Cruising along England’s south coast in early summer proved an unexpected treat for Phil Johnson and his wife Roxy.
It was around the moment that we both huddled over the vent of our diesel air heater for warmth, droplets of condensation forming on the hatches overhead, the smell of mildew filling cabinets and closets, that we started to ask ourselves: why? Why did we, two American sailors, leave the balmy Caribbean to sail some 4,000 miles across the North Atlantic, only to spend the winter stuck in a marina on the south coast of England during a long lockdown?
It was really only by chance that myself and Roxy, my wife and Sonder’s co-skipper, ended up staying in the UK after travel restrictions delayed our planned sail south to the Mediterranean. But what started as a disruption turned to serendipity in early May, when restrictions lifted and we departed our Solent winter berth on the Hamble River to head west, cruising along England’s south coast.
Two (or three) boats make a race
Our first planned stop after leaving the Solent would be Studland Bay, 20 miles of upwind sailing west from the Isle of Wight. It was early morning and the tide, near slack, would soon turn against us. Light westerlies were forecast to build steadily later that day.
At Hurst Point, I noticed there were two other yachts appearing to head the same direction. As any sensible sailor would, I immediately declared it a race (unbeknown to the other participants), Roxy and I wasted no time in sheeting in for a close-hauled port tack down the North Channel. One of the other yachts, slightly smaller than Sonder, started on the same tack as us to clear the Shingles Bank. The other, a larger boat with more crew, took the starboard tack down towards the Needles.
The sun fought hard against the clouds and cold spring breeze coming off the North Atlantic. As the tide turned, a distinct line appeared in the water in front of us as the clear, emerald water of the Atlantic Ocean met the brackish, brown Solent.
This demarcation was an obvious start line, not just for this pretend race, but something more symbolic too. This was a departure point. From the Pilgrims bound for America, through to the fabled Golden Globe Race of 1968, the south coast of England had often featured in the seafaring books I’d read since childhood. This place was the perfect setting for the start of an adventure.
Roxy winched our mainsheet traveller to windward and we felt Sonder gracefully heel over 10° into the developing chop as if she too was excited by returning to the Atlantic. The wind stiffened to 22 knots apparent and I studied the progress of our unwitting race rivals.
Both yachts were modern French designs that admittedly point higher in the wind than our 1986 Cheoy Lee Pedrick 47. Sonder’s designer, Dave Pedrick, modelled her after classic New England yachts built in Rhode Island and Maine shipyards. With her dark blue hull, narrow stern, moderate sheer and overhangs, and a varnished teak toe rail we’ve been told repeatedly she sticks out from other yachts in England as looking ‘very American’.
The larger boat offshore had clearly secured the lead. But Sonder cleared Bournemouth for a final tack towards Studland and secured ‘2nd place’, a decent showing for our first sail of the season.
Jurassic south coast
Studland Bay, with its uniform line of white chalk cliffs culminating at Old Harry Rocks, is a majestic setting that immediately drew us in. We took the tender ashore and found a footpath that led from the beach to the clifftops Even now, after three years of living aboard Sonder, there’s still a special feeling of gratitude when you look down from a cliff thronged with visitors taking photographs to see her gleaming in the bay below.
Separating from the crowds, we turned inland. The narrow path wound tightly through dense bushes before a powerful smell hit us, suddenly emanating through a grove of trees. Tens of thousands of little white flowers with glossy green leaves dotted the ground as far as the eye could see. Picking a few stalks, Roxy realised it was wild garlic in bloom, a sight completely new to us. We stuffed our pockets full with the pungent leaves and headed back down to Sonder to try our hand at some wild garlic pesto for dinner.
Over the next few days, a proper spring gale bore down on us, bringing strong south-westerly winds which forced us into the protected harbour of Poole. At the harbourmaster’s instruction we picked up a mooring buoy on the north side of Brownsea Island. Experience has taught us to be cautious about relying on someone else’s ground tackle in a storm, so we moored onto what looked like the strongest buoy with a beefy pick up line attached.
All night, and the following day, winds howled into Force 9. Sonder bucked up and down wildly while Roxy and I hunkered inside, bundled up with a hot cup of tea (or the occasional gin and tonic) listening to the wind sing endlessly in the rigging.
In the afternoon of the second day during a lull in the wind, an official looking RIB pulled alongside us and a gentleman aboard informed us we were on their private yacht club buoy. We apologised immediately and offered to move. In the US, we most likely would have been told off, charged for the night spent on the mooring, and then asked to vacate.
Here, however, the gentleman said “No, don’t worry. I just came to ask what are your intentions?” We explained that we planned to leave as soon as the weather let up, but he merely told us to enjoy our stay and that we didn’t owe them anything. The first, but not the last, of many such acts of hospitality shown to us during our time cruising England’s south coast.
When the storm finally abated, we set off westward again towards Lulworth Cove. Lulworth, we discovered, is a natural crescent-shaped bay lying just north-west of an active firing range used by the military. Thankfully, we had already been tipped off to stay well offshore of the firing area and to monitor VHF Ch8. However, watching from a distance we saw an unwitting motorboat plough straight into the firing zone drawing the immediate attention of the military. Listening in from our cockpit we braced to hear how they would deal with the oblivious, transgressing vessel.
To our surprise, we heard a chipper voice come over the VHF in the most polite tone: “Good day Captain, you are in an active firing range. If you will, please exit the area with the best possible speed. I repeat, best possible speed.”
We couldn’t help but burst out laughing imagining how differently this might have gone if it had happened in our home waters off New England, recalling some of the language we’ve overheard on the VHF, usually in a thick Bostonian accent.
Lulworth Cove has a narrow, rocky entrance totally exposed to the sea. As we approached, we began to worry that the small half-moon shaped cove might not have enough swing room for us. But with Roxy sighting for rocks from the bow, we edged inside the entrance and found that we could squeeze into an open pool in the inner anchorage.
To reduce our swing and keep Sonder’s bow pointing into the light swell from the south, Roxy first dropped our primary anchor, a 105lb Mantus with 3/8in chain. Then, I used the dinghy to drop our auxiliary aluminium fortress anchor in 3m of water off our stern towards the northern shore.
Above Lulworth Cove, impenetrable cliffs of gnarled grey and red rock protrude from the high tide line, giving way to slopes of green pasture above. In late afternoon we hiked to West Lulworth village, then back over the ridge at sunset. At the top we spotted horses grazing, outlined against the horizon where the fading orange of the sky joined the darkening blue of the Atlantic. The sea was flat calm and far below Sonder lay at anchor, miraculously all alone now the day sailors had left.
In light easterlies, we set off for a 55-mile sail to Dartmouth, the longest of our trip. At Portland Bill lighthouse, about 10 miles south-west of Lulworth, we noticed other vessels keeping a clear distance of nearly a mile from the point. A quick check at the chart to satisfy my curiosity showed ‘overfalls’ marked on the area just ahead. It was too late for Sonder, and within a few moments we were tossed around in the rips. Fortunately, they were very short lived and soon we had enough wind to hoist our pale blue asymmetric spinnaker. With clear skies above and a smooth sea ahead, Sonder ghosted along making over half the wind speed with almost no effort.
The sail was one you wished would never end, but alas, we finally socked the spinnaker as we approached the River Dart. Entering the mouth of the Dart, high, imposing hillsides flank the river banks, each gated by medieval castles – the same scene has surely greeted weary sailors since time immemorial.
As we motored in at around 2000, the setting sun blanketed the Dart’s entrance in a hazy bath of orange sunlight. Then as we rounded the corner from the mouth of the river, Dartmouth harbour came into view, a hive of activity in and around the waterfront.
As the holding is exceptionally poor in the available areas of the anchorage, the harbour master helped raft us to a large wooden schooner tied between massive fore and aft moorings. The schooner’s classic natural rope rigging and sun-bleached wooden blocks only enhanced the surrounding views, complete with the rising trail from a quaint steam train departing along the river route.
In the morning, the schooner departed, leaving Sonder being pulled in both directions by the two massive mooring buoys.
That afternoon, more yachts arrived – including two Oyster 53s that the harbour master then rafted onto us. Rafting multiple boats together on the same mooring or pontoon is another peculiarly ‘English’ thing that seems wholly foreign to us American sailors.
If you were to tie onto another boat that is already on a mooring in the US, the crew of the other boat would most likely assume you had lost steerage. Despite our initial doubts, soon the skipper of one the Oysters rafted to us emerged from their cockpit holding a magnum sized bottle of rosé and said something like “Fancy a tipple?”. We were starting to see the upside of this rafting-up nonsense.
After spending five sunny days exploring Dartmouth and the surrounding country in full bloom, we steamed south towards Salcombe over a blue Atlantic like a calm pool. In Salcombe, which seemed absolutely flooded with yachts on the particular Saturday we arrived, we opted to anchor in the quiet Kingsbridge Estuary about a mile north of town. The channel is winding with hundreds of moorings, most in use, on either side. There are numerous Salcombe yawls – clinker-built dinghies that rival the quality of any I’ve seen in New England.
The estuary is a stunning, quiet refuge. With herons fishing on the shores, and only the sound of the wind snaking through bends in the Salcombe channel until it empties into a vast silent expanse of open country and rolling green hills.
One evening, while sitting in the cockpit with a glass of vintage cider, we heard a crash of sticks and twigs breaking from the nearby shore to the east. A male deer had leapt, or fallen, from the woods into the water and started swimming trying to cross the estuary.
The beautiful animal was making good progress and came very near to Sonder before turning back for shore. Kingsbridge is the kind of anchorage where you can witness these quiet scenes of nature, then in the same afternoon paddleboard to town.
All along our south coast cruising trip, we met English sailors eager to tell us about a great anchorage, a wonderful village, or better still: a pub worth trekking to. One of the best recommendations we followed up on was the Yealm river below the villages of Noss Mayo and Newton Ferrers.
With her 6ft 3in draught, Sonder timidly approached the shallow channel at the Yealm entrance, nosing our way past a broad sandbank into Cellar Bay at the mouth of the river. We found a pool where we could float at low water with about a foot to spare below the keel, only a short distance from a rocky beach on the east
A small beach is accessible down a steep towpath. It was the perfect little spot for us to pull up our excellent paddle boards – which we find make a convenient, lightweight alternative to the dinghy for short distances to shore – then from the beach it’s a short walk along the tidal river to the pubs.
Or better yet, turn right and the trail joins a stunning section of the south coast path meandering along wooded slopes to exposed rocky bluffs with commanding ocean views, the sides of the trail covered with blooming purple foxgloves before meandering down through pasture to the village of Noss Mayo beside its tidal river flats.
The tiny Cornish fishing hamlet of Polperro looks frozen in time, in fact it’s easy to miss it entirely as you sail by. We stopped, hoping to stay the night. Seeing the visitor moorings taken by smaller boats, we opted to drop our anchor gingerly on the steeply sloping sea floor outside the harbour. Sonder drifted with a gentle current to lie only metres from boulders that cascaded from the shore down to kelp forests under her keel.
This position was less than ideal but, given the crystal clear visibility in the water and noon day sun, it was the perfect moment to slip into our wetsuits and give Sonder an overdue bottom scrub. The job took an hour before we could climb back on deck, shivering to the bone. Our reward was a well earned pint and hefty portion of fish and chips at one of the whitewashed pubs in the picturesque village quickly helping to warm us back up.
Wanting a more suitable anchorage to overnight in, we decided to move to Lantic Bay a few miles west. Here dark emerald waters give way to turquoise in the shallows, making it as pretty a bay as any we have visited in the Caribbean. Through binoculars Roxy spotted a small bonfire burning on a little sliver of beach inaccessible from land, presumably the embers left behind by an earlier visitor.
Still feeling the faint chill from our swim in Polperro, we paddled to the beach after setting our anchor. It didn’t take long to stoke the fading coals. I dragged over a driftwood log to use as a bench and we set a few sausages on the new fire. Our view looked to the south west, over Sonder patiently floating with her anchor chain hanging loose below the surface as the 10pm twilight set in.
The end of the line
The following morning we set sail for our bittersweet final destination of Falmouth, which would mark the end of our cruise along the south coast. We weighed anchor and set sails on a beam reach towards Falmouth. A procession of sailboats was visible as we rounded Dodman Point, with northerly gusts blowing over the estates that dot the coast east of Falmouth. Vessels of all shapes and sizes were constantly entering or departing from this legendary harbour.
Sailing in would mark a long anticipated milestone for us from ‘across the pond’. As we closed in on the St Anthony Head lighthouse at the head of the harbour entrance, the wind suddenly died in the lee of the land mass. Sonder coasted along with barely enough momentum for steerage. It was several painstaking moments before we caught the stiff breeze leaving the harbour entrance and I steered us close-hauled into the wind.
To a non-sailor, the scene probably looked chaotic. We were joined by five or six boats sailing in a line, tacking up the channel, careful to avoid Black Rock, an awkwardly placed shoal about half way across the entrance. A dozen racing yachts were on a long broad reach, weaving through the sailboats heading in the other direction.
If this were another harbour, perhaps Roxy and I would have been tempted to simply motor the final mile up the channel, but this was Falmouth and we were going to sail right until the end. It took several more tacks and another 45 minutes, clawing our way upriver before we took our sails in, anchoring in the quiet bay of St Mawes.
By now, it was the end of June. We spent our final evenings in England in Sonder’s cockpit, watching the races of Falmouth cutters with their colourful patterned topsails. Travel restrictions had lifted and Roxy and I began planning our departure date for our next passage: 1,500 miles nonstop to the Balearics in the Mediterranean Sea.
Americans cruising England
We felt excitement at the passage ahead, but also sadness at the prospect of leaving this coast with so much left to explore. Thinking back on that damp, winter night when we questioned our choice to leave the Caribbean, I realise how lucky we were to have happened upon this coast.
To be sure, our experience cruising England was coloured through the lens of being American sailors. So many things were new and different to us, right down to the opposite sides of red and green buoys marking the channels. However, those English eccentricities were footnotes in page after page of dramatic scenery, rich cultural history and secluded anchorages. We expected to find quaint seaside villages, in fact we discovered some of the best variety of cruising we’ve ever done on England’s south coast.
In the early summer, when the days stretch long into the evenings, and a steady procession of flowers bloom in the hills, and where you live only by the intervals of tide, wind, and rain, I can now confidently say there’s nothing else in the world quite like it.
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