Winds from astern blow the little white yawl with tan sails through the narrows of the mighty Hamoaze, close to the red port Cremyll Battery channel buoy. The last of the 4.9m tide has ebbed and crossing the slack water, to hug the shallows, this inexperienced skipper in trade mark blue fleece and red kayak expedition buoyancy aid, eases his mainsail downhaul. The sail bellies more and then fills and so he eases mainsheet to take advantage of the slight increase in breeze. On a downwind run, his sail presses against hemp shroud and the almost fully raised centreboard gently knocks from side to side in its poorly fitting centre-case. He watches intently the little foot ferry ahead as it glides its way across the channel from Admirals Hard ramp, tucked away in Stonehouse Pool.
On his port side, the Cremyll slipway and ahead, the large stone pillar with its QHM speed warnings. The Skipper shudders as memories of a near catastrophe four years ago flood back. Then, attentively focused on the ferry and a stunning gaff yawl heading for the sound, he almost impaled poor Arwen’s bowsprit on this pillar; in front of a very crowded Edgecumbe Arms with its many revellers enjoying the afternoon sunshine on the riverside terrace beer garden. Still, he muses, looking on the bright side, it wouldn’t have been as embarrassing as the time he sank thigh deep in thick mud when carrying his lapstrake canoe Angharad over the mudflats outside a certain pub in Noss Mayo. On that occasion he really got the tide times wrong and he proved to be that pub’s evening entertainment. Four years on, he still hasn’t returned to that pub out of fear that some local might recognise him.
The boomkin rattles in its socket; the mizzens flaps as it changes side, awakening the sailor from his reverie. The Edgecumbe Belle has unerringly arrived at the ramp disembarking her passengers for a day in the grounds of Mt Edgecumbe Country Park. A ferry has plied these very waters at this point between Devon and Cornwall since the 11th century when rowing boats carried people and horse-boats carried livestock and fodder. In 1511 the Edgecumbe family took control of the route, keeping it for the next four hundred years. The first steamboat ferries appeared in 1885. The Cremyll ferry is now a much-loved city institution; a summer tradition. A trip across to Cawsand, a walk around the stunning coast and through the country park and a return trip back on the Edgecumbe Belle.
A slow turn to port and Mashford’s yard comes into view. There has been a boatyard at Cremyll for 270 years. Bought by the Mashford’s in 1930, the yard built antisubmarine motor launches and assault craft for the Admiralty during WWII. Sir Francis Chichester fitted out here; Ann Davison had the yard build her ‘Felicity Ann’. Today, ship building and repair still takes place at the yard; work for Babcock and Serco; local fishing and diving boat commissions; and private sailing and motorboat repairs. Mashford’s, another river Tamar institution.
The sailor checks his yellow pilotage notebook with its sketch maps, bearings and tidal information and slowly edges onto a course of 272M. 0.6 NM should take him across to the west mud port red buoy at the edge of the high-speed training area for HMS Rayleigh and the Royal Marines at HMS Tamar. He waivers slightly, for an alternative is in his notes, 289M and 0.4NM to South Rubble starboard can. It would mean crossing the main channel and skirting up the corner edge of the Number One yard at the Devonport Dockyard. Crossing the 25m deep channel at low tide there would be little flow; the south westerly breezes are good. But it would be close to a lee shore and whilst CH14 QHM Port authority hasn’t reported major ship movements at this time, a tug cutting that corner could cause a problem. The Skipper of the little yawl errs on the side of caution and sticks with his original course. Plenty of room to leeward if need be and in the lee of the high-speed training area. Decision made. He faces astern momentarily to free the lower mizzen sail which has caught slightly on the tilted 3.5hp Tohatsu outboard. It’s a rare occurrence but one he is always alert to.
With a more open expanse of water, he leans forward from his aft port position and tidies cockpit halyards. When he rigged Arwen, he arranged for all lines to return aft of the centre thwarts. Here are the cleats and cams that secure downhaul, snotter, centreboard and mainsail. Add in the jib sheets which he also brings back when single handed sailing and it can become a right rats’ nest of tangled lines. Now, he quickly sorts, flakes and gathers these lines, stuffing them gently into their respective halyard bags attached to the rear wall of the centre thwarts. The Huntingford tiller tamer holds Arwen on her course and the skipper’s movements are slow and deliberate so as not to unsettle her trim and balance. For good measure and just because he likes coiling and flaking ropes, something from deep within his DNA, from his old mountaineering days, he sorts the 10mm hemp mainsheet into a nicely flaked coil on the rear cockpit floor and does likewise with green mizzen sheet. That’s much better; far less chance of tripping himself up when he stands in a few minutes to ease his cramped legs. Going overboard with feet in a tangled mess of lines would be very, very embarrassing, not to say quite inconvenient.
Sails fill and sag as the wind builds and falls. The tide turns and the many boats on the Torpoint moorings ahead slowly turn to face downriver as the flood tide makes its presence felt. Lone seagulls wheel overhead, hoping for a thrown scrap morsel of the cheese and marmite baps that the sailor is tucking into. He never, never, leaves shore without at least four of these culinary delights. He once managed to smuggle baps, cheese and one pot of marmite up Kilimanjaro; twice! Throw in a royal gala apple, banana, bag of mixed nuts, raisins and assorted dried fruit pieces along with a Toblerone bar (other apple and chocolate types are available but not has highly rated by Skipper) and he feels he can cope with anything that the day might throw at him. Oh, and a flask of tea; Tetley’s, of course. One should never, never, forget the tea!
Torpoint slides by. An eighteenth-century planned town based on a grid design commissioned by Reginald Pole Carew in 1774. His family, now the Carew Poles still live in the family seat at Antony House, just outside of the town; now run by the National Trust. Torpoint, a town famous for a 1796 shooting battle between the crew of the Viper and a large party of armour liquor smugglers, in which one person was killed and five seriously injured. Torpoint, a town that grew as dockyard workers settled there, the ferries grew in size and the Royal Navy established its main training base at HMS Rayleigh along with the Thanckes refuelling depot. Torpoint, a town on a stunning low ridged peninsula with St John’s lake to the south and Thanckes lake and the river Lynher estuary to the north. A peninsula of farmland much altered in recent decades although still retaining some of its scattered farmsteads with their medieval features still forming part of Cornwall’s Anciently Enclosed land. And sadly, most people just drive off the ferry and straight through the town on their way to the beaches and coastal villages of the Rame peninsula beyond. A shame, for they miss Antony House with its Humphrey Repton planned gardens, stunning architecture and family history. A favourite visiting place of skipper and her indoors!
Behind Arwen, closing astern as she potters up alongside the Torpoint mooring trots, an Edwardian gentleman’s gaff yacht appears. A thing of beauty, some half nautical mile astern. Cream coloured clinker hull with varnished tops and cabin side panels; deep tan sails. Under mainsail alone, this lovely craft closes on Arwen and so skipper whilst deeply admiring the craft decides to try and keep ahead of it. A little self-imposed competition for which he feels genuinely and immensely guilty; but which none the less, offers a little modicum of fun on a hot, hot day. Never the greatest of sail trimmers, the dehydrated sailor sets to with enthusiasm. Easing himself off a direct downwind run and into more of a downwind semi run/broad reach kind of track, he starts to pull in main sail, reset centreboard and adjust mizzen. Honestly, he has no idea what he is doing but using his handheld GPS tracker, he fiddles around until he notes a marginal increase in hull speed; and then he promptly forgets what he did to gain such extra movement. Still, not to worry, for his boat, Arwen, built with his own fair hands and that of his father, father in law and children, shows a clean pair of heels and stays ahead of the 25’ stunner aft. Shameful behaviour on the part of Arwen’s skipper. Frankly quite childish, but his little bout of self-smug satisfaction is about to be vanquished further ahead.
CH14 cackles into life announcing the departure of tugs from one of the dockyard basins as the sailor threads his boat up through the moored boats at Torpoint. Past the Torpoint Marina found within the old ballast pond walls, built by French prisoners of war in 1783 to shelter the ballast barges. The walls have been repaired and are now an ancient monument; one of two surviving ballast ponds in the UK. Here, is a sense of local history. The old ships of the line carried ballast stones and sand in the eighteenth century to keep themselves stable. The ballast was bought to and fro on barges alongside as and when needed or as and when ships were laid up during peace time when cannon, stores and main mast were removed. Ballast was used to compensate. When ships were reactivated, some of the ballast was removed and stored once more. The sailor is unclear whether the removed ballast was actually dumped within the pond or merely stored on the barges which were kept within the pond wall confines.
He suddenly jolts back to life. Arwen is almost upon the Torpoint ferries. Three large vehicle chain ferries plying their way between Devonport and Torpoint carrying regular commuter traffic. Arwen’s skipper sucks in his breath. Normally with 400m to go he would lower engine, start it and motor through but today he is going to resist the temptation and the growing knot in his stomach. An aim of this three-day river cruise is NOT to use the engine at all. Some would say that the best way to achieve that is to not take it at all but skipper who is fiercely paranoiac and lacking in sailing confidence still feels that is a step too far. Still threading the needle under sail……. He sucks air through his teeth and takes a look all around. Then turning his focus to the ferries he works out which are landing on which shore; and which are looking ready to depart. The trick is to arrive just as two have landed and one is past the centre of the channel.
The fates shine kindly on the little boat and her inexperienced skipper. The breeze builds in the last 200m and at a steady, tide assisted 4 kts, Arwen hugs the port shoreline and nips behind a departing ferry, ensuring there is enough distance between her and the ferry rear so that the chains have sunk back down into their black watery oblivion once more. It would be so embarrassing to catch the centreboard on a descending chain. Think of the paper work for ferry operator, QHM and her indoors.
Having cleared 100m upriver along the outer edge of the small craft moorings and past the exposed wreck of some long-forgotten pleasure boat, Skipper realises that he can breathe again and let out his ample stomach. A Murray Mint calms his nerves and he allows himself a fleeting congratulatory mental slap on the back. Another milestone on the way to being a dinghy cruiser has been achieved.
Of course, he did have a pair of oars on board but as he glances at them in their galvanised rowlocks, he realises with horror that they still remain tied on; blades still bungie corded to cleats on the rear cockpit sides; their position for when trailering the boat between places. He still has sooo much to learn, not least of which is make several checks before departing the launch ramp!
350M on the steering compass which sits astride the centreboard cap. A Silva compass. Its seal rotted away last year and the outer protective rim came away in Skipper’s hands when he picked it up whilst on a voyage to Fowey. But now it is back in position, repaired. Skipper is proud of that repair. The judicious use of white marine sealant and no one would know about the damage done. His sealing skills look quite professional!
The tiller is angled to starboard and Arwen edges out into the main channel to take advantage of the flooding 0.8 kt tidal stream; and to avoid the rather large blue hulled tanker firmly moored to yellow mooring dolphins and the concrete Yonderberry fuelling depot ahead. The new red burgee made by good friend Dave flutters over the starboard side, from its lofty position at the top of the mainsail yard. Two of the tankers crew sit languishing on a lighter moored alongside the tanker hull and skipper muses on how incongruous it seems that one of the crew is smoking in front of a large sign that says ‘NO SMOKING’. Perhaps the crew member thinks it is ironic. Skipper wishes for a bit more wind, tidal flow and speed; just in case!
He thinks he read somewhere that the tanker is storing fuel for the Frigates because the concrete pier is crumbling and is badly in need of repair. The pier, part of the Thanckes fuelling complex, has served the naval dockyard opposite for almost 70 years. Built in the 1950’s the jetty is suffering severe accelerated saltwater corrosion and it needs upgrading and modernising. There has been an application to dredge the surrounding seabed and dump the dredging’s around Rame Head in Whitsand Bay but that has met with much local opposition. In the meantime, divers have fitted sacrificial anode systems to protect steel pylons and the mooring dolphins. It is amazing the irrelevant trivia that Skipper stores often incorrectly in his head!
As the sun shines and sparkles off the deep waters of the Tamar, the hot sailor surveys the dockyard opposite. Once the home of Trafalgar class subs and Type 45 destroyers, these have been now moved to Portsmouth and Faslane. In just under three centuries, 300 ships were built at this dockyard. The last HMS Scylla in 1971, decommissioned and sunk close inshore in Whitsand Bay to provide an artificial reef to protect the cliffs at Freathy and to develop a thriving dive boat trade within his fair ocean city.Now the north yard houses the frigate complex, three tall looming buildings with their dry docks and basins. The nuclear sub refit yard lies at the northern end, its 80-tonne cantilever crane missing from the skyline, having collapsed unexpectedly a year or two ago. Within the Weston Mill basin he spies one of the large amphibious assault ships. He cannot make out which it is. Bulwark? Albion? His binoculars are clearly focused. But sadly, his eyes aren’t any more. He makes a mental note to adjust the binoculars when he moors up at the Lynher entrance up ahead. The launch ramps at HMS Tamar alongside are engulfed in a fug of thick smoke and noise! Landing craft are being started up or is it hovercraft? Difficult to see, moored barges are in the way. And, as always, holding station, slowly moving back and forth across the entrance, the reassuring presence of one of the large MOD Police boats.
Four miles long, 25 tidal berths, 5 basins across 2.5 km squared. Two thousand, five hundred employees; supporting 400 local firms and contributing 10% of the local economy. Still the main frigate and vanguard Sub refitting base. With HMS Rayleigh on the western shore and the HQ of Flag Officer Sea Training for the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Home to the assault ships Albion and Bulwark, most of the Hydrographic fleet, seven type 23 frigates and the Antarctic patrol ship HMS Protector. Containing four scheduled monuments, thirty listed buildings and one original slipway still having its 200-hundred-year-old roof still above it, the naval Dockyards at Devonport are part of the fabric of this fair ocean city and Skipper, like most Plymothians is rather proud of this Royal Navy heritage.
Just under two hours after departing the northern shore of Drakes Island, Arwen arrives on station at the mouth of the Lynher. It is time for a stop, a break and so her skipper selects his favourite yellow outer mooring buoy. Just on the southern outskirts of many small craft trots, it gives him ‘wiggle room’. With 300m to go, he plans his approach; sailing upwind and mid channel past the buoy to get a good look around. Options rattle around in his head. He rarely sails onto a mooring can. He could motor. Nope defeats the object of the trip. He could sail from downwind, dropping mizzen and mainsail and coming in under jib but tidal flow has to be considered. It is building and even under just jib, chances are he will race by and find himself in the mooring trots. Best approach is to come from river, facing into wind and tide. He prepares mooring pole, unclipped from starboard side deck and releases the long painter that runs down the outside starboard sheer plank. With luck, he can bring the mooring can along his starboard side; if he misses he has plenty of open water to starboard into which he can drift and start again.
Grabbing the mainsheet, he eases it and tiller to such a point that the mainsail and sprit boom gybe gently over his head and releasing them both, he guides Arwen onto a close reach. The jib roller halyard is pulled and jib obediently furls. With mainsheet in his hand he pulls and eases the sail and gently moves into the flow and wind. His boats speed slows significantly; the bow starts to drop away up river; he risks pinching a little against the wind. At the last moment he eases the mizzen and the buoy comes alongside. Not as close as he would like. There is a mad scramble with mooring pole; he manages to hook on and in a turn of speed and agility not often seen, painter is securely through the buoy eye and tied off on the forward bow samson post. Tripping over the centre thwart, he raises centreboard, releases rudder so it flips up and drops mainsail into an untidy hanging heap between its lazy jacks.
An inelegant, flustered arrival; yet again. The sailor dreams of a mooring buoy arriving alongside midships, on the correct side, with his small boat obediently stopped in the water. With mainsail, centreboard and rudder stowed calmly and correctly. With chins unbruised from an encounter with the thwart seat edges. With no gouges taken out of rub rails.
It has, of course, yet to happen that way. Despite his best efforts and practice, there is far too much to remember; too many lines to sort; too many variables of wind and tide. He is content to accept that he has arrived and hooked on without damaging any of the expensive boats moored in the trots immediately to the north.
It is time for a cheese and marmite bap, a cuppa and a breather before checking the pilotage for the next leg up the Lynher.