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Ruby May’s Homecoming, Sailing From Milford Haven to Chatham

After far too may months, restrictions finally eased sufficiently to allow us to sail our much loved new boat home. We’d done various bits of prep on-board, such as fitting a new radar reflector, adding new safety gear, fixing the AIS, and fitting a new log. We’d also had a brief shakedown sail to Skomer Island and finally the day had arrived for us to bring her home.

On this passage we had Dolphins and Puffins, huge waves and flats seas, lots of wind and no wind! We also got to know our boat and had an awesome week on the water with the kids. Grab a cuppa, this blog is my diary from that week…

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A Dolphin escorting us on our passage

The timing is right…

Ruby May had been moored in Milford Haven for months, under the safe and watchful eye of the marina staff and liveaboard’s there, but her new home (for now) is going to be Chatham Maritime Marina. The passage from Milford to Chatham is approx. 550 nautical Miles, a fairly long passage for what is effectively our first ‘proper’ sail on her. With time off from work booked, COVID rules eased and a decent weather window, we decided the timing was perfect. We’d made 3 previous plans, but each time were hampered by weather or COVID restrictions.

Slipping Lines – And A Night On Anchor

We’ve stocked Ruby May with dry victuals, and she is nearly ready for sea. Hodge and I have spent the day doing last minute jobs on-board. Cleaning, fixing, tinkering. I head to the shops for a final victual of fresh food, and on my return duly find a home for everything. Ruby May is roomy, there’s plenty of storage space on-board and we are doing a good job of filling them!

The lock at Milford Haven marina
‘Locking out’ at Milford Haven

Tomorrow will see us sail the longest leg of our trip – Milford to Newlyn, it’s going to be a 4am start, and to shave an hour off the leg, we decide that we’ll leave Milford tonight and spend the night on anchor. There’s a perfect anchorage downstream, Dale Anchorage. It’s sheltered and in an ideal location near the mouth of the river.

At 6.30pm, we do our final checks and slip lines. We’re excited, and looking forward to the journey ahead. We leave the lock and say our goodbyes to Milford Haven, this moment has been month’s in the making and it feels awesome! We meander down the channel and find our spot for the night. Hodge and I do a few more jobs, and then have a final look at the chart and chat our plan through. It feels so good to be finally taking Ruby May home.

Sailing – Milford Haven to Newlyn

At 4am, the sound of our alarm clock wakes us. We’ve had a decent nights sleep. The coffee goes on, we kit up and head on deck. The children are fast asleep, warm and snug in their cabins. It’s dark, and the sky welcomes us with a plethora of twinkling stars. It’s beautiful.

I head to the bow and it’s ‘anchors aweigh’! We gently motor towards the channel and point our nose south. It’s a clear sky, there’s a wonderful breeze, and the sun is slowly rising on the horizon. We spot a pod of Dolphins, leaping through the waves, making their way to our bow. We put the auto-pilot on, and head to the bow to get closer to these beautiful creatures who’ve come to visit. What a perfect start to our passage.

The children finally rise, kit up and head up on deck. The wind is behind us, and we’re roaring along on a broad reach. We all clip on, as the seas are fairly big and the wind is building (it’s now a F6). Each wave lifts us up and surges us forwards at great speed, to shouts of “again, again!” from the children. It really is a bucking bronco ride, and on the helm we take turns to keep her on course and make the most of the wind and waves, whilst taking care not to accidentally gybe. It requires a lot of concentration, and also physically takes a fair amount of effort.

At one point, I head down below and as I climb down the companionway steps, I look up at Hodge on the wheel, behind him is a wall of water, a 5 metre wave towering behind us. Wow. This has become our normality for the last few hours. And with that… ‘whoosh!’ we duly roar down the front of the wave.

Land disappeared from sight long ago, and we’ve not spotted any other vessels all day. We are all alone out here, it feels like we could be mid-Atlantic. We are all absolutely loving it. The sun is shining, the waves are huge, we are flying. We are sailing our baby home.

Hodge and I take turns at banking sleep. We’re expecting to make landfall in the early morning, and we both need to be on deck at night, and for our pilotage around Lands End. When off-watch, I log the time and our position and head to bed. I fall asleep quickly. Hodge does the same upon my return, and so on and so forth. We’re well rested and the watch system works well.

Soon we spot the craggy headland of Land’s End on the horizon, and before long a few fishing boats appear. Darkness descends, the children head to bed, and it’s just Hodge, I and the stars once again. We continue our sleigh ride with the wind and waves powering us towards our destination. We round Land’s End, and as predicted, the land offers immediate shelter. The wind drops, the waves lessen. It is pitch black and we are in unfamiliar waters, with lots of rocky hazards, so this let-up in the wind and waves comes as a welcome relief, allowing us to concentrate on navigation and less so on the sailing.

It’s midnight and a shooting star rushes past in the sky over-head, leaving a beautiful blazing trail before disappearing. I make a wish, and we continue on with our passage. The clouds start to roll in, making the dark sky even darker. We spot a few strikes of lightening on the land, and it’s not long before we hear the patter of rain falling near us. With that, the wind whips up and sharp hail stones start pelting my face whilst I grip the helm. I pull my hood further down and squint to keep my focus. Hodge positions himself, so as to offer some shelter for me. This weather is crazy! As quickly as it came, it (thankfully) leaves us.

We’re close to Newlyn, and spot the buoys that let us know we’re on the right approach. Avoiding the rocky Clements Island, we radio Newlyn, and the harbour master offers to meet us and show us where to berth. He puts us alongside a retired fishing vessel, on which there has been a tragic accident. It feels quite eerie, but we quickly settle for the night and are thankful for the berth! It’s 2.30am. After a few checks we head to bed for a few hours sleep. Leg 1 (138nm) done.

Newlyn to Plymouth

At 6am my peaceful (but brief) sleep is abruptly interrupted by the alarm clock. I’ve had roughly 2.5 hours sleep, and don’t much fancy leaving our toasty cabin to go on to the frost-covered deck, but today is a new day and we have a new destination to reach – Queen Anne’s Battery Marina (QAB), Plymouth.

We slip lines at 6.30am, just as the sun is rising. Newlyn is a beautiful port, with all the charm you would expect from a Cornish seaside town. Pretty colourful buildings line the harbour. I take a look around as we make our way back into the channel. We will be back.

Newlyn Harbour

Today, the seas are much calmer. We motor sail, close-hauled along the coast. With the children up on deck, another pod of Dolphins pay us a visit. It’s a beautiful, but chilly Spring day, and everyone is happy onboard.

Hodge and I agree to bank some sleep again, and Hodge duly heads off-watch. Minutes later, he reappears on deck – he can hear the anchor chain running. I’m on the helm and am oblivious to the drama on the bow. Luckily the anchor is tied on, and the chain was simply piling up inside the locker. The waves have been crashing over the deck, and the volume of water had caused the anchor cable to short circuit! Hodge rectifies the situation and we add ‘One new anchor cable’ to our ever growing list of things we need to buy for our new boat. He heads back to the cabin, and I continue my battle with the waves. She handles really well upwind and we’re on a nice heel.

A warship moored up in Plymouth

Before long, we’re following our pilotage into QAB. The wind has dropped, and we spot the conspicuous breakwater across the harbour entrance. Over the radio we can hear warships, talking with supply boats, and we spot a warship moored in the harbour. Plymouth played a huge part in the Napoleonic wars, and is clearly still very important as a naval base. At 7.30pm we moor alongside. QAB is a high end marina, with excellent facilities. We’re the only visiting vessel here, and are made very welcome. We enjoy a home-made curry and an early night.

Plymouth – the view as we depart QAB marina

Plymouth to Weymouth

At 7am we slip our lines, admiring the fortified walls of the port, another nod to its military past. It is perfect sailing weather, a steady F4, with glorious sunshine taking the edge off the spring air. The wind is behind us again, and we enjoy the steady downwind sailing.

I muster up a round of bacon sandwiches, and there’s much excitement as we sail close to the shore near Thurlestone, where some of our family (who’ve been following our journey) spot us through their binoculars! There’s much excitement and laughter on-board.

Ruby May Sailing
A picture of us, taken by family as we sailed past

A bank of cloud rolls towards us, slowly filling in the beautiful blue sky. A front is approaching. We reef our sails in preparation. We’ve learned previously that caution as a front passes is definitely the best approach. As it gets closer, there’s dramatic wind shifts of more than 90 degrees, coupled with huge gusts and then a down pour. The sea is confused and waves hit us from all directions. And then, just like that, the wind has gone and the sea is flat. We are left bobbing up and down, our once happy sail now hanging limply from the mast.

A light house on the Devonshire coast

With our engine on, and headsail furled we motor on. Both taking 2 hours off-watch to recover some sleep. Ahead of us is the tidal gate at Portland Bill, and we need to make the gate and be well rested before we hit it.

Portland Bill is notoriously tricky to navigate due to the tidal race which can make it perilous in the wrong conditions or vessel. We have planned our passage with this in mind, aiming to hit the gate in good time and take the ‘inner passage’ which cuts hours off the passage, but can bring with it confused seas.

The race is caused by 3 tidal dynamics, firstly the very strong tides which run for 10 out of 12 hours along the E and W side of the peninsula and converge close to the Bill. Secondly, Portland Ledge plays a part too, this ledge protrudes approx. 1nm south of the Bill, the main body of the E-W going channel streams are forced up onto the ledge and hence the confused seas. Finally, the peninsula compresses the channel tidal streams, accelerating their velocity. Streams of 7 knots in the direction of the main current are charted in the tidal atlas and flows of 10 knots can been found in and close to the race.

The boat is happy, our young crew are on deck in the Spring sunshine making up sea shanty’s. We continue to motor towards ‘The Bill’, slowly, very slowly. The weather fascinates us both. Towering cumulous clouds bring huge gusts, confused seas and a temperate drop of up to 5C. This will be immediately followed by a rise in temperature and windless air. This is the weather for any aspiring weather geek.

After dinner, the children head to bed. And it’s not long before we do battle with ‘the race’. Our timing is perfect. But as expected the sea’s are most definitely confused. The stream rushes us past the Bill, whilst the waves come at us from all directions. And then just like that, calm is restored. That was exhilarating!

After a short while, we find ourselves navigating into Weymouth under the cloak of darkness. A narrow channel on our port beam marks the entrance. I guide us slowly up the channel and we tie up on the town quay.

Weymouth to Southsea

We’ve planned for a later start, so as to make the most of the tides on what is set to be a wind-less day. The facilities at Weymouth are shut due to COVID, so we shower on-board (what a treat!) This luxury is new for us, we’ve gone from having no hot water or showers on-board to having 3 no-less.

We slip lines mid-morning, and cruise along at 7 knots, motor-sailing. We’re heading for the Needles. I recount stories to my children, of sailing in those waters with my Grandpa when I was their age. Our aim is to make it to the Needles with a couple of hours to spare before the tide turns, so that we can do some drills and skills with the children.

Sailing Weymouth to Southsea
Our track from Weymouth on route to Southsea

We make it in plenty of time. Having a late lunch, we discuss the steps that should be taken if a man overboard (MOB) incident should occur. I take the wheel and throw a fender over. The children, assisted by Hodge, duly take turns at recovering it, as I go through the motions of completing figure of eights in the water. We have three successful recoveries and call it a day. The tide has turned and we head towards the Solent.

The tide carries us perfectly past Portsmouth. We keep a vigilant lookout. It’s been so quiet in terms of other vessels for the last few days, but we find ourselves unsurprisingly surrounded by ships, and other vessels, including an oncoming Solent racing fleet. We stay well clear and meander our way through and out the other side. Nightfall is upon us, and we navigate our way through the narrow channel towards Southsea. I’m on deck spotting with a torch, one prominent buoy we’d been looking for is unhelpfully no longer lit. We pick a mooring buoy at the edge of the channel, tie up and head to bed. It’s 10.30pm.

Solent racing Sailing
Watching the racing fleet charge back to Cowes

Southsea to Eastbourne

At 4.30am I peel myself out of my warm bed, and up on to the cold deck. The stars greet me. We release our lines and head into the channel. It’s a falling tide, and we have some shallows ahead, so we need to get going.

The sky turns milky, and the stars fade. A sign that sunrise is imminent. With a torch and binoculars we spot several unlit buoys that we use to guide us safely on our way. Finally the sun rises, and it’s set to be another beautiful day. I’m wrapped up in lots of layers, the children are still asleep, and at 7am Hodge goes off watch to catch up on some sleep.

The tides are perfect. We’re set to get to Eastbourne for 2pm, and have a restaurant booked for dinner – our first venture in to a restaurant since COVOD restrictions have eased. That is enough of an incentive to keep the sails well trimmed! On deck alone, I enjoy the peace and quiet. There’s no other vessels about, the sails are full, we’re powering our way along the coast. It is so peaceful. I sit and reflect on how lucky I am, we are. This life, THIS is my escape, my happy place, the life I love, and now I am so incredibly lucky to share it with people that love it too.

Kids sailing
The kids having a chat on the rail

By late morning, the whole family is up and on deck. The wind has changed direction and we manage a perfect close haul sail all the way along the coast. Passing Brighton, New Haven, The Seven Sisters and Beachy Head. Finally we tack our way around the headland and head towards Eastbourne. We visited Eastbourne last year, so we’re familiar with the pilotage. We’re back in a familiar marina and it feels like we’re close to home. I don’t want our trip to end. I love boat life, the sunrises and sunsets, the stars, and all the experiences we have.

Beachy Head light house
Beach Head light house in all its glory

Eastbourne to Ramsgate

We’re up early, and head out of Eastbourne at low tide, our depth alarm bleeping loudly, so as to remind us that we need to keep our wits about us. We turn east towards Ramsgate, but unfortunately today the wind is not our friend, and is blowing from exactly the direction we need to be heading. This makes life tricky and means we struggle to get a decent sailing angle. We head a little off-shore to make the best angle we can, running parallel with the TSS. We can see big ships silently gliding along the horizon. It’s incredible just how many you can spot in such a short period of time, and equally incredible just how big they are.

Shallow channel sailing eastbourne marina
Leaving Eastbourne marina, through the shallow channel

The tide turns, and we make slow progress no thanks to the wind. We enjoyed last night on land, and make a call to divert to Dover, and have another evening ashore, rather than spending hours fighting the tide and wind. Instead we decide to get up 2 hours earlier in the morning and head to Chatham from Dover.

Something that we’ve learned from past experiences is not to be tied to a plan. When sailing, the plan needs to be flexible and work with the ‘hand you’re dealt’ , and this is exactly one of those moments where the plan must change. This way we’ll not spend hours fighting the elements, we’ll have a fun night ashore, and we’ll probably get home at the same time tomorrow, that we would if we carry on and go to Ramsgate.

Ruby May Sailing Yacht
A picture of us sailing Ruby May, taken by a passer-by near Land’s End

An hour later we make our approach to Dover. Dover is a fantastic port. The port control are so welcoming and friendly. The mighty walls are a pleasant sight, we quietly glide our way in and find our mooring for the night. After fish and chips on the front, we reflect on what’s been a fantastic week. Tomorrow is our last day, and it will be great to have Ruby May on her new berth.

Dover to Home

We slip at 5.45am. I call port control, and we’re given permission to leave once a ferry has passed in front of us. As we creep along the harbour wall, the sun rises on the horizon. What a beautiful sun-up for our last day. We take the inshore route around the Goodwin Sands to avoid the strongest current, as it’s against us for a few hours. It is so peaceful, I do love this life.

Steve Hodges sailing
Hodge keeping lookout as we head out of the Port of Dover at Sunrise
Port of Dover sun rise
Waiting for permission to leave the Port of Dover

As the tide turns, the children arise and one of them takes the helm. We get a push from the tide and our speed builds, 7, 8, 9 knots. The conditions couldn’t be better. The wind is on our beam, and we will have tide all the way home. We navigate along the Queen’s Channel, before spotting the familiar buoys on The Cant and at Garrison Point.

We make our way up the River. What a week. And our baby is finally home.

Sam. Out.

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