Pilotage: West Wales pas­sage plan­ner

Jonty Pearce re­veals his lo­cal cruis­ing grounds and the ad­ven­ture chal­lenges that await

Yachting Monthly - - VIEW FROM THE HELM -

Jonty Pearce re­veals his favourite lo­cal cruis­ing grounds and the ad­ven­tures that await

Yachts­men sail­ing round the shores of these Blessed Isles en­counter di­verse pilotage and cli­matic chal­lenges. Whilst doff­ing our caps to the nav­i­ga­tional haz­ards faced over­seas, there is no need to seek them out to stretch our nau­ti­cal skills – we have enough coastal per­ils of our own.

My own cho­sen home sail­ing ground is Wales. Carol and I have sailed al­most all its coast­line aboard

Aurial, a Southerly 105 ketch with a lift­ing keel. Craft with vari­able draught and those able to take the ground do en­joy an ad­van­tage over deep fin yachts along the Welsh coast­line, as many havens and es­tu­ar­ies are shal­low or dry out, though there are am­ple op­tions for those need­ing to re­main afloat at all times. It must be re­mem­bered, how­ever, that to ac­cess such shel­ters pro­tected by shoal wa­ter often re­quires an ap­proach over a shal­low bar; these ar­eas can be fraught with dif­fi­cul­ties in ad­verse con­di­tions. A drop­ping tide with a westerly Force 7 can in­duce fear­some break­ers that make many west coastal havens un­ap­proach­able.

The key es­sen­tial to en­joy­able sail­ing off the Welsh coast­line is for­ward plan­ning. An ac­cu­rate fore­cast and favourable tim­ing makes the world of dif­fer­ence be­tween a crew-fright­en­ing, yacht-toss­ing fight against a pro­gress­de­fy­ing ad­verse choppy ti­dal stream and a swift, calm, well-planned pas­sage past gor­geous scenery. I have learnt to be gov­erned by cur­rent and pre­dicted nau­ti­cal con­di­tions as it can be both un­pleas­ant and haz­ardous to al­low the chrono­log­i­cal pres­sures of one’s di­ary rule a pas­sage plan. Due con­sid­er­a­tion must be given to ti­dal streams, ti­dal height, wind di­rec­tion and strength, an­tic­i­pated speed over the ground, as well as swell and sea con­di­tions, be­fore de­cid­ing whether a planned trip will be timely, pleas­ant, and within the safe lim­its of both crew and boat strength.

When it all falls into place my Welsh wife says that there is no bet­ter place to sail. A calm sea, a south­west­erly Force 4, and a fair ti­dal stream can waft us from Mil­ford Haven through Jack Sound, Ram­sey Sound and past Strum­ble Head to Fish­guard in a day, with time for a gin and tonic after ar­rival. A plethora of stopovers can tempt us on the way, and we have not tired of the area in 15 years of cruis­ing.

Sail­ing in an area so de­pen­dent on weather, tides and depth al­lows us to hone and prac­tice our skills. Reg­u­lar study of the al­manac ti­dal data and the en­su­ing sec­ondary port cal­cu­la­tions brings con­fi­dence and, sub­se­quently, pro­fi­ciency. I choose to ta­ble the hourly height of tide over the an­tic­i­pated ar­rival time for any bar or haven – be­ing pre­pared saves last­minute be­low-deck cal­cu­la­tions.

Care­ful read­ing of the lo­cal pi­lot guides is in­valu­able to heighten aware­ness of ap­proach lines, haz­ards and chartlets. Up-to-date charts are es­sen­tial – whether on a tablet, lap­top or pa­per they need to be in­stantly ac­ces­si­ble. A word of cau­tion here, while many of us ha­bit­u­ally nav­i­gate by chart­plot­ter, the in­for­ma­tion

dis­played is only as good as the data­base. I have never found built-in ti­dal stream dis­plays ac­cu­rate enough for mean­ing­ful plan­ning, and al­ways cal­cu­late pe­ri­ods of slack wa­ter and times of ti­dal re­ver­sal from the al­manac and tide ta­bles – the best often be­ing found in lo­cal pi­lot books.

A va­ri­ety of weather fore­casts are ad­vis­able – I have learnt never to rely on the most favourable pre­dic­tion. Use the worst, and things can only im­prove.

One of my de­lights is night sail­ing, and at such times a plan and list of il­lu­mi­nated nav­i­ga­tional aids is in­valu­able. Less pre­dictable is the ever-present risk of poorly marked pot buoys. It pays to al­ways have a port of refuge or back-up plan in case of trou­ble of any kind.

Ev­ery yacht has dif­fer­ent strengths and weak­nesses. Know your boat; her cruis­ing speed, tack­ing an­gle, draught and per­for­mance both un­der sail and power, in all wind and sea di­rec­tions. After nine years’ sail­ing Aurial, we know most of her foibles. Be cau­tious and don't take things for granted; other yachts fol­low­ing our big, wide ketch – ‘she must draw more than us’ – over a shal­low bar (when our keel has al­ready been re­tracted) could come to an un­ex­pected halt. Know your own boat, and make your own cal­cu­la­tions.

We adore pilotage round Wales. It keeps the skip­per and crew in­ter­ested and think­ing, and fas­ci­nates rookie sailors and vis­it­ing chil­dren. When sail­ing, our brains are ac­tive and alert, and after an­chor­ing at the end of the day we sleep all the bet­ter, con­tent in the sat­is­fac­tion of a trip well man­aged through wa­ters that might have been a threat to less pre­pared sailors.

The west coast of Wales en­joys stun­ning scenery, a plen­ti­ful sup­ply of thought-pro­vok­ing ad­ven­tures, nu­mer­ous snug, se­cluded an­chor­ages, some bustling mari­nas, and world-class wildlife. Wales may not al­ways have the weather but its sun­sets, seen over the rim of a well-earned glass, take some beat­ing. Most of the ‘ad­ven­ture chal­lenges’ are safe and prac­ti­ca­ble given a mod­icum of ex­pe­ri­ence and some for­ward plan­ning.

The three ar­ti­cles that fol­low make up the main ob­sta­cles to a pas­sage from Mil­ford Haven round the tip of Saint David’s penin­sula to Fish­guard. We reg­u­larly com­plete all three in one pas­sage, thereby open­ing up the gate­way to Cardi­gan Bay and on­wards to the trea­sures of North Wales. Stretch your­self a little and give them a try!

‘ The key es­sen­tial to en­joy­able sail­ing off the Welsh coast­line is for­ward plan­ning’

Ae­rial view from above Ram­sey Is­land of the Bitches rocks in Ram­sey Sound

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