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Our Worst Sail so far! St Ives to Milford Haven

We went from the calmest, most tranquil hour of sailing we had ever experienced to our toughest, ‘3-4 metre swells’ sail ever, all within 24 hours!

We had initially intended on sailing from Newlyn to Milford Haven in one go. Departing Newlyn the day before we rounded Land’s End in the calmest of conditions; a surprise for us as we had been anticipating this notorious headland to throw up some unfavourable seas. We managed to sail for one hour in pure tranquility – the sea completely glass like and the wind just 6 knots. But as this didn’t last we made the decision to overnight in St Ives (Carbis Bay), rather than foreseeing a long motor up the Celtic Sea overnight. This was a decision we don’t necessarily regret but maybe wished we hadn’t made! 🤣

The Passage Plan

Carbis Bay Anchorage

The evening at our anchorage in St Ives was bliss, accompanied by a beautiful sunset. Check out our previous post by clicking here. Equally we awoke to a lovely sunset and checked the forecast once again. The wind had increased ever so slightly to an average of 15-17 knots from the south-west, estimating to drop off slightly to around 12 knots overnight, a pretty good wind speed and direction we felt for this passage north. The tide was set to turn to the north-east from around 5.00pm. Our plan was to go against the tide for a few hours before picking it up in our favour for 6 hours by which time we would hopefully be getting up towards the tidal stream from the Bristol Channel which would be turning west bound at around midnight. We figured we would rather be pushed west than dragged up into the Bristol Channel where the tide can run fiercely. With a bit of luck we could then catch the end of the flood tide, which would start coming down the Welsh coast from around 5.00am, into Milford Haven. Navionics was estimating a 20 hour passage and a distance of around 90 nautical miles – of course that’s assuming we were to go in a straight line! We set a departure time of midday with the aim of arriving in Milford Haven the following morning, ideally before high water at 11.00am.

Our waypoints were set –
WP1 51°37.236N 5°7.746W – 86nm from St Ives by Turbot Bank
WP2 51°40.241N 5°8.306W – Entrance to Milford Haven

Dinner was prepped, the saloon bed made up and snacks on standby. We were set to go!

The Actual Passage

At 11.45am we weighed anchor, a task that was already a little challenging due to the breezy wind conditions and headed out of the bay. The sea was rolly and the wind coming more from a south-easterly direction when it should have been a south-westerly, was this possibly a result of the headland, we don’t know!?

Sailing past Newquay – spot the ‘Witches’ hotel!

Anyhow we ended up sailing up along the coast, closer in than what we had intended. Just past St Agnes Head we gybed out and started heading in a more northerly direction, though close enough to just make out the famous ‘The Headland Hotel‘ – the iconic location for the 1990 ‘Witches’ film.

The swell started increasing

At 4.00pm we began hand steering. The swell had started to increase considerably and the autopilot couldn’t cope! However the wind was only around 10 knots, and now from the forecasted south-west.

The waves started increasing

We thought about heading to the anchorage north of Padstow for the night with the plan to go the following day up to Lundy, stay one night there, then onto Milford Haven the following day. However the main anchorage on Lundy is on the south-east side and the forecast for overnight the following night was showing a shift in the wind to a stronger south-easterly direction, making Lundy a lee-shore, and which would continue into the following day. Plus we had read that it can get quite lumpy due to the swell that wraps around the island. The forecast said the wind was due to drop so we were optimistic that the swell would die down, so we proceeded with our initial plan of overnighting to Milford Haven.

Waves breaking close to the boat

The weather update came over the VHF, force 4 to 6 decreasing later to a 2 to 4 with a slight to moderate sea state.

Always hard to capture wave height on camera!

By 7.00pm the wind had increased to a sustained 16 knots and the swell was lifting us out of the water and tossing us around. We put a 2nd reef in the main and reduced the head sail. A couple of waves broke just by our stern, soaking the cockpit – and us!

The wind started increasing too!

As darkness fell a pod of approximately 10 dolphins accompanied us for about an hour, which lightened the mood.

But as night came the swells remained and trying to keep her on course was exhausting. In the pitch darkness of a cloudy night sky there were moments of real lows. Every now and then you would hear the crashing noise of a wave and the wind would howl up, gusting up to 22 knots. The ‘night mode’ on the helm plotter was far too bright, despite being on the lowest setting, and we had to cover it up, instead relying on Navionics on the tablet.

Surprisingly though we were averaging around 6 knots, to the point we were concerned we would be arriving in the dark, not what we wanted. A couple of gybes onto a starboard tack slowed us down to around 3.5 knots, and reduced ‘the north’ in our progress. However, as she was sailing better and it was a tad more comfortable on the port tack, the starboard tacks were short lived!

As we progressed north we noticed that the initial route given by Navionics was set to take us right through the Turbot bank, something we’ll admit we didn’t notice that morning when planning. When we had previously plotted our route from Newlyn to Milford Haven we were set to leave the west cardinal by the Turbot bank to starboard , a route we had manually inputted. This was actually the first time we had used the automatic route planning feature on Navionics, simply because it was pretty much a direct route. As we didn’t fancy adding to our swell dramas by going directly over the bank, which should be avoided in rough weather, we amended the route to take us west of the cardinal.

Fortunately shipping movements in the area were very quiet. As we got closer to Wales there were a number of ships and tankers off to our port. It was around here that, conveniently, our internet reception returned and we were able to check Vessel Finder, a comforting tool to establish what these ships were doing. It turned out they were all at anchor.

But the relentless swells continued, consistently throwing us about. Still hand steering the daylight seemed to be taking forever to come. When we were approximately 10 nautical miles out we had had enough of the swells. With visibility restored with the arrival of daylight, the engine went on and we started our final approach up towards the harbour entrance.

We headed up into the wind (a rolly challenge in itself!) and dropped the sail. To our astonishment a batten had somehow come out and wedged itself into our radar mount. For the last 5 miles of our passage we watched as the batten hung there, bouncing precariously as if it could drop at any moment 😬

Turbot Bank Cardinal
Spot the loose batten!

Milford Haven is ‘The UK’s Leading Energy Port‘ handling liquid, bulk, break bulk and heavy lift cargoes. As such large cargo ships operate frequently in the area. Irish Ferries also operate a route out of here. In strong onshore conditions the East Channel is the recommended choice for smaller vessels. Fortunately for us shipping movements that morning were non existent and we were able to cut across the main channel into the west channel.

As we rounded the headland into Dale anchorage the swell finally disappeared. Dropping the hook just before 7.00am the relief was overwhelming. 19 hours and 104 nautical miles later we could finally relax a bit, but not before we retrieved said batten from the mast!

Navionics route v’s actual passage

Post Sail Analysis

After catching up on sleep we could finally reflect back on our experience. Should we have just carried on motoring the day before instead of stopping in St Ives? Possibly. Should we have looked further out into the Atlantic to see what the weather was doing there which would produce a swell? Definitely. The swell was something that really caught us out, especially as the sea was like a mill pond the day before! But, as they say ‘every day is a school day’ and we now know we need to study sea states and wave charts more in depth, especially when there is a huge body of water involved. Interestingly just a few days later we read an article in Yachting Monthly entitled ‘Heavy weather sailing: preparing for extreme conditions‘ which stated ‘The sea state in the Bristol Channel can approach that of a full gale in a mere Force 5 😬 Frightening stuff!

This experience was a tad frightening at times and we learnt a lot from it, although its not an experience we’d care to repeat!

Safely anchored at Dale anchorage!

We hope this post helps others looking at sailing this particular route. Please remember this should not be used for navigation purposes though – please research and plot your own passage.

And in case you were wondering the batten and the sail were unharmed in the making of this passage, although we are missing the sail batten end cap! How it managed to work it’s way loose and get stuck where it did and how we still managed to drop the sail will remain a mystery 🤣

VIDEO: A swell of a sail!


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