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Leaving Sunny Spain

Misty Biscay

Misty Biscay



Pippin Gets a Wiggle on


Isle d’ Ouessant to the North


Phare de Kereon and the Reefs to the South

I wrote in haste at sea off the Isle d’ Ouessant, so I will return to that bleak, rocky outcrop along whose eastern side Pippin had sailed a few days ago up the Passage du Fromveur (heading NE past the Phare de Kereon).  Unlike the Channel Islands, the British have let the French keep this particular island and I can see why.  Incredibly around 800 people still share the island with the indigenous sheep, though the population has been falling for centuries.  It is the most westerly point of France and, quite understandably given that 50,000 ships pass by each year, the graveyard of many a fine vessel and sailor.

The most famous wreck was the steamship Drummond Castle, lost in 1896 when it was approaching Ushant, known to mariners as among the most dangerous reefs in the world, due to the strong currents.  The ship’s skipper,  Captain Pierce, had not realised the ship was being swept east – indeed he had just turned in when she struck the reef known as the Pierres Vertes between Ushant and an island to the south at speed, ripping her hull open from keel to waterline.  Within a few minutes she had gone to the bottom, leaving only 3 survivors; 243 people perished, including two Willis’ though unlikely to be relatives.

See the source image

See the source image

I wasn’t surprised that Ushant – or Ouessant – had been witness even at a distance to various assorted dust ups between British and French fleets, one of the most notable being the first battle of Ushant in 1778, which took place the very same day Pippin was passing this deadly outcrop, 240 years later.  Of course government and public attention was probably diverted more to the American War of Independence in progress at that time, but nevertheless it was a significant engagement and though I would like to claim a British victory, I am not sure I can as the British suffered 1,200 casualties, the French a mere 539; history records the engagement as inconclusive, so I’ll leave it there.  The drama continued after the battle, with a major spat between the fleet commander Admiral Viscount Keppel and his number 2, Admiral Baron Palliser.

“You will need to get a wiggle on if you want to miss the bad weather” said the First Mate wisely, by text.  Pippin wiggles between 4 and 6 knots, 7 when things get boistrous and right then I was motor sailing in light winds, running with the tide just as fast as Pippin could wiggle.  Nothing more I could do, I thought rifling through the Army Ration pack and deciding to keep stew with dumplings for later.



They Knew I was Watching


Biscay Dolphins

By early afternoon Pippin was sailing nicely, if slowly against the tide and on into a lovely evening as the Brittany coast slipped past.  As I rested below, nose stuck in a book, radar alarm on, I heard a slithering sound down the hull sides and shot on deck.  Pippin had sailed through a football field sized island of weed and was trailing tendrils from her rudder and wind vane steering blade.  It didn’t seem to affect affect anything.

I normally set the boat up for the night before dark to avoid nocturnal deck work, but stupidly hadn’t that evening so found myself up on the cabin top in darkness, having decided to tuck the third reef in to the main sail, for the first time ever, and open the staysail in preparation for strong winds.  The 3rd reef line had only been fitted by the boat yard days before I left Guernsey and I was surprised that it seemed to jam, making the raising of the main sail now impossible.  Looking astern from my position on deck strapped to the mast, I saw why; much of the reefing line was trailing out astern, not ideal.  So with much cussing, something I am pretty good at, I strapped the sail to the boom, retrieved the reefing line, set up the autopilot and motor sailed into the darkness, as sailing speed had dropped without the push of the big main sail.

Soon after the hydraulic system dumped its life blood into the bilge with an exhausted sigh and went AWOL, producing a beep and an officious accusatory notice of termination of labour on the chart plotter screen, leaving me with  no autopilot.  I knew that to hand steer for any prolonged period would, in my tired state, be impossible.  Think Willis, there are always options …. then I remembered I had got Hercule to steer, whilst motor sailing in the Celtic Sea last year and so he did again, uncomplaining, unyielding, ever reliable.  His only weak link was his boss and all he needed from me was decent boat handling, which I promised faithfully I would provide.

The seas and wind began to build but Pippin moved in harmony in a smooth, lady like way completely unfazed.  Even so the motion was getting lively I noted, as I perched on my pilot seat in the wheelhouse to scribble my position in the log, when Pippin suddenly dipped sharply to port and both I and the pilot seat collapsed the same way.  OK, it was me who fitted the pilot seat and I have the DIY skills of an Armadillo, so I couldn’t lash out at anyone but me in my frustration.  Time for a cup of rosy lee.

My log entries are sparse from then on, but by now there was a cap full of wind allowing Pippin to progress nicely with just the yankee flying, but what surprised me was the size and ferocity of the rising seas.  Running before a strong wind, now against the tide and having built up strength out in the Atlantic, the waves charged unhindered up the English Channel, perhaps funnelling between Ushant and the main land and quite possibly also ricocheting off the Brittany coast.  As time went on, the tops of the bigger ones would curl over and collapse with a roar in a torrent of foam, sometimes slamming hard up against Pippin in an explosion of white water, slewing her off course and blasting spray and water into the cockpit.  Down in the cabin, where I was working up an appetite for dinner with a DCI Banks story, it seemed much less dramatic.


A Rough Morning

It was a soldier’s wind, SW hard up Pippin’s chuff and blowing hard enough to have some fun.  It was by no means excessive ranging between 18 and 27 knots with gusts to 35, and the heavy rain heralded the passage of the front and a sensible time to be below preparing beef stew with dumplings.  I got some dinner and rest, but no sleep so 4 hours before dawn, I kitted myself up in my offshore foul weather gear and harness, grabbed a bottle of water and some chocolate and headed into the cockpit where I strapped on to a hook on the bulkhead.  Optimistically I brought my book in a sandwich bag with me.  I didn’t read it.


Pippin Climbs a Wave

I needed to adjust Pippin’s course as Guernsey isn’t so big you can’t miss it, and I didn’t want to be trapped against a lee shore, so I took over from Hercule, guiding Pippin up and down the backs of some truly impressive waves.  It is hard to paint the scene and photos invariably make light of sea state, so I will resort to science.  The laws of physics and hydro dynamics dictate that Pippin has a hull speed of around 7.4 knots – i.e. that is as fast as you can make her go in normal circumstances, whatever you do.  Well, I can tell you that Pippin touched 13.4 knots off the back of at least one big daddy, with just a yankee sail raised, which had me whooping like an idiot and high fiving the sky in the pre-dawn rain.  Pippin averaged well over 6 knots for the last 10 hours, with just a single reefed yankee flying – that is amazing.


Pippin Surfs off a Big Daddy


Salty Playground

For 5 hours I stood at the wheel, gulping water, munching chocolate whilst trying to keep Pippin straight and true to the waves, with occasional lapses as a big daddy slammed against a quarter, slewing Pippin into a near broach.  OK, she is my boat and I would say this wouldn’t I, but she handled those conditions without a single word of complaint and astonished me with her sea kindliness, for I had never taken her out into such conditions before.


Dawn Beaks – Guernsey Somewhere Ahead


Shooting for the Sun

As we closed St. Martins Point on the SE tip of Guernsey, where the seas began to reduce, a P&O cruise ship changed course to pass close alongside and I could just imagine the commentary … “and out to starboard you will see some idiot in a little yacht, probably a demented local wishing he was elsewhere“, though they couldn’t see the grin on said idiot’s face or sense the pride in his breast.  I knew I had almost arrived, when I saw the first bobber and its baby slide by uncomfortably close to starboard.

Ushant to Biscay

I am a neat Navigator

God had been generous for he had given me favourable tides at just the right moments off Ushant and now Guernsey, so I was able to steer Pippin tiredly straight into her marina berth with just an hour to spare; we came alongside at 0941 on 28th July, rather well I thought thought, though there only gulls to applaud.  Job done.


Pippin had taken me 1,400 nautical miles solo, across Biscay and back and up and down the Spanish Atlantic coast but at that moment I did not know whether to laugh or cry – I was a jumble of exhaustion and emotion after 6 days out at sea.   As I walked down the pontoon to meet the First Mate on wobbly legs, like a drunk on a Friday night, I found myself looking at boats and wondering whether I would be happy to have gone through what we just had in them …. “nah, not that one, or that one, or that one – maybe that one.”  Pippin will do me just fine thank you.

We’ll be off again soon.

P.S.  As I keep saying, the vagaries and science of weather remain largely a black art to me, but there are some excellent internet weather sites and the one I used particularly was  I kept the 5 day report up to 28th June open on my ten bob tablet, as we bashed on to Guernsey and sure there were local anomalies, like perhaps the sea sate I encountered and wind gusts, but I found it astonishingly accurate overall.  It makes life so much safer and more predictable, especially for the solo sailor.  Without the fantastic router, supplied by Third Mate son Sam, I would not have had such ready access to that or any other site, so to him I extend a very sincere thank you.

The biggest vote of thanks goes to the First Mate though, not only for her unstinting support but also for the best fat boys I have had in years, enjoyed on my return.  I shall clearly have to raise the bar in the kitchen department.  I know – I’ll get some Army ration packs ……..

By ajay290

10 comments on “Surfing Home

  1. Welcome home! You are safe and sound thank God! Love, C xx

    On Monday, July 30, 2018, The Solo Voyages of Pippin, a Frances 34 Pilothouse wrote:

    > ajay290 posted: ” Pippin Gets a Wiggle on Phare de Kereon and the Reefs > to the South I wrote in haste at sea off the Isle d’ Ouessant, so I will > return to that bleak, rocky outcrop along whose eastern side Pippin had > sailed a few days ago up the P” >

  2. Well done John. A splendid voyage. I have had two weeks this Summer. Portsmouth to Cork and the RE Sail Trg Week. The latter in fantastic weather in the company of 8 boats manned by RE officers and soldiers. Verdict the youth of today are well up to the mark and as much fun as us!

  3. Welcome home skipper!! An admirable 6 day final stint, braver than most for sure! keeping your head with all sorts thrown at you, amazing! Where and when next? 🤔😂

  4. Excellent series….. and greatly appreciated the historic footnotes (as an ex-military man also). Bravo on a great passage.

  5. Bravo JMW, what a voyage! Not only to expertly manage Pippin and keep herself and you totally safe at all times BUT to write a ruddy book on the experience as well, what a man!!! Solid military background I say overrides the usual deficiencies of the average man, be it at sea or on land!! We will meet up for a lunch, you call me and tell when and where please. Look forward very much to that. Best wishes GB.

    • You are too kind Gresham, but thanks. I will admit it was a feat of endurance for an old codger and it will take me a while to settle back in to normal life! Lunch – Fermain Valley next week?? JMW

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