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  • Writer's pictureMark

There's nothing like a good blow!

After I posted the last blog I realised that the next one had to be written from Scotland. Asha, Altor and I have worked pretty hard but now we are here!!

We dropped anchor just off Stranraer in Loch Ryan on Sunday night at 22.30 having sailed 220 miles from Fishguard.

Safely anchored here I can say that the trip was great but I might not have said that if I had passed comment during the journey because there were a few ups and downs!

In keeping with the fickle weather we have experienced lately, the forecast changed the day before departure and instead of cruising gently out of Milford Haven in a southerly wind, it was blowing out of the west and it was blowing pretty hard. We poked Altor’s nose out of the Haven and into a pretty big swell. We had to beat into the wind for 15 miles in order to pass some rocky outcrops off Wales and in big seas and a stiff breeze, this is hard going. We didn’t have to wait long for the excitement to start and unfortunately I can’t blame anyone but me for what happened! I forgot to tie a very simple rope to the front of the dinghy which stops the jib sheets from getting caught underneath it when it is stored on the foredeck. As I can now attest, when a jib sheet does get caught under there in a force 6, it doesn’t stay caught for long! Oh no! It simply rips through the strap holding the dinghy down and the whole dinghy gets pulled skywards in dramatic fashion! It was only the sail that stopped it going over the side and as quick as a flash I had to clamber up on deck, wrestle it into submission and then lash it down again, this time not forgetting the crucial bit of rope! This is definitely going on the ‘pre departure check list’!

The sea state was boisterous and we were working the boat pretty hard to windward when we heard a big crash! Looking down below we could see about 40 books and DVD’s scattered all over the floor. A wooden bracket had broken allowing their escape in a particularly big roll going down a wave. By this time we were wet, all shook up and Asha wasn’t feeling very well at all. She does struggle a little with seasickness but to her absolute credit, it doesn’t stop her from being able to continue and do whatever is required of her! What was a big surprise was that I was feeling pretty awful too and I have never been seasick in my life! This brand new experience was very unpleasant and after a while I thought I’d got on top of it. However, a disgusting smell then overpowered both of us and this was an air freshener that had fallen off it’s perch down below and the concentrated contents had spilled all over the toilet floor. The smell was horrendous to the extent that I genuinely believe that if I ever smell that smell again, I will instantly vomit! We cleaned the mess up, calmed down and got settled in for what was to be a long sail north. The settled period didn’t last long at all! After about half an hour the steering started to feel strange. Altor wouldn’t turn very willingly to starboard.

I went down below and got the mattress out of the stern cabin so I could check the steering assembly which resides under the bed. What I found was that a steering cable had dropped out of it’s rightful place and was getting jammed rather than allowing the rudder to turn. I got the tools, wedged myself in position so I wasn’t sliding all over the place with the motion of the boat and managed to get it working again.

You may be thinking that this is all good news and of course, getting it to work again was but I am a little superstitious and I started to have the feeling that this journey, on this day, just wasn’t meant to be. If you really want to get superstitious about this, we had also committed the sailor's sin of leaving port on a Friday! With all of this rattling around in my brain I checked the chart and saw that we had one viable bug out option and that was 22 miles to the East of us. Fishguard. There I could properly check the steering instead of inserting my fingers in between moving metal parts whilst we were on the move. I mentioned my idea to Asha and the pair of us instantly imagined a lovely calm anchorage, a nice dinner, an early night and a fresh start in the morning. That was it. It was time to press ctrl + alt + delete.

We got exactly what we wanted from Fishguard. A lovely calm night at anchor made for a fantastic sleep and in the morning I checked and adjusted the steering cables. Once I had satisfied myself that everything was in good shape, we pulled up the anchor and continued north.

The forecast was a little ominous and at that particular point, it was also inaccurate. The forecasted 20 knots of wind was no where to be seen and we motored for three hours until a small breeze filled in. It was lovely and sunny and it didn’t seem at all possible that the other part of the forecast could be correct. The forecast had warned of a gale coming in from the Atlantic and moving across the southwest of Ireland. A couple of forecasts showed it coming into the Irish Sea but mainly going up the east coast of Ireland. I decided that Altor’s course up the Irish Sea would be as close to the Welsh side as possible in order for this gale to stay to the west of us. However, whatever strategy we chose, I had a feeling in my bones that we were to get a bit of a going over and if I’m honest, I wanted to test us a little too! Despite the view astern being that of blue sky and calm seas, it didn’t surprise me when the coastguard announced over the radio that the gale was now expected to sweep right into and up the Irish Sea! A big blow of the undesirable kind was to be administered later that night and by 23.45 we were in the thick of it!

I have sailed in gales before but this one was like one of those bigger boys at school. Now, if you were one of them you won’t know what I’m talking about but they were the boys who seemed to have something else in their Ready brek! You know, they were just bigger, sooner. Your normal mates would come up to you in that typical youthful hint of testosterone way and give you a little jab on the arm and say ’Alright mate’ with a little crackle in their voice. However, your bigger boy mates would walk, no, swagger up, testosterone practically oozing out of their pores and thump you with a massive hairy hand that made you bounce off the wall as you heard them growl ‘ALRIGHT MATE”! You would then crackle a reply of ‘Yeah mate’ whilst wincing through the pain and humiliation of being such a weakling. When they were dishing out testosterone, I was quite a long way back in the queue so I got used to these bigger boy testosterone antics and that was what this gale was like too. Prior to the arrival of the gale Asha was on the helm from 8pm until 11pm and under the guise of getting some sleep, I lay in bed down below convincing myself that everything I had pulled apart and rebuilt on this boat was about to let go at any second. I knew that the only chance of sleep would be to self administer rohypnol but I didn’t want to wake up having to sail the boat in a gale while feeling guilty about what I might have done to myself while asleep.

Anyway, after no sleep at all I went up to take over from Asha who had already sailed very impressively for three hours in a building breeze. I knew this because whilst trying to get to sleep I had my navionics app running on my phone so I could watch our speed and course! Asha impresses me how she simply gets on with things and when I went above deck, there she was, hand steering with a building following sea and we were doing 9 to 10 knots with 20 knots of wind blowing. The very second she stepped on my boat back in January I knew she’d earn her keep both above and below decks and this above deck competence completed the picture!

The forecasted gale was due to arrive around midnight so we rolled a lot of sail away in preparation. Just when I thought we were all set, I decided to roll some more away. It’s easy to increase sail when you want to but it’s a lot harder to reduce sail when you need to. Asha went to bed and after 15 minutes the wind suddenly increased from 20 to 26 knots. Despite the immediate change, Altor was well prepared and was trucking along beautifully. The most noticeable thing was the changing sea state. It was wind against tide and the increase in wind was causing some big steep seas. Altor and I continued to enjoy this for an hour or so before the bigger boy showed up and barged down the corridor. At this point it dawned on me that previously it had just been my smaller mate but now Mr Testosterone was here! He didn’t punch me in the arm, he gave Altor and her crew a full on hairy shoulder barge! Now that is no way to treat a lady! The boat literally shook as the wind hit the rig hard and instantly went from 26 knots to 34, 35 and 36 knots. It was constant too. No lulls, just hard wind! I called Asha up because it was now clear that we had too much sail out. Asha came up after dressing in her full foul weather gear, life jacket and harness. I was already in mine and it was needed because the sea had built again and it was now hammering down with rain too. With Asha on deck we got some more jib rolled away until there really wasn’t much of it left, just enough to give us way and steerage. The wind gusted to 42 knots. The coastguard had warned that the sea would be ‘moderate’ and then ‘rough’ later. These are some of the pre determined key words that are used to describe sea state. I have been in some rough stuff but this was most definitely ‘rough’. It was rough enough for me to know that I have no desire whatsoever to ever experience what is defined as ‘very rough’ in the Irish Sea. No thank you! Asha was sitting forward of me in the cockpit while I was behind the wheel and she was pretty surprised to see the sea towering up behind me and I was pretty surprised to feel the whole boat shake through my feet as some of these big bullies broke down the side of the boat, their white tops frothing over the sides of Altor. What made it worse, was that it was a very dark night with thick cloud and therefore no moonlight so we couldn’t see the pattern of the waves at all. I was totally reliant on my wind indicator and my compass to see which way we were pointing and to try and keep pointing that way in order to allow these big bullies to pass without landing a square punch on us.

Whilst I have used the testosterone word enough times to provoke the sprouting of a hair or two on my own chest, it hasn’t happened! Instead I will admit that at times during the gale I was just a little bit scared! The scary part was hearing these big waves coming. They made a very loud noise that you could hear over and above the howling wind, like that of a passing train although you couldn't see it until the white water of the breaking tops came out of the darkness and foamed angrily passed Altor or covered the side decks in white water. These brown trouser moments lasted for three hours until the wind dropped, almost as quickly as it had increased, down to around 25 knots. I told Asha that it was lucky I didn’t need the toilet because I would have had to do it where I stood because I couldn’t take a hand off the wheel or my eyes off the instruments for a second. It was dramatic!

Daylight was a particularly welcome sight and the voice over the radio that announced ‘Gale for Fastnet, Lundy and Irish Sea now ceased’ was very welcome indeed!

Asha had been through her first gale, I had got what I wanted or maybe just a little bit more and Altor just shrugged it off!

I don’t have a problem admitting when I’m a little scared and when I spoke to my Mum (after the event, not crying down the phone during it) she asked me if it had put me off sailing at night?

The answer is, of course, no! If you want to travel by easier, faster and safer means then get on a plane, a train or a bus and enjoy the destination. If you want the journey to make you feel alive and to feel the blood pumping through your veins as you become immersed in the elements followed by the pure, sweet joy of reaching your destination by your own means then get a boat and cast off those lines!

We came from the sea and going back there has an indescribably awesome magic to it even if at times it forces you to acknowledge how truly insignificant you are to it’s power. This is a great way to live.

For now I just want to say ‘Hello Scotland. Its a privilege to be back here’!

Oh, and one piece of advice…. Go and get a Polish girlfriend because they are as hard as f*ck! Well done Asha. I’m proud of you.

A little bit of celebrity status achieved whilst in Wales. Pure West Radio no less! Altor and another yacht turning up caused quite the stir. The Police were called and some locals gathered to watch the 'event' unfold! Yet again, the Policeman who spoke to us was very friendly and happy with our reasons for being there. With the panic over, everyone stood down!!! We only met incredibly friendly and welcoming people but clearly there were some in the village who were not so pleased to see visitors but to be fair to them, how were they to know that we came in peace? That's ok by me though because as I have said previously, you can't please all of the people all of the time although I do find that you can please most of the people most of the time! We loved our time in Wales...

First view of Scotland!!

Lovely to see our first Scottish Lighthouse. Asha can't get enough of them!

On the way round the coast towards Loch Ryan

This is the Stenaline out of Loch Ryan bound for Belfast

After this we didn't see the sun for the next three days whilst Essex basked in blue sky and 29 degrees! Haha! Scotland is beautiful but it aint about the weather!!!!

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