We launched our Shearwater sailing canoes shortly before midnight. As I sailed out of the small haven at Hill Head I could see Richard’s white navigation light shining at the apex of the dim triangle of his sail - silhouetted against the yellow street lights of Cowes in the distance. The new moon had set some time ago and the stars were bright overhead. As I looked up I could see the Plough directly above my white light at the head of the mast. A light north easterly wind gently pushed us along at just over two knots towards the Bramble Bank in the middle of the Solent, whilst behind us the conversations of night anglers, along the Hill Head shore, drifted across the water. Gulls, floating on the dark calm sea, disturbed by our slow passage through the night, protested to each other.
Two weeks earlier and a bit further on into the night we’d sailed out of the same harbour into a light south westerly wind, bound for the Needles and hoping to sail round the Isle of Wight. Later, after tacking down the north side of the West Solent for three hours, we sailed through the narrows at Hurst and then to the west of the Shingles Bank to avoid overfalls at the end of the Needles Channel. In the cold grey dawn, with the white flashing light of the channel fairway buoy in clear view and the Needles lighthouse to our left, we ran out of wind.
As the tide turned inexorably and irresistibly against us we realised we’d arrived too late, so turned tail and ran back to the Solent defeated, to stretch our legs and eat our sandwiches on Hurst Spit.
Later, as we reached back to Hill Head with the tide, our spirits lifted as the sun emerged. Ashore, we concluded we’d started our voyage a bit too late and might have done better if we’d have paddled through the night, keeping to the south side of the West Solent and in the stronger tide. Lessons learned, we made tentative plans for another attempt in two weeks. This time, High Water Portsmouth was 24 minutes later but we’d taken the precaution of departing two hours earlier than before, to make certain we were at the Needles before the tide turned east. The forecast was for force 2 to 3 north to north easterly winds.
A mile out from Hill Head, we watched two brightly lit merchant ships coming down Southampton Water and wondered whether they would turn right down the Thorn Channel or left down the North Channel towards us. The wind began to fade, so we furled our sails and assembled long twin bladed paddles. I watched Richard's’s white masthead light swaying gently from side to side ahead of me as he paddled across the North Channel towards the safety of the Brambles Bank. As the ships to the west of us turned to starboard and away from us, we saw the first signs of a faint mist forming. We made sure our collision flares were to hand and stepped up the pace a little. About an hour later, close to the River Medina entrance, an increasingly strong tidal stream began to push us right. Keeping a close eye on the Isle of Wight ferry, with its navigation lights lit, looking like it was about to depart from East Cowes, we turned west towards the white flashing light of Gurnard Cardinal Mark and then headed for the green light of Gurnard Ledge Buoy.
As we passed Egypt Point the bright lights of Cowes disappeared from view and the night darkened. A faint breeze from the north east appeared and I started sailing whilst also using a single bladed paddle for a bit of extra speed. Richard carried on paddling ‘kayak style’. I ate some jelly babies to keep my spirits and my blood sugar up. Two hours passed as we sailed and paddled through the calm water and the cold damp crow black night. Paddle-sailing kept the cold at bay and was easy work as I tacked to and fro in front of Richard. But I was careful to stay close in case the visibility closed in. The tide gathered pace. We passed two more green buoys and approached the lights of Yarmouth on our port bow. The Needles lighthouse foghorn made a low and mournful sound twice every thirty seconds as we sped by the lights of Yarmouth pier in the 4 knot rushing tide. Black Rock Buoy swept by with an impressive bow wave, white against the dark water.
We were beginning to feel cold and tired and about an hour early for an arrival at slack water at the Needles, so just after 03.30 we put into Colwell Bay, first on the left just after Hurst. We dragged our boats on their small trollies onto a shingle beach. It began to feel very cold indeed, so we climbed, fully dry-suited and booted, into sleeping bags and set an alarm for 04.45.
It felt as if I was lying awake looking at the stars overhead for some time but must have dozed off as I was woken by the alarm after the first dim light of dawn had appeared. We took advantage of a short sandy beach exposed by the falling tide, to run up and down to warm up. However, I added a sailing jacket on top of my drysuit for extra warmth.
Back in the Needles Channel, we paddle-sailed in a light north easterly towards the lighthouse. I could see from the odd fishing buoy that it was very close to slack water and knew there were still 3 miles to go and not much time before the tide set against us. I increased the pace.
Richard was concerned the light wind would mean we’d not make the next tidal gate of Bembridge on time, which would mean an extra twelve hours before we were able to return to Hill Head in the early hours of Monday morning. Family commitments meant he couldn’t take this chance so he was forced to turn back. I elected to continue and hoped the sun would bring the wind.
I sailed past the lighthouse shortly before 6. Almost a year before, we’d been here in bright sunshine and no wind and paddled through a gap between the Needles. But today a strong swell from the south was breaking through the opening.
I carried on towards the cardinal mark at the end of the underwater ridge, called the Bridge, extending to the west of the Needles. The wind began to pick up and the tide, now beginning to tumble over the Bridge in the early flood, made short steep confused waves. Shortly before the Bridge cardinal mark, I turned towards the south west and moved my weight aft to stop Astrid’s bow from burying itself as we overtook a short succession of large waves.
A freshening wind prompted me to take in a couple of reefs (rolling the sail around the mast). I settled into a close reach on a course of approximately 115°. The chalk cliffs of the island shore curved round from my left towards the bow and somewhere in the distance ahead of me, beneath the rising sun and hidden by a slight sea mist, lay St Catherine’s Point at the southern tip of the Island. As I passed south of Freshwater Bay, where I’d landed a year ago to portage north to the River Yar, the east-going tidal stream gathered pace and I was now fully committed to sailing round the south side of the Island. There was no way back until the tide changed. A group of Shearwaters floating on the waves burst into flight as I sailed by whilst breakfasting on brie and tomato sandwiches. The wind slackened and I shook out the reefs.
St Catherine’s Race, south of the point, has a deserved reputation for heavy overfalls and large broken waves, especially when spring tides set against strong winds. I had the spring tide but was hoping the now force 3 wind would not kick up too much of a sea. I planned to follow the recommendation of Mark Rainsley’s excellent South West Sea Kayaking’ guide which says most of the race can be avoided by keeping close inshore but, as I closed on the point, I started to see the long swell coming from the south was breaking heavily on Atherfield Ledges with windblown spray, illuminated by the sun, curling back behind the breakers. I was concerned that passing close to St Catherine’s Point, where the charted depth is less than 5 metres for at least 2 cables to the south, would put me amongst breakers. By now, the tide was sweeping me eastwards towards the race at 3 knots and it was too late to pass seaward of the race extending 2 miles offshore, so I had no option but to head straight for it. Speed across the ground, according to the GPS, was touching 8 knots at times. I opened the self-bailer, moved my seat back and freed off slightly to maintain good boat speed, in preparation.
Ahead were isolated breaking waves, sparkling white in the sunshine and half a mile to my left was the squat white tower of St Catherine’s lighthouse on top of a short cliff. I wished I could have taken some photographs at this point but I needed both hands for the boat as we began to crash through short steep confused waves, some almost reaching head height. None gave me major cause for concern, save for one, which swept over the foredeck and into the boat, leaving four inches of water in the cockpit. We sailed through several patches of rough seas, tacking a few times before reaching calmer water and passing the seaside town of Ventnor perched on the cliffs at the south east side of the Island. As I’d hoped, the start of a sea breeze had caused the wind to veer and I was able to steer 035° towards Bembridge, on a close reach.
As I sailed across Sandown Bay the wind grew light and I wondered whether I’d make it to the turning point and tidal gate of Bembridge in time. If not, I would have to wait almost 12 hours for the last of the next flood tide and then the beginnings of the next ebb to take me east back to Hill Head. Sea water had found its way into my provisions dry-bag. It had been floating around the cockpit during the St Catherine’s race interlude. I jettisoned my remaining salty soggy sandwiches, ate a couple of cereal bars, drank some water and started paddle-sailing.
After the fast passage from the Needles to St Catherine’s, progress seemed slow. The day became warmer. I passed close to an empty liquefied natural gas tanker anchored off Sandown Bay and still facing into the last of the south west-going tide. The high chalk cliffs of Culver Down, at the northern end of Sandown Bay, slowly passed by. Eventually, almost 2 hours after Ventnor, I drew level with Bembridge. As I turned the corner at around 11.30, my progress past a sea front hotel slowed to a snail’s pace as the ebb tide gathered speed. Due to one of the many peculiarities of the Solent tides, I still had a mile to go against the tidal flow before I reached the safety of the west-going stream. I redoubled my paddling efforts, inched past the Bembridge lighthouse station on stilts and then kept close to the shore to cheat the tide.
After another half hour of paddling in the hot sunshine I passed inshore of St Helens Fort and was able to relax as a force 2 breeze from the south east pushed me homeward and the direction of the tide started to go in my favour. Very warm after all the paddling, I locked off the tiller extension and swapped my dry suit and thermal layers for tee shirt and shorts as I passed Bembridge Harbour and then Seaview. Lack of attention caused me to accidently gybe, but fortunately no harm resulted. Soon after, I passed the Ryde Pier and the town’s sandy beach. To my right I could see the Spinnaker Tower rising 170 metres above Portsmouth Harbour.
As I steered toward Lee on Solent across the deep water channel I took care to give east-going shipping a wide berth.
On the VHF I heard the pilot of the coastguard helicopter ask permission to land a crewman on the aft deck of a merchant ship, as an exercise. I took a few photos as they passed on my port side. Through binoculars, it soon became possible to discern the masts of yachts in the haven at Hill Head. Shortly before 3 pm, just over 15 hours and 54 nautical miles since our departure the night before, I landed on the stone slipway just inside the haven entrance.
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Sailing past Jura in 2010 (for an overall picture of the boat).
For an account of a sea kayak Isle of Wight circumnavigation and many good descriptions of the area from a sea kayaking perspective see; http://solentkayakpages.blogspot.co....therines Point .
Or for an excellent cruising dinghy guide to the Solent see; http://www.solentsoundings.org/files...iff_Martin.pdf .
For more about Shearwater Sailing Canoes and sailing canoes in general see; http://www.solwaydory.co.uk/ and http://www.ocsg.org.uk/ .