Waves Behaving Badly

Waves Behaving Badly.

September 2005

Slight to Moderate!!! Now what on earth does that mean. The moment we got back from our recent trip from Conway to Preston, I got out my RYA day skipper book and looked for the table about sea states. Yes, I knew it, the RYA had got it wrong!!

The book said Moderate could be up to 2.5 metres high.

………but we knew from this experience that Moderate really means 3 to 4 metres average with possibly 4.5 metres occasionally. ………and we know it was Slight to Moderate because the Coastguard kept on telling us so every time we listened in on their channel 84 ….and they said the same thing over and over and over …………



Well we have put our boat to bed for the winter after one of the most interesting trips made by myself and my wife Carole on our Barbary Ketch.

She is our first boat and it is our first season in her. We had both done some sailing before and this year, I, at least, had been on the training courses.

Whilst we are both booked on the day skipper shore based course in a week or so’s time, we have been reading the books and really felt we had prepared for this one.

Not being entirely confident though (too much has happened this year!!), I went to see our trusty club sailing captain and harbour master to confirm that Monday 27th / Tuesday 28th was a good time for the trip to take “Spirit” from her swinging mooring at Conwy back to the quaint boatyard at Hesketh Bank where we had originally found her. I went armed with my tidal graphs, my passage plan and my synoptic charts and, whilst the met office warned of force 5 occasionally, he said “go ahead if I was confident enough”. I had made two overnight passages before – both in total darkness but this time it was going to be a full moon. Looking at the weather for the next 5 days, we decided to go.

When we eventually got out to our boat that evening, we had two hours to prepare for the journey. This meant checking her out generally, swapping two batteries for the charged up ones we had brought with us, and pumping up the dinghy. I then almost gave myself a hernia getting the life raft up on deck from the fore cabin but we felt confident enough that all would be well an prepared to let go the strop. Slight hitch as we tried to decipher the rules regarding lights but eventually had red and green and white in logical places but may have had too many of them!!

Off we went, and even though it was a moonlight night, I switched on the chart plotter for added security and was glad we did because with the moon behind us, everything went very dark as the Marina went astern.

Then it happened again……..just as it had on the way into Conwy when we had brought her down in April. The arrow disappeared from the chart plotter only to be replaced by a message saying it couldn’t find “conwy2.map” and did I want to abort, retry or cancel. Any of these responses was absolutely no help and resulted in a very nice chart with our position unmarked!! Quickly turned the boat round and after some thought I switched off the moving map function which meant I could dictate which map should stay on the screen. Happy now, we headed for the channel once again.

The forecast was SW winds 3-4 increasing 5 but decreasing 3 during following 24 hours. Seas were to be slight to moderate with possibility of mist patches.

We had left at about 10.30 pm which was about half an hour before high water. As we would be motor sailing into the wind for most of the channel, we were expecting it to be a bit rough but that was all it was really – no worse than we had experienced before. We were soon passing the Fairway Buoy and ready to turn onto a bearing of almost 0degrees true to take us past the great Orme. We soon realised that things were getting a little rougher than expected and we were almost running parallel with the two metre swell which made things very uncomfortable. Even I, a relatively inexperienced sailor, knew that once we had turned onto 60 degrees true, the wind and waves would be directly behind us and things would get better – which they did. Anyhow it was now too late to turn back as we were past the Great Orme and it was two hours past HW.

There then followed a period of about four hours when we experienced gradually increasing wave heights and the occasional course correction which would take us across the waves making the journey more and more unpleasant. It is usually me that gets sea sick but this time Carole was beginning to feel the effects of the constant rolling and pitching. Thankfully she took two spells on watch which allowed me to get some sleep. Without the auto helm, the journey would have been more of a nightmare.

Thankfully it was too dark to see too much as the clouds were quite extensive. Occasionally we could feel the boat being lifted into the air from behind and then being enveloped either side by masses of white water as we presumably surfed the wave that was breaking through us.

It was now about 5.30 in the morning and we had to hit the Preston Estuary at around 9.30 as this was the earliest we could navigate the South Gut Channel. I did a bit of a calculation and worked out that we were making too fast a speed. We were doing 7 knots across the ground at 2000 revs. I slowed her down to a speed that would just give us directional control but was amazed to see that we were still making 5.5 knots. We noticed that the slower the speed, the more we surfed as waves tried to overtake us.

I tried to increase the distance by going off at right angles occasionally but this was horrendously uncomfortable and we were in severe danger of broaching. We were thrown around horribly and it was lucky that every time we were thrown on our side, we were half way up a wave and therefore couldn’t really go under water on our leeward side- as there was none!!. We would then right ourselves as the swell past through. At about this time Carole was extremely ill and it was clear that if things got worse she would begin to wish to end it all!

Things did start to get better for a time as we passed the Mersey still in the dark and it was difficult to work out just what was around us as we negotiated the ships at anchor waiting for the tide, to discharge their cargo in Liverpool. Just when we thought we were on the other side of the channel, we suddenly noticed a large cargo vessel bearing down on us. We must have taken our eyes off the port side for a while. A quick reduction in speed and a turn to port and we soon went across its stern as it continued to `its mooring position.

At about 7 o’clock the dawn broke and we could see the sea around us. The swell was definitely about 10 – 12 feet with occasional breaking crests but thankfully in our direction of travel. We were still going too fast but as we had a couple of obstacles to avoid, I expected to lose some time. Unfortunately we were likely to hit Preston Sands at least 45 minutes early and I wasn’t sure what we might do about this except, perhaps, turn round and run into wind for about half an hour. The option of giving up and going into Liverpool was not taken as conditions had not worsened and we’d come so far.

We reached the Estuary and I had managed to waste about 15 minutes by going west for a bit but the swell was too uncomfortable and I had to be very careful about the occasional rogue wave that threatened to swamp us. Our boat is a long fin keel and she doesn’t turn very fast even if you could spin the wheel quickly. I had to come up with a plan fairly fast because we were 30 minutes before the earliest recommended time to go through the gut. On the other hand we were only 4’ 9″ draft but there was a swell at sea of about three metres. Then again it was springs so possibly we were much too early. I think I was going to risk it but just then my mobile went and it was Tony Mead (Conwy Harbour Master) enquiring about our situation. I briefly told him about what was happening and he advised us to turn round immediately and find some way of delaying our crossing of the sands.

So… I turned her round and headed into wind and tide and waves. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. The bow would rise up at an angle of about 40 degrees and then cut through the top of the wave without slamming down. “Spirit” weighs over 10 tons and stood her ground well. It soon became apparent that we weren’t making any progress at all and with the engine as fast as I dared make it go, we were making about half a knot sometimes and possibly going backwards at others. When we were at waypoint Z and about 2.7 hours before HW, I turned her round and the speed shot up to 6 knots as we started our journey through the Gut. We were marginally too early but we were both exhausted.

The following notes relate to the map below:

What had been a swell of about three metres with occasional breaking waves turned into regular breaking white tops of about 2.5 metres high. At WPTZ we had 2.0 metres under us and the swell was down to about 1.5 metres. Lucky wind, tide, and waves were all in same direction.

As stated above, we arrived at WPTZ 3 hours before HW which even in Neaps is 30 minutes too soon. This was springs so decided to turn round and waste some time. The zigzag is exaggerated as all we managed to do was maintain position. Managed to do this for 20 minutes but some waves at least 3 metres high and quite uncomfortable. Turned for Ribble 2hrs 40 m before HW!! on basis that most recommendations have safety factor!!!

When we got between WPTB and WPTC we were surprised to find the sandbanks had shallowed to under 1500mm and whilst the swell had all but disappeared, we suddenly found that the waves had changed direction and had turned into 1800mm white rollers. All we could do was keep our course and turn into the worst breakers when we saw them. After 50 metres the depth increased to 3 metres and the breakers disappeared

Curiously just when we thought we were almost free from hassle, we discovered the waves had changed direction again and wanted to throw us on our side.

Map of final stages of journey

We made good progress up the Ribble into the Douglas and arrived at the Douglas boatyard at about 11 o’clock in the morning where we were warmly welcomed by Ray Jackson, the owner.

Carole and I were exhausted and went to bed and slept for 4 hours.

We have, again, learnt a lot. We planned this journey as well as we might have but when we hit bad weather we made a few poor decisions. When I say “we”, I really mean me as Carole was not really in a state to care, and commented with a smile that she had ‘lost the will to live’ – glad to say then that her sense of humour remained despite her very pale face. We failed to make any record of our position at any time and failed to monitor our progress early enough. Had we done so, we would have been able to pace ourselves better.

I think we were very lucky to get through the Gut with the rolling breakers. If we were in 1.2 metres in the small channel then it was probably almost nil to our port and this is where the 3 metre waves were being compressed to almost nothing. They could do nothing but break. I did keep to the right of the Gut so their energy had the least effect.

One thing I am surprised at is that this has not put us off. Even though we were relatively inexperienced and probably the only yacht out there that night and we did feel very vulnerable and occasionally frightened, our faith in our little boat has grown enormously. It is now less than four days since the voyage and I am already looking forward to going out on her next year. Perhaps I’ll ask Carole in a few days!!!

Added note

I am reading this report some 5 years on and am wondering why on earth we didn’t decide to forget about the Gut route “through the hole in the wall” and continue in a northerly direction and turn right into the main channel. In so doing we would have wasted the time required to negotiate the main channel without worry.  I guess we were tired and decided to do what we knew to work.

It is worth noting that the chart above is now NOT the recommended route into Preston. The westerly approach along the main channel is the only option.

Alan Ellicott 2010

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