Cherbourg - Smooth & Lumpy
By Steve Birch
John Vaughan and I chatted one evening whilst at the IFR (International Friendly Regatta for Vegas) and decided that France would be a good destination for a short trip for the Solent based Vegas. Over a few beers after the racing in Denmark plans were made and timings arranged. The August Bank Holiday seemed a perfect date so all was set....
The Vega fleet would consist of Southern Comfort (Steve Birch & Allen Barnby), Xiphion (Tim Buckley & Sarah), Vindrosen (Ian Fellingham & Dawn) and finally Excalibur (Tom Sutton, John Vaughan, Diana Webb and Alan). I must point out that Excalibur is a 36 feet long keeled yacht built in 1963 so four onboard was not quite the same cramped conditions with four people as the Vega would afford. Vindrosen and crew were already in Normandy (Carentan) and would sail up to Cherbourg and rendezvous on the Friday afternoon tide.
After loading food, drink, dinghy and water (Allen got a bit carried away with the water and filled the tank, bilges and battery compartment! I didn't even shout...) we left our mooring in Fawley aboard Southern Comfort at 23:00 BST on Wednesday in flat, windless and calm conditions. The night was dark as we sped westwards with the tide helping us towards the Needles. The new Beta engine purred as first Beaulieu then Lymington passed on our starboard beam. It was truly a magical night as we were the only yacht to be seen. Our plan had been to stay overnight at Yarmouth on an outside buoy but with such a flat sea we decided to carry on regardless.
Once past the Bridge Buoy we set a course of 185 degrees and turned the Autopilot on. The night was clear, visibility was fantastic but the wind was non-existent! With a two hour on, two hour off shift system the night soon passed then around 05:30 with the sky starting to lighten from the east I prepared breakfast of eggs, bacon and beans ( an un-French start to the gastronomical delights that were to follow).
We continued on our journey with renewed vigour . We saw a few large tankers in the shipping lane and had to take avoiding action to pass astern of two tankers heading towards the Dover Straits and one large container ship heading west.
The morning brought the sun and a very hazy horizon but soon we managed to spot the outline land around Cherbourg. The passage plan was perfect as the west going tide brought us right into the Eastern Entrance of the Cherbourg Outer Harbour. With no wind to contend with, leeway was zero and I only had the tide to calculate - the return journey was not going to be quite as accurate! We docked at 13:00 BST having covered 76.5 miles in 13 hours exactly. All had been under engine so at least the batteries were charged after their fresh-water dunking the previous evening!
Our first day in Cherbourg greeted us with bright sunshine and a wonderful lunch of Moules washed down with local wine. The French certainly know how to relax as we joined in the custom of the three-hour lunch. That evening Allen found another restaurant where we again sampled the local moules with more wine and a main course of pork. This was the first day of our gastronomic visit to the gateway of yachtie France.
Friday arrived with Vindrosen and Excalibur anchoring outside the marina, waiting for daylight. We soon all meet aboard Southern Comfort for a few warm beers - still no fridge - maybe next year! The following tide Xiphion joined us and our party was complete.Two glorious days of sunshine followed with the Vega fleet really taking to the French way of life. We all ganged together for an evening meal at a lovely secluded restaurant called L'Antidote where the talk centred around our return journey, as the forecast seemed to be deterioating. Vindrosen had wisely decided to leave the following morning at 05:00 whilst Southern Comfort and Excalibur would leave at 19:00 and 21:00 respectively. I am afraid to say that Vindrosen chose the right option and missed the NNE 5/6 which meant an awful and uncomfortable slog back to The Solent for the rest of us.
Southern Comfort's trip back to The Solent started well as we left the outer breakwater in the last of the evening sunshine with a gentle NE F2. I set the Navik windvane as we cleared the fairway buoy and Southern Comfort shook her hips and started to head for home. Within the hour the wind had increased to F4 so I quickly put a reef in the main, just in case! The wind built up still more and the seas increased until by darkness we had a NE F5, which soon backed to NNE. It was at this time I should have added another reef, the old adage of reefing sooner than later became more apparent as the night wore on.The seas became very lumpy and Southern Comfort was soon slamming but still managing to plough for home. We took quite a few waves over the foredeck which in turn found the perished seal in the forehatch, the cushions and everything in the forecabin became very damp indeed with a cupful coming through with every wave. Unluckily I did not spot this problem until five hours of pounding, I was a wee bit upset but soon managed to fix some neoprene tape as a temporary measure.
The watch system on this return trip had to be shortened to one hour on and one hour off but sleep was an impossibility in the slamming waves but we still managed to lie down for a rest in the middle of the main cabin sole. These conditions were a real test for the Navik, which coped wonderfully, what a crewmember it is as Allen soon named it "Compadre" after some comments from the "Berserk" video (Shown on BBC in July 2002 - About a lunatic Norwegian that sailed from Norway to the Antarctic before losing his Vega on the return trip after hitting an object in the water).
We did not have to touch the tiller until fourteen hours later when we were in Christchurch Bay, ten miles too far west as my passage plan had not taken into account the 25 degrees leeway we made due to having too much mainsail up! The slog towards to Needles was awful and lasted another four hours. Soon the tide turned in our favour and we were thrown through the Needles Channel at over nine knots! The eighteen-hour crossing was soon forgotten as we entered The Solent with Fawley Chimney, Southern Comfort's berth, a mere ten miles away. The last part of our journey was a pleasure as we tied up at Fawley pontoon at 12:00 BST. The trip had taken exactly eighteen hours of pounding, close-hauled beating but exhilarating sailing. Allen collapsed on the bunk and mused on our next trip whilst I brewed an end of voyage cuppa.