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Sailing solo into a storm – some lessons learned

Weather forecasting has become increasingly accurate in recent years, thanks largely to weather satellite technology and ever increasing computer power. As a result, those of us who go sailing on a regular basis, myself included, are inclined to trust three to five day forecasts more and more and make our plans accordingly.  24 hours forecasts are even more accurate.

However, we also know that forecasts are rarely 100% accurate and that it pays to include a margin of error for planning purposes. Despite allowing for this, I was caught out recently by a forecast that considerably underestimated the wind strengths, with the result that I sailed single handed into a Force 8 gale with gusts of 42 knots (Force 9). It proved to be a challenging experience.

The plan

A few months ago I began to make plans for a four day, late September rally to Poole harbour for fellow members of the Contessa 26 class association.

Five boats signed up for the rally, all based in different Solent harbours on England’s south coast. The plan was for us all to meet in Cowes and then sail in company the next day to Poole, a distance of about 30 nautical miles. I would be sailing the 18nm from my home port Chichester to Cowes single handed, where I would be joined by two friends Mike and Barbara for the sail to Poole.

I reserved visitor berths for us all at the Parkstone Yacht Club, who welcome visiting yachtsmen to their excellent club in Poole Harbour by arrangement.  Parkstone YC would be our base for two days of sailing before returning to our respective ports in the Solent.

No matter how well organised and detailed a sail cruising event is planned, with careful consideration given to tides, berthing and catering arrangements, the weather is always going to be the critical unknown factor, even in the summer months.

As the departure date drew closer I kept a daily check on the forecasts. The day before I was due to depart for Cowes a front was approaching from the southwest with winds forecast to be Force 6 gusting Force 7. I decided to head down to the boat the evening before, aiming to leave before high tide in the morning in order to cross the Chichester bar at slack water and pick up favourable tides down the Solent.

At 19:00hrs I rowed out to my mooring in the Bosham Channel as dark clouds approached in a strengthening breeze. Within minutes of arriving at the boat the heavens opened and I was relieved to get all my kit below in the nick of time as thunder cracked and rumbled overhead. The thunder eventually moved on but the wind and rain continued through the night. It seemed the front was passing very slowly.

The passage to Cowes

In the morning the rain had stopped but the wind was still blowing from the south southwest at around 20kts. I had to decide over a cup of tea whether to postpone the sail to Cowes, as the forecast was now for winds up to 30kts and beating into 30kts single handed is quite hard work. If I hadn’t been meeting up with the others in Cowes then I would probably have delayed my departure for 24 hours until the front had moved on. Go for it, I said to myself.

So I kept to the plan, stashed the dinghy below and put a reef in the main. Timing was critical as I needed to avoid a wind against tide situation as I crossed the Chichester bar directly into the wind. I hoisted the main before casting off at 08:30. I phoned Mike to tell him I was about to leave and should be with them in about six hours.

Once I left the shelter of the Bosham Channel the wind really picked up and I decided to motor sail out of the harbour rather than try and tack out of the narrow entrance. As I headed out towards the Chichester bar with wind on the nose I could see some large waves ahead with breaking crests and wondered to myself what on Earth the conditions would have been like if the tide was ebbing. Things got very bumpy and pretty unpleasant as we went into the steep waves. Everything down below was being thrown about and there was an ominous crash when the cool box, full of provisions, somersaulted its way down the cabin, spilling its contents everywhere.

We finally cleared the bar at 10:30 and moved into deeper water. The windspeed indicator continued to climb until it remained well past 30 knots. Now I could bear away and with the genoa furled in a few turns and the main reefed I felt confident that Sulali would manage the conditions, thanks to her long deep keel and narrow beam. It was a question of keeping the sails balanced and riding the waves. The wind, however, had other plans for us as I realised we were now in a proper Force 8, with sudden gusts well over 40 knots that took us into Force 9 territory. Controlling the headsail in these conditions proved very hard work and it was also proving increasingly difficult to sail close hauled – a storm jib would have been the answer but it was too late, this was not aboard. I found the only way to maintain control was to furl the headsail more and sail further off the wind to prevent the sails from flogging.

Two hours later, as we approached Portsmouth, I thought of heading into the harbour and to wait for the wind to calm down. Looking ahead, the skies were lightening and I could even see the odd speck of blue sky in the distance. I also realised the soaking I was getting was from spray rather than rain, so I decided to continue. I noticed that the conditions looked slightly calmer towards the Isle of Wight so thought it would be a good idea to head south towards the island shore. This entailed crossing the shipping lane into Southampton so decided it would be best to furl the genoa and use the engine to help us across. After a minute or two the engine began to stutter, lose power and then cut out completely – not good. My immediate thought was the bumpy conditions had stirred up dirt in the fuel tank and caused a blockage. There was nothing I could do under the circumstances except continue under sail towards calmer waters in the lee of the island and if necessary call for a tow when I approached Cowes harbour.

I eventually made it across the shipping lane without further mishap and was relieved to find that the sea state near the island shore was indeed calmer and the wind speed was dropping to a more manageable 25-30kts. This was a big relief all round and as I headed towards Osborne Bay I called Mike and gave him an ETA of 16:00. We agreed that I would give them another call when I was half an hour from Cowes and that he would come down to the marina and take my lines. Now my big hope was that in the calmer waters the fuel might have settled down in the tank and my trusty Beta 14 engine would come back to life. To my great relief the engine did indeed start, so I left it running on tick over in the hope that it would sort itself out. Thankfully, it did.

It was 16:30 by the time I entered Shepard’s marina in Cowes. Mike was waiting to take my lines, which was very much appreciated.

Change of plan

Later that evening I discovered that the other boats had not made it across to Cowes and that the forecast for the next 24 hours was improving slightly. We all agreed that we needed a change of plan and should abandon the passage to Poole as it was going to be rough going. Instead, we kept in the eastern Solent for the next couple of days and enjoyed some excellent sailing in company.

Lessons learned

One of the great things about sailing is that you never stop learning. It is very important as a single-handed sailor to know and work well within the limitations of both boat and crew. I have sailed to Cowes on countless occasions but can safely say that I would avoid sailing in those conditions again if I possibly could. Yes, you do feel a sense of achievement when you arrive at your destination in one piece, but in hindsight I should really have studied several weather forecasts in more detail (not just one). A storm jib would have made a big difference and I should keep it on the boat.

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