First time Solo on Sundance

Since getting the diesel “issue” sorted on Sundance I’ve managed to get a good number of sails in with friends without any hiccups and felt confident taking her out on my own. The plan was to leave on the morning tide (about 08:00) and spend the whole day sailing down on the ebb and back up on the flood.

That was the plan but it didn’t quite end up like that.


The forecast was a nice F3 from the West increasing to a F4 later, usual stuff for the Bristol Channel and similar to a lot of the sails so far. I stopped on the boat the night before to do a few jobs and get ready for an early start. The Red Arrows were doing a flyby at Barry and the thought was to head out between the islands (Flat and Steep Holm) and tack across to Barry and poke my nose into the entrance, watch the display and when the tide turned head back up to Newport.

In the morning I woke to clear blue sky and not much wind, but eager to get going. I started the engine, had some breakfast and mulled over what head sail to put up. Sitting there with the morning sun warming my body, the morning dew steaming off the deck whisping around in no particular direction I decided the No1 should go up. I knew I would probably have to change it a bit later on in the day but I didn’t think this would be a problem. Sail hanked on, mooring lines cast off all I had holding me in place was a midships line to the boat next to me. Slipping the midships line from the cockpit I put the engine in astern and pulled out of my mooring and away from the Pill.

One of my jobs the night before was to replace the 12v socket for the tillerpilot as it was a bit “iffy” but testing it showed this had cured the bad connection. Once motoring out of the pill and down the river I connected the tillerpilot, got the fenders in raised the sails motorsailed out of the mouth of the river, feeling a bit of a breeze the engine was silenced and we were back to hand steering. Sundance was well balanced so much so I could leave the tiller and pop below to check everything was OK, we sailed on with feeling of pride we had departed smoothly.

Being a bit more open the breeze filling in and with the tide ebbing the the sea state picked up slightly, nothing unusual and Sundance was lapping it up, a bit of spray over the bow, now and then as we beat into the wind. The sun was still warm but the clouds started to darken so being cautious I decided the No1 had to come down and be replaced with the No4. Clipping in and going forward I released the jib halyard and lowered the No1 making sure it stayed inside the lifelines. I unhanked the genoa and stuffed it down the forehatch, getting soaked through in the process from the bow now dropping into the chop as the speed dropped without the genoa.

I had planned on hoisting the No4 but to be honest it was only about 10:00 and the wind was suppose to increase later and I didn’t really want to do that again. Even clipped in, on a short tether and not much chop it wasn’t nice being up on the front, unhanking sails knowing I was on my own. I have a decent life jacket, a PLB and a HH VHF on me but slipping and knocking myself out, or hanging over the life lines after a slip with nobody else on board to help made, me very aware how¬†vulnerable I was. With this in mind I hoisted my small yankee jib, it’s not much bigger then a storm jib but it was very easy to handle and although it wasn’t big enough to balance the boat with a full main it provided enough pull to keep us going.

We headed on towards Steep Holm to allow a ship to pass well behind us, I was glad I went for the Yankee as when we were between the islands I experienced my first proper Bristol Channel wind over tide. I thought I had before on previous sails but it was only going through this I realised I hadn’t and today was a pretty average day, I’m not sure what it’ll be like in a F6 or 7 !?! We were doing 10kn over ground, 5 through water and with I’m guessing 15kn of wind we must have had about 25kn of apparent so nothing spectacular but enough to cause us to stop when a wave hit and bury the bow as we got over it. With the tide pushing up down towards Steep Holm I had to choose if we should carry on past the island or tack and go between. I decided to tack as I thought if we went past the tide might have pushed up past Barry.

I tacked, pulled the sheet round the winch to feel no resistance and looking up to a flapping yankee. What the hell happened there?! What do I do?, tack back and push past Steep? Knowing I would have to go back on the deck which was now bouncing around more then before and not just spray over the bow but water that I had to tuck below the sprayhood to avoid I decided to start the engine and motorsail away from Steep with the yankee flogging. Going through the islands and the wind over tide I tried to get the tillerpilot to keep me on course so I could sort out the yankee, it wasn’t having any of it. I eased the main to let it flog, got the tillerpilot steering me on a course under motor and managed to dash forward to drop the jib only to have the tiller pulled hard over all of a sudden, fearing a crash gybe I somehow managed to get back to the cockpit, unclip the pilot and sheet in the main and get us back on course. I haven’t got the wind instrument up at the moment but I’m guessing we had more like 25kn of true wind at this point.

Red Arrows over Barry, viewed from the lee of Lavernock.

I decided to take the easy option and motor to Cardiff, I lay ahull dropped the main, tied the fenders and got some dock lines ready. Yes I know not very seaman like, but I wanted to get it done before rounding Lavernock point where I could see boats racing and knew there would be small boat traffic going in and out of Cardiff. I pushed the tide which was only 1.5kn against us and locked into Cardiff around LW. Gravings Dock was full so I moored up at Mermaid Quay and sorted myself out. Fed, watered and rested I felt much better for myself, boosted that I managed to get through the lock and moor up solo with no issues at all.

Jan Rorlan in Cardiff, she looked like she should be anchored in the blue water of the Caribbean

I left Mermaid Quay at half three and locked out at on the four o’clock lock with four other yachts heading for Portishead, two of them solo. I pointed towards Newport and rolled my way up with the wind and waves behind me. The wind picked up as I got close to the River Usk, I wasn’t looking forward to trying to pick up the mooring on my own, with the wind just forward of the beam. Going past the sailing club and turning into the Pill there was a good flow across, stronger then I’ve had before. Taking it easy I turned into my mooring, stopping Sundance perfectly next to my neighbour I dropped my midships line onto his cleat and picked up my lines. It was as if I had done it for years, with no panic or fuss.

All in all I was happy with the sail, yes I had issues but dealt with them and I managed to do more then I had thought I would on that day. Sail changes, reefing, docking all solo like I had been doing it for years. I know this won’t mean a lot to you seasoned sailors and I was confident I could do it but I learnt a lot that day, we all have to learn and we only learn from out mistakes. Firstly, pick a smaller sail, even if you think it’ll be way to small (No4 and a reef in the main would have been prefect), secondly, small loops, long tails and thirdly going on deck isn’t nice in wind over tide and I want to avoid leaving the cockpit unless I really have to at all costs.

I’m think I should seriously upgrade the head sail to roller furling, I really like the simplicity of hank on sails but lugging them about, getting wet and packing them away is a ball ache when you need to be doing something else. I would like to upgrade the main from a boltrope luff to sail slides so I don’t have to try and feed the sail into the groove whilst hoisting (I have a pre-feeder but it’s not perfect). I also think getting three reefing point in the main and having single line slab reefing with the reefing lines and main halyard lead back to the cockpit rather then the roller boom I have already. I know having these will not mean I won’t ever have to go forward again (double negative, is that right? Or wrong?) but it would unless I have any problems mean I shouldn’t need to leave the cockpit.

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