Stolen moments on the Solent in autumn sunshine

Rachel Hedley's picture
Submitted by Rachel Hedley on

All sailors seem agreed that this summer has been terrible for sailing. Do we say that every year? Is it always the worst summer for sailing? Often September and October can provide some lovely weekends with fresh breezes, the low light of autumn putting the seascape into sharp relief.

With the Frostbite rally combined with the first Fast Cruise series this year, the weekend of 13-14 October provided the final opportunity to take 6X off her mooring and go exploring the Solent. The forecast was good (sunshine and showers, force 3-4), the crew was available and so we arrived to pick up the boat kit in Lee on Solent on a bright Saturday morning feeling rather smug at having chosen such a good day to get out on the water.

At Hardway SC masts were being shipped and boats lined up ready to be craned out for winter stowage. One of the crew (Giles) couldn't join us till the afternoon, and so two of us loaded the dinghy with all the bags to row out to the mooring to a comment of "Where are you putting the kitchen sink?" No kitchen sink but Pauline had sensibly packed her hot water bottle (much to my later envy) and the bags were stuffed full of fleeces and hats. That's October sailing for you.

We got off the mooring to motor up to Haslar as the heavens opened so by the time we pulled into a berth to await Giles' arrival off the train both Pauline and I had worn full waterproofs for good reason. A few boat checks at the marina and we resolved that the primus stove pump had stopped working. I had a bit of a hissy fit at the idea of a weekend on board with no tea/bacon butty facilities and Giles set off to Gosport to buy an alternative stove.

The arrival of a small camping stove, which fitted neatly on top of the existing (and dysfunctional) primus, made me more overjoyed than I can begin to say. Little things.... The sun came out and we set off out of the harbour to catch the tide down to Chichester at 1600.

Out into the small boat channel, the wind had more west in it than forecast and was a good fresh breeze. Having hoisted the main, the breeze strengthened and although our passage was downwind we decided to reef down. A bit of drama ensued as new crew Pauline on the helm struggled to hold the boat into the wind against the ubiquitous 'Solent Chop', partly caused by a weed-covered propellor. The second reefing line had become detached from the leech of the sail which Giles and I didn't realise until we'd struggled to pull the foot of the sail out. To recover the situation and give us all a breather we dropped the main and sailed over the swashway on genoa alone (also not furling properly due to problem with the roller reefing!), retied the reefs and once through the Dolphin turned back into the wind to raise the now reefed main.

With the tide giving us an extra knot, and a now nicely balanced boat, we sailed on towards Chichester - heading well south of the Winner cardinal to give us a better point of sailing - watching the pink-tinged clouds over the South Downs as the sun set. The breeze dropped as the sun set and we shook out the reefs under sail before turning towards the West Pole tidal gauge, switching on the navigation lights and heading over the bar into Chichester on the transit.

With HW not till 2200 and benign conditions it was a good opportunity to try out some night sailing skills. Giles also knows Chichester well as he's dinghy sailed there for years, but it was satisfying to put into practice all those lessons learned on various training courses on pilotage into harbour. We ticked off the buoys as we went past them, had a bit of a moment when we spotted a vessel with all its deck lights on anchored in the fairway (turned out to be the OYT's John Laing so I shouted over that my daughter had sailed with them and only just recovered). The dark crept round us until past Itchenor we checked the shape of the channel in the almanac to work out the lights we should expect next. We were heading for Chichester Marina and the channel isn't particularly well lit so a few boat hulls looming out of the dark on their moorings were narrowly avoided. Pauline kept an eye on the depths and there was a distinct smell of weedy mud as we realised we were veering out of the deep water and made a hasty correction.

Past the last two starboard lights and then a right turn to head down the Chichester Channel towards the lock into the marina. The channel isn't lit and the stakes marking the starboard side need to be kept close to avoid going aground (at least the tide was still rising!). It was a relief when the depth sounder started jumping up to 12 metres again, we called up the lockkeeper who told us to come straight in and dropped mooring lines down to us.

Tied up safely, whiskey opened but it was a quick dash to Chichester Yacht Club before they stopped serving supper at 2100. Once back at the boat a few nightcaps were downed, the cold drew around us in a clear starry night and noone got undressed before going to bed.

There was frost on the deck the next morning and the pontoon crackled underfoot as we made our way to the shower block. Wow, Premier Marinas do good shower blocks, it was so warm I wished I'd moved my sleeping bag there the night before and slept there!

Giles scrubbed the weed off the bottom and turned the boat round, we filled up with diesel, the lock was on free flow and we struggled against the incoming current as we made our way out at 1000 to catch the tide down to the harbour entrance. What a beautiful place Chichester harbour is on a sunny Sunday morning. The Topper fleet from Chichester Yacht Club were out racing, the Sunbeams were heading off for their race series, an International Moth open meeting was underway at the mouth of the harbour. We sailed gracefully down the channel with no great rush to get back to Portsmouth, enjoying the moment. A poled out genny carried us out of the harbour, Pauline took over the helm and with full sail up we headed back to Horse Sands Fort doing 5-6 knots, testing out varieties of Green and Blacks chocolate and loving it (both sailing and chocolate). 

We sailed up the Solent till we were abreast of Ryde Church and then turned round to head back towards Portsmouth. I'm not sure why:

a) the Sunsail fleet always chooses the same time as me to go back through the harbour entrance

b) the Isle of Wight ferries can't stick to the transit into Portsmouth and seem to choose any old place to turn left and/or right into the main channel (I'm sure it's just to annoy small boats).

With a strong tide flooding out of the entrance and a fresh northerly breeze, all elements were working against us. I was glad Giles had done the weed scrubbing that morning otherwise we would have ended up in Bembridge. We made it through the harbour and packed up the boat on the way to the mooring.

As a final bit of drama for our near perfect weekend, I headed towards the mooring noticing the depth sounder dropping below 1m. Giles and Pauline on the foredeck were pointing towards the pick up buoy as we came to a grinding halt 8 feet away from it. Ah, we're aground. They came aft and luckily with a large amount of reverse on the throttle and an immediate steer towards the deeper water we unlodged the boat and I executed and absolutely non-textbook buoy pick up at 90 degrees to both wind and tide. This time we made it to the mooring and tied up safely after a wonderful weekend on the water.