Pip Hare castigates herself as the tricky inshore route to Lowestoft fails to pay off
The end of the last chapter of the Shetland Round Britain & Ireland Race from Lerwick to Lowestoft was long, tiring and emotional. A classic example of how we are all at the mercy of the weather and no amount of effort will overcome a lack of wind.
From the gas fields on Monday afternoon Phil and I on The Shed decided to ride the south going tide in towards the coast for our final approach into Lowestoft.
From 40 miles out we tacked as the tide turned and reaped the benefits of a lee bow tide, pushing us from the north towards the wind, increasing out boat speed and improving our course towards the finish.
The Shed went from super slug to super charged, we were averaging over 7 knots, fully powered up and running for the coast.
My initial plan was to hit the coast with the last of the strong southerly tide, around Cromer (missing the crab pots) and then ride the current down the coast, for the last couple of hours, and then we had a decision to make.
The final approaches into Lowestoft are surrounded by offshore sandbanks with three channels between them, through which the tide rips. Add into this, a wind farm, lots of traffic a dying breeze and the night time, and navigation could become a little tricky.
The easy and simple route was to go around the outside of all the sand banks and drop into Lowestoft from seaward around the same latitude. The problem with this route would be avoiding the shipping, which there was a lot of; and during the afternoon and evening channel 16 on the VHF seemed to be alive with communication between ships and those annoying silly little yachts who were like a swarm of green fly, clogging up the shipping channels.
To go through one of the middle channels would be tricky navigation wise, as they are very narrow, and the wind was blowing directly from the south, meaning we would have to tack, bouncing from one sandbank to the other. With a south going tide, this would be a favourable route though as the water is channelled between the banks and would be flowing fast in our direction.
Finally there was the very inshore route, again, dodging between sand banks and the beach, a shorter route, significantly more effort but against the tide, if we stayed in the very shallow water, there should be gains to made.
We arrived at the shore, exactly as planned with two hours of favourable tide to go. Things could not have been going better. With the current boat speed and course we would be in well before midnight, the mood on The Shed was buoyant.
I came up with a master plan about our route and at the right moment floated it past Phil; the idea was to take the inshore route. We would ride the tide up to the point where the banks began and there was a narrow gat (break in a sandbank) to pass through and a three way fork in the route.
We would take the very inshore route, making the most of the tide as we could, then when the tide died we would work the shore, tacking in and out of the most shallow water that we dare and slowly creeping our way toward our destination.
With The Shed fully powered up and in the bright sunshine, I put across a good argument; we wanted to gain some time and we would never do that by just following the pack, we needed to take a different strategy, to dare to be different and prepared to put in the extra effort for extra reward…… maybe.
He was up for it and so we set off inshore.
We arrived at the gat, the fork in the road with a falling light, and made the decision to go inshore. A big gamble and a bit of a stressful option but we were up for the challenge.
I had worked on the tidal heights and due to the lack of swell was prepared to go in close to the shore and pass over the top of sandbanks, to gain as much advantage as this. This meant that I would be navigating the boat, jumping up the companionway to check our position course and speed, then coming on deck to issue Phil with directions and work the sheets for him during manoeuvres.
Phil was helming and had to totally trust my judgement which was difficult; there was a decent moon creating a half light, going into the shore, we could see the waves breaking on the beach but distance becomes very hard to judge and driving the boat in towards a line of breaking swell goes against every decent sailors instincts.
Going out the other way from the shore, I was navigating the boat over sandbanks, so the depth would drop away suddenly and as we were sailing in an un marked area, going away from the coast it would not be immediately obvious which was to turn should The Shed run aground.
After a few hesitant trips inshore, Phil urgently shouting the depth to me as it fell, we settled into a rhythm and worked The Shed towards the finish.
When we entered the inshore channel, to retain 1st place overall in IRC we needed to cover 12 miles in 4 hours. Easy.
The breeze died and the tide picked up. After an hour things were not looking so positive.
We needed to make 10.5 miles in 3 hours. This was still doable. The Shed had to make just under 4 knots VMC. We were sailing at between 5 and 6 knots through the water…..just keep plugging on.
With 2 hrs to go the mood on The Shed was not jubilant; due to the tidal effects, we were tacking through 120-140 degree angles, ricocheting between the beach and the banks, frantically running backwards and forwards but not moving towards our destination.
With 30 minutes to go we were still 9 miles away and I had to admit that we were not going to make it. At this point Pip Hare might have lost her cool…
Phil stepped back and watched while I had a meltdown criticising myself for a terrible tactical call and blaming myself for throwing away our position and sailing like a muppet. All the toys were out of the pram.
A quiet Brummy accent from the back told me if I was going to beat myself up could I please do it after we had finished the leg and then Phil could get some sleep.
He had a point. A paddy never got anyone anywhere. Onwards was the only way forward, and even if we were only making 1 knot towards the finish at least we were moving.
We crawled up the shore, I was counting the lights on the sea front at Great Yarmouth to measure our progess. Tacking became a five minute task and we averaged four lights per tack. A five lighter would be a cause for celebration.
Eventually we popped out at the end of the channel and had a decision to go inshore or offshore again.
The quickest route was inshore, so we decided to take that option, and ploughed on into the coast, at which point the wind stopped dead. The sails started flogging and it was apparent this was not the way to go.
We were committed but need to get the hell out of the inshore route and go the long way round in some wind.
Another tidal calculation and I decided we would sail the Shed over the end of a sandbank and out into the wind.
Tensely we crept forward, the depth fell, and fell; all instincts told us to turn around expect the competitive one. We sailed on into the dark, eyes glued to the depth sounder, this time in silence, no need to read the numbers out we were both fully aware of the situation.
A puff of wind pushed The Shed forward, this is what we had been looking for, but we were now driving into shallow water with more speed.
Breath held, wind increasing, eventually we scraped over the bank and were released onto the other side into some wind.
The Shed ate up the final miles, we arrived at the finish at 03.44.18 tired, strung out, but incredibly grateful we had made it.
A RIB came out to meet us and due to a problem with the prop shaft towed us in.
The wind had shut off completely, and we watched a beautiful watery East coast sunrise over the north sea for a perfect beach day.
At the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk yacht club we were met by the Blue NG shore team, Tim and Ian, who had been on standby for a couple of days, with our ETA changing often they were glued to the tracker.
Into the dock and off to breakfast, we launched straight into another day, with no sleep and a hectic stopover schedule.
We had made it to the finish with the last of a dying breeze. We had got 1st in class and dropped back to 2nd overall. I was full of self criticism for taking what I though had been the wrong route, but we had made the most of it in the end and were happy to have made it to such a warm welcome on a warm day.
Meanwhile the rest of the fleet were still out there, suffering with the lack of wind.