Winter sailing is a lonely business

Sam Llewellyn recollects a dark and chilly January excursion

Sam Llewellyn recollects a dark and chilly January excursion

Conventionally, January is no time to be cruising in the North Atlantic. Sometimes, though, a breath of spring drifts in between the Atlantic lows and the Siberian highs, and an alert or foolhardy sailor can use it.

We had a boat in Milford Haven, and it seemed important to bring it home, or at least into fresh water at Gloucester Docks. The forecast was stable and unthreatening. So we climbed aboard, pulled up some sails, and sailed shivering towards the cold grey horizon.

Winter sailing is a lonely business. We were alone on the sea as the tide swooshed us round the black coast, then between Caldy Island and the mainland. We anchored out of the westerly breeze off the depressed January huddle of Tenby, crawled fully clothed into our sleeping bags, and waited out the foul tide.

Darkness fell at fourish. It would not get light till nine the next day, but the tide would start running eastward at six. So we left at five, groaning and shuddering, the navigation lights green and red blurs in the inky fog.

Out in to the darkness

Twenty minutes later, we could have been in interplanetary space. There was the whisper of the breeze, the chuckle of the wake, and darkness unrelieved. On we slid across the fifteen-mile mouth of Carmarthen Bay. We made coffee, twice, warming our icy hands on the mugs. The world turned dawn-grey and revealed the hump back of Worms Head off the port bow. The empty beaches of the Gower drifted by accelerating as the tide picked up in the narrowing Bristol Channel.

By noon we were alone on a sea of slate under a sky of grey flannel. The wind was up, with a little north in it now. The boat heeled gently to starboard. We kept warm by trimming officiously. Then over the little roar of the wake came a bigger roar. Three jet fighters howled across our bows, five hundred feet above the sea. They saw the little boat with its red sail on the grey water. Each one of them waggled his wings in salute and hurtled on towards the Somerset shore. Goodness, we felt proud.

The tide was fading under us. Soon it would be on the nose, slowing us down to a two-knot crawl. The Mumbles light was squat and white on the port bow, and beyond it Swansea Bay. In we went, out of the breeze, tied up and slept the sleep of the shattered. At slack water, away we went again, east, into the dark.

Weird eruptions

Off Milford Haven we had been in clean green Atlantic. Now the  water was Bristol Channel brown, full of weird eruptions of mud, jagged with little spiky waves. The tides run at more than five knots here. The boat trucked busily down the coast, ten knots over the ground, very smug.

Cardiff Bay opened out to port. Through the lock, warm up, wait for the new tide. And away again, into a black world lit with red and green flashes, crouching over a paper chart in the cabin, chart-table light covered with a red gel so as not to destroy the night vision.

The dawn came up. The wind went down. The tide washed us under two Severn bridges crowded with rush hour cars. Alone on the enormous river, we followed weird blue leading lights down the sinuosities of the channel. At the very top of the tide we arrived at Sharpness lock.

The sharp smell of the sea had gone. The flat reek of fresh water came out to meet us. Crunching ice, we motored into the Sharpness Canal, gateway to Gloucester and the inland waterways of Britain.