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Mile building on the South East coast

Having recently passed my Yachtmaster theory exams, my next step is to take my practical exam. I’m aiming for the offshore yachtmaster exam, for which candidates need to have logged 2,500 miles and a minimum of 5 x 60nm passages (skippering for at least 2 of these). As such I am trying to ‘build miles’. I need approximately 1,000 miles to reach my goal.

So last weekend, I joined Elite Sailing for a mile building trip to add some miles to my log book. The vessel was a stunning Jeannau 389, called Lightening, a fairly new yacht, she was pristine and incredibly luxurious and comfortable. A far cry from what I am used to sailing!

Lightening yacht elite sailing
Modern saloon, and kitted out galley

The crew…

One thing I absolutely love about sailing is that I get to meet such lovely people. All from different walks of life. It really is a great privilege.

On the mile builder there were 4 crew including myself. A father and son (14yrs) who had flown in to join the boat from Italy. The father (Chris) wanted to experience more challenging conditions and brush up his skills. The son was just there for the ride. The final crew member was a lovely lady called Terry, a fun and hardy character, Terry and I were watch-mates. Our skipper was Ed, an instructor from Elite Sailing.

Planning our passage

Ed was a great skipper, friendly, professional, incredibly knowledgeable. And not at all ‘shouty’.

The trip…

I joined the boat at 6pm on Friday, and after a brief discussion on what we wanted to do over the weekend, we motored out in to the estuary, under the cloak of darkness.

Heading to a morrign bouy for the night
Heading to a mooring buoy for the night

We sat around the chart table and agreed that we’d all like to take an active part in the decision making for the trip. Chris wanted to experience challenging conditions (whether that be shipping lanes or big seas), Terry wanted to see some pretty sites, and well I, I just wanted to sail! So we planned a route up the east coast leaving the Thames estuary and sailing up the coast to Woolveston Marina (nr Harwich). a 64nm passage, and then the return the following day.

Looking at tidal streams, and our almanac we decided to depart at 4am on the Saturday morning.

Saturday – the trip up…

4am, my alarm clock pings. Eyes open, and jump out of bed. My first mistake. I slept through my first two alarms! I should be on deck now, and helping slip lines. My crew mates do the honours and we begin our motor along the medway to the estuary. I actually have the most horrendous of colds (why is it that I always get ill when I’m doing something fun??) After a lempsip, all is good. It is Terry and I on watch, she’s on the helm and in the pitch black I am spotting red and green channel marks. With Ed prompting me to find the next one.

“Look for 3 green flashes every 10 seconds” he calls. Straining my eyes, I spot various green flashes, but not the right sequence. One error in the navigation and we could run aground, or worse, drive straight in to a pier! Eventually I spot the lights and we continue our navigation. Slowly, slowly does the job. We reach the estuary, hoist our sails and turn the engine off. At last, peace and quiet. I take the helm and we start our sail, a glimpse of sunlight appears on the horizon, a shooting star whizzes past overhead. And a short while later the sky turns pink. This is truly the most magical experience, and my favourite time of day to be on the helm. I love the feeling, a new day beginning, the nation is asleep, the stars disappearing and the sky lit with the most incredible colours. Heaven.

Sunrise on our mile builder

The wind slowly builds throughout the day, gusting and with tides in our favour I am proud to have set a new speed record of 15kts for the boat. The down wind sailing is an absolute pleasure. Surfing at speed down the front of the waves, the wind building, this is fast and exhilarating. We’re soon surrounded by white caps, and with winds around F8, checking our timings realise that with the incredible speeds we’ve been making, we’ve halved our journey time!

Harwich cargo port
A cargo ship in Harwich cargo port

We reef the main, and join the Harwich channel. Once we arrive in the river, it’s engine on and a short while later we arrive in a very windy Woolveston. The river ticks Terry’s ‘beautiful’ criteria. Stunning green rolling countryside, with the occasional picturesque home nestled hidden amongst tress, this is a gem that we have happened upon. I take in the stunning scenery, and for the second time today I feel lucky, privileged and grateful for the setting before my eyes.

The pub beckons, and we join civilisation, looking very much like we’ve been to war with a bear! My hair is matted with salt water, the wind having spun it like a tumble drier relentlessly working it’s magic, my cheeks red from the wind, we are all exhausted. That was an incredible fast and fun sail, exhilarating, and pacey.

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Fight with a bear? No… I’ve just been sailing

We decide that we need to aim to leave at 2am to get the best tides and wind. So we retire to our beautiful boat, and head to bed at 6pm. I’m grateful as my cold is worsening with the hours, and I want to have energy for the early start.

The return journey… Sailing from Harwich to Chatham

I have been put in charge today, officially the ‘skipper’ for the return passage, I awake at 1.30am. The wind is absolutely howling… we poke our heads out of the hatch… it must be gusting 40kts. We kit up and put the kettle on. But at 2am, the clocks suddenly jump back to 1am. We have chosen the 1 day of the year where the clocks fall back an hour, and this just happens to occur at 2am! So we’re now up an hour ahead of time. We agree to head back to our cabins for an hour and we all resurface an hour later. The wind is just as strong. It must be a F9. It would be foolish to set off in this, so we head back to bed and agree to check every hour or so until it’s a bit calmer.

At 6am we surface, and not only has the wind dropped, it has died. Thankfully, my cold is feeling slightly better. We slip lines and head off as swiftly as possible. Thankfully offshore, the wind is stronger, a nice breeze, we reef our main and start making our way south.

Wind farms off east coast
The chartplotter showing the extent of a wind farm

This stretch of coast is tricky in terms of navigation, lined with huge sandbanks, known for grounding many a boat, there are also huge wind farms scattered along the shores. We sail past wind farm after wind farm, the largest in the country I am told. Miles and miles of turbines, it is really quite a sight.

The weather today is a little overcast, and bitterly cold. The sky is grey, but this in turn gives the sea the most beautiful silvery shine. It’s mesmerising. We have the occasional visit from inquisitive local wildlife… every now and then, a plump round head will surface, a seal come to say hello… but as quickly as they appear, they disappear. It’s great to see the abundance of seals, and adds much excitement to the passage. It’s a great reminder of what lies beneath our majestic waters, and the freedom that the sea offers. But equally it serves as a reminder to ensure that the seas and oceans need protecting, so that these wonderful creatures can continue to thrive.

Wind farm
A wind farm on the horizon, off our stern

We take turns helming and before we know it we’re near the estuary. Keeping constant watch for big ships, we keep well out of their way. the final part of the passage takes us past a ship wreck of a 2nd WW artillery ship. Impressive and a reminder to ensure great navigation – we certainly do not want to stray from course and end up on top of that!

wreck of artillary ship
Ship wreck of a WW2 artillery ship

We drop Chris and his son off, so they can make a dash for the airport. Drop our sails, and begin the long motor up the Medway to Chatham.  This time, I can now see all of the channel marks and buoys, everything looks so different by daylight, and it’s great to get a sense of what we were spotting yesterday in the darkness. Arriving back in to the marina at approx. 5.30pm. Terry, Ed and I have a final tidy, before heading off.

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Arriving back at Sheerness

What a fabulous weekend. We sailed approx. 130nm, experienced lots of great conditions, saw some fabulous sights, and all built our experience a little.  Mission accomplished all round.

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