While we spend most of our time navigating the waters of the world, we must also navigate officialdom, languages, cultures, and unfamiliar streets. Nowadays with information at our fingertips, this is so much easier than thumbing through Lonely Planet travel books of years gone by.

Understanding local rules and protocols for sailing through a new country is important; cruising around the world made easier by the internationally recognised system of buoyage with their uniform lights and markers.

Winds blow west to east across the Atlantic Ocean from America to Europe. Large swells, combined with storms and gales, produce heavy seas making sailing in this region notoriously challenging. Good planning is essential and with weather forecasts only good for a day or two, we put in the effort to plan our departures, and more importantly our arrivals of each passage.

Strong winds and heavy seas heading towards the Bay of Biscay

Since leaving the UK, sunset is earlier as we are four degrees south, and there’s a time difference of +1 hour. With the longest day of the year now passed, daylight hours will begin to decrease too. In our state of jubilation of finally sailing from the UK, this fact had slipped our mind and we found ourselves squinting in the nautical twilight to navigate our way into an unfamiliar bay at midnight. However, the international standard for lights helps us navigate unknown waters. (While we welcome any night-time aid to help navigate alien waters, we generally don’t recommend arriving in strange places at night).

In France the tide ‘coefficient’ is commonly used to determine the size of the tide in relation to its mean. The range is typically between 20 and 120, and the higher the tidal coefficient, the larger the tidal range, or the difference in water height between high and low tide. With a mean value of 70, boaters can easily identify the state of the tide in relation to spring and neaps.

Co-efficients commonly referred to in France to determine tide

Waiting for an outgoing tide, we departed the Golfe de Moubihan at midday to sail 60nm to Ile de Yeu, once again arriving at near darkness. The entrance to the harbour is clearly marked and fortunately the visitors dock was available and the weather for entry was kind. Navigating the Bay of Biscay takes careful planning – tides, currents, shallow port entries and daylight hours must all be taken into consideration.

Approach to Joinville, Ile d’Yeu in daylight

From Ile d’Yeu, we sailed 50nm to reach the shallow waters to the north of Ile d’Re where we dropped anchor for the night. From here we could plan our entry into Port of La Rochelle, 12nm away. The approach to La Rochelle is very shallow – a dredged entry of only 0.8m (Blue Heeler has a 2m draft), so we must have at least a 2m tide to navigate to the wet basins of La Rochelle; even still, the locks on the Bassin des Yachts and Bassin des Chaltiers don’t open until two hours before high tide and close one hour after high tide. While we are used to calculating tidal movements, the coefficient is an added aid to assist with navigation. The day we planned to enter, the coefficient was around 85 and increasing over the coming days with the spring tide increasing the tides to over five metres.

The 14th century towers at the entrace to La Rochelle’s Vieux Port

Understanding local safety and security contacts is also very important when visiting other countries. While we don’t always fully understand the French sécurité (safety) announcements, we always listen to any ‘pan-pan’ or ‘mayday’ message that may come through and try to jot down the lat/longs in case we are nearby. VHF channel 16 is the first point of contact for any emergencies. Like the RNLI in the UK, monitoring and providing maritime assistance along the French coast is the Centres Régionaux Opérationnels de Surveillance et de Sauvetage (CROSS, “Regional Operational Centres for Monitoring and Rescue”).

As we approach La Rochelle, to starboard of the shallow approach channel is the Port de plaisance des Minimes – the largest marina in France with over 3,500 berths. The entire port area and marinas are managed centrally through the Port of La Rochelle. Through the old towers, the old port or ‘Vieux Port’ is busy with passenger and small boats, while the locked Bassin des Yachts and Bassin des Chaltiers are more suited to our vessel. With entry only available two hours before and one hour after high tide, we had to arrange a time with the lock-keeper to raise the passerelle (foot-bridge) so we could enter the basin.

The old port in its heyday

La Rochelle’s past as a significant Atlantic port stems back centuries. In 1152, La Rochelle fell under the control of the English and for a time, trade between the two Kingdoms flourished – life was good in La Rochelle. In the 13th century, a new port (now the old port) was constructed; the three towers built in the 14th century (There are three towers on the horizon at La Rochelle – the Tour Saint-Nicolas, Tour de la Chaîne and Tour de la Lanterne (lighthouse)). But as time went on, in the 1600s, the royal powers besieged the city to purge it of Huguenots. The city eventually surrendered and the Huguenots fled to other countries – the rest is history…

Today with reduced COVID restrictions, La Rochelle welcomes tourists and we take a stroll around the old town to enjoy the sites, smells and indulge in French-ness. In the Bassin des Chaltiers, docked nearby is the Maître CoQ, the winning boat of the ninth Vendée Globe around the world race skippered by Yannick Bestaven, a La Rochelle local. (Vendée is a department in the Pays de la Loire region of Western France).

Once we depart La Rochelle, we will make our way to the south of the Bay of Biscay and into Spain. French will be placed on the shelf for a little while, and I’ll drag out the Spanish phrase book to resuscitate any Spanish I learned so long ago.

Until then…

La Rochelle, France

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We made it! After months of damp and cold, and slow sailing around England’s south coast waiting for an opportunity to escape the UK and resume our travels, we crossed to France once we had the all-clear to travel.

Waiting patiently at Helford River, Cornwall

Using the antiquated mode of mailing, we slipped our C1331 ‘Leaving the UK’ form in the letterbox and departed Helford River towards the French port of Brest. In the saturating mizzle we sailed out of Helford River, only to be trailed by UK Border Force who politely quizzed us about our movements before steaming back to Falmouth. Strict entry regulations are in place for sailors into the UK so the Border Force are literally out in force. Additionally, the arrival of key G7 leaders and entourage in Cornwall brought a heavier presence of security around Falmouth and the wider region.

Navigating busy ship channel at night

Crossing the busy shipping lanes from the UK to France, was fine and at night the ships’ lights are clearly visible and they are also identifiable on AIS. Still not as daunting as crossing the Singapore straits, I reckon though. Fishing boats can be a problem as they tend to weave back and forth with little warning of their impending manoeuvre, and there’s always the situation where a vessel isn’t on AIS.

Our planned route across to France

To arrive at the head of the Chenal du Four where currents can run up to 6kn we slowed down to catch the south-flowing current at the right time.

Fortunately, UK phone carriers did not ex-communicate themselves from the EU during BREXIT and we can roam with our phones and data like before. Phoning ahead I arranged a berth at the Chateau Marina in Brest.

On June 9, France officially opened its doors to travellers from the UK. While we, as sailors, may have travelled earlier, we would have had to quarantine for seven days on arrival. It would have been a shame to have missed this region.

Having a full-vaccination certificate negated the need to have an expensive PCR test (around £150 each in the UK) and we were welcomed in to the Port of Brest and our passports now stamped into the Schengen zone. With blue skies and a temperature in Brest some 10 degrees warmer than Helford River, it really feels like we are in a new country!

Le Chateau Marina, Brest, France

Brest is a busy militarised port town so we stayed only long enough to clear in, buy some wine and cheese then we headed out and began our sail south.

Brest Naval Museum

The Brittany region of France is popular with sailors and the weather changed for the better with temperatures in the mid-20s. Scrouging around the lockers, I dragged out pairs of shorts, T-shirts, thongs (flip-flops) and dusted off my French language books.

The Bay of Biscay is notorious for variable and strong winds, high tides and swift currents, with many shallow entries to navigate to escape the weather. Heading south and making good use of northerly wind, we sailed 17nm offshore to go around the shallows at Pointe du Raz rather than fight against the strong currents through the Raz de Sein as the timing wasn’t good for a passage through. From Brest to Benodet took 14 hours and after a day of sunshine filling up our batteries through the new solar panels, we dropped the hook at Anse de Benodet at midnight, with just enough astronomical twilight to see the horizon. By 1am, it was pitch black.

Benodet to Port Louis

Our next stop 34nm south was the pleasant seaside town of Port Louis in the Lorient area. Here we stopped only one night before heading the Golfe de Moubihan a further 35nm south. Heavy skies, no wind and rain, we motor-sailed this leg to arrive late afternoon where we anchored to the south of Ile de Moines.

Spain is 250nm to the south and with the 90-day Schengen clock ticking, we will stay a little longer in France before making a run south.

Until then… tick-tock…

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Staying healthy while sailing the world is as important as keeping the boat in good condition. Over the past ten years, we’ve been fortunate to remain in good health, although battling the effects of a moderately sedentary lifestyle in this cold northern climate was a challenge. Every couple of years, prescription glasses and dentistry creep into the annual budget, but we’ve been careful not to break bones, lose fingers, poison ourselves with ciguatera, get sick from any one of a thousand types of maladies or suffer from too many careless on-board mishaps. Below: Skipper ripped off his thumbnail in Norway in 2018 – ouch!

The best medicine we’ve found over the past ten years is fresh sea-air, exercise and sunshine. Just the thought of sailing along, soaking up the sun’s vitamin D and swimming around in warm water makes me feel healthier. But there’s always a chance something could go wrong. We’ve recently renewed our travel insurance and although it doesn’t cover COVID, it will cover us for any unforeseen medical emergencies. That’s the drawback with any insurance; you have to have an accident or catastrophe to reap the benefits.

The good news is that we’ve had our second COVID jab and we’re ready to depart the UK. Countries in Europe are easing travel restrictions for those with full vaccinations so it should make travel a little safer and more straightforward. The NHS is encouraging people to self-test so we’ve grabbed a pack each of the free COVID self-tests to have on board.

Life as we knew it is slowly returning here in the UK and it seems that wearing masks and completing track and trace forms is becoming second nature. The vaccine rollout appears to be well-organised with over half the population of 68 million having had at least one vaccination. Last week we popped across to the Spice Island Inn in Old Portsmouth to catch up with friends from Southsea for a drink. It was great to be able to relax and enjoy a laugh. Oh, and ‘hugging’ is officially allowed in the UK!

While walking to Old Portsmouth, we watched the HMS Queen Elizabeth warship enter Portsmouth Harbour along with hundreds of others. The Royal Navy’s Flagship vessel, affectionately known as ‘Big Lizzie’, cost over £3 billion.

HMS Queen Elizabeth approaching Portsmouth Harbour, May 2021

Looking back on the past four years since Blue Heeler sailed across the North Atlantic to arrive at Baltimore on the south coast of Ireland, I’m so glad we decided to sail to this region and spend time north of 50 degrees latitude. We’ve met some great people, and experienced so much – we’ll take with us fond memories of traveling through the canals of the Netherlands; sailing in the sweet water of the Baltic visiting the cities of Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo, Riga, Talin; Christmas in Flensburg, Germany; across the cold North Sea to the windy northern isles of Shetland and Orkney; to the remote and unique isles of beautiful Scotland, plus the experience of sailing Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast. A train-trip through Germany, France, Austria, Czech Republic, Bratislava, Hungary, and Switzerland was an opportunity not to be missed – something we may not be able to do at present. All our travel around these northern European countries wouldn’t have been possible had BREXIT happened a couple of years earlier. Now we may only enter Schengen countries for 90 days for every 180 days, but at least we had a chance to enjoy the Freedom of Movement before the UK slammed this door shut. Below is our route over the past four years:

2017 to 2021

With that in mind, our plans are sketchy for the coming summer months and at this stage we plan to sail south – France, Spain and Portugal – into the Mediterranean. I’ve wanted to visit Spain since I learned Spanish back in 2004 – not sure how much I’ll remember though and I’m sure it’ll get mangled with the bit of French I’ve learned.

It’s a good feeling to know we will be on the move again. Soon.

Until next time…

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Since my last post, we’ve sailed very little. In fact, over the past year I’ve probably cycled or walked further than we’ve sailed. We’re biding time and staying busy as best we can until we leave; until then, there’s plenty of riding and walking on England’s south coast.

A walk around Brownsea Island takes around two hours. It is the birthplace of the Scouting and Guiding.

Dotted along the trails are interesting quotes and questions to spark childrens’ interest.

Slowly exploring the south coast of England, we discovered the currents in Poole Harbour are particularly fierce at spring tides. After relocating from the South Deep anchorage across to the west side of Brownsea Island we dropped anchor in the narrow waters. In the wee hours with an outgoing tide, Blue Heeler touched the bottom to rest a couple of hours before popping back on the flood tide. The strong current had swept us into the shallows, despite the 25+ knot north-east winds which we’d hoped would keep us in the deeper water.

Looking towards the calmer west side of Brownsea Island from the PHC moorings.

The west side of Brownsea Island is narrow and shallow with poor holding, and I don’t recommend it to any deep keel boats certainly during springs.  To the north of the island are the Poole Harbour Commission moorings – a better alternative for a good night’s sleep. None of the moorings have pickup lines which makes it difficult to grab. Plus, the mooring numbers were difficult to spot with up to 30kn of wind and tide splashing over the tops. An easy method to tie-up to a mooring without a pick-up line is to lasso the entire mooring with a long line, then tie off to the cleat, after which set lines properly through the swivel on the top of the mooring. This proven method was recommended to us and certainly works a treat. The days of strong easterly winds eventually eased allowing us to leave Poole and take advantage of the fast east-flowing current.

Sunrise, Poole Harbour

The approach to Lymington is clearly marked, but there are literally hundreds of boats here, so it pays to keep a good lookout particularly when the current is strong. The Wightlink ferries on the eastern bank leave for the Isle of Wight at regular intervals, so be sure to check the outgoing and incoming timetable before navigating the river.

Dog friendly High Street of Lymington

Lymington has a reputation for being slightly ‘posh’ and not generally a haven for the budget cruiser looking for an anchorage. However, at the northern end of the harbour, there are fore’n’aft, or ‘trot’ moorings for vessels no bigger than 12m, managed by Lymington Harbour. No bookings required and it’s first-in-best-dressed. The trot moorings are better value at £120 for one week (compared to £55 per night at the nearby marina). The trot moorings are close to the town quay where there’s secure showers and refuse facilities, plus supermarkets and self-service laundry in town a short walk away.

Trot Mooring – Lymington. Town Quay in background.

Tying up to a trot mooring can also be tricky. There’s a mooring ball fore and one aft with a line connecting the two. The knack is to use the boat-hook to grab that line and fix it over the forward and stern cleats. But with a beamy boat like Blue Heeler, I could only place the line on the centre cleat. I threw a lasso over the forward mooring, but it had to be threaded through the ring which I couldn’t reach. Skipper helped me fix the line and the Harbour Master came by to lend a hand for the stern line. Sorted!

Lymington Town Quay

The town of Lymington has a busy High Street with the typical shops for any seaside town. The Bank Holiday weekend attracted visitors from afar to visit the High Street Market or sit at the quay to eat fish’n’chips while black-headed seagulls squawk and flap about.

During our stay at Lymington, a strong sou’wester with a forecast of over 50 knots blew over us. I don’t think we experienced winds over 35kn, but it was strong enough and had Blue Heeler tugging on the lines and lurching in the gusts. Friends Brian & Chris from London came down to see us which was really lovely to see familiar faces after so long, even if we had to ‘air hug’ (apparently ‘hugging’ will be allowed after 17th May!). And thanks to Dave and Sydney from Southsea who popped by to drop off a new WiFi router and other gadgets for skipper.

Wild horse, New Forest

Lymington is located at the south of the New Forest National Park. This park was established by William the Conquerer almost one thousand years ago and today it’s a popular place for horse-riders, cyclists, campers and birdwatchers. Due to the relentless logging over the centuries there is plenty of open space to cater for the 5,000 or so ponies residing in New Forest. These ponies are managed by the New Forest Commoners and have right of way on all roads in the forest.

Getting the bike ashore

To the east is the interesting village of Beaulieu and surrounding estate. The Beaulieu River is privately owned and the history of Buckler’s Hard harbour traces back through the centuries. Nowadays boats can grab a mooring or stay at the marina.

With less than three weeks until our second COVID vaccine jab, positive news regarding relaxing of rules to enter EU member countries is filtering through official sites such as the Schengen Visa site. We’re hoping a full vaccination will not only give us longer protection from the severity of the virus, but also help us to cross international borders.

The many cycle and walking trails throughout New Forest, plus buses to towns such as Bournemouth and Southampton, Lymington is a good place to hang out, at least for a little while longer.

Until next time…

Walking trails around Lymington
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Wanderlust: A strong desire for or impulse to wander or travel and explore the world.

Cruisers, like us, typically don’t stay too long in one place. In fact, we’ve met many cruisers that completed a circumnavigation in less than three years; less common are those that spend decades living aboard. We’re somewhere in the middle; now in our eleventh year living aboard.

Our suspension is only intensifying our wanderlust – we must temper that feeling for a little while longer.

Now that the economical winter berth rates have concluded (Oct-Mar), from April 1st we are faced with inflated summer berthing rates here on England’s south coast; certainly not an option for the budget cruiser. The challenge over the next few weeks is to discover inexpensive places to anchor and save our pennies.

Blue Heeler spent the first couple of weeks of April on the hard stand – a bottom scrub and coat of fresh antifoul paint, plus a survey to keep the insurers happy. A successful couple of weeks to finish off some less-important jobs and Blue Heeler is looking as smart and shiny as ever.

Unlike past seasons where we would have a plan and set off towards a destination, for the next couple of months, we’re in a state of limbo as we wait for our second vaccination jab. Sure, we could leave now, but after waiting over a year during the pandemic, what’s a few more weeks? While the vaccination is positive from a health perspective, there’s a small possibility that having a full vaccination may open doors to expediency at foreign ports. This is still uncertain though and may not be the case.

Nonetheless, while on England’s south coast, we’ve resumed our typical life at anchor, visiting places we’d not visited before, particularly avoiding expensive marinas in preference to peaceful anchorages.

On the Isle of Wight, the Newtown Anchorage is a popular place to grab a mooring or drop the anchor and watch the seals. This was our first stop after leaving the boatyard. It’s very shallow with little swing room for a boat with a 2m draft. While anchoring is free (donations appreciated), moorings fees are a hefty £26 per night. But it is a lovely quiet spot – sometimes you have to pay the man.

At the same time as our stay, the crew of Aussie boat Zen Again, who we first met in Indonesia in 2012, motored by to say hello. At the time of writing this they are already on their way for a speedy sail down the Atlantic coast on their way to Spain. Below is a snap of Zen Again leaving Newtown anchorage.

I’ve joined the Facebook group for Aussies & Kiwis in the Med, as I’m interested to learn more about everyone’s experiences as they do the ‘Schengen Shuffle’* and hear how they manage the COVID situation at each port over the next few months.

* Schengen rules dictates that Aussies, Kiwis, and now Brits (and others), can only stay 90 days out of every 180 days.

Gorgeous weather for exploring Lulworth Cove

The Jurassic Coast of 95 miles begins in Exmouth, East Devon to Old Harry Rocks at Studland Bay, near Poole, Dorset. It’s England’s only natural World Heritage Site and attracts visitors by land and sea. Over time, erosion and movement have shaped the unique geology of this coastline. The sandstone and chalk cliffs make a stunning backdrop against the blue of the water and sky.

Woo-hoo! Catching the current makes for a fast trip!

With an easterly wind, we sailed west 35nm to reach Lulworth Cove located on the Jurassic Coast. A light northerly wind was forecast for a couple of days so it was an ideal time to visit this tiny scenic anchorage as it’s unsuitable in southerly winds. After a couple of days exploring the coastal path and small village of Lulworth grabbing a hot sausage roll for lunch, we took advantage of a westerly wind and strong current and had a fast sail east back along the same route. With the state of calm weather, we pulled into the anchorage at Swanage harbour.

Swanage Harbour

The town of Swanage is touristy and with COVID restrictions eased, there are adequate tourists to keep the shopkeepers optimistic – fish and chip shops, icecream shops and plenty of souvenir and trinket shops. There’s a coastal path overlooking Peveril Point and the old Pier, continuing along to Durlston Bay with views across the Channel. Anchoring at Swanage is free, and there are moorings available too. Shore access is via a water taxi, but he wasn’t operating when we were there. It’s difficult to land the dinghy anywhere so skipper dropped me off at the shore.

Old Harry and his Wife

After a couple of days at Swanage we sailed north, passing the brilliant white chalky cliffs, Old Harry and his Wife, then into Poole Harbour – allegedly the second largest harbour in the world, but certainly not the deepest.

Although we’ve visited Poole by car a couple of years ago, we’d never entered by boat. Once inside the shallows of the harbour, staying well clear of the chain ferry, we turned south and navigated to the South Deep anchorage. This would be our home during calm weather while a high-pressure system moves over the UK. The area around Brownsea Island and south of the harbour is designated as a ‘quiet area’ with a 4kn speed limit. We dropped the hook in 4m on the edge of the channel and settled in to enjoy some quiet time at anchor.

Peace and quiet, South Deep anchorage, Poole Harbour

The town quay is a 3nm and 40 minute dinghy ride away. Poole Haven Marina allows dinghies to tie-up for a day rate of £5 which is very convenient to shops and nearby Force-4 chandlery; Tesco is across the road or Aldi is a 1km walk away; the marina has two large washers and dryers and a load is £3.50 washed and dried. The central shopping strip has a variety of shops, Boones Hardware has interesting stock; plenty of op-shops in town to pick up a summer shirt or two or to peruse their collection of used books; fish and chip for lunch, plus the waterfront has a variety of pubs and cafes all open with customers enjoying the fine sunny weather.

Isolation at South Deep anchorage
Brownsea Island Ferry, Poole Harbour

During the summer period of April to September, a typical berth in this part of the world will set you back at least £45 per night (A$90), generally inclusive of harbour fees which are typically between £6 to £10 per night. For the budget cruiser, the cost to anchor in Poole Harbour for a week is an affordable £38.

The fine weather is a welcome change from the damp and coldness of winter. It’s still chilly in the mornings, but the days are filled with full sun

Skipper is delighted with the input from the new solar panels and with the sun still fairly low in the horizon, we are still pumping in around 2.5kW per day. This is a huge benefit and now we have gadgets and appliances operating during the day and still enough to fill the batteries.

With Europe’s COVID situation ever-changing, we keep abreast of entry requirements for France, Spain, Portugal and Morrocco in anticipation of leaving. One day.

Until then…

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