Preparing for a Day Skipper practical course in Scotland

XC Weather screenshotThe weather

I'm studying the weather forecast for next week's sailing course in the Firth of Clyde.  It will help me to plan where we might go with the wind each day, and which harbours will be sheltered overnight.  We also have to do a 4 hour night sail, which is part of the sylabus.  I prefer a dry night, and not Thursday, as the students will be shattered and have to drive quite a distance home the next day.

I'm using the American GFS forecast on because the graphics make it easy to read.  I'm also using the surface pressure charts from so I can compare the forecast from a different computer model.  The Met Office meteorologists look at the computer forecast and modify it, based on their knowledge and experience.  At the moment, it looks like it could be damp most of the week, but Sunday evening may be dry and cloud free.  That's a bonus, I love sailing under the stars.  At sea, you can often see satellites and shooting stars, as well as the Milky Way.

The winds look mostly light to moderate for the week, mainly from North East through to North West from Monday evening onwards.  Hmm, that could mean a cool breeze, I'd better pack an extra fleece jumper.

Surface Pressure ChartThe Met Office surface pressure chart for Wednesday lunchtime shows a low pressure system over North West France, whilst high pressure sits over Iceland.  The isobars between the high & low are squashed tight, bringing stronger winds for most of the UK for a while.

The Met Office doesn't publish charts beyond 5 days, perhaps they don't think the long range forecast is reliable enough.  On the other hand, XC Weather is happy to publish the 8 day forecast it has purchased straight from the GFS computer.  I sometimes wonder which to believe.  I think I'll just prepare for the worst.

Porthdinllaen To Holyhead

Day 7 - Monday 22nd May 2017

It was bright daylight when I rose at 6am. Putting the kettle on reminded me to switch off the anchor light and hoist the black "anchor ball". The previous night's weather forecast foretold of strong gusts. In order to monitor anchor drag overnight, I'd set a waypoint on my phone's 'SailDroid' app before I turned in. But the wind had been quiet all night.

Getting a lift to Holyhead

I used the quiet time in the early morning to plan the next two legs of our journey. Porthdinllaen to Holyhead was not as far as our previous sails and a reasonably straightforward passage. The best thing would be to wait at anchor until the tide turned in our favour in the early afternoon. We'd then catch the flood tide going north much like walking on a travelator at the airport.

Marked on the chart were overfalls off Anglesey. We'd give them a wide berth before swinging round North Stack and eastwards to the entrance of the huge harbour. We'd also monitor harbour traffic on VHF ch 14. Holyhead marina was a good place for us to refuel and fill up with water. The forecast gave south or southwesterly winds again of force 4 or 5, occasionally 6. These would be great winds for sailing on a reach, but could be challenging when the wind strengthened to F6, a "yachtsman's gale".

With the plan sorted, I turned to Tuesday's passage. Light winds and calm seas were in the offing. Peel on the Isle of Man was the obvious choice. We could anchor in the shelter of the breakwater or pick up a mooring off the beach. We'd just need a suitable depth to clear our 2.1 metre keel at the next low water.

Looking at the British Admiralty 'Tidal Stream Atlas', I could see that if we set off on the northeasterly flood tide we'd be at Chicken Rock lighthouse at the next slack water. That's when the tide turned northwards along the coast to Peel. The tidal stream atlas refers to HW Dover and those tide tables told me we'd have to set off around 4 or 4.30 am. Early starts, or night time adventures are 'par for the course' in these tidal waters!

The only problem facing me now was where to cross the Traffic Separation Scheme. It's a huge area northwest of Holyhead marked on the chart in lanes of NE and SW bound vessels. There's an exclusion zone, or 'central reservation' that is several miles wide. The TSS cut diagonally across our direct route to the Isle of Man and the rules of the road say we must head across it at right angles. This makes the quickest route across. Also being 'beam on' to the direction of traffic we'd be as visible as possible to oncoming vessels.

At that point in my planning, the others were starting to move about. I put the kettle on again and tidied away the charts from the saloon table. Over at the chart table, I entered our planned waypoints into the chart plotter and checked their position as a distance and bearing from our current position in Porthdinllaen. After all these years, I shouldn't have been surprised to find that I'd entered one with the wrong coordinates!

Breakfast with the ship's company at 8.30am was very civilised and even included freshly brewed coffee and toast. The wind was freshening in the background, with an occasional strong gust which slewed the boat round from side to side whilst she lay at anchor. 

Erni was keen to move on and suggested we set off straight after breakfast. I explained that we would have a quick and more comfortable sail later in the afternoon when the tide was with us. The ebb tide against the wind during the morning would make for a very choppy sea state and a slower passage. That was a good enough reason for Erni and he settled down to a relaxing morning, spending some time writing his journal and looking up periodically when the boat made another pirouette in a gust. I briefed our skipper on the plan and agreed that we could set off an hour earlier in order to arrive at a reasonable time for fuelling and dinner.

My thoughts returned to the problem of where to cross the Traffic Separation Scheme the following day. Sitting at the chart table with the tidal stream atlas, I carefully worked out a plan.

Looking at the radar and chart plotter on split screen

Time passed quickly and soon after lunch, we made our preparations to leave. Lowering the anchor ball and removing the rope snubber, we weighed anchor and raised sail with full genoa and partially reefed mainsail. The wind was on the beam, or thereabouts and I didn't feel it was necessary to fit a rope on the boom to prevent a gybe. As we moved away from the shelter of the bay, the waves built and the flukey wind shifts steadied into a moderate to fresh breeze. Erni's flag, the burgee of the Royal West Highland Yacht Club, fluttered proudly on it's halyard at the starboard spreader and looked great against the blue sky. I went down below deck for a nap and spent some time at the chart table refining the radar image.

On hearing mention of a reef from above, I put on my lifejacket and went topsides to see what was going on. A squall had hit us, bringing a good force 6 and the skipper was asking for a reef in both sails. Kathryn and I set to reefing the genoa first. We eased the sheet to spill wind from the sail and the boat rounded up due to the force of the wind in the mainsail. The autohelm couldn't cope and tripped out with the skipper trying to regain control at the wheel. All the time the autohelm alarm was bleeping, adding it's urgency to the sound of the sails flapping and noise of the wind. As we continued to furl the genona, the boat lurched on a wave and gybed. The boom shot across from starboard to port, then BANG!

We quickly tamed the genoa and sheeted in the mainsail before checking to see what had broken. The outer braid of mainsheet had parted at the point it was tethered in a turning block jammer. I made a mental note to inspect it later to see if I could make a temporary repair but for the time being it was prudent to furl the mainsail away completely. We continued on our journey in a much more sober fashion, with no more mishaps. The wind continued to gust strongly for the rest of the way. 

Looking through the restaurant window at sunset

On the final leg eastwards along Holyhead harbour breakwater, the evening ferry from Dublin was coming up fast astern, chasing us in. The wind was howling as we turned between the breakwaters and, furling away the genoa, motored toward the marina in the far corner. The marina responded to our call on channel M and after a lengthy discussion, advised us not to approach the fuel berth that night in such strong winds. He led us to a visitor berth and offered to take our ropes. This was a mistake, as is so often the case because the poor fellow didn't have a clue what to do. At the time it wasn't funny, but looking back, it was quite a sight watching him hold a rope at arms length, and at the other end a thirteen tonne sailboat being blown off in 25 knots of wind!

Skipper booked a table for dinner at the restaurant in the marina and the crew, like rats deserting a sinking ship, hurtled shorewards in search of a shower. Dinner was surprisingly delicious. We soon turned in to our bunks for some sleep before our early morning departure.


Sailing North Again

Day 6 - Sunday 21st May 2017

Up at 0630 and made tea. Skip was up soon after. We donned our sailing gear and he used the ship's hose to fill the water tank as I re-arranged the mooring warps and fenders ready to go. The fairway was narrow and as we reversed out a gust of wind caught the high bow. The thruster quickly brought us back on track. The lock gate was still closed so we called 'Pierhead' on VHF channel 14. "Give me ten minutes" he said "and I'll prepare the lock". I'd forgotten that the protocol there was to call the lock keeper an hour before departure and then again on de-berthing. 

After a short delay we were on our way out of the lock and down the channel. We called Milford Haven Port Operations, they informed us that there were no ship movements and we were clear to cross the channel towards Angle Bay.


As soon as the hook was down the kettle went on again. Kathryn let out twenty metres of chain and we watched for a steady transit across the beam to check the anchor was holding. Then we tied a heavy rope to the chain with a rolling hitch. Letting more chain out 'til the knot was well over the bow, we tied off the rope to a cleat and the chain was duly snubbed. This is a great technique for taking the load off the windlass. The rope snubber was touching the cheek of the stem head fitting, which could cause chafe, so we tied another rope to it and made it off to the port cleat. 

Everyone was keen to get going, so after breakfast the hook was weighed and we were off, 9.15 on the dot. Sailing west out of the Haven, we timed our passage to be at Jack Sound by 1045. The scenery was delightful and several other boats were there too. Some were fishing and others perhaps came to see the change in sea state as the tide turned.

We were through this narrow 'pinch point' in just a few minutes and on our way to Ramsey Sound, just seven miles distant. We set just enough of the genoa to give us 5 knots, ensuring we would reach the next pinch point at the right time for the turn of the tide. It was low water when we got to Ramsey Sound and 'The Bitches', a nasty rock ledge jutting half way across the channel, was clearly visible. Our sketch map and pilotage plan was essential.

After altering course to avoid a rock with a wreck on it, we unfurled some mainsail and tied off the boom with a gybe preventer. We unfurled the remainder of the genoa and headed towards our next waypoint at the start of the long leg across Cardigan Bay. 

Once at the waypoint, we steered a course toward Bardsey Island and watched south west Wales recede behind us. The noon day sunshine sparkled on the water. I turned in and soon fell asleep in my forepeak cabin to the sound of the sea gurgling past the bow and the motion of a gently rocking boat. 

Two hours passed in a flash. I woke and after saying hello to the skipper and Erni, who were both on watch, I put the kettle on for tea. Kathryn had turned in and was still asleep. I checked the log and plotted a position fix on the chart, then scanned around for vessels on the radar, zooming out to 12 mile range and then in to 3 NM to see if anything was close by.

After another hour or so, the highest hills of the Lleyn Peninsula hove into view and the skipper closed his eyes for a 'power nap'. Sitting by the wheel, Erni and I kept a good lookout by sight, radar and AIS, even though we hadn't seen another vessel since leaving Ramsey Sound. The strange thing was, when zooming out the plotter to include St George's Channel, there were no boats showing on AIS at all. When the skip woke from his nap, he checked the control panel and found the AIS was switched off. Apparently, our friends at home who had been monitoring Wind Song's progress on had also noticed we'd disappeared from view! 

Our next waypoint, off Bardsey Island, was carefully positioned to avoid the overfalls that can occur due to the uneven sea bed, tidal streams and wind. Without the local pilot book, we didn't have enough detailed information about when the overfalls may be dangerous or benign. So we took the safe option to avoid them. This didn't really take us far from the direct track but we could clearly see the ruffled water with white crests as we passed by. The scenery was gorgeous in the bright evening sunlight. We soon passed the beautiful beach of Porthor with it's 'whistling sands' on our way to Porthdinllaen, just a few miles away.

Secondary ports PorthdinllaenIt was the last hour of daylight when we reached our anchorage, turning the corner round an Isolated Danger beacon and passing the RNLI lifeboat station on our starboard side. We anchored off the beach in 5 metres, having worked out the tidal heights and​ times for this secondary port in advance. Just off the sandy beach, the chart said 'M', indicating that the seabed was mud which gives good holding. As we paid out the chain, the boat drifted astern, pushed along the shore by the ebbing tide and slightly offshore by the breeze. The overnight forecast wind strength was 4 to 5 occasionally 6, so we let out the full 40 metres of chain, which would be enough scope for the depth at the next high water, plus extra for the strong winds expected. We tied a rope snubber to the chain and watched transits across the beam as the skipper used the engine to dig in the anchor in the late evening twilight. The anchor light was switched on and dinner served to the background sound of a jet skier whizzing away between us and the beach. Another step nearer our destination and the glass of wine was well deserved. 

After a while the jet ski noise disappeared and we thankfully ate dinner in peace, chatting about the delightful Scottish anchorages Erni and I had both visited. As we dined, a swell came into the anchorage, rocking the boat and threatening to disturb a comfortable night. I went topsides and stared into the darkness to see what was happening. There were waves, possibly from a passing ship, working their way around the point and into the anchorage.

After dinner, Erni and I were still recounting tales of past adventures when we heard the rumble of powerful engines, then navigation lights of a boat close by. It was the Tamar class lifeboat from Porthdinllaen RNLI station, towing the broken down jet ski back to the beach! It was the lifeboat that had caused the waves on it's way to rescue the helpless chap. I'm sure he was a very grateful man that evening.

Waiting For The Spare Part

Day 5 - Saturday 20th May 2017

There was nothing else to do but wait for the spare part to arrive. The engineers had kindly said they'd fit it for us if it arrived during the morning.

The facilities at Milford Haven were very good. After showering we had breakfast and looked at the list of minor jobs to do.

The jackstays we'd fitted needed to be re-routed to allow us to go to the foredeck whilst remaining clipped on.

The next job was to make getting on & off the boat easier. Kathryn, the skippers wife & 'first mate' found the pelican hooks on the guard wire gates difficult to clip & unclip. Erni and I soon sorted that by backing off the bottlescrews that tension the guard wires. All four were then easy to fasten much to the Kathryn's delight.

Little jobs can make such a difference. I hunted high and low for some suitable cord to tie to the snap shackle on the spinnaker halyard to make it quick to unclip. Then I suddenly realised, I had lots of spare on the lanyard of my sailing knife.

The final job for the day was to adjust the catch on the lazarette locker lid before we put the tools away. And as Erni was fixing it, I spotted the engineer's trolly moving along the pontoon toward us. Way hey, the part had arrived!

The two guys removed their boots and laid a dust sheet over the cabin sole boards and carpet. Access to the port side of the engine bay was good through two doors under the gallery sink unit. Reaching into the starboard side was limited to a small hatch in the shower room of the master cabin. Working quietly together, they quickly had the new part in place. However, connecting the exhaust pipes, along with all the other pipes they'd had to remove, took much longer.

We sat in the saloon and discussed a plan for setting off. One option was to lock out during the early evening & anchor, either at Dale or Angle Bay. The second option was to lock out the following day. Adjourning for lunch at the Crows Nest Cafe, the skip called in at the marina office as we passed by to pick up a list of locking times for entry and exit each day.

Over an all-day breakfast, a plan was hatched. We'd stay overnight at the marina and check there were no leaks or problems with the repair. Then at 0735 we'd lock out and motor to Angle Bay & drop the hook for breakfast. Weighing anchor at 0915 would see us at Jack Sound by 1045 BST. The almanac said the tide turned in our favour four and a half hours before high water Milford Haven, and at Ramsey Sound HW -3. There was a back eddy causing this early change in direction as the tide in St George's Channel was still ebbing strongly southwards. We'd get a huge boost of tidal stream in our favour as we headed north towards Porthdinllaen and Holyhead.

The weather forecast was in our favour again, southerly winds force 4 or 5 occasionally 6 with an occasional shower at first. That would give us some great downwind sailing. To prevent an accidental gybe, we needed a way to secure the boom. Skip suggested we use a couple of the heavy polyester mooring warps. These are strong and not too stretchy - ideal for the job. Warps made of nylon are very elastic, stretching an extra 40% of their length, not a good property for a gybe preventer! Kathryn was keen to see how this should be rigged and suggested a trial run whilst we were still in the marina. In the future it would just be husband and wife on the boat and she'd be the one to rig it.

That done, we tidied up and the skipper plotted a course to steer from a waypoint just north of Ramsey Island to another west of the overfalls on the west side of Bardsey Island. The back eddy through the sounds should get us to waypoint 1 in time for maximum benefit of the flood tide going north. We had a course to steer of 023 degrees True.

After a Bolognese dinner and a glass or two of red wine, I laid out my sailing clothes for the morning and turned in. 

Stuck in Milford Haven, 'Water in the Engine Room'

Day 4 - Friday 19th May 2017

After a good night's sleep in the marina and a tasty breakfast we set to work on some jobs. The first was to fill the tanks with water. The next was to look at a minor water leak we'd spotted in the engine compartment during our passage the previous day.

We dried the floor and laid some sheets of kitchen roll, then started up the engine. There was a drip coming from the joint between the exhaust pipe and watertrap / muffler. We needed the toolkit. The toolkit was stowed in the lazarette locker. It has steps on the side walls to climb in and out! The hose clamp on the leading joint wasn't tight, so we tightened it a little. The drip become a trickle. Bugger! It looked like the watertrap was causing the problem.

The on-site marine engineers were called and after inspection and discussion, quickly confirmed that the watertrap had distorted due to heat. A better high temperature resistant replacement was ordered for 'next morning' delivery and the faulty part was removed. 

To avoid 'cabin fever', we went out for a walk. Going our separate ways, I had a look around the marina and boatyard. I was tickled to see a yellow fishing boat with exactly the same name and colour as my little Miracle dinghy, 'Amy Lou,' named after my daughter. I've fond memories of racing it in Morecambe and at Open Meetings on lakes and reservoirs around the north of England. 

Finally settling down with a pint of "Doombar" at the harbourside pub, I hooked up to WiFi and checked out the weather forecast for the next few days. Almost unbelievably, it was still in our favour for the northbound voyage. 

Back at the yacht, Skip and I planned the next passage. He drew up pilotage plans for the tricky 'Jack Sound' and Ramsey Sound, mentioned in David Rainsbury's book 'Fearsome Passages'. 

We were heading for Holyhead, with the option of stopping overnight to anchor at our port of refuge, Porthdinllaen. For some time-honoured reason, mariners never say "We're going to..." probably because they could never be sure of getting there! I was told this very early on in my yachting life and the tradition has stuck with me. 

We had a fish supper in the 'Gordon Bennett' restaurant on the quayside, which was much better than it's name suggested. The tables filled quickly as we waited for our starters.

By 10pm we're in bed - the earliest turn in on the trip so far. Let's see what the next day brings.