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The Log of a Cruise in the Westminster Bank Sailing Club SCOD “Portcullis” from Portsmouth to North Brittany and the Channel Islands in July 1969 with Brian Cooke, Jane and Colin Heape as crew.


Saturday 5th July

On our first day at sea, we left Camper & Nicholson’s Marina at Gosport at 1820 hours last night, after a quick get-away from office and home ties; ducks, garden etc left in the care of kind friends, Margaret with Granny at Fareham. It was a lovely sunny evening with just the right breeze as we motored out of Portsmouth harbour, an almost perfect start. The wind headed us a little, so it was a slow passage down the western Solent. The night was beautiful, however, with a full moon and the cry of sea birds off the Beaulieu estuary in our ears. We passed Hurst Castle at 0315 hours and a gentle swell gave the yacht the beginnings of the motion, which we shall know so well by the end of this trip. Our departure was made from the Bridge Buoy, and the log set at zero on a course of 210 compass. The passage has truly begaun. Piramela has been sighted astern of us in the channel, so we are both off together, and have a fair tide down channel. It has been the easiest start of all our trips in Portcullis so far. Light winds and a sunny morning; we ate breakfast of tomato juice, bacon and eggs and toast. Brian has even managed to catch three mackerel; the omens are good!

Sunday 6th July

Breakfast this morning of thick slices of ham and a boiled egg with toast had been eaten in the rain. The wind had gone round to the east and we were running free with the spinnaker set. The first 100 miles were behind us now, and all was peace. Yesterday evening we saw Alderney and the Casquets, and we identified the light from Le Hanois off Guernsey. We were now on course for Ile Vierge with another 60 nautical miles to go. There were big Ships all around; at one time the lights of 16 vessels could be seen ahead of us. It had been a slow but peaceful trip so far; the sea like a billiard table according to Brian, but I would liken it to a small field on a hill farm in Wales, all ups and down. The sea off Alderney is confused by the strong tides, even in calm weather. We had not been fishing again, not wishing to overdo one of the pleasures of life at sea. Those mackerel were good last night, boiled in seawater, a true fruit of the sea and a nice change from being fried. Several yachts passed us last night; big ones with spinnakers set in a light breeze, rolling their way down channel. They must have been racing. Now the wind found us, and it was our turn. The wind is a strange element; it comes and goes we know not where or how, never constant for long, and with it our fortunes. Piramela had vanished from our world, but was the main topic of conversation. We still glanced astern, believing vainly that we were in the lead, but they could have stolen a march on us, passing unseen in the night.


Monday 7th July

“What can I say, but that I am very glad to be alive? In the bright sun this morning, we are all feeling a little more cheerful after the stark horror of last night. Yesterday evening at 1745 hours, we were hit by a very severe line squall, which tore the mainsail from clew to tack and left us without this vital sail about three miles off the rocky coast of France in the bay between the Ile de Batz light and Ile Vierge Light”. I wrote this later the next day. I still remember the elation I felt to be alive after that night fifty odd years ago.

Brian and Jane were below, when I saw a black cloud ahead of us. It had been raining all after-noon and we were running along the coast in poor visibility. We had closed the land to fix our position, having worked up our dead reckoning and taken radio bearings earlier on. In fact, we had sighted land a short time before. You could smell the countryside on the offshore breeze that had been blowing gently all after-noon, and we were able to identify Ile de Batz lighthouse through the mist. The wind fell very light, almost died away completely, and became variable, and I said to the others that I did not like the look of that dark cloud at all. Brian was below and had just turned on the radio to listen to the shipping forecast. I shall always remember hearing the popular song
“Three wheels on my wagon” sung by Barry McGuire being played on the radio. I told Brian to come on deck as quickly as possible to relieve me at the helm, because I was going to bring in the Genoa and take some rolls in the main. I just felt that the cloud held the chance of a squall, and I expected the wind to blow harder for a while. As I went forward to take in the sail, very heavy rain began to fall, and I felt the yacht heel to a strong gust. I leapt to the mast and released the foresail halyard. By this time, I realised that this was no ordinary squall. The wind was tearing at the sails, and it suddenly became very urgent to relieve the yacht of her canvas. I lay across the Genoa on the foredeck and found that it was difficult to breathe. The wind was blowing with great force and the sea and sky seemed to mix. You could not look into it. I knew that I must hurry to get the main down, and started unhanking the foresail as I sat on it. The foredeck was at an extreme angle of heel, and I was frightened for the first time in my life to be up there on my own. I felt exposed, and I was dazed by the severity of the storm that had so suddenly come upon us. I stuffed the sail down the fore hatch, and at that moment, the mainsail split with a loud crack right across close to the boom. I was horrified and struggled aft. Brian had managed to luff up into the wind, and with great skill keep the sail filled without really drawing, but the wind had been too strong. Afterwards the force of the wind further up the channel had been reported to be gale force 8 to extreme gale force 9 locally, and it must have been blowing something like that. I went forward again and pulled at the wildly thrashing sail. All I could do was to pull it down the mast, and with great determination, Brian lashed the reefing cringle to the boom, and I was able to roll down as much of the sail as I could. As we were working with the sail, the sea was beginning to rise, and after we had finished, we looked at the compass to decide on a course to steer. Then Jane, who was also looking at the compass pointed out that we were being blown on to a lee shore. The wind had gone right round 180 degrees, and the coast, which we had just identified and felt quite happy about, had become a menace and was threatening our vessel. It is a very rocky coast, this northwest tip of France, and without many good harbours sheltered from the NW winds. We had to try to claw ourselves off without delay. As we began to gather way under the reduced main that cursed sail split again. Brian went forward and secured it for a time, but it was no good. In desperation, we started our engine, and then as darkness fell, we began what was to be a very worrying night, trying to keep the yacht pointing sufficiently into the wind to keep her from being driven ashore. By this time, a huge swell had built up and the rollers seemed determined to drive us on to the rocks. The waves came at us in an endless procession, growing bigger through the night as the wind continued to blow in excess of force 6. We could keep the yacht heading about 60 degrees off the true wind, which was about NNW, and we were making about NE by compass. We were trapped in the bay within the line of the two powerful lights from Ile Vierge and Ile de Batz. Throughout that night, we battled with the elements to keep our vessel off the shore. Finally, we hoisted our storm jib, or rather Brian went forward to do so. Unexpectedly, this helped the yacht, and with the motor going as well, we kept her sailing out to sea at the best angle we could manage. The trouble was that we had so little sea room. We could not point the yacht close enough to the wind to round the headland on either tack. A big sea pooped the yacht several times during the night and we had to man the pumps. The engine stopped once and I had to go below to crank the starting handle. There was no such thing as an electric starter motor. All three of us kept our feelings to ourselves, but I think we were all worried, and for a long time I felt that we were not going to make it. I remember trying to judge how fast we seemed to be moving sideways by the speed with which our boat left the occasional buoy astern. Some time after midnight, all the streetlights along the shoreline went out, and I felt very lonely. I just felt very very sorry, and kept thinking about our daughter Margaret and the people back home.

Brian never gave in for a moment. He faced the stark reality of our situation, and did everything he could to save us, and he encouraged me to do the same. I came to understand the strength of character behind the man, who had made so magnificent a passage in last year’s Solo Single-handed Race across the Atlantic. He was quite calm and never admitted defeat, and we were very lucky to have him with us. Poor Jane did what she could and remained calm below in what must have been a most terribly worrying time for her. She made us some soup, which Brian said I spoilt by adding cold potatoes, but it was better than nothing. We did win in the end, helped but the tide under our bow, and by morning we were about three miles off Ile de Batz Lighthouse again. For a time, we thought of running for shelter behind Ile de Batz or in Roscoff Harbour, but the swell was still very big and we had no large-scale chart of the channel. Anyway, the harbour dries out and we could not enter except at high water. By this time our petrol was running very low.

So the morning found us in a sea, which was going down and with a fresh breeze still blowing. The sun was shining and it was good to be alive. However, our troubles were by no means over. We still had to bring Portcullis into a safe port. We headed for Lezardrieux, about 30 miles along the coast back the way we came, but down wind. We would not be able to round Ushant now. One whole panel of the sail had been blown out. I stitched the mainsail all morning, and fished with a boathook to catch the main halyard, which had become loose in the night and got wound round the backstay. When the wind had modified enough, we set what was left of the mainsail and made good progress towards port. It was a pleasant sail, and I must mention the Puffins. These little birds with their bright beaks are found, usually in pairs, way out to sea. They fly rather shakily over the waves on short black wings, spending most of their time on the water. As the sun was setting, we made the entrance to the Lezardrieux, and sailed up the river in darkness, piloting our way using the chart and feeling our way up the river with the echo sounder. The land on either side is most attractive, and I can remember the smell of the pig farms. The bay is very rocky, but there are light towers marking the channel up the river, which has the best leading lights I have seen anywhere. Further up river, the channel is very narrow and our engine finally packed up. We found out afterwards that the carburettor was fill of seawater. We had to tack under sail to a delightful anchorage off the Ecole Maritime at the head of the river, and anchored alongside another dozen other yachts. What a peaceful place it was to be in at last.

Tuesday 8th July

We slept until 9 am and then had a splendid breakfast. After breakfast we tidied up the yacht, dried our clothes and drained the petrol in the carburettor. The engine started again with no trouble. Then in the after-noon, we went ashore with the damaged mainsail. We fell among the most friendly people, who took us to a sail maker in Paimpol, and drove us round the town. Brian purchased more charts and discussed the passage to Paimpol. We had a very interesting chat with a kindly merchant seaman, who drove us there and came aboard. Several people know of Brian’s Solo Atlantic crossing, because another competitor in the race called Andre Foezon comes from Paimpol. We had a lively discussion with his father, who runs a barber’s shop. In the evening, we went ashore again to eat crepes at a funny little restaurant run by an old peasant woman and a young girl. The crepes were delicious, cooked to order for us over a griddle.

Wednesday 9th July

We have decided to motor round to Paimpol in order to be near the sail maker. We have been given some charts and local advice and motored through the Ferlas channel past beacon towers with names such as Rompa. It is a very rocky part of the world, but the French have excelent channel markers. We altered course into the Lastel channel after passing Ile Brehat. The sun was shining making the sea blue with a gentle breeze. Jane cooked an excelent lunch for us. It was a lovely trip. We entered the lock at Paimpol about 1500 hours, and found a clean, attractive town with everything we needed. The sail was promised for tomorrow after-noon. I was surprised how much French I understood when talking to the old sail makers in their loft up a back street, not far from the harbour. They had a lot of work. We enjoyed a good meal of crab and conger eel.

Thursday 10th July

Our sail was not ready, so we decided to make the trip to Ile Brehat, the Isle of the Pirates, by bus and ferry. We had a lovely day on the island, watching a small yacht, which had been sunk in the storm, being salvaged. There was a lot of storm damage on the island with some big trees blown to bits. It was fascinating watching divers go down for the yacht. Suddenly it burst to the surface of the water, raised from the bottom by big plastic bags filled with gas. Jane and I had a swim. The water was very cold. When we got back to Paimpol, we found that the sail was ready, and the Lock Keeper was willing to open the gates for us at 0400 hours tomorrow. “Hurray we shall be able to sail on the tide.”

Friday 11th July

We sailed out of Paimpol Harbour as planned at 0400 hours into a fresh NW wind and sea fog. I could see Dolphins jumping clean out of the water ahead of us as we came into the open sea. We caught some mackerel and settled down to beat our way back past Ile de Batz. Somehow the thought of passing the coastline between Ile de Batz and Ile Vierge again made me feel apprehensive. Here we were sailing close inshore in poor visibility in the same spot as on that fated night last Sunday. We were navigating by pilotage, which means sailing within sight of navigation marks, and identifying the marks to fix the vessel’s position by visual bearings. The trouble was you had to be within yards of anything to see it at times. There are groups of islands with reefs, which lie several miles off this part of the coast. We had to pass two of these groups, the Plateau des Triagoy and Les Sept Iles, to seaward to make a passage westward along the coast. The wind continued to head us, and it was slow progress. After identifying the lighthouse on the Plateau des Triagoy, we kept a careful check on our dead reckoning, and rounded Ile de Batz without seeing the Lighthouse later that night. The visibility was very poor and I am glad we were not in the shipping lanes. You could hear the ships blowing their foghorns further out to sea in the channel. All the books say that navigation through the Le Four Channel should not be attempted in poor visibility. We had to put into L’Abervac’h.

Saturday 12th July

We were not meant to round Ushant this holiday. I was wrong about the omens at the start. The visibility remained very poor as we approached Ile Vierge. Brian was concerned that we should be carried past this point by the tide and miss the entrance to L’Abervac’h, which lies three nautical miles SW of the lighthouse. The granite Light Tower on Ile Vierge is 232 feet high, the tallest tower in Europe, but we did not see it as we sailed past that night. As dawn broke, we began our approach. By keeping a careful check on the dead reckoning of our course, we estimated our position at about 8 nautical miles off Ile Vierge. We now headed due south for the coast to try to identify some mark and pick up the Lighthouse. It was a tense situation as we closed the rocky coast in thick fog. Visibility was less than 2 miles at times. Would our DR prove to be right? Brian and I had been up all night and we were both feeling tired. As the coast got nearer, we came across little flags marking lobster pots, and then saw several small fishing boats. Another yacht sailed with us for a time, obviously doing the same thing. Time dragged on; by 0730 hours we had expected to see something. We were not disappointed. Ahead of us, out of the fog, we caught brief glimpses of islands and rocks. We luffed up and looked again; they had disappeared. We could not positively identify anything, so we sailed closer. We sailed closer and closer to the coast in very calm conditions, and at last we picked up a Whistle Buoy marking the channel. We were right where we thought we should be. It was a very satisfying discovery. We ate a large breakfast and felt much better. Then began the approach past Ile Vierge. I remember Brian telling me that all would be revealed in good time. We plotted a course from buoy to buoy and sailed along it until we saw rocks again, and then more rocks, but we could not make out the huge Lighthouse, try as we might. The fog got thicker and thicker. The soundings here are very deep, up to 30 fathoms to within yards of the rocks. Suddenly the fog signal in the lighthouse started. The tide had carried us past it, but we were still quite close. We went about, and by studying the chart, we managed to approach the island on a safe bearing until we were within half a cable off the rocks. We could clearly hear the foghorn booming out one blast every minute, but we still could not see the tallest lighthouse in Europe. That cursed fog, suddenly we realised that we were looking at the base of the building. That was enough for us, we charted our course for the channel into L’Abervac’h. Just then another yacht motored out, and seeing the other vessel encouraged us to motor on. The conditions were very calm. Little fishing boats kept appearing from among the rocks. Brian identified a beacon and then a set of leading marks. We had found the entrance to the very narrow channel. There were lots of little sailing dinghies with children in bright life jackets sailing near the shore. We proudly made our way to the anchorage with the French colours flying from our starboard crosstree and the red ensign flying at our stern. Several other yachts were moored stern on to the pontoons. Brian managed to pick up a buoy very nicely, and we secured Portcullis between two other yachts. What a wonderful feeling of peace and contentment there is in making harbour after a difficult passage. We drank beer and discussed the approach to Roscoff with a French yachtsman. After eating a big lunch, we all had a well-earned sleep. Later in the evening, we went ashore and enjoyed a really super meal in the local restaurant, Langoustine, fried sole, devilled chicken, some wonderful cheese and strawberries followed by coffee made in individual silver filter pots over each cup. It was the first time I had tasted coffee filtered like that, what perfection!

Sunday 13th July

We woke to find our world enveloped in thick fog again. Damp, penetrating gloom had covered everything inside and out with moisture, and what was worse, the poor visibility would make navigation along this rocky coastline very difficult. We had intended to sail to Roscoff. We did set off in the company of two other French yachts, but decided to turn back. What was the point in putting to sea again under such difficult conditions? We explored further up the river, and discovered a delightful tidal estuary, wooded on either bank with small fisherman’s’ cottages along the shore. The sun shone unexpectedly and transformed our world. We ate lunch at anchor in the quietest spot. We returned to the pontoons in the evening, and went to the excelent restaurant again. We had Fruit de Mer, and Jane was allowed to eat the largest langoustine. The oysters were still alive and actually moved when you squeezed lemon juice over them. So inspite of the poor weather all was not lost.

Monday 14th July

We left L’Abervac’h after breakfast a little sadly, slipping down the river past a beautiful three-masted schooner, which had come in during the night. Once outside the rocky entrance, we made our departure from Ile Vierge Lighthouse and sailed along the coast in bright sunshine and a strengthening wind. During the after-noon, the wind blew quite hard as a strong sea breeze developed, and it was a wild sail against wind and tide. We passed a beautiful yacht named Equinox, which was rather a grand sight. Later, we came under the lee of Ile de Batz and sailed into Roscoff that evening. It had been a long day. We tied up against the town quay. The rise and fall of the tide here is about 16 feet and I had to find a ladder for Jane to get ashore from the boat. The town is very old, and the houses have very small doorways and all the windows are shuttered at night. There was a fair in progress on the waterfront, and we enjoyed a ride in the dodgem-cars. I remember that the magnificent Belfry Tower was floodlit.

Tuesday 15th July

We decided to sail to the next port of Perros-Guirec. This was one of the easiest and pleasant day passages we had had so far. Brian had planned the whole holiday on the lines of short day passages between ports, working the tides, which are very strong in these parts. We had a light breeze from forward of the beam, but a calm sea, and for a time we raced a French yacht, which came close alongside us. We beat the other vessel sailing to windward, I am glad to say. The coast of Ile de Batz is very beautiful, and I only wish the visibility had been better. July is the worst month for fog according to the Pilot. What an oracle the Admiralty Pilot is. The town of Perros-Guirec was similar to Roscoff, but much smaller. It lies in a sheltered bay, which dries out at low tide, and has a stone quay much used by local fishermen and small boats. We had an exciting time drying out alongside the quay with a very strong ebb tide flowing. A good meal was had ashore with a rather jolly company of young people of both sexes, who were cruising in a small yacht. They came from the Sailing School at Ile de Glenanse.

Wednesday 16th July

At 0700 hours we departed from the quay and anchored off the harbour to await the fair tide. It was very pleasant lying at anchor, eating breakfast and cleaning the deck of grit, which had showered down on us from the quay. Gradually, the fog lifted and with it our spirits. At 1400 hours, we broke out the anchor, and with a following wind at last, we set course past the Ile Tome for Treguier. It was a distance of 25 nautical miles, and an easy sail with just enough visibility to make pilotage easy. We had the pleasant prospect of exploring another strange river with landmarks and buoys to identify. Provided you do your homework well, everything falls into place. We entered the river passing the La Corne beacon at 1630 hours. The banks were wooded in the upper reaches of the river with little farms and small fishing settlements. Fishing was still very important to the local people in those days. We even saw working boats under sail and a horse pulling a plough. Treguier is the centre of Breton culture and had most attractive narrow streets of stone house and a Cathedral. It reminded me of Ludlow. We had an excelent meal in the Café de Centre. The anchorage off the town quay was a good one. Altogether, Treguier would be a good place to return to. So to bed for what might be our last undisturbed 8 hours of sleep. We had to head back for Portsmouth tomorrow.

Thursday 17th July

We left the mouth of the Treguier River at 0930 hours, and with a wind on the beam of about force 3, we made a fast passage up channel towards the Channel Islands. The sun was shining brightly and visibility was excelent. We could see Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark ahead of us. We decided to anchor for the night in La Greve de la Ville off the southern point of the island of Sark, instead of going into St Peter Port, because of the calm weather conditions. Brian said that you did not often get the chance of using this rather exposed anchorage. It was a lovely spot with steep grassy cliffs sheer down to the sea. There was a small landing place at the foot of the cliffs with steps leading to a well-kept path up the cliff. Jane and I went ashore in the evening and climbed up to the top. The cliff was covered with wild flowers, honeysuckle and sea pinks, and the sound of gulls crying in the evening sunlight made it all magical. A small herd of goats looked down on us. There were horses in most of the small fields on the island. At the top of the cliff, a rough track lead to houses. It was strange to meet people, who spoke English again. We had to hurry back before it got dark, so we could not explore much of the island.

Friday 18th July

I did not sleep well last night. The sound of the surf breaking on the rocks grew louder in the night as the tide dropped and the swell kept making the yacht snub her anchor cable. But it was a beautiful anchorage to wake up in. The sun shone making even the rocks look attractive. Brian went ashore to take some photographs. We finally sailed at 0730 hours. The wind was still very light and we could not make the course; progress was extremely slow, and we just missed the last of the flood tide through the Alderney Race. That meant we were swept back by a 9-knot stream for 6 hours. It was impossible to make any ground against such a tide; luckily the weather was calm. We kept on taking bearings of the Lighthouse on Cape de la Hague. The poor engine rebelled and suddenly threw black oil over the galley, which took some clearing up. It was stinking hot too. All part of the game was all Brian would say. Finally, the tide turned and we rounded the headland and were able to made course for Cherbourg. The wind was still heading us and it took a long time to reach port that night. The only compensation was the magnificent sunset. We even saw the ‘Green Flash’ as the sun dipped over the horizon. We just made it to the Café de Paris by motoring into harbour and securing bow on to the pontoon. We were given a wonderful welcome in the café and served the famous fish soup followed by lobster salad. So to bed in a familiar place, the last port on this cruise.

Saturday 19th July

Jane and I went shopping in the Fish Market after breakfast. We bought fresh fish and peaches for the last leg of the voyage. Jane cooked an excelent lunch once back aboard. One rather amusing incident occurred when we got back to the yacht, a cat suddenly appeared mewing for a piece of our fish. Brian told us a story about a cat called Rudder, which he had met in the Azores. It jumped ship there, but later rejoined his master in Portugal. The cat had come across from the Azores on another vessel, and was very pleased to see his master again. Cats are interesting animals. We were very careful to make sure that this cat was put back ashore in Cherbourg, and the extra-ordinary thing was, that when we finally got back to Portsmouth, the Customs Officer came aboard and asked us to declare if we had any animals with us.

We set off from Cherbourg after lunch, feeling rather sleepy after the wine, and very sorry to leave. Our holiday was nearly over. However, the sun was shining and with a following breeze, the omens looked good for this final leg of the passage across the channel. Once out of the outer harbour, I streamed the log once more and set the spinnaker. The sea miles rolled away as we set the course for Portsmouth.

That night we had one of the worst experiences of sailing in fog that I can remember. A pea souper enveloped our yacht just as darkness fell and we reached the main southbound shipping lane. You could hear the throb of their engines and smell them, but you could not make out where the huge ships travelling at over 20 knots would cross our bows. Jane was on watch and had the frightening experience of suddenly seeing the cabin lights of a ship pass yards ahead of us. To make matters worse, our log was under reading by about 15 miles and we nearly hit the Isle of Wight! Sandown looked like the lights of a ship. We finally entered the familiar waters of the Solent as dawn was breaking after a fast crossing. We anchored in Osborne Bay to enjoy a leisurely breakfast, before finally returning to our homeport. We motored through the narrows into Portsmouth Harbour at 1410 hours and cleared customs. We finally tied Portcullis up in her berth at the Camper & Nicholson’s Marina in Gosport. The cruise was over.

This was to be last cruise Jane and I made in Portcullis. I left Westminster Bank in 1970 and moved to Scotland to become a Land Agent. The previous year, I had taken Portcullis down to Plymouth with Jane and our daughter Margaret. We sailed down to Plymouth to help Brian Cooke prepare his yacht “Opus” for the 1968 Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Yacht Race. He came in 3
rd on handicap with an elapsed time of 34 days. Opus was a conventional sloop rigged monohull with L.O.A. of 32 feet. The winning yacht that year was “Sir Thomas Lipton” with L.O.A. of 56 feet. In his book “Atlantic Venture”, John Groser described Brian Cooke’s achievement as one of the most impressive performances of the race. We were very privileged to sail with him.

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