the forestay failed, but can’t be certain. We attempted to pull it back onboard, and even use winches, but it was impossible. The sheer weight, and size meant it couldn’t be done without potentially causing huge damage to the integrity of the hull (as the spreaders could have punched through).

Ultimately I don’t believe there was any way for us to save the rigging, without unnecessarily putting everybody at serious risk.

What did you do after you were dismasted?

First thing was to just take stock – check everyone was ok. Stay calm, and slow down. I immediately jumped to ‘we must cut it away’, but the right thing to do was to stop and think. So that’s what we did. We took a minute to go over the steps we needed to take, and think through how the situation could escalate.

Rough steps we took in our dismasting were:

  • Wake everyone onboard, with an instruction to stay calm, get dressed and get on deck with a life jacket on
  • Secure the rig that was across the deck with mooring lines (tied to winches) to reduce the amount of banging and ‘give’ and to also stop it from fully going over in an uncontrolled way
  • We made the decision to try and get help, as we were only 12nm from land, and so to have help with us when we cut the rig away and someone to tow us in would be useful
  • Raised the alarm – we tried radio, this didn’t work as we’d lost radio range (due to antenna being submerged), we rigged the emergency antenna, but this gave little range as we could only get it about 2.5m high. Next we put up 2 parachute flares – we believe this got the attention of a fishing vessel (which came after about an hour). Then we pushed our Iridium Go Exec emergency button, this got us in touch with the Garmin Emergency Centre, and subsequently our shore contacts, who called the coastguard
  • Help arrived by way of a helicopter and fishing boat, and we were instructed to start work on getting rid of the rig, which was semi submerged, with both sails fully underwater – we opted to undo the bottle screws, as it would give us more control, and was more manageable. This took about an hour. We then pushed it in
  • We hooked up a tow line and were then towed ashore, and updated all shore contacts that we were safe
  • At all times we were monitoring the crew for signs of shock etc, and after we got back to shore we made sure everyone was ok, and we had a chat/decompress as a crew before people got some sleep – I think this was important, as it allowed everyone to take stock and reflect on what had been quite a big event
Was there anything you would do differently?


I’m very pleased with how we handled the situation and especially how the crew came together. The decisions we made were well thought out, and well communicated. The team came together very well, with no panic, and no stress. The atmosphere onboard was incredibly calm. This helped the situation hugely.

We had all the right prep and plans in place beforehand to handle the situation (any emergency generally), and as such we had everything we needed throughout.

What is your advice to prepare, prevent and respond to a dismasting?

A lot of the below goes for any emergency, and for general safety. But in essence I recommend the following:

  • Prep your shore contacts – make sure they know where you are, and certainly where you’re starting and finishing (and your eta). Give them full details of your boat (type of boat, length, hull colour, MMSI, call sign etc) and full details of crew onboard (including next of kin details). A lot of this will be asked for by the coastguard, and it will speed up the process of you getting help. We have a whatsapp group with our shore contacts, and so each time we go offshore we can send a topline plan and everything is in one place. For us, the shore contacts were the people that managed to get us the help we needed, and it helped hugely that they had all the details they needed.
  • Choose your shore contacts wisely – When it comes to choosing your shore contacts, choose them wisely, and make sure they’re comfortable with this role – they could get a call in the middle of the night saying that you have been dismasted, and they may need to liaise with the coast guard, How will they cope? Will they stay calm? Will they be able to do the job? Choose wisely! Our shore contacts did an incredible job and stayed calm, although they both said it was a bit of an unnerving experience, they didn’t know how bad the situation was, and they had to wait several hours for an update, they didn’t get a wink of sleep that night, but nonetheless they did an amazing job, and we were very grateful for their help and level headedness
  • Do a really thorough safety briefing – we had done just that, we were heading on a 600nm+ passage, and so spent a good couple of hours reminding the crew of the standing orders, where things were (emergency antenna, first aid, iridium go exec, grab bags etc) and going over safety procedures, etc. It paid off hugely. Everyone knew where to find things, so if instructed (i.e. I need a wrench, or I need the emergency antenna) anyone could get it instantly. Hodge is also obsessive with labelling and listing, and this also helped. So invest time in your safety briefing, it will pay dividends if needed
  • Rig checks – when it comes to dismasting, obviously the condition of the rig plays a critical factor – get regular surveys and inspections, and if you know what you’re doing then do regular checks yourself. I had gone aloft and done a full inspection (with full photographic evidence) 3wks before. We have also had 2 surveys in the last 3 years. This gave us peace of mind that the rig was sound, and has also been very helpful in terms of the insurance. It obviously didn’t prevent the dismasting, but at least we know we did everything we could, and ultimately freak accidents do happen, all you can do is minimise the chances
  • Have a decent set of bolt cutters onboard (ideally hydraulic – standard one’s won’t do much). Even better, invest in a portable angle grinder and keep it fully charged
  • Think it through – plan and prepare for the worst, put in place a plan, have everything you need ready (and accessible). Think worst case scenario and work back from there – would you cope? Have you got everything you need? Is everything well located?
  • Have well stocked grab bags to hand (see above) – keep crew passports in them (if going offshore), and any spare medication
  • Have torches to hand – our incident happened at night, having a good supply of easily accessible head torches and a good (very high powered) spotlight was essential
  • Carry a knife – we enforced that all crew had to carry a sharp sailing knife on them at all times, this paid off- we all used them when cutting the rig away
  • Remember to write in your log book – time passes quickly – keep a note of what’s happening and when – it’s useful for communicating with the emergency services and post event, with the insurers
  • Take pictures – sounds silly, but it has been a critical part of the insurance claim – the more pictures, the better. We were even asked if we had a picture of the rig in the water, after it had been cut away!
  • Remember to eat and drink – hours can pass, and it’s essential to keep everyone hydrated and well fueled. So don’t forget to eat and drink, and make sure others do too. Adrenaline may stop them, but when the crash comes, it’s essential that they have good hydration and energy
  • Finally, stay calm – I said it above, but not panicking can make all the difference in the outcome. Stay calm
How has it been in terms of managing the insurance claim for the dismasting?

Our insurance company GJW have been absolutely fantastic to deal with. Our assessor flew out to see us straight away, and has been incredibly professional and really helpful.

I mentioned above – keep a log book, take lots of pictures, have regular rig surveys, look after your rig, go aloft (if you know what you’re doing) and do your own regular checks – all of this will help you maintain your rig and prevent a dismasting, but it will also be helpful if the worst happens and you need to make an insurance claim.

Try not to listen to the ‘doom mongers’ and especially the keyboard warriors – they will tell you that insurers don’t pay out on rig failure, or that they dock 30%, etc etc . Block that out, focus on looking after your rig, doing the right thing in terms of maintenance etc, and should you find yourself in the position of having to claim, then depending on your policy you will get what is fairly owned under your policy terms, which for us has been a full payout.

The insurance process has been a ‘you pay, we pay’ system – so we have had to source all suppliers and quotes, put them to the insurance company, arrange the work, and then either we have paid and been reimbursed, or because of the size of the claim some of it has been paid direct. It’s quite hard work (especially when in a different country with a different language), but it’s fairly standard across marine insurance. We have opted to have the mast, standing and running rigging along with sails sorted in France, and then bring the boat home to do all of the other work with local suppliers, but it has been no easy feat to coordinate and organise!

Note: this feature is purely my own personal view and opinion. I am sharing this knowledge with the aim to help and assist fellow sailors in, what to expect, and how to prepare having been through the experience of a dismasting. This is not professional advice, and I will accept no liability for the knowledge I have shared here.

I would encourage anyone taking to the water to undergo proper training and seek the right qualifications through a recognised body for example the RYA or ASA.

You should always use a recognised and professional rigger when carrying out any work on your rig, and sail within your abilities, and on a well maintained and well-prepared yacht.

Sailing the Bay of Biscay – An Ocean Yachtmaster Qualifying Passage (Almost)

Well dear Reader, are you ready for an adventure? You know the drill, grab yourself a cuppa or a tipple of your choice, and join me on an action-packed sail across the infamous Bay of Biscay for our Ocean Yachtmaster qualifying passage.

A dolphin leaping out of the water at sunset in the Bay of Biscay
Read more: Sailing the Bay of Biscay – An Ocean Yachtmaster Qualifying Passage (Almost)

In lockdown 1 all the way back in March 2020, when Hodge and I first started living together, we decided we’d spend our evenings learning celestial nav and studying for our Ocean Yachtmaster theory. We spent many of our lockdown evenings with our heads in a book, whilst devouring a bottle of wine. And after a couple of months of study, we nailed it, and were both rewarded with a pass in our 8-hour ocean theory exam in the May of 2020. Since then, we’ve been conjuring up a plan to do our Ocean Yachtmaster qualifying passage. Despite both having done thousands of miles, and for me, an ocean passage, we hadn’t yet been able to meet the requirements of a qualifier, which are quite specific.

The basic requirements are a continuous passage of 600nm+, of which 200nm must be 50nm from any chartered object, with the ocean yachtmaster candidate in either the skipper or 1st mate role. We looked at our options, and the two that stood out were Bergen, Norway, or A Coruna, Spain. We decided on Spain, as it would tick off our bucket list dream of a Biscay crossing, and we’d heard that the Galician coast is beautiful, plus who can resist warm climes, and the draw of some tapas?! With a destination in mind, we set about building the plan and recruiting our crew.

The crew and prep

In terms of crew, I instantly thought of two of my former Clipper crew-mates, Nigel and Smithy. Both incredibly experienced, having sailed thousands of miles. They would know what is required on an ocean passage. They would also work well in the watch system, and would bring experience and knowledge. Hodge added one of his colleagues, a former marine, and artic-warfare specialist, Malcs to the crew list. Bringing some youth, strength and resilience, as well as some sailing experience (fastnet and various sailing adventures with Hodge previously). I’d not met Malcs, but he sounded perfect. Last, but not least I thought of my eldest brother, former RAF, he would be the perfect balance for our emerging crew. Again, bringing youth, strength, resilience. We had dreamt up the perfect crew. All with lots to give, all fearless and ‘up for anything’, they’re a fun bunch, with bundles of stories to share, and importantly they’re all up for banter (and some). We messaged them all in turn, my phone instantly came to life. Ping, ping, ping. Yes, yes, yes. We had our crew.

The crew mustering in Eastbourne, R-L Smithy, Hodge, Nigel, Charlie and Malcs

We decided to split into two watches, with Hodge leading one watch, and I the other. We also decided it would be wise to split Nigel and Smithy up, and Malcs and Charlie up. So that we had balance of age, experience, strength, etc between the watches. I drew Charlie and Smithy, and Hodge drew Nigel and Malcs, to form our respective watches.

We spent months preparing the good ship, Ruby May. From adding safety equipment, bringing the mast down to fit a tri-light, and fitting a deck level VHF, through to replacing the battery charger, investing in a ships grade first aid kit (to include Morphine, epi-pens etc), and replacing the jack stays. We worked our way through every inch of the boat, to make sure she was the best she could possibly be for the passage.

Our daily jobs checklist onboard

Crew intros and a weekend sail to France

In February we arranged a crew meet up for a few beers and intros at the aptly named Anchor pub in Southbank, London. Everyone hit it off instantly, and the excitement started to build. We decided upon a weekend familiarisation sail to Dieppe, so that everyone could get to know each other and the boat a bit better. Hodge and I sail to Dieppe a lot, and it’s a town that we both love. We’ve got some fantastic ‘local’ bars and restaurants there, and so it was the perfect place to take the team.

In May, we had our weekend passage to Dieppe, getting into a 2-hour-on, 2-hour-off watch system on the Friday evening, we sailed over night. A beautiful broad reach sail, under a starry sky, we absolutely flew across the channel. Any nerves from the crew, were quickly lost, and a fantastic and speedy sail, saw us arrive into Dieppe for 7am. We had an obligatory ‘morning-cap’ drink on deck, before a few hours’ sleep. Exploring the beautiful town in the afternoon and evening, we had an onboard disco to finish the day off. It was a fantastic weekend.  Albeit the lack of wind, and hot weather on Sunday’s sail home, didn’t do much for the sore heads!

The countdown to Biscay was now on.

Final prep

In the final weeks before our passage, Hodge and I continued to prep the boat, deciding on 100 litres of fresh drinking water (stored in bags), along with 220 litres of diesel, and an additional 2 x jerry cans, in case of contamination. We also made batches of food, which were duly vacuum sealed and frozen. We would eat like kings. Curry, chili, chicken pie… we had it all. Along with some sweet treats of steamed stick toffee pudding and custard. The aim was to make cooking simply and easy onboard, keeping the crew on deck as much as possible, whilst also eating well. Food being so important, from both a calorific and morale perspective when on a long passage.

Meal plan and drinking water log

We designed a ‘logo’ for the trip, and had t-shirts made for everyone, typed up and printed a meal plan, along with a pee chart (to remind people to stay hydrated!), and a daily jobs check list. Between us, we thought of every last detail. Keeping a constant eye on the weather, sea state, and orca attacks, so as to start to think about our passage routing. The days were flying by, and on our team whatsapp group the sweepstake for eta’s was gaining momentum.

Time to go

It’s Saturday 25th June. And we all meet at Sovereign Marina, Eastbourne. Everyone settles into their cabins, and we inform the crew that due to the weather conditions (upwind) we’ll be slipping lines this evening, instead of the planned morning departure. Everyone is happy with this. We can’t wait to get going.

We muster on deck for a full safety briefing, and run through the passage plan, so that everyone knows what to expect. Discussing routing, we’ve decided to hug the South Coast down to Portland Bill, then head South from there, taking an offshore route around the TSS, so as to be offshore for the continental shelf at approx. 7 degrees. The weather isn’t looking particularly favorable – in our face for at least the first 2-3 days, there’s also a series of fronts inbound across the Atlantic, albeit they’re due to head North before getting to us, they will definitely impact the sea state. Nonetheless, this looks like the best route.

We head for dinner and draw straws to decide who’s going to be standing the first watch. My watch won, and we’re first up. It’s time to have a final shower, make any last phone calls to loved one’s and then we slip. Locking out of Eastbourne Marina, it feels so crazy to think that the next time we’re on dry land we will be in Spain! We’re like an excited bunch of children, the banter is flying about who’s the best watch and who’s going to win the sweepstake. We’re off. It’s just us, the sea and the stars. My happy place.

My watch – Smithy, Charlie and I

We have settled on a 6-6-4-4-4 watch system. With watches doing 6 hours each during the day, and then rotating through 4-hour watches overnight. I’ve previously found this system works well in terms of balance of sleep, but also in terms of rotating through night watches day-on-day. So, while on one day you’ll have sunset (8pm – 12am), and also sunrise (4am – 8am), the next night you’ll have the ‘graveyard shift’ (12am – 4am). Other popular watch systems mean that you either always have the fantastic sunset/sunrise, OR you always have the dreaded graveyard, which I’m not keen on.

At midnight, we kicked off the watch system, with the off-watch heading below for their first 4 hours of sleep. Charlie, Smithy and I, found our groove under a star filled sky, with Charlie the first to spot a beautiful shooting star as it whizzed past us. Ruby May rose and fell with the ways, as we started our beat along the south coast. It was the perfect start to the passage. All those months of prep, and we’re finally on our way.

Before long, we’re heading down below, and Hodge’s watch is up. We’re particularly delighted at the fortuitous timing, as a squall hits us just minutes later – we hear the drumming of the rain on the deck from the comfort of warm, dry sleeping bags and are relieved that the weather had courteously held off until after the watch change.

Sunshine sailing – on our ocean yacthmaster passage

By the time we’re back on deck at 8am, the sun is shining, and it is the start of a beautiful day. We’re down near the Isle of Wight. And there’s plenty of shipping buzzing around, heading in and out of Southampton, which keeps us on our toes. The wind is persistent at a F5/6, blowing from the South West (meaning we’re tacking) and it’s a bumpy ride. Among the crew, we just about manage to stave off the seasickness.

Hodge and I had decided that all meals will happen 30 mins before watch change overs, so that we eat together, and have all crew together at least 2-3 times a day. I make a lunch of sandwiches, which is always a challenge when on a significant heel. I just about manage to keep the ham and lettuce contained, and the crew are all very grateful for the effort!

I head to bed. Hodge and I are hot-bunking in the fore-peak, which is without a doubt the worst place to sleep on a boat, and especially so when going up-wind. With every wave, there’s an almighty crash, and at times it feels like you’re ‘getting air’ as the nose of the boat dives off the top of a wave into a trough below.

Dodging ships on our Ocean Yachtmaster passage

I lay in bed, full of adrenaline and excitement, trying to get to sleep. What day is it? I love this life. Time and the insignificant politics and monotony of land life melt away in their significance. I was made for this.

Dolphins and darkness

On night two, we’re on the sunset and sunrise watches. The two best watches by far. Is there much better than being at sea and witnessing the sun turn the sky orange and the stars pop out, equally witnessing the dawn of a new day, silently marvelling as the stars fade, as the sky turns pink, while the world sleeps. I think not.

The sun sets, and once again we’re in darkness, with just the stars for company. That is until we spot some shadowy figures off our beam. Dolphins! Every now and then I catch sight of them as they leap about playfully beside us. Fantastic company.

Unfortunately, we’ve not managed to keep sea sickness at bay, and some of the crew are now hugging the guard wire at the stern. The seas are building as 4 ominous fronts continue to march towards us across the Atlantic. Come on, turn North will you – turn North.

We’re now crossing Lyme Bay, a huge expanse of water, and one that brings fond memories for me. It reminds me of some great passages we’ve done before, like when we brought Ruby May home, or when we headed for Salcombe last Summer. It’s a fantastic bay to cross.

A warship passed us (not on AIS)

With the wind heading more westerly, we decide it’s time to peel away and start our journey SW. We throw in several tacks, carefully picking our way through the huge volume of shipping, including a warship and a support boat, which is always exciting to see.

After a dinner of lasagna, we head off watch. I relocate my bed to the saloon; I’m sleep deprived from the bouncy fore-peak and need some sleep, as conditions are set to worsen. The saloon is dreamy when on port tack, but horrific when on starboard. Is there really no rest for the wicked??

There’s a storm coming

At watch handover, Hodge’s watch has managed to make great progress. Hodge and I discuss the weather. This weather system is still yet to turn north. All the forecasts, including our own seem to be wrong. The system should have gone north nearly 24 hours ago. And yet here we are, deep offshore, outside of the TSS, and it is coming straight for us.

As Hodge’s watch head to bed, I look up and see the first front line ominously towering above us. I make a call to reef, we’re heading straight for it. Just moments after we reef the sails, it hits us. We take a lashing of rain, soaking us through. And the sea builds further. The wind and gusts pick up. We’re pelted with rain for an hour or so, and the wind howls through the rig, shaking it violently. The front passes, and rain abates a little.

We look up and can see another front line.

We’re getting tossed about in all directions, as if Ruby May is our bucking bronco, we cling on with our rain-soaked hands, doing all we can to maintain our course. We’re at the mercy of the wind and the waves, taking it in turns to helm. Surrounded by white foam and froth. Wave after wave is crashing over the deck. Every stint on the helm is like a full body workout. My legs and arms are aching, as I wedge myself against the backstay to avoid being thrown about so much.

One of the bruises I sustained in the storm!

I instruct the crew to ‘double tether’. The conditions are brutal, and we cannot risk anyone being ‘unclipped’ for a single second. The crew duly comply, as the reality of our situation starts to set in. I can see a mixture of fear and excitement in their eyes, as they put their trust into both Hodge and I, and of course, the good ship Ruby May.

The conditions are brutal, by far the worst seas that I’ve had the displeasure of sailing in. Huge, breaking waves, tower over us, and are hitting us from all directions. I am so impressed with how Smithy and Charlie are rising to this challenge, both taking stints on the helm, they are fearless in the face of such conditions.

I can only describe it as being on a roller coaster. As we look up and see a wave building in front of us, we turn in to it, and the boat starts to climb, we rise and rise, and rise and rise, and there’s heart stopping anticipation as to what will meet us. Reminiscent of the climb on a roller coaster, where you hear click, click, click, only we have howling winds instead of clicks and this ride hasn’t been safety tested! Occasionally it’s a gentle glide down the top of the wave, at which point we all silently breathe a sigh of relief, but more often than not it’s a huge trough, into which we drop with an almighty crash as we accelerate into what can only be described as a giant hole. Either way, as soon as one wave passes, the next wave is waiting, building with an almighty terror ahead of us. It’s relentless. It is exhausting. Neptune is having fun with us today!

I refresh the navtex, this is not what is forecast. This is far from ideal. Poor Ruby May is taking a hammering. We’re two fronts in, the sea state is a mixture of ‘very rough’ to ‘high’ on the technical scale. The waves are now at the height of our first spreader, towering metres above us, so whatever it ‘technically’ is on the official scale, I can tell you it is not pleasant onboard. The crew are growing weary, exhausted, and desperate for this to end.

A snippet of the synoptic chart and the impending fronts – not fun!

At watch change over, Hodge and I discuss the plan and the forecast. We need to keep the boat and crew safe. I share some tips from our watch and pass on the order to double tether. Hodges watch head on deck, Hilariously Malcolm has applied factor 50 sun cream – he is in for a surprise!

The sea state and weather continue to build. We have been caught in a full-scale Atlantic storm. Down below, the conditions are equally relentless. I can hear every smash and crash. With every wave that hits, it feels like the boat could break up. The boat is creaking and screaming with every smash from the relentless waves. As I lay in the saloon, I run through emergency drills in my head. Grab bags, epirbs, spare VHF, it whizzes through my mind, as I remind myself of the important mantra of ‘don’t put your body where your mind hasn’t been’ i.e. have a plan. Always have a plan. Be prepared.

My mind starts to wander to life at home. I think of my kids. How I wish I’d held them tighter when I said goodbye. I close my eyes and can see their faces in a few moments of ‘quiet’ reflection.

I don’t feel scared. I firmly believe that there is no place for fear, nor for panic in a situation like this. You can not lead/co-lead a team and allow fear to exist. It’s in moments like these that you’re most needed, and a cool head is essential for everyone’s sake. Fear and panic have no place when you are a skipper.

After a moment of reflection it’s back to the situation in hand. We’re 50 or so miles offshore. In treacherous conditions. There’s no help here. With that, bam, the 3rd front hits us.

We’re all battered and bruised. Our precious Ruby May has sustained a fair amount of damage. Below decks a door has been smashed clean off. On deck, a shackle with a 3.5-tonne breaking point, has effortlessly snapped under the strain of the wind, like butter peeling away under a knife. The small portion of our foresail we’d left out for stability is shredded, and several of our brand-new lines are heavily chafed. This is just to name some of the damage we’ve sustained. Ruby May was holding up well, but she was without a doubt being pushed to her limits. The crew? Exhausted.

A chafed jib sheet, following the storm

We can’t go on. We just can’t. Hodge and I have a brief conversation at the next watch changeover. We need to get to a bolt hole, and fast. The reality of what this means for us both is that this won’t count as our much sought-after Ocean Yachtmaster qualifying passage, but we cannot go on. It would be foolish to do so. And a sailor cannot afford to be foolish.

The end of the road

I’m pleased to have spent an evening the week before we set off, studying potential boltholes for our passage. Having put this prep in in advance, it makes for a quick and easy decision in horrendous conditions. We decide on L’Aber Wr’ach, France.

The entrance into L’Aber Wr’ach, France, our bolt hole

Hodge and I are gutted, and emotional. We tell the crew, and individually they all agree that there’s no other option. There’s an instant sense of relief throughout the boat, as we turn towards France. Soaked through, battered and bruised, we limp slowly in the direction of land.

L’aber Wr’ach provides a tricky entry, with lots of unlit buoys (many of which aren’t charted) and a narrow, shallow channel. We tie up and thank Neptune for sparing us. It is 3am.

Smithy adjusting the French courtesy flag, which we’d never expected to use

We agree to wake up at 8am to assess the damage and make a plan.

Hodge and I curl up in the forepeak. We chat through the previous 18 hours, the relentless battle that we’ve just endured. We’re both sad, disappointed beyond words, with months and months of planning and dreams in tatters. But equally, we’re relieved to be safe, and to have avoided any significant injury or damage. I’m pleased to be in the comfort of Hodge’s arms, and with that we close our eyes.

Our sleep is rudely interrupted by the ringing out of the 8am alarm. After just under 5 hours sleep, we’re feeling refreshed and raring to go. It’s amazing how little sleep you can survive on, and how good sleep can make you feel.

Unfurling our jib, for repair

Right… what are our options? We can abandon our passage altogether and leave Ruby May in France. We can coast hop down to Spain. Or we can go for it. Hodge and I briefly discuss it. We assess the damage. And we decide on the last option, we are going to ‘do the bay’. We inform the crew one by one and give them the choice to stay or abandon. All of them are up for it. They are behind us, 100%. The boat comes alive again. Excitement spreads. Time to roll up our sleeves, we have jobs to do, and a boat to repair and get ready.

L’Aber Wr’ach marina, our bolt hole

We’ve got 350nm to go. The tide is favourable from 6pm. But if we leave at 3pm, we will benefit from a ‘mega push’ down the Chanel du Four. Let’s do it. As the saying goes, ‘time and tide wait for no man’. 

There’s a fresh energy in the air. We shower. Launder our clothes (all of which are soaked through), we refuel, and refill our water (for best practice as opposed to necessity). We undertake some much needed sail repair. Assess the lines and strengthen where needed. We replace broken shackles and carry out various fixes down below. Ruby May is starting to look ship shape again. It is such a team effort with all hands-on deck.

Smithy and Nigel about to start work on the sail repair

After a lunch of Omelette, duly cooked by Smithy. We slip lines. Excited and thankful for our decision. The storm is now long gone, and the conditions couldn’t be better.

Making our approach for Chanel du Four, a rare moment when both watches are on deck

There’s excitement, and jokes on deck. And in the evening, we enjoy a curry for supper, followed by a surprise hot pudding with custard. Much to everyone’s delight. It’s a beautiful day, there’s an incredible rolling swell, pushing us along. A pod of dolphins joins us, and a spout of water shoots into the air off our stern, a whale? Everyone is happy. This is why we’re here. Spain, here we come.

Hodge and Malcs looking forward to Biscay proper

After dinner, at 8pm, we recommence the familiar watch system. As I head off watch, we’re doing 9.5kts. This is better sailing than we could have dreamed of, and a far cry from the previous 48 hours.

At 12am return to deck, for the start of the most incredible watch of my life.

Shootings stars, and phosphorescence. Pinch me now!

At the start of the next watch, we’re heading towards a cardinal buoy. The plan is to stay North of that, round it and then get onto a heading for A Coruna. We’re all alone out here. The sea state is perfect. The sky is clear, with just a blanket of twinkling stars.

I spot two shooting stars, and a meteor with an incredible trail of glitter blazing across the sky behind it. Off our stern, our wake is alive, sparkling with magical phosphorescence. It’s absolutely mesmerising.

It’s my turn for a stint on the wheel. And from the corner of my eye, I spot a torpedo like object flying towards us, under the water. Incoming at high speed, it has a round nose, and is probably 1.5m -2m in length, hurtling through the dark sea, it’s lit up. A dolphin! My goodness, what a sight. It’s quickly joined by another from our port side, and another. They’re glowing, like they have a string of LED fairylights wrapped around their bodies. I have never in my life witnessed anything quite like it. They’re leaping off our bow. I need to go and see this.

Smithy takes the wheel and I excitedly make my way to the bow. What I’m met with is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I can see fish, lit up by phosphorescence darting away in front of our bow as we break through the still water. The dolphins spot them and in turn break away to feast on their catch, before returning to the bow where they’re leaping and frolicking. I cannot believe my eyes.

Excitedly I call both Smithy and Charlie to take a look. They too, cannot believe what they’re seeing. It is the most magical thing I have ever seen. I feel beyond privileged. I close my eyes, to try and capture the images in my brain. I will never ever forget what I’m seeing here.

The sparkles, the dolphins, the fish, it’s majestic. I never want it to end. I can’t wait for Hodge and the rest of the team to be on deck, and to see it too.

With full stomachs, the dolphins leave us. And we all marvel at what we have just witnessed. It’s nearing watch changeover, and we excitedly share our story with the oncoming watch. Alas, as we head off, cloud descends, the stars disappear, the phosphorescence vanishes, and I’m so sad that they didn’t get to witness what we did.

A new day

Hodge and I have taken to sleeping on the saloon floor, in the hole where the table would normally live. It’s in a central position, so fairly stable. It’s less noisy and bouncy than the bow, and it’s very secure and surprisingly cosy. I close my eyes and dream of the dolphins and magic that was the previous watch.

The hole in the middle where the blue and white striped duvet is, was where Hodge and I slept for most of the passage!

At 8am, I’m back on deck. It’s more sunshine, and another beautiful day in the Bay. The sky is blue, littered with just a handful of fluffy, white clouds, and there’s plenty of wind to keep us pushing on. We’re joined occasionally by a pod of dolphins, which always create excitement, and of course, a photo opportunity.

We are thrilled to break the 500nm mark. And head for the major milestone of the passage, the continental shelf. It’s at the shelf, which is effectively an underwater cliff, that the Atlantic Ocean piles up, often creating huge swells. As the seabed rises from some 5000 metres, to a mere 150 metres in just quarter of a mile.

Hodge stays on deck with my watch to witness the shelf. We’re a mile or so out and are joined by a pod of dolphins. I head to the bow with Hodge, and we watch them leap and race. It’s a fantastic sight. And an unforgettable moment. The dolphins escort us over the shelf and into the Abyssal Plain. We now have 5,000 metres of water below our keel. What an incredible feeling.


The swell at the shelf, was quite a non-event. I think that because of what had gone before, it felt relatively minor to us. Which was both a relief and a mild disappointment. Nonetheless, it felt like an achievement. We were finally offshore proper.

In L’ Aber Wr’ach we’d made a temporary repair on our tattered foresail. And thus far we haven’t dared to unfurl it. We’ve run a sweepstake as to how long we think the foresail will survive. Bets range from 1 hour 30 mins (not very optimistic), through to 35 hours (that’s more like it). We all muster on deck, gathering like excited children, and watch as our weary foresail unfurls in all its glory. I start the timer. But as we stare upwards, it becomes apparent that we are all way out with our guesses. The repair is already starting to tire. And it’s the source of some disappointment, but also hilarity that within just one minute we decide to furl the it away again.

Heading off watch, I curl up in my pit on the floor and reflect on the passage so far. I can’t sleep, and instead make a list of what’s worked well on the trip and what hasn’t, so that we can capture any learning’s for next time. Conscious that every minute I continue to muse, is another minute of lost sleep, I put my list away and close my eyes.

Preparing fresh pain au chocolat for breakfast

Malcs heats up our pre-made chilli con carne and we enjoy it on deck. It’s delicious. I’m back on watch for the 8-12 shift. We’re very quickly joined by a pod of dolphins, and Smithy and Charlie duly make their way to the bow, as we enjoy our first really decent sunset of the passage. It has been a perfect days sailing. Our following watch (4-8am) gives us our first sunrise, and it is spectacular. There’s a high moving in, which is giving way to a beautiful and much welcome sunshine, but unfortunately the wind is retreating. The sea state is flat.

I cook us some fresh pain au chocolat for breakfast and cut up some melon. What a treat.

Charlie and Smithy – we were the ‘noisy watch’

Our watch is very much the ‘noisy watch’. We spend our hours on deck amusing each other with stories. Charlie in particular fascinates both Smithy and I with his incredible stories from his military career, which at time have us in stitches, or at other times in disbelief. When we’re not entertaining each other with stories, we play silly games like ‘would you rather’. This game sees us cover important topics, such as ‘would you rather be attacked by one horse sized chicken OR 100 chicken sized horses’. The watches pass quickly and are always a pleasure. I see Charlie rarely, as we both lead busy lives, and it’s great to have the opportunity to spend some quality time with him.

At watch changeover, we all catch up, and have an extended handover. We’re now sub 150nm until we reach A Coruna, you can feel the excitement in the air. I don’t want it to end. I pop below to look at the chart, and with that there’s a shout from deck. “Sam!! Come on deck, there’s some lazy dolphins” Lazy dophins?? What on earth. I clamber up the companionway steps, and to my surprise, next to the boat is a pod of Pilot Whales! We fall around laughing at Smithy’s ‘lazy dolphin’ comment. The whales are beautiful, majestic creatures. Swimming beside us, they surface slowly before dipping just below the surface again. Every now and then there’s a spurt from a blow hole. We’re soon joined by another group off our port quarter. How fantastic. Every box has now been ticked! We leave them in our wake, and slowly they disappear from sight.

I head to my pit. There’s a calm sea, with gentle swell. I lay down, and start to drift off. When there’s a shout of ‘Spouts! Spouts’. I dart up the steps and there’s a massive spray from a blow hole off our beam. And with that, a large black body surfaces and dives. I return to my bed on the floor with a smile on my face. My alarm angrily awakes me a few hours later, rousing me from a deep sleep. And I’m delighted to note that we are now sub 100 miles from our destination in Spain.

The sunshine is beaming, and there’s not a single cloud or even a plane in the beautiful blue sky. On the AIS there’s not a vessel to be seen. It’s just us out here, in our own little bubble. The sailing is incredible, and we’re doing a steady 6 knots. We see 4 more pods of whales on my next watch. Incredible.

I take a sextant reading, just for fun- our hopes of this being a qualifying passage for our Ocean Yachtmaster faded when we ran to the bolt hole of L’Aber Wr’ach. I’m on the wheel, and spot something floating in the water up ahead. It’s dark, and fairly big. What is it. We strain our eyes, and then realise it is a large plank of wood. We bear away to avoid it, when we spot another plank up ahead. We continue to see plank after plank throughout the watch. An impact with one could do some serious damage. They’re really quite substantial in size. We decide it is prudent to position someone as a look-out up on the bow.

Charlie up on the bow, spotting Dolphins

I enjoy my time on the bow, I always do. It’s my happy place. Peaceful, and like a mini escape. I keep a sharp eye and enjoy the sound of the sea rushing past our hull. What a beautiful day. Taking turns we rotate through 30-minute stints on look-out duty. We spot several more planks, and at watch change, we brief the other watch accordingly.

The Spanish courtesy flag flying high, with the Galician coast in the background

The final watches come and go quickly. There’s a shout of land-ho. And we see the shadow of the Spanish coast. It really is beautiful. As we get closer, we can make out various buildings and towns dotted along the coast. As night falls, the Galician Coast comes alive, with twinkling lights scattered between the darker patches. We use the lighthouses signal lights to help us navigate. Over head the stars are shining. I will miss this.

As we head down for our final off-watch, we hand over. And know that when we next come up on deck we will be in our final few miles. I have mixed feelings of excitement and also sadness, sad that this wonderful adventure is coming to an end, but excitement to be so close to land fall in Spain.

All smiles from Hodge, as he takes us into A Coruna, Spain

Hodge comes to wake me from my sleep. We are indeed nearly at A Coruna, and we all head on deck for the final bit of pilotage and to see our arrival. Using buoys and navigational aids ashore, we meander our way in. We have made it to Spain!

We make our way into Club Real Nautico Marina, and are met by a friendly Spaniard. Hodge glides us on to our berth and we tie up alongside. We’re met by both Smithy and Nigel’s partners and celebrate with a few glasses of fizz. It’s 8am, but it’s the afternoon somewhere right.

Enjoying a glass of fizz on arrival
Celebrating in A Coruna
View from aloft – I did a quick rig check on arrival

What a fantastic trip. The trip of a lifetime. An incredible achievement, and adventure. Albeit it we’re unable to submit the passage our Ocean Yachtmaster qualifying passage. Nonetheless, we’ve taken away lots of learning’s and incredible memories. And it means we will get to do another passage sometime soon of course.

I’d like to say a special thanks to Malcs, Nigel, Smithy and Charlie for being such fantastic crew, and for making the trip so enjoyable. And of course, a massive thank you to Hodge for doing such a great job on the passage planning, boat prep and all of the other hard work and effort, and as always being such a great team mate. Here’s to our next Ocean Yachtmaster qualifying passage!

——- Fancy Sailing the Spanish Coast for yourself?——-

I can vouch first hand that sailing the Spanish coast, is simply incredible and an experience not to be missed. The Galician coast is beautiful, with countless, picturesque towns lining the cliff tops. The Galician region in particular is well known for ‘The Way’ (The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is an ancient pilgrimage trail. Made up of a vast network of roads and paths, pilgrims travel these to arrive at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.) But did you know that there’s now a sailing equivalent?! Called, Sail the Way, this incredible pilgrimage with a twist, will take you along the beautiful Spanish coast. An adventure not to be missed, you can find out more, and sign up for next years edition here.

Heading home – time to say goodbye to A Coruna

Sailing To France – Getting Boarded By The French Border Force

Our last weekend on the water saw us sail from Chatham to our new home marina, Sovereign Marina in Eastbourne. En route, Hodge proposed in the most spectacular style, and a crazy weekend with friends and family followed. After the most incredible weekend of celebrations, we needed some downtime. Time to relax, do some ‘adventuring’ and escape from the craziness together. So to mark our first passage from our new home port, we decided to make a dash across the channel to Boulogne, via the infamous Sovereign Light.

The weekend saw us make a fabulous overnight passage, complete with sunset and sunrise, shooting stars, and a boarding from the French Border Force.

Locking out of Sovereign Harbour, Eastbourne
Continue reading Sailing To France – Getting Boarded By The French Border Force

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