Learning from experience
Thomas Bourne takes his fiancée on a West Country cruise, hoping to turn her into a keen sailor... but the boat engine has other ideas
West Country cruise engine troubles for a new sailing couple
During our boatless 2008 ‘summer cruise’ in my dad’s converted Mercedes Sprinter campervan, we parked at the top of the lane leading down to Helford Passage and walked into the village. After our evening pint overlooking the boats, I’d sunk into what can only be described as ‘a grump’.
On our way back up the hill, I turned to my fiancée Georgia and told her I’m not coming back unless it’s in our own boat. That evening I started writing letters to line up a 2009 mooring for a boat I didn’t yet own, let alone could afford to run.
Elsewhere, friend Bean Nicholson, on the point of giving birth, was contemplating the future of her Contessa 26 Blue Fox. Not long after our trip, she rang me out of the blue: “Thomas, I’m selling Blue Fox,” she said.
“You’re buying her.”
After completing the purchase around Christmas 2008 I spent several months in Torquay Marina painting, varnishing and repairing the joinery that had previously been demolished on a rough and tumble winter passage.
For our first proper cruise, at Easter, Georgia and I, together with a university friend, took Blue Fox round from Torbay to her new mooring at Cargreen on the Tamar. We weren’t to know it at the time, but this little cruise, which took in Dittisham and Salcombe, would provide the best weather of a season which was otherwise dominated by rain and wind.
Georgia was a relative newcomer to sailing and, given our impending nuptials, my key aim was not to put her off for life.
We had a number of aborted weekends when the weather was too unpleasant once we were aboard. Another time the engine – a Dolphin petrol 2-stroke – failed us, water having found its way through a corroded seal on the fuel filler cap and into the petrol.
Eventually, our summer cruise was at hand, not a moment too soon for either of us. I’d not had a holiday since Christmas (apart from a day sail down the Channel in January) and Georgia was mid-way through an intensive teacher training course.
Both pretty much on our knees from the pressures of work, we fervently hoped for a restful first cruise together on our lovely new boat. I watched the weather every hour for two weeks leading up to departure and was encouraged that the
Azores high showed signs of branching up to the UK. In the event, the forecasters were wrong and the jet stream continued to usher the Atlantic lows far too close to our proposed cruising ground of Cornwall.
Away at last
Saturday 15 August was our departure date. The tides dictated we should come alongside at noon to ship our supplies before enjoying the ebb all the way down the Tamar and out to sea. At noon we were still at home, packing the car.
By 1330, when I made it to the mooring, it became obvious that the boat’s engine had no intention of starting, at least not without half-flattening the batteries and causing the first stress of the holiday.
We eventually cast off and motored down the river to the Mayflower Marina for a cup of tea with friends from the Royal Cruising Club (RCC). That evening we repaired to the visitors’ mooring on the Yealm to enjoy supper and end-of-regatta fireworks in Newton Ferrers.
The next morning gave us an opportunity to stow our gear properly. We devoted one forepeak berth to the beaching legs, another to hardware and the other to a crate of onions and potatoes and all our clothes (which soon found their way into disorderly piles around the cabin). The engine took us the half-mile or so to Cellars Bay, where it conked out just about where I had planned to drop the anchor anyway for a sunny spot of lunch and another rendezvous with friends.
It was fun having my 4-year-old godson, Hector, on board with his siblings, particularly to hear their analysis of Blue Fox after being used to their own rather more spacious boat.
Rory: “She’s very small.” Hector: “I need the toilet.”
Tilly: “Where am I going to sleep?” That evening we anchored off Kingsand in glorious weather and everything boded well for the fortnight to come; so good that the morning included a swim and deck shower for the skipper before a bacon sandwich and cup of proper coffee. The holiday was under way as planned.
A promising forecast of west-southwest Force 4 gave us hope that we could enjoy a fairly civilised beat to Fowey that day and we set off at around 1200.
We enjoyed a fairly fast fetch across Whitsand Bay in stunning sunshine and closed on Looe at around 1630 to investigate what turned out to be the national RS200 fleet.
Unfortunately, that was as far as our luck would take us: after teatime the wind fell light and the sea stayed lumpy under a grey sky.
We had a peek into Polperro, which looked lumpy and empty of boats, and decided to press on for Fowey.
When considering motoring, I checked the water trap and found it full of water and grit. I emptied it and got the engine running, but the water trap soon filled up again with contaminants. It was clear that
‘During the evening’s tribulations I promised my future wife that we’d not leave Fowey until the engine was fixed’
the petrol was badly contaminated and I couldn’t run the engine further.
So we drifted on, spending a frustrating hour or two just outside the entrance to Fowey in the gloaming.
Eventually, I lashed the dinghy alongside and used the 2hp outboard to tug us in past St Catherine’s Point.
Arriving on a mooring at around 2130 (nine hours after leaving Cawsand Bay) we were just in time for a spectacular firework display to mark, we later learnt, the start of the regatta rather than our victorious arrival. Curry, wine, rum, the songbook and a ukulele brought our spirits back into good shape.
During that evening’s tribulations, I promised my future wife that we would not leave Fowey until the engine was properly fixed. Lining up an engineer proved an impossible task in regatta week, but some shore-based research gave me a clear idea of what was needed, and that I could do most of it.
After being shunted onto our own private barge (the Yellow Peril, a rust and oil streaked contraption used by the Fowey harbourmaster to service moorings over the winter), I rolled up my sleeves while Georgia investigated the shopping facilities. Fowey harbour, although not cheap, earned my gratitude for help and flexibility.
Flushing the fuel tank
I spent most of the following day flushing the tank through with 10 litres of clean petrol and then the whole fuel system down to the carburettor, which had not been badly gunged up. About a teacup full of rust came out of the tank, indicating the extent of the problem.
Once I had finished, I persuaded a friendly engineer from Fowey Harbour Marine to double check everything was OK, help me jump start the engine (the batteries were totally flat) and provide me with a new O-ring for the petrol filler cap which had caused all the problems.
We were also well looked after by our neighbours on Wave Chieftain IV, a Falmouth dive boat. They charged our batteries and lightened the atmosphere.
It was not all bleak in Fowey, particularly in regatta week, and we enjoyed some spectacular walks, including one to Lantic Bay, and lapped up the du Maurier atmosphere. The Carnival and Red Arrows fly-past (albeit a little shrouded by rain) were real highlights.
By the time the engine was fixed and we had waited for a near-gale to blow through, harbour rot had set in. On Friday 21 August we made it out into a westsouthwest Force 4 with an easy sea and set off to the Dodman. Rain squalls brought gusts and we reefed down.
It was fast and fun for the larger cruisers racing around us, but the attraction for Georgia was waning. Out past the Dodman it was quite uncomfortable, and with an eye to our future relationship I turned round to seek refuge in Mevagissey.
My run of bad luck with the engine continued, this time entirely my own fault as I’d forgotten to open the cooling water seacocks. Georgia heard the hissing and I turned the engine off before any damage was caused.
Mevagissey was bumpy. The visitors’ moorings were out of action and I had no inclination to lie alongside the wall in the chop, so we motored back out and over to Port Mellon. There we found friends on Caper. Not for the first time, I took heart by finding another RCC boat in an anchorage. Port Mellon has a rocky bottom and was quite rolly that night, but is a fine and secure alternative to Mevagissey.
The next day the breeze filled in from the south-east and gave us a bumpy ride down to Falmouth, particularly when we passed too close to the Dodman and poor Blue Fox was bumped around in the overfalls. We anchored off St Mawes for lunch but decided to head upriver to better shelter.
Restronguet was pretty but exposed to the south and not deep enough for us to anchor clear of the moorings. Off Turnaware Point all the good spots out of the stream were taken. We we carried on past King Harry Ferry and Trelissick House
to where all the exciting ocean-going ships are moored incongruously amongst the creeks.
We sniffed into the entrance to Lamouth/ Cowlands Creeks, which would have been a nice anchorage, but eventually settled on one of the visitors’ buoys at the Smugglers Inn at Tolverne (£8 per night, with some rather eccentric rules).
We lay very comfortably in this peaceful spot, the sternhamper of a cargo ship towering above us less than a cable away. Apparently, it costs £10,000 to have one of these ships tugged up the river, £700 a day to keep her there and £10,000 to go back down, which rather puts Blue Fox’s running costs into perspective.
The Smugglers’ Inn has a welcoming bar in the evening and cream tea during the day, and Trelissick House (a short dinghy ride away) is a pleasant excursion in bad weather.
The following night we went up to drop the hook off the next bend, at the entrance to Ruan Creek, where I scraped barnacles from the waterline while Georgia called out a running commentary of England’s Ashes win.
The anchor chain growled mightily at the turn of the tide, but it was otherwise a peaceful spot and the holding is secure. I regretted that we didn’t have enough battery power to run the anchor light as the river, even this far up and late at night, was surprisingly busy.
The engine’s latest trick – the air filter popping off as soon as it is started – did not deter us from motoring back down the river towards Falmouth. By this stage, the batteries had taken such a hammering that they were refusing to charge properly, adding to my anxiety.
We picked up enough of a breeze to enjoy a gentle beat under jib alone into Falmouth where we picked up a visitors’ mooring. Had we not been planning a fairly major run ashore that night and wanting the security of a buoy, we would have taken advantage of the fact it is one of the few towns one can anchor off. Here we met friends on a Contessa 32, which Georgia made it quite clear she liked.
After a fine sea bass supper and some Breton music in a harbourside pub, we turned in to contemplate our next move.
The next day brought a lovely sail across Falmouth Bay in plenty of wind and sunshine into the Helford River.
At the start of the season, with very limited ambitions, I’d decided that if we made it to the Helford, we’d have done well, and I’d have fulfilled my 2008 vow. At the start of our cruise, however, I was barely expecting to make it past Fowey.
The only blight on our otherwise lovely visit to this idyllic spot (apart from yet more rain and gales) came on our last day. We had been ashore and got back to the boat at around 1700 intending to head out to an anchorage ready to leave at first light. The harbourmaster pounced on us asking for the previous night’s fees, making it clear I was lucky not to be charged an extra night for being on a mooring after 1630 and telling us we were mad to be considering anchoring ‘with this forecast’. So we defiantly headed out to Bosahan Cove for a night disturbed only by the chirrup of oystercatchers.
When 0715 on Thursday 27 August brought flat calm we crossed our fingers and started the engine. It kept going until a sailing breeze filled in at 0940 and we hoisted full sail. By midday the pole was up and we had a few reefs in the jib as we made good time with Georgia on the helm.
A few hours later we were deep-reefed being chased by a southerly Force 5-6 and a building grey sea, which escorted us into Plymouth and up to our mooring at Cargreen, 10 hours from Helford.
The six weeks following immediately after the end of our cruise were mild, calm and sunny. We had, however, achieved our goal and felt very privileged to be afloat in such a lovely little boat.
‘Out past the Dodman it was quite uncomfortable, and with an eye to our future relationship I turned round to seek refuge in Mevagissey’
A West Country cruise was Thomas Bourne’s summer ambition
Blue Fox moored up next to the big boys at Tolverne in the Fal Estuary
West Country bolt hole: Polruan spied from Fowey on a grey day
Despite the best efforts of a recalcitrant engine, Georgia grew to love sailing aboard Blue Fox
Blue Fox sitting quietly at anchor