Under the watchful eye of the long-suffering Roger, Arabella and I made a textbook exit from her berth - I finally seem to be getting better at doing that - and motored down river and out into a decidedly choppy Southampton Water. The sea state was puzzling. It looked like wind against tide, but the wind and tide were aligned. We concluded that, with the F4-5 wind blowing pretty much straight up Southampton Water, there was a sufficient fetch to generate the chop.
The conditions wouldn't have made singlehanding easy at all, at least not at my level of (in)experience. The tillerpilot, on which I had relied so heavily last time out, struggled to hold Arabella's head to the wind, now increasing to a steady F5, as I raised the main and put the first reef in. I wouldn't have been very confident had it not been for Roger in the cockpit, ready to take control if the tillerpilot lost the plot. The key seemed to be to increase the revs on the outboard, giving Arabella sufficient forward motion into the wind and chop to allow the rudder to bite; too little, and her bow was simply blown off the wind. Equally, applying sufficient power to generate some forward drive made for a bumpy ride as she gamely tried to force her way through the chop and white horses. It wasn't much fun handling the lines up at the mast while Arabella did a passable imitation of a bucking bronco.
With Arabella's sails eventually set and the outboard switched off, we headed a little way down Southampton Water. Other than the fact that the waves were smaller, the conditions were a carbon copy of those that had prompted the decision to retire from the RTIR a month earlier. Arabella simply didn't like sailing into the teeth of a stiff breeze. As the main chart above shows, we did make progress, but it was hard won and we had to sail well off the wind, with each tack gaining only a modest amount of ground. And there was leeway to die for - we were pointing much higher into the SE breeze than our ground track suggests.
The only consolation was that it wasn't all Arabella's fault. Others were having similar problems. Once again, we were out almost by ourselves on a beautiful day, continuing to give the lie to the myth about the overcrowded Solent. There were just a few other yachts out. They included a Contessa 26 and another seventies yacht of indeterminate make, both crewed two-up, which had left the river at the same time as us. Not unexpectedly, the Contessa appeared to make less leeway than we did - although she didn't walk away from us either - but eventually she gave up, dropped her sails and continued off down Southampton Water under power. Meanwhile the other yacht surrendered after a couple of tacks and turned back for home.
Roger, as usual, had other ideas.
"Have you been up the River Test yet?", he asked. I hadn't, so we tacked round and ran before the wind up into the Test. It was fascinating. A trip through the heart of a busy port, with commercial shipping - including the 176m Grande Italia, below - coming and going continually, yet with loads of room to sail and keep out of the way.
Roger explained that he used this area on the school boats quite often, especially in frustrating weather conditions, as it is reasonably sheltered but, with drying patches, small boat moorings and plenty of large shipping, challenging enough to present plenty of teaching opportunities.
But the best was still to come. As we rounded a gentle curve to the left, a wide open reach of the river opened out, with the container port to starboard and unspoiled woodland to port. The wind fell off a little, to 12 or 13 knots apparent, and we sailed comfortably along, with the place all to ourselves.
"Right," said Roger, pointing at the chart. "Let's do a little pilotage. Off to port up ahead, there's a drying creek that leads up to Eling Harbour. Let's get the sails down and go and have a look."
Studying the chart, I saw that the creek, marked by posts, dried to 0.1m and ran through mudbanks that dried to between 2m and 3m on average. It seemed straightfoward, and with high water about an hour ahead, and a tide of nearly 4m, we'd have more than enough depth on a rising tide to go in safely. The beginning of the channel was clear enough to see, with a port and starboard post showing the way. Thereafter, starboard posts described a curve around to the entrance into the harbour.
Believe it or not - and East Coast sailors will be smirking at this point - it was the first time that I had ever entered a drying creek, so the experience was invaluable. I regularly used the height of tide to calculate how far in I could work to the shore, but I'd never previously gone into a creek that had the temerity to vanish at low water. Hugging the starboard posts, I turned smartly into the harbour entrance and kept close to the wall to the right, avoiding the 3-4m drying patch that seemed to fill the left of the narrow channel inbound. The harbour was disarmingly pretty, and I was amazed that I could have been sailing in this area for so so long without knowing about it. Stupidly, I'd left my camera in Italy back at the weekend when visiting SWMBO and the bambini - who have parked themselves there for the whole summer - but the stock shot below probably does a better job than I could of capturing the look and feel of the place.
We entered the harbour far enough to have a nose around, and admired the scene. This close to high water, plenty of people were on their moored yachts, while tourists wandered up and down the waterfront, and an air of colourful hustle and bustle prevailed. A fascinating little place that's well worth a visit - you can find out more HERE.
However, time and tide wait for no man, as the old saying goes. We needed to be on our way if we wanted to get back home before the ebb set in. Reversing our course, we headed back out into the River Test. The wind here had backed ESE and was now a sustained 22-25 knots - in other words, pushing towards the top end of F6 territory - which was not exactly what either of us had been hoping for, given that we would be beating back down to the mouth of the river.
Above: Looking ESE out from the Eling Channel to the River Test. Care is needed to not become confused by the sequence of posts. Working from the right, follow the first two green posts, then exit between the left-hand green and the red posts. (Library shot from Flickr, used under commons licence. Copyright Chalkie Colour Circle.)
Roger suggested - given the fun I 'd had raising the mainsail earlier, while trying to use the tillerpilot to hold Arabella's head to wind - that an alternative might be to pick up a convenient mooring buoy under power, raise the sail there, and then sail off. We headed for the moorings shown in the picture above (where the small yacht can be seen moored, beyond the second starboard marker post), and I attempted to manoeuvre Arabella in order to bring her alongside a buoy, level with her cockpit, where I could reach it.
I had no joy at all making an upwind approach to the buoy in forward gear. The wind blew off the bow continually. By turning Arabella around and approaching in reverse, however, all went smoothly. I had already prepared a mooring line leading from the samson post on the foredeck, out through the bow fairlead and aft outside everything to the cockpit. Grabbing the buoy as it came level with the cockpit, I led the mooring line through the eye spliced to the heavy line attached to it, then walked forward to the foredeck and hauled in.
Shortly, Arabella was moored by the heavy line to the buoy and lying docilely head to wind, while I hauled up the mainsail. It was then easy to cast off the mooring and - at least in this deserted river, with plenty of room all around - to walk back to the cockpit as Arabella fell back downwind, trim the main and put her onto a reach while unfurling a portion of the genoa to get her sailing properly.
With the breeze as strong as it was, getting back down the Test was hard work. Despite that, we persisted. The frequent gusts came in handy, providing lift and enabling us to point up a bit on most tacks, but leeway was still an issue.
Stronger winds and chop certainly show up the principal weakness of a small twin-keeler. The leeway is manageable, but you do need to be aware of it and to plan your sailing accordingly. If the wind is coming from even slightly to left or right of the rhumbline to your destination, then there will always be a paying tack that will get you there reasonably quickly. If you have to sail right into the teeth of anything from the middle of a F4 upwards, however, be prepared for a long trip, with each tack making relatively modest gains to windward.
One of the things I've never found intuitively obvious about leeway is that it increases the closer to the wind you sail. In other words, leeway is greater when sailing close-hauled than when sailing on a beam reach. On an intellectual level, the best explanation I've found for that is that when the boat heels more, as it will when close-hauled, not only do the keels lose some of their grip on the water, but the effective sail area presented to the wind is reduced, slowing the boat down. And slowing down in turn further increases leeway, because the 'lift' generated by the keels depends for its existence upon boatspeed. No boatspeed, no lift. Whereas, by sailing further off the wind, the sheets can be eased (increasing speed) and heel reduced (increasing the 'bite' of, and lift generated by, the keels), with the result that leeway is minimised.
Chop and short or breaking waves also increase leeway, partly because they physically push a boat downwind when they slap against her hull and partly because, to the extent they stop or reduce boatspeed, that reduction in speed also contributes to leeway for the reasons just described.
Roger and I experimented with unfurling alternately more and less genoa, and changing the sheet leads accordingly. In these winds, however, unfurling more than about half of the genoa gave diminishing returns. Arabella heeled very impressively and stuck her lee deck underwater, but went absolutely no faster - if anything, she slowed down - and suffered huge leeway. Putting our weight out to windward, racing-style, might have helped to the extent that it brought Arabella more upright.
Whatever, it was gradually becoming clearer to me what the source of Arabella's difficulties in this year's RTIR had been. I couldn't be sure how much of a practical effect all this science malarkey really had. But Arabella's upwind performance could use all the help it could get, no matter how marginal.
The more I played, the more I was making mental connections between otherwise unrelated experiences. I had discovered on my first singlehanded trip that if I went out on to the starboard deck (inducing starboard heel), Arabella turned smartly to port, and vice versa. Now, of course, I could see that if Arabella heeled before the wind, she would inevitably produce weather helm (wanting to turn upwind), with inevitable consequences in terms of leeway. So all the science boiled down to a simple rule of thumb: more heel = more weather helm and more leeway.
The same rule of thumb meant that exploiting the lift generated by gusts - what the racers call "bullets of pressure" - to steal a few yards to windward was something to be done with moderation. Steer up into the gust too enthusiastically, and you'd increase heel, slow the boat, and risk losing through leeway as much ground as you gained via the little burst of lift.
I'd learned some valuable lessons today - not all of which sank in until after I got on the late train home and had an enforced two hours in which to mull them over - about how Arabella behaved in stronger winds and chop, and about developing a helming and trimming strategy to cope with such conditions. I didn't yet feel ready to go out alone in such conditions, but at least my experience and knowledge was building up, layer by layer.
A further bonus was that, once Arabella lay safely back at her pontoon, Roger had the courage to do something I had so far chickened out of. He unscrewed the Airmar through-hull paddlewheel transducer for the ST60+ speed instrument, which had become fouled once again, so that I could clean it. It turned out that the through-hull fitting has a small flap inside, which closes once the transducer unit is fully unscrewed and removed, so the fountain of sea water which I was fearfully expecting never materialised. A sponge and bucket was all that was needed to clean up the modest amount of water that entered. After shaking out all the little marine creepie crawlies, and ensuring the paddlewheel span freely, I removed the temporary bung, replaced the transducer and screwed back the retaining cap without drama. Another annoying little personal demon had been exorcised.
Little by little, I was getting better at this game. It was only a shame that, on this day of hot sunshine and strong breezes, I'd foolishly neglected to consider skin protection. My lobster-pink face gave my fellow passengers plenty to gawp at on the train back to London. First task when I got home was to help myself to copious quantities of the face cream that Luisa conveniently forgot to pack when departing for Italy. It was one of those horrendously expensive beauty products that make you resent using them, given that you're effectively smearing large sums of money all over your face. But I do feel visibly younger now, as well as a little bit wiser.
Conditions: SE backing ESE, F4 building steadily to F6, mainly sunny. Sea state: short chop.
Distance covered (GPS over ground): 21.8 NM
Total distance covered to date (2008): 98.8 NM
Engine hours: 2.1 (total for 2008: 9.8 hours)