As a novice dinghy cruiser, who owns a John Welsford designed standing lug yawl rigged ‘navigator 14’ open boat’, I have just spent the last sailing season exploring some of my local rivers and estuaries around Plymouth Sound and the south Devon coastline. Video vlogs cruising the Lynher, Tamar, Yealm and Kingsbridge estuary can be downloaded as playlists at my dinghy cruising channel www.YouTube.com/c/plymouthwelshboy . These estuaries vary in size, shape, topography and character but all have tested me in similar ways through confined channels, variable winds, shallowing mid channel sandbanks, some tricky pilotage and an array of hazards from mid-stream moored craft to floating tree trunks and even small fleets of fast racing dinghies. I’ve been stranded on mid channel mudbanks, grounded at awkward angles on sloping channel margins, bounced off submerged tree logs, becalmed on meander bends and almost capsized twice in unexpected gusty winds careering off benign valley slopes. It’s all been good learning and I’ve picked up a trick or two, more by chance and luck than by skill, which I now share with other novice dinghy cruisers who may be exploring their local river waters this coming sailing season.
1. So, let’s start with River bars. Found where the estuary silt load is deposited where the bulk of seawater halts the mass of river water that flows downstream, river bars can be easy to navigate in well-chosen conditions. Or, they can on occasions, be seething masses of breakers and steep fronted waves ready to send the unwary sailor broadsides or unintentionally surfing! To date, my encounters with river bars have been sedate affairs in favourable conditions but even then, I approach them with caution. I pay particular attention to the recommendations in local almanacs. The bars at the entrance to the river Yealm and Kingsbridge estuary, are I have found best approached at low tide just as the tide turns and builds again. With favourable winds the same direction as the tidal flow, the bars seem navigable. At low tide, the channels are clearly delineated and bars clearly visible through exposure or waves breaking gently over them. Choosing the right conditions has been critical. The Kingsbridge bar on an ebb tide with strong southerly winds is a dangerous place to be caught out. The steep cliffs on the western shore can cause fluky, gusty winds. Likewise, strong southerly or south westerly winds directly aligned with the river Yealm can cause a nasty swell and make turning sharply to north at Cellars Beach tricky. And what about leaving the rivers and heading for open coastline? Well again I have timed it to leave at low slack water or high slack water so where there is wind against tide conditions, the tidal flow has almost ceased and so any chop has been minimised.
2. Preparation is key to successfully cruising my local rivers and this involves poring over Google Earth and local charts before the trip. Maybe it is me, but doesn’t it seem that rivers throw unexpected things at you, faster than when you are out in the big inshore coastal expanses? Unexpected wind shifts; wind shadow areas; sudden rapid shallowing mid channels; unforeseen moored boats. It all requires faster decision making and certainly less time to look at charts on the boat thwart. Creating pilotage notes and simple channel sketch maps in a small waterproof notebook which I can then hold and look at more easily for quick reference seems sensible. My head stays looking out of the boat and not looking down in it. My decision making becomes faster based on this previous homework and some advanced pre-understanding of topography and channel features. I’ve tried to anticipate those wind shadow areas in advance. That clump of trees on the headland, that old barn at the water’s edge, the hills and small valleys converging at a single river bend. All can lead to converging and diverging wind shifts. Not for the first time have I been caught out by the wind shadow created by the viaduct under which I pass when navigating up to Treluggan Boatyard on the upper Lynher river! And the countless times I have suddenly become becalmed as I round Snapes Point on the lower Kingsbridge estuary?
3. Tip three sounds obvious but is easily overlooked. Never cleat your sheets when river cruising. River valleys have a deceptive effect on wind speed and direction so make sure your mainsheet and jib sheet can run out fully and that they aren’t caught on something. It is embarrassing the number of times I have tried to spill wind during a sudden gust by letting the mainsail out only to find I am standing on the surplus mainsheet on the cockpit floor! On the odd occasion, that perfectly timed tack run to the very channel margin has turned into a disaster as the jib sheet has caught on the tack preventing me from tacking cleanly. In a similar vein, don’t let the mainsheet fall from boom end and drag in the water either. The gurgling effect may sound idyllic but that sheet will slow down through the block and there will be water on the bottom boards!
4. To be honest, I have frequently found myself this season, particularly when tacking between moored boats in confined waters, holding the loose sheets dangling from the boom block in my hands and then just pulling the mainsail back and forth across the boat rather than hauling the sheet through the block when tacking. Time is saved in the tacking manoeuvre which becomes quicker and more efficient. Whether this is good seamanship or not I have no idea but it seems to work.
5. Planning a few tacks ahead is good seamanship too and prevents me being lulled into a false sense of security by the idyllic estuarine scenery. When I first started cruising up rivers, I lost speed and way by pinching to get upstream of that moored boat. I’d end up having to bear away at the last moment, unable to make it past the boat thus losing 30m of hard gained upstream momentum and distance. I began to catch on that looking at the background behind the bow and stern of any upriver moored boat was useful. If the bow started to reveal more background behind it than the stern did, then as a rule of thumb, I tended to pass safely up tide of that boat. If the background revealed behind bow and stern stayed equal, I was more likely to be on a collision course. It was a trick that proved useful on several occasions navigating the crowded ‘bag’ narrows on the lower Kingsbridge estuary during last summer. It was initially very frustrating spending almost 30 minutes tacking upriver to pass upstream of one particular boat only to find myself having to bear away at the last moment to pass downstream of it, so losing all the upstream ground I had so carefully pinched in the half hour before. Very frustrating and embarrassing. A painfully learned lesson indeed. Planning a few tacks ahead allowed me to anticipate potential wind shadow areas and think of quick ‘what if’ scenarios along with potential list of actions to take in different circumstances. As a result, up river progress became smoother and more continuous.
6. My understanding of simple river flow mechanics has improved significantly this season and this has impacted my sailing. For example, it sounds obvious but is worth saying - when running with the tidal steam, stick to the middle of the channel where river flow tends to be faster.
7. By the same token, shallower water at the channel sides tends to flow more slowly and thus offers the best opportunities for the fastest sailing progress upstream. Just keep a sharp eye on the depth and try not to ground yourself! Twice I have grounded myself temporarily this season in the inside of small meander bends. Remember, slower flowing water tends to result in more sediment deposition, especially on the inside of bends! And how many years have I taught meander formation at GCSE and A Level? Dur!
8. If you need the deep water, search for it on the outside of meander bends where faster flowing water leads to more river scouring and so deeper water channels. But remember, the price paid is that faster flowing river water, so it pays to make best use of that building tide to counter the river flow!
9. Let’s keep on the theme of river depths a moment longer. It is of course easy to become disorientated in a channel, particularly when the tide is rising and covering mudflats and mudbanks. On such occasions my carefully drawn channel sketches in my notebook have become meaningless. With no depth sounder on Arwen, at times like this, I will find one channel edge and then through use of centreboard, stick close to it. If this edge is on my port side, then I know that deeper channel water will lie to starboard of me in an emergency. When I have stuck to the middle of the channel, as I have done in the past, I have found myself not knowing which side deeper water might be found on and so now you know how one or twice this season I have come to be stranded mid channel on sand banks in the river Lynher above Black Rock, at the start of a building tide. I’ve learned to keep a better watch on tide times and chart depths when passage planning. It is so easy to forget about tide times and tidal heights when sailing stunning estuary scenery on warm sunny days when I have sailed up the Lynher a bit earlier than perhaps I should have! Those detailed pilotage passage notes with bearings and distances to next mark and notes about tidal times and depths have helped reduce the incidents of temporary centreboard bouncing along the riverbed!
10. Dylan Winter (Keep turning Left) and Tony (aka Creeksailor) carry a bamboo cane marked for depth finding when sailing upper creeks and narrow channels. Dylan places his cane just ahead of where he is sitting in his cockpit. As the drift of the boat brings him past the measuring point, his stick comes upright, he reads the depth and the forward motion of the boat lifts the stick up off the bottom and it is then ready for its next placement ahead. I rely on my centreboard which is slightly deeper than my rudder to give me fair warning of when I am starting to skim the riverbed. The centreboard lifts slightly and often rattles inside its casing, a first warning that prompt tacking action into deeper water is immediately required. To be fair, it doesn’t always work and on three occasions this year I have suddenly discovered I have left insufficient tacking depth ahead and as a result both centreboard and rudder have suddenly dug into the mud or caught on some clump of rock and weed just below the surface at the channel margin. During last September, it led to a very memorable encounter with some Canadian Geese who were most offended that I had invaded their little mud shingle beach on the upper Lynher. They are much bigger than you think are those Canadian Geese and talk about hissy fits! Maybe it is time to adopt the cane method for next seasons cruising.
11. Don’t just keep an eye out horizontally. Don’t just think distance and depth. Think vertically as well. Twice in the upper reaches of the Tamar approaching Calstock, I have almost caught my upper sail yard in overhanging branches. Each time I thought I had plenty of room ahead so was somewhat surprised to hear cracking twigs!
12. Upper river channel sailing can be very frustrating. That niggly feeling that winds are conspiring against you as they suddenly shift to blow either directly down channel or up channel from behind is true! So, learn to expect the unexpected. Surface winds often get funnelled up or down river valleys. I have yet to get up the lower Lynher without having to do long upwind tacks, even if the prevailing wind direction for the day is southerly, the winds always seem to be blowing from the west straight down that channel. I’ve experienced the same phenomenon on the Kingsbridge estuary as well. The moment I turn at Snapes Point, those south westerlies suddenly become northerlies, straight down the channel at me. Go figure. The effects of local topography!
13. Tacking up river in narrow channels seems to me to be a dark art which takes some mastering! All those Tamar barge skippers who knew how to tack at the very last moment and somehow managed to gain precious forward momentum and extra distance, stemming the river flow in light winds in shallow waters where river flow was weaker. Dark arts indeed. But I have been learning a trick or two. I discovered on the upper Tamar just north of Halton Quay that getting extra speed up on a cross channel tack was vital. Water flowing across rudder and centreboard well reduced downstream sideways slippage. The speed allowed me to point up at the last moment in the shallows and actually carry some upriver forward progress, parallel with the channel margin and against the flow before having to put in the tack. I became quite adept at pinching five or six metres of extra upriver distance. I think the old barge skippers called it huffing.
14. I often found, particularly on the Tamar above Cargreen, that the winds didn’t always come straight up or down the channel but from across it. In these instances, I ended up with one tack across the channel being longer than the other and this longer tack allowed me to make more progress upriver. However, since it ended on a lee-shore, depth watching became more critical on this tack and I would make an earlier tack leaving plenty of distance and so depth between me and the channel edge. On the shorter tack, which ended on a weather shore, I found I could push the margin edge a little harder, leaving my tack until the very last moment and this is where I would use the ‘huffing trick’ mentioned in tip 13 above. On the odd occasion when I grounded on the weather mud banks, backing the jib would almost immediately provide sufficient leverage to get be back afloat and off on the new opposite tack.
15. Reedbeds always seem to provide me with an opportunity to tack late and hold my way further upstream before tacking away. I have no idea why though. On upper parts of the Tamar before Cotehele Quay and in the channel above Calstock, I often brushed along the reedbeds on one channel side, delaying the swing of tiller to start the new tack. By doing I seemed to gain a few degrees and metres of pointing up river. Perhaps it is something to do with the bow wave pushing away from bow and meeting resistance against the reedbed which creates a little bit of lift for Arwen but I have often gained another unexpected 5m or so distance before tacking away back across the channel.
16. Another little discovery was back eddies on the inside of the large meander above Weir Quay on the upper river Tamar. As a geographer my natural inclination is to avoid inside bends. They have river beaches and shallower depths, more grounding opportunities! However, I met some salmon fishermen in August at Weir Quay who insisted that sailing up the inside of the bend on a rising tide would give me an extra assisted push. I should just keep a good eye on my centreboard bounce!! Sure enough, downstream flow against incoming tidal flow seems to produce these back eddies and weaker river currents and sailing from one eddy to the next got me around the bend quicker on the next trip. Making use of local knowledge! Similarly, I was told that when approaching that bend and the wind is from behind, staying to the outside bend seems to work better. I would love to be able to offer a full explanation of why this is the case but sadly I can’t! It just seems to be one of those ‘local’ things but I am going to dangerously assume that it can be applied to other river meander bends. Perhaps I will try the theory out over the next few months in the Kingsbridge estuary and on the Rivers Dart and Avon in the forthcoming summer.
17. I have discovered that trying to anticipate the location of potential wind shadow areas and keeping an eye out for them on any upriver cruise is time well spent. Decisions on how to pass through them are best made before arriving in them! I always get caught by a wind shadow on the bend at Dandy Hole part way up the Lynher where the river makes a pronounced dog leg bend north wards. Here the combination of wooded slopes and local hill topography seems to create for me anyway, an area where the wind suddenly drops and I lose way. It happens every time I visit the place. Passing close beneath the hillslope or on the far side of the channel brushing the little Redshanks beach spit area on the opposite channel side seem to offer no advantage, since the winds always appear either disturbed or non-existent at these points. For me, I have found the best approach is to keep about two-thirds of the way across from the westerly shoreline. Here, Arwen seems to catch a breeze each time. Alternatively, looking out for the little wind scuds across the water surface ahead and aiming for these areas where wind is at least visible, seems a good ploy. Of course, you have to pay attention to water depth in these areas. Not for the first time, have I chased the wind ripples only to have grounded myself in the middle of the mid Lynher channel where notorious sandbanks trap the unwary at the start of rising tides! Ho Hum, some lessons are so painfully learned aren’t they!
18. When I first started meeting oncoming vessels in narrow upper channels such as up at Calstock, or on the approach to the Kingsbridge marina basin, I would panic, turn away, pinch my way upriver, giving them ample passing room and so lose way and end up in irons. The loss of momentum meant loss of manoeuvrability. I quickly learned not to panic. Now, in the habit of giving clear hand signals to the boat ahead that indicate my intentions, I have kept speed and forward momentum and passed the oncoming vessel easily. If anything, most of the vessels have actually given me more room as I am the one more often than not under sail!
19. And finally, my last tip for river cruising is an obvious one. It strikes me that it is better to cruise up river on an incoming tide. Go with the flow! It carries you upriver and in the event of grounding, you float off within a few minutes all being well. Remembering that high water is later the further upriver you go, you get longer to sail upriver. It is not the same, of course, on the return ebb. Sailing downstream on the ebb will give you a shorter sailing time to cover that same distance and more often than not I have found myself always in the lower estuary expanses just on maximum tidal outflow when the wind is against me. It inevitably becomes a ‘choppy’ and wet sail back down river!
So, there we are. Nineteen tips that I have picked up this year. Seasoned river sailors will probably laugh at all of this. It is rather obvious I suspect. But we all have to start somewhere and this has been my river sailing journey this year. With planned cruises up the tributaries of the Kingsbridge estuary and thoughts turning to a cruise up the Fowey to Lostwithiel and up the Dart to Totnes, I am sure I will pick up more experience, wisdom and tricks during this forthcoming sailing season. In the meantime, if you have any tips for river sailing please drop me a comment in the box below. As always, my learning curve is vertical and I have only progressed as a dinghy cruiser because of the kindness of people like yourselves sharing tips and experiences.