A blog about sailing a John Welsford
'Navigator' yawl around Plymouth Sound
in South-west England
Hi everyone and welcome to my new blog. My name is Steve and I am the lucky owner of a John Welsford designed 'navigator' named Arwen. I built her over three years with the help of my father, father-in-law and two children. She was launched in August 2007 at Queen Anne's Battery marina in the Barbican area of Plymouth. This blog is a record of our voyages together around SW England. Arwen has an associated YouTube channel so visit www.youTube.com/c/plymouthwelshboy to find our most recent cruises together.
I have tried halyard bags in Arwen before. They were either too small, too big, dragged on the bottom boards, didn't hang properly. The list of minor irritations with them was growing.
I had some spare acrylic canvas left over from some project long ago. So long ago, I can't actually recall the project or maybe it wasn't that long ago but my memory is fading faster than it was. Anyway, I decided to custom measure and custom make some. Well I did the measuring (which I got right in the sense of correct dimensions but wrong in terms of template to cut out!) and the cutting out. The 'Boss' did the sewing and putting them together, bless her.
So Arwen now proudly posses two sets of new halyard bags which are a custom fit to the aft cockpit dimensions and that have custom measured pockets of various widths to accommodate various halyards. On the front halyard bag these would be the centreboard downhaul, the mainsail downhaul, the topping lift and the mainsail halyard. And there will still be room for a flask, water bottle and sandwiches. On the rear bag it is storage space for a ditty bag and the mizzen sheet.
They are held in place using small bungees through deck eyes and are easily removable for washing. I found press stud attachments became horribly corroded or salt caked so that they were really difficult to remove. Luckily, the material I had left over also matched the faded covers of the cushions...wonderful!
A long time ago 'her indoors' was a talented amateur dressmaker. I had forgotten that. Watching her deftly work out how to correct my template cutting errors, double stitch seams and constantly fold inside out and visa versa the various bag components to get the best finish was a joy. Rot proof polyester thread flew off the various bobbins at high speed and within 2 hours two sets of made to measure halyard bags had appeared.
Like the idiot I am, I forgot to negotiate a suitable and fair remuneration for these services. This is, I am assured, really, really going to cost me!!
On a different note, someone asked me the other day about what pilotage notes I make when I am sailing around estuaries. I have no idea what is the correct way of doing them but here is my version for what it is worth.
They tend to be sketches marking positions of buoyage, bearings and transits; tidal information and useful phone numbers. They are a quick to glance at aide memoir in addition to the charts that I have laid on the starboard thwart under bungee elastic. I have found them to be quite useful in tandem with binoculars and a hand held compass!
The idea was simple. A two day exploration of the Dart.
Admittedly not ideal tides. I have to go when I can; not necessarily when its best to go! In an ideal world high tide would have been around 7 am and with a rising tidal range. In an ideal world the wind would have been from the south west around force three. Well I got one of those, a rising tidal range. After that.......well tides were not ideal. Low tide around 8.00 - 9.00 am and high tides around mid afternoon. the wind was a nightmare. My inexperience shone through in spades and I made mistakes. Lots of mistakes! Still, mistakes are good. You learn things from mistakes. Next time gets better!
'The dart is pretty sheltered but remember to work the tides'. Good advice from someone who knows the dart well.
Well I did try! Sort of.
The day did start well. I found Blackness Marine http://www.blacknessmarine.co.uk/
down a set of twisting narrow country lanes, a feat of navigation in itself. The scenery was worth it though; simply stunning hedgerows ablaze with pinks, blue, yellows and whites and the reddish brown sandy soils giving glimpses of rich colour across green rolling pastures. The welcome at Blackness Marine, warm and friendly. I didn't know what to expect but there in the middle of fields were boats on trailers and props and an assortment of sheds including a large dry-stack hanger. Big tractors and boat lift trailers completed the scene. Set among the rolling hills of south Devon, it was a rather incongruous scene. The slip just about two car widths with a small set of floating pontoons on its port side was accessed along a half mile gravel track down a hill; the turning area at the end concrete with plenty of space. Cars and trailers can be parked back along the wide gravel track. Well maintained, it gave easy access to the Dart just below Stoke Gabriel. I'm sure there are many other slips along the Dart but I liked this one. There again, early on in the season, I had it to myself!
Arwen slipped off her trailer with ease and bobbed happily at her pontoon whilst car and trailer were parked. I spent a few minutes tidying up her interior and then started my safety checks; PDF first, then radio and PLB, followed by outboard.
The outboard refused to start. I wasn't planning on using it anyway as I intended sailing off the pontoon under jib and mizzen but I wanted to make sure it was fine, just in case. It stubbornly refused to start. Choke in, choke out, nothing! A passing rib skipper suggested waiting for 15 minutes with the vent open and choke in. So one cup of tea, a marmite sandwich and short stroll along the beach later, she started first time. Something about being too warm already in the sun on the journey across. New one on me I must say.
We departed the pontoon at 11.00, reaching across the wide river nearly 3 hrs into the incoming tide. The intention was to sail up to Totnes on this rising tide and then sail back down to the river mouth. Or maybe, up Bow Creek to overnight at The Malsters Arms at Tuckenhay.
As the river narrowed, tacking became more frequent, trying to keep in the channel. The rising winds were making it difficult and a point came when sailing was getting nowhere. Those winds were strong. Arwen's bow struggled to tack, constantly blowing off downwind. The gusts became more violent and despite the deceptively hot, sunny. cloudless sky, it was clear winds were reaching force 5/6. Gusts were more! Perhaps, in hindsight, I should have carried more sail.
I gave up sailing upwind just above Stoke Gabriel near Ham Point. The channel was narrow. I touched bottom several times and although confident that a rising tide would float me off, progress was painfully, painfully slow. The wind shifted and veered, channeled by valleys and slopes. I tried rowing for a bit, close inshore to the banks. But Arwen isn't designed for long distance rowing and whilst in sheltered waters it was fine but come the exposed channel areas, her bow would get caught by the gusts and rowing became harder as she broached downwind. Fun for a time for a bit, challenging for some length of time; downright frustrating towards the end!
I eventually resorted to the motor. I held out far longer than normal so I guess that is a positive. I so wanted to make Totnes for some unfathomable reason; to tie up at Baltic Wharf, even if only for a few minutes. Motoring seems frowned upon by many, yet I can't always see why. I realise its not as quiet as sail or oar. Birds fly off in advance. Wildlife slinks back inshore. Its intrusive and noisy for others on the river; and it doesn't develop your sailing skills. But then I guess its about what you want out of the day. For me, getting to see scenery and some wildlife, enjoying the outdoors and exploring new places whether by sail, motor, oar or on foot is what it is about. I am a wanderer at heart. How I get there is truthfully, immaterial, although I do like to try and keep carbon emissions down as much as possible. As for intrusive noise, I was the only sail boat in the upper reaches. Plenty of small motor boats but no sailing boats.......maybe I should have taken a hint from that?
We did finally reach Baltic wharf around 1.30 pm - near enough three hours to cover the five miles. The wind howled down the home reach and I was grateful to a large cruiser which went 20m ahead of me as a windbreak. Very effective it was too!
Coming off the pontoon at Baltic wharf was easy. Backing the jib swung Arwen around briskly. The tidal flow had almost finished and she positively shot down home reach, past the reed beds and the old wreck of the former 'Kingswear Castle' paddle steamer at Fleet Mill quay. Going around the bends at Sharpham, Asprington and Ham Points proved challenging. The tide was flowing out fast and the channel narrowing. Mudflats loomed on the inside of bends and the winds weren't always on the outside! But we managed. Jib and mizzen worked in harmony. As the river opened up at Stoke Gabriel, the gusts proved more powerful. Arwen would drift in lulls and then suddenly surge ahead at high speed as the gusts funneled down the side valleys and off the hills. Downwind sailing is challenging to say the least.
Of course, working the tides isn't what I did. Focused too much on heading down river I forgot to think about overnight anchorage spots! A silly, silly error. I'm much better than that! Amateurish behaviour of which I am justifiably embarrassed. As I shot down around the big bend at Dittisham, I was barely in control threading between the anchored boats and mooring trots. Gusts caught me from behind, surging me ahead and with an increasingly fast tidal outflow, it proved challenging sailing for an amateur. But we did it and before we knew it, we'd shot past Noss Marina and were among the naval launches practicing their standing off mooring buoys in challenging winds. From the skill I saw displayed, I think Royal Navy ships will be in safe hands in the future.
Dollops of spray coming over the bows
As we came up on the car ferry across the river, I decided to fire up the outboard. Ferries, tourist boats, incoming and outgoing yachts from marinas either side, it was very complicated and it would be a skilled and experienced sailor to go through it all under sail. A small 26' yacht alongside me stowed sails and started her outboard and we motored side by side down the main fairway, merely a boat and a half's length between us.
Past Dartmouth town and the lower car ferry we parted ways. She veered off to starboard and against very gusty winds and strong outgoing tide, picked up a mooring buoy with minimal trouble. I continued down to Warfleet Creek. The intention was to overnight here but it became clear that as the winds veered NNE - NE, this small creek was looking uncomfortable. Moored boats bobbed and tugged at their moorings and I wasn't confident about anchoring there. In my head, either I would anchor close to the entrance (where the tent would act like a giant sail and she would spin about on her mooring giving me an uncomfortable night) or I would creep in as the evening tide rose and anchor as close to the inner shore as possible, knowing that I wouldn't be able to sail out of the creek the following day until at least early afternoon.
Bad planning. Not thinking about where I was going to overnight sufficiently well. Not thinking about the implications of trying to find somewhere at low tide in rising winds in late afternoon. For yes, winds were rising further during this early evening and by now it was 4.45pm.
And then another bad decision. Rather than waiting and chancing Warfleet creek, I decided to head back up into the wind by motor. Arwen struggled to maintain her heading as the wind came straight down the fairway. What makes motoring with my outboard 'challenging' is the fuel problem. The outboard only has a small internal tank and an external one can't be fitted. Planning refuel stops is a critical part of passage planning by motor. Tide, wind, all affect fuel consumption. I know that I get about 40 minutes on low throttle before she needs a refill. With the wind, boat traffic and outgoing tide, it was stressful. I managed to make it back to Old Mill Creek and in the lee of the northern shore, found sufficient shelter to refuel Arwen. The falling tide mean't the muddy bottom was rising up to meet me more rapidly than I liked. It was a very quick refuel. A tip I picked up from Joel in the states, a long time ago, was to have some 1.5 litre fuel bottles and a funnel to hand!
To cut a very long story short, through a mixture of sailing and motoring back up river against a falling tide, I tried to find a suitable overnight anchorage. The winds were rising further, averaging around force six for a time. I watched a cornish shrimper reaching across the broad area above Dittisham. The two crew struggled at times and I saw more of the bottom of a shrimper than I have ever seen before. That shrimper turned tail after a while and headed back to its mooring downriver.
Bow Creek entrance was a no-no. I'd hoped that the little area at the entrance with its charted depth of 2m at low water would be an secure overnight anchorage but the winds rolled off the hills changing direction frequently and 20 minutes at anchor convinced me it would be an unsettled night.
Entrance to Stoke Gabriel Creek was impossible - the creek had emptied and apart from which the wind was gusting strongly down over the dam at its head. Tucking behind Blackness Point was an option but again I had left it too late to secure a safe anchorage and even if I waited for the tide to build it would be a late exit the following day.
And so, approaching 7.30 pm I took the decision to pull the boat out. The tide was still falling and the gusting wind made getting Arwen onto her trailer tricky. The wind was beam on and she blew off the trailer rollers time and time again but persistence prevailed and on the fifth attempt, with judicious use of a warp running from pontoon to a starboard beam cleat, she finally ran onto the rollers straight and true.
So no overnight camp. No drying out on a beach; or anchoring off a beach beneath the tree lined hills.
On the plus side lots of mistakes made and lots learned for next time.
Blackness Marine ramp where I launched 2 hours after low water and retrieved an hour before low water. An interesting drive down narrow country lanes - follow their route advice!
Friendly welcome, plenty of space to rig Arwen and plenty of space to park the car and trailer on a gravel road just above the ramp.
Upstream awaits Bow Creek, Stoke Gabriel and Totnes. Bow Creek leads to Tuckenhay. I left it to late to navigate up there as was my intention, so it is saved for another time. a century ago 'Tucken Hay' was a centre of industrial activity - lime, corn, malt, paper and cider, loaded onto boats which docked at the quay at high tide. Now the quayside is home to holiday cottages and a pub, The Malsters Arms - which sounds a very good reason for heading up there one lunch time!
Anchored on the outside bend off Asprington Point
Sharing the river with the tourist boats
Sharpham house with its boat house and vineyards on the red south hams soils. The house was built for a naval officer in 1770 using the prize money he gained for capturing a Spanish treasure ship. Tours of the estate and the purchase of Sharpham wine (one of England's best vineyards but then I am biased) makes it a popular visiting point.
It was in this stretch of the river that I actually saw leaping salmon. I know, it sounds a fishy tale but it is true. It jumped several times trying to catch flies and it wasn't a trout or a bass. Once a keen fisherman, I know my fish even if I rarely fish nowadays. I know that fishermen were once allowed to use seine nets on the Dart. Many were based in Stoke Gabriel and Duncannon. generations of the same family had licences past on down from father to son. Sadly few salmon boats remain and salmon are even rarer. A great pity. I remember watching salmon netters on the Tamar - using traditional rowing boats, a net was dropped off the back of the stern whilst a shore based fisherman held the other end. A circle was completed and then the net hauled into shore. Ancient craft now almost forgotten....a sad loss of our traditions and heritage.
The boat house and cottage on the Sharpham estate
The exposed, derelict hulk of one of the early River dart paddle steamers, The Kingswear Castle. It lies rotting next to Fleet Mill Quay. Now unused, ships belonging to the Seymour family would unload their goods which were taken by pack horse up Fleet mill Creek to Berry Pomeroy castle. A long time ago at the start of the 19th century, silt build up made it impossible for larger ships to get up to Totnes and so the quay became very busy. Ships would anchor off Sharpham Point and smaller vessels from Fleet Mill Quay would carry the cargoes up to Totnes.
Approaching Totnes, the channel straightens past salt marshes and reed beds. This is known as the 'Home Stretch' and this is Long Marsh. Once used as a rifle range it is now a popular walk.
It was once a mighty old oak. Its greenery was home to a menagerie of wildlife, thousands of insects and bugs; a few birds, maybe a squirrel or two. But now it was toppled. A gale a few years ago whistling through its boughs proved too much and the tree's ancient roots were torn from the earth. And so it lies, its once proud branches light greyish brown, devoid of greenery and skeletal like; its upper limbs bleached by decades of sun and rain.
Lower branches have been blackened with successive rising tides and become a trap for all the river flotsam. Twigs, reeds, driftwood and plastic. Only one branch now lifts proudly skywards and it once again serves duty. An observatory, for the elegant heron.
Several herons in fact. Plus two egrets who clearly have not attained status in the wading bird world. For they were consigned to the mud, standing there forlornly prodding at the mud with their bills and surrounded by ducks. Above the majority of grey herons stood motionless, long graceful necks erect, surveying their estuarine kingdom. But teaching has taught me, that in any class, there is always one. On a lower bough, clearly of lower status, one heron was playing with sticks. Eccentric behaviour, the heron would shake the stick vigorously from side to side and then drop it, only to quickly retrieve said stick, stalk back up the trunk and do it all again. The heron clan studiously ignored this errant behaviour. He/she was clearly letting the side down.
Meanwhile, something unusual. The soundscape! One of clucking pheasants in the fields behind, the melodic munch of cows in pastures on the hill, the wind whistling through tree tops at the water's edge; the gurgle or river waters flowing beneath Arwen's anchored hull. What was missing? The sound of humans! And so the sun shone. There was warmth on my back. The river was flat. I watched wildlife through binoculars stretched out across her aft cockpit thwarts. Life was serene.
Little did I know what was to beset me later..........but for 25 minutes.........there was peace, calm and serenity on my part of the river Dart!
A welshman displaced to wonderful Plymouth in SW England; a novice sailor and boat builder with a passion for all things to do with the sea. My learning curve is vertical....but hey that's what makes life interesting isn't it! So follow my journey as I learn to sail Arwen,grappling with charts, tide tables and passage planning so that I can become 'a dinghy cruiser'
And by the way, just occasionally, little snippets about 'Stacey' our beloved 1968 motovespa super 125 scooter may feature along with odd insights into our family travels< but these will be kept to a minimum, I promise!
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The 'Navigator' is a 14' 9" yawl with a beam of 5' 10". she weighs in at 309 lbs and has a sail area of 136 sqft. She has a standing lug sail. She has side, centre and front thwarts and space for six although she is an ideal single hander. there are a huge number of potential locker spaces. For more details about the design of navigators go to www.jwboatdesigns.co.nz/plans/navigator/index.htm