While Laser dinghies and kitesurfers don’t normally feature in PBO’s cruising section, we couldn’t resist sharing these extraordinary feats of endurance… Dinghy odyssey Dave Birch pushes himself to the limits on a non-stop 150-mile sail across the English
With the rise in life-limiting illnesses, I’d decided to raise funds for Les Bourgs hospice in Guernsey. Having crossed the Channel once before on my 9ft Laser Pico, this time I intended to go further.
I’d circumnavigate both Eddystone Lighthouse and Roches-Douvres in Brittany, before taking a dogleg to St Peter Port. This way, I’d be battling night sails and shipping lanes in the widest part of the English Channel, and sailing a distance of 150 miles altogether.
The boat and kit
I chose the Laser 1 as it was the next step-up in dinghies from the entry-level Laser of my previous challenge. As dinghies offer no protection from the elements I had to choose clothing that wouldn’t be too hot in the afternoon sun, nor too cold in the depths of the night.
So a dry suit was a must, along with lots of Imodium!
Another issue was taking enough nutrients and fluids for 40 hours so I could be fully self-sufficient, and storing them in my tiny footwell. In the cramped conditions my hunched up body would soon be crying out for a really good stretch!
I also chose to do my own navigation. Armed with a solar-powered compass, battery-operated speedo and handheld GPS, I successfully plotted my course even with changes.
I set off from Falmouth on a calm summer’s morning. It took all day to reach Eddystone Lighthouse, where the Navy was mid-exercise with a new aircraft carrier. Conditions were just as forecast, easing me into the marathon sail ahead. Past the Eddystone Lighthouse, I was graced with many dolphins, all vying for a place under the bow of my small dinghy to escort me into the Channel.
I pushed my hand into the water with my GoPro camera firmly gripped, hopeful that I might captures some underwater images of my travelling companions.
Into the evening and getting further offshore, the sea state increased, as did the winds, until I found myself surfing down 6ft waves in a confused sea. My brother, Brian, and safety team on board the 34ft support vessel were never more than 100m away keeping a close
eye and monitoring my alertness and progress. Through the night I picked my way through fishing vessels and container ships, which kept me on my toes.
As day broke, so the wind faded away. It was just unfortunate that right then I was upon the approaches to the eastbound shipping lanes that had five large container ships inbound. Creeping along at just 2-3 knots, I broke out the paddle to increase boat speed and out of the path of the never-ending stream of ships pouring into the Channel.
It was a relief to be clear of shipping but ahead I could see dark rain clouds and a squall approaching, which speeded up my progress, albeit briefly.
When it finally reached us, it brought just 20 knots of wind but it was truly exhilarating surfing 8ft rolling swells at speeds of up to 10 knots.
As darkness drew in again, I found myself running deep downwind, which meant a high probability of capsize in the confused swell. I took the option to change course from 145° to 180°, bringing the wind just aft of beam and a safer ride. A capsize in the dark was not something I wanted to have to deal with, especially in the vicinity of fishing vessels and container ships. With care, I actually managed to avoid capsizing for the entire voyage.
With a change in course, I calculated my position and the point to which I needed to make the turn to Guernsey and equivalent in miles so that the total would equate to 150. Although it was disappointing not to actually reach Roche Douvres – it would have been great to ‘round’ the mark – my voyage was really all about covering the distance.
At the point I made that turn, I was on the home straight. Tiredness was playing a part after 24 hours at sea already, but with Guernsey just over the horizon, I was filled with new drive and determination. The finish was in sight!
There wasn’t much I could do to cater for heavy weather. The sails couldn’t be reefed like a regular yacht. I did, however, pre-rig a drogue so that if I was hit with a squall, I could sit safely with it deployed from the bow. This also served a secondary purpose. When deployed, it allowed me to eat and rest. I used it only once in the early hours of the morning for 15 minutes to rest my eyes. Sleep was not possible with the boat bobbing around like a cork and I needed to hear breaking waves approach, alerting me to the potential for capsize.
The second day at sea was slow along with winds lighter than forecast. As dusk drew in, it seemed to take forever to reach the Hanois lighthouse at the southwestern point of Guernsey. By now I was unable to eat the protein bars as I could no longer stomach the taste – I never ever want to see another protein bar for as long as I live!
As night engulfed us again, the wind faded to nothing. With just a couple of hours of favourable tide left, there was no possibility of reaching St Peter Port under sail for some time. After 143.2 miles, I took the last resort of taking a tow to the finish, just 10 miles away.
The tow was interesting in that sleep deprivation had a strong hold of me and it was a struggle to remain focused. My hallucinations were bizarre. I saw cows and goats rolling in the wake of the towing vessel and then a cascade of glistening gold coins flow from the towboat cockpit doorway. Fortunately my brother was keeping a close eye on me.
In St Peter Port, I dropped the tow line and took a very slow sail to the landing beach at the back of the harbour. I jumped off the boat and into the shallow water but could barely stand, only stagger.
As well-wishers helped me pull the boat up onto the beach, I was showered with bubbly to mark the achievement. I was filled with joy: a new UK record! I had sailed my Laser radial non-stop, single handed and unaided for 143.2 miles over 37.5 hours… although arriving at 1am had not been part of the plan. If only the winds had been as forecast...
Later that day, after just six hours’ sleep, I was faced with lots of media interest, including interviews with BBC radio, ITV and local press. After just over a year of planning and preparation, it all came to a head. I was overwhelmed with feelings of accomplishment and the achievement of having raised much-needed funds for Les Bourgs Hospice. n Find out more about Dave’s voyage at epicsailing.co.uk
‘Sleep was not possible with the boat bobbing around like a cork, and I needed to be alert’
For his Channel crossing attempt Dave Birch upgraded his boat – from a 9ft dinghy to a 14ft one!
RIGHT Thumbs up for completion of a record-breaking voyage
ABOVE Drogue deployed from the bow allowed rest stops to eat
ABOVE Dave Birch set a new UK record