When novice sailor Katrina Megget said yes to four months on a 28ft boat sailing around Britain, she didn’t know what she was in for...
Distant rain moved across the sky like a silver veil. Behind the rain, the land and sea had become one: just a smudge of grey, with Plymouth somewhere in our wake.
I watched the shimmering curtain from my seat at the helm. It was our 23rd day cruising around the coast of Great Britain and, for a novice sailor with just a handful of days’ experience prior to the voyage, I was finally starting to get the hang of things.
I was ironically admiring my new-found steering skills when the squall hit: 27 knots straight into the side of the boat. One moment the deck was flat, the next it was heeled. With a scream, I yanked on the tiller, pulling it towards me. It was an amateur move and the boat tipped further.
My fiancé Mark scuttled into the cockpit yelling at me: ‘Push the tiller away!’ I did what he said and shoved it with all my might. The sails flapped, the boom quivered: I’d sent the boat into an unplanned tack. Mark wrestled the tiller from my hands and pulled some ropes and winched some others. And just as quickly as it arrived, the squall dissolved into the ether. The boat had calmed down but I remained a nervous wreck.
That was the most scared I felt during the 114 days of sailing clockwise around the coast of Great Britain. It was the moment my rose-tinted glasses were swiped away and flung overboard. This wasn’t the four-month summer holiday of sunsets and pina coladas I’d imagined. It certainly wasn’t a gentle meander down a river and back. This was an ordeal – pure and simple.
I already had the bruises, the sunburnt hands, and the dry, chapped lips to show for it. It had been 23 days since we left the River Medway and the Thames, but we were only just entering Cornwall. We’d spent seven days stuck in marinas because of the wind and had spent five days sailing in the rain. We’d grounded once, I was wearing about five layers too many, and I’d only had one ice cream, which was an appalling statistic! And now I’d ‘nearly died’.
It hadn’t been my dream to sail around the coast of Great Britain. Mark was the one with the sailing bug. It wriggled in his bones. But after 20 years of pootling up
and down the River Medway, with the occasional jaunt across the Strait of Dover to France or the Isle of Wight, he needed more. He’d sailed, mostly single-handed, up the east coast all the way to Inverness and through the Caledonian Canal to the west coast, and had joined a crew across the Atlantic. But, disillusioned with sailing, he later sold his boat. And yet still a circumnavigation around Great Britain called to him.
Baptism of fire
First things first, he needed a boat. Speedwell, a 40-year-old, 28ft Twister, became his new vessel. He also needed a crew – that was me. I admit, it was a risky choice. Sure, I could cook but I had a sum total of about five days’ sailing experience. I didn’t know the lingo and couldn’t remember my port from my starboard. I didn’t know how to tie a knot, didn’t know if I would get seasick. Heck, I didn’t even know if I liked sailing. But the thought of a summer adventure sounded great. What could go wrong?
Well, the weather for one. It was a slow start out of the Medway, into the Thames and around to Ramsgate. Barely two knots of wind had us shaking our fists and pulling out our hair. At one point we even sailed backwards. But we were determined to sail, to not resort to fossil fuels unless we had to.
After four days I had developed a new appreciation for the virtue of patience, and I was starting to wonder if I had underestimated how challenging this voyage might turn out to be.
Ramsgate was the first marina we stopped at, and it was my first chance to tie up alongside a pontoon. In the mad panic of entering the marina, putting up fenders and dealing with terse captain’s orders, everything I’d learnt about tying up simply vanished from my brain. The result was clumsy but we managed to remain unscratched and unscathed.
It was a repeat performance at Dover the next day. I fumbled my clove hitch knots for the fenders and an argument with the captain (who I have learnt is always right) ensued. After this I started devoting time to practising and memorising knots.
After ten days we had finally reached the Isle of Wight and I was beginning to feel a bit more competent. My introduction to the rigours of coastal cruising had been quick and painful. The living quarters were cramped, there was no refrigerator, the toilet set-up was questionable, I was covered in bruises, and to top it all off, it was unseasonably cold.
So much to learn
In ten days, I’d learnt that sailing was an excellent abdominal workout and how important it was to have finally honed communication skills with your captain. I’d discovered that sailing was mentally strenuous: if you aren’t on the lookout for hazards, then you’re concentrating on staying on a compass bearing, keeping an eye on the wind and depth, or dealing with the frustration of wind and waves.
But more than that, I learnt about being on the water. I was mesmerised by its mercurial nature. One moment it looks like an oil slick, the next a rambunctious chop. Sometimes it is blue like the sky, and other times like dirty dishwater. It could be featureless and flat or there could be troughs and peaks.
Every day was different. It wasn’t like being on land – not even in the mountains. On the water, there was vast open space, with the occasional indistinct sliver of land in the distance. Out here, distance and time merged and buckled and tricked us. The light played on the water and teased our eyes. I could see how loneliness could grip you if you let it and how there was no respite from the thoughts that invade your consciousness.
Rolling in the deep
Despite this, I felt a growing respect for the water and the weather. My first taste of dicey conditions came on day 15 as we left our anchorage in Worbarrow Bay on the Dorset coast for Portland Harbour. We sailed out of the relative shelter of the bay and into a 1m swell with white-crested waves. Heavy cloud sucked the colour out of the
land and sea, and a Force 6 wind shot right up our backside. A Twister, we learnt, doesn’t sail well when the wind is from behind.
The boat rocked and rolled and bumped and crashed. Mark steered with gritted teeth, while I gripped a cleat and a safety line clipped me to the cockpit. The rain lashed. I tasted salt on my lips. But I was too in the moment to feel fear or seasickness. I was caught in a spell, beguiled by the power in the wind and waves. We were at the mercy of the sea – it was not to be taken for granted.
We waited out the Force 6 winds in Portland Harbour before making the move across Lyme Bay to Brixham. It was the day my love/hate relationship with sailing was cemented. We endured 13 hours of sailing under leaden skies, a 4m swell around Portland Bill, a tail wind that made sailing impossible, no sight of land, and a captain who felt seasick.
When the torrential rain started, our sanity was hanging by a fine thread.
But then the dolphins arrived. There was a pod of about 20, flirting and dancing around the boat. We sailed west with our companions as the sky burned behind the approaching coast, and it was as if they had been sent to guide us the last few miles into Brixham. All the hardship of the previous hours vanished. The dolphins made our smiles return.
As we continued onwards, the days began to merge together. Another day, another sea. The squalls outside Plymouth came and went, we gave up the prospect of keeping the voyage to one tank of diesel and resorted more and more to the thrum of the engine when there was no wind in the sails. We dodged a Norwegian warship practising live firing exercises, and sailed along the rugged Cornish coast and out to the Scilly Isles. We celebrated our arrival with our second ice cream of the voyage.
30 days after setting out, the south coast was finally behind us. That was always going to be the easy bit, with the regular ports and harbours. Now for the Welsh coast, the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland and the west coast of Scotland. I gulped when I thought about it. Things suddenly felt serious.
It really hit home during our first night sail from the Isles of Scilly to Padstow. The night was blacker than black, the ghostly froth of the waves against the side of the boat was all that was visible. But we were going fast; the speed dial clocked 6.5 knots. ‘Outstanding,’ said Mark. ‘The boat’s only designed to have a top speed of six.’
As we neared Padstow in the grey of morning with barely a couple of hours sleep between us, things got interesting. The sea became a giant confused mess and it was all we could do to hold our nerve. After that I felt like I’d earned my sailing stripes.
Determined to face the wrath
The west coast of Scotland brought puffins, jellyfish and dolphins. It also brought relentless low-pressure systems, and while the south simmered in 40-degree temperatures, we sailed with seven layers on through the Inner Hebrides. We met a Scottish sailor in Plockton. ‘I’ve been sailing for 50 years,’ he drawled, shaking his head. ‘This is the worst summer I’ve ever experienced.’
It was questionable whether we would make it around Cape Wrath with the weather the way it was, and we met plenty of sailors who had succumbed to the call of the Caledonian Canal. But a circumnavigation without tackling Cape Wrath just didn’t seem right.
As luck would have it, a weather window between low-pressure systems provided the opportunity and we left Kinlochbervie and soon met a 2 to 3m swell. It wasn’t lumpy but it felt quite serious as the land disappeared behind each crest of the wave.
By the time we reached Cape Wrath we were three miles offshore, yet even with the sea haze, I could see the jagged rocks, the little white lighthouse and the huge waves crashing against the cliff face. I should have been scared and worried about how dangerous the headland might be. But instead, the blood pumped through my veins. I felt alive. I felt like I’d achieved something quite incredible.
The Orkneys quickly followed along with the tidal Pentland Firth, and then finally summer weather arrived and we zoomed down the east coast. By the time we returned to the Medway, I felt like a seasoned sailor. I understood the lingo and could tie several knots. I was more confident sailing in Force 6 winds and bumpy seas. I’d tempered my frustrations with the wind and waves and appreciated the power of nature more. And I was stronger than I thought. I’d set out to have a holiday but had instead embarked on an adventure – and I was all the better for it.
Enjoyed reading this?
A subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.
Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.
YM is packed with information to help you get the most from your time on the water.
- Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our experts
- Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment
- Cruising guides to help you reach those dream destinations