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Crossing Lyme Bay: Sailing Studland to Torquay

After spending 3 nights at anchor in Studland Bay the weather was finally favourable for us to make the fairly long passage across Lyme Bay and down to the West Country. This would be our first time crossing Lyme Bay and, to be honest, we were both a little apprehensive about it.

We had read many horror stories online of people getting caught in the notorious tidal race of Portland Bill. We had read of people aiming to get to the West Country only to give up at Weymouth. We had read of people battling against south westerly winds for hours on end with no place to take refuge. But we had to cross Lyme Bay in order to get down west, there are no other routes!

A book we purchased before setting off on this year’s sailing season was the West Country Cruising Companion by Mark Fishwick which provides some excellent information regarding the Lyme Bay crossing, along with a wealth of other helpful advice from passages, pilotage and port guides to recommendations on places to eat, visitor attractions and handy local information.

Our first major decision was whether to take the inshore or offshore route around the Bill. The inshore route takes you very close to the tip and we had previously been told that you should be able to throw a biscuit from your boat to shore when taking this route! Unfortunately we never delved into the science behind this theory – would a chocolate bourbon have the same throwing weight as a custard cream, and what if your only option was a lightweight pink wafer, or god-forbid the ‘is it a biscuit or is it a cake’ Jaffa?!! As we were unwilling to sacrifice the chocolate digestives we had onboard we opted for the offshore passage!

But in all seriousness we made the decision to go offshore based on a number of factors, which related to the conditions and our capabilities, not biscuit tossing challenges! As this was our first outing across the bay we felt more comfortable being offshore; should anything go wrong we would have more time to deal with the situation. We would be departing from Studland so felt our jump off point would give us a better angle to head offshore and avoid the other races we would need to pass first at Peveril, Durlston and St Albans Head. Also the tides that day if we were taking the inshore route would have meant a night time sail down the coast of Portland, not an additional challenge we fancied this time!

When taking the offshore route, to avoid the race it is advised that you pass some 5-6 miles south of Portland Bill. We wanted some tide to carry us from Studland down to the Bill and wanted to round Portland ideally on the last of the ebb, approaching slack. We weren’t too concerned with going against the tide after the Bill as we were on neaps, and our priority was to get around the Bill as soon as possible. The weather was forecasting south/southeasterly winds, which would avoid the beating the prevailing south westerlies would have given us, however it was only showing 3-4knots so a motor sail was looking more likely.

Passage Plan

High water Dover 04:32 – Slack Portland approximately 09:45

WP1 50°39.00N 001°55.00W Studland Bay CTS from here 185°T to
WP2 50°36.00N 001°56.00W Durlston CTS from here 235°T to
WP3 50°30.00N 002°10.00W St Albans Ledge CTS 250°T to
WP4 50°26.00N 002°28.00W Portland CTS 280°T to
WP5 50°26.00N 003°00.00W Midway CTS 260°T to
WP6 50°26.00N 003°30.00W Torbay
WP7 50°27.03N 003°31.57W Torquay

4.00am departure, aim to be at WP4 5 hours later, approx 9.00am
Torquay LW 17.41, 1.7m but of no concern
NCI St Albans Head / Portland Bill CH65, Portland Harbour CH74, Torbay Harbour CH14

West Country here we come!

Of course we could hardly sleep the night before and think we managed only 3 or 4 hours before getting up at 3.00am ready for our big passage! Yes, yes to many this may not seem like a big passage but to us it was a pretty big deal. Conditions were very calm, the sea a mill pond and the moon casting some light over the anchorage.

We weighed anchor at 4.15am, the extra 15 minutes gave us surprisingly more light, and headed out towards Old Harry. There was barely any wind, just 2 knots from the east. As we passed Swanage Bay we took the opportunity to raise the main sail but continued under motor. The sea state by Durlston was a little rolly with deep set swells which made it a tad uncomfortable for a short time, but the sunrise behind us distracted us from this! By the time we reached the bottom of St Albans Ledge the sea was once again silverly flat. But by now the sea mist had closed in and we only had a few hundred metres visibility, Portland had vanished from our sights and we were relying on radar to pick our way through.

Sunrise over the sea

The wind shifted to more of a southerly breeze but still not enough to really fill the sails. The motor stayed on and just like that the sea mist diminished and Portland’s lighthouse came back into view. We were slightly north of our intended waypoint but weren’t overly concerned. A look through the binoculars showed the race as looking fairly benign and a couple of other yachts ahead of us had made the same passage through. We were also making good ground, it was only 8.10am, we were averaging 6.7 knots and bacon sandwiches had been consumed!

Portland Bill Lighthouse
Portland Bill Lighthouse

As we passed Portland Bill the clouds and mist started to clear and we settled in for our long slog across the bay. The foulies we had started the day in were quickly swapped for shorts and t-shirts, the tunes came on and we let the autopilot do the hard work. Unfortunately the wind just wasn’t strong enough to fill the sails, but think we prefer this to a beat across the bay!

Our yacht crossing Lyme Bay

Slowly the headland appeared and we edged ourselves closer to our final destination. The marine traffic was very light as we approached Torbay and made our preparations for our arrival into Torquay.

Our track on Navionics – Studland to Torquay

11 hours and 45 minutes after departing Studland we came alongside on the Visitors pontoon in Torquay. Luckily we got the last spot, right on the end of the port side pontoon as you come in. A quick clean up was in order before we headed out for a celebratory pint and pizza at the nearby Wetherspoons…we had made it to the West Country!

VIDEO: Crossing Lyme Bay

A short snippet of our (nearly) 12 hour (motor) sail! Please hit the like button if you like it as it does help our channel and of course subscribe to get notified on new videos 🙏🏻

We hope this insight into our passage helps but please remember to plot your own waypoints and carry out your own research before setting off.

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