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The Adventures of Snark 2020 pt 2

In part 1 we went west, now to explore the east but first a cruise up our home river, the Dart.

The Dart is not an estuary but a flooded gorge. It starts on the eponymous moor and winds down to the sea through a steep sided wood lined valley. It becomes tidal at Totnes, historically the main commercial port on the river. At a few strategic spots it opens out into a broader tidal basin to narrow once again before meeting the sea at Dartmouth.

The lower stretch of the river has been home to naval training for over 150 years and a safe refuge for seagoing vessels for many centuries. Walter Raleigh grew up on its banks and learned to sail here, the Mayflower stopped in with Speedwell for repairs and many of the famous Brixham trawlers were built at the small boatyards in its many side creeks.

Our home berth in Old Mill Creek is surrounded by the Raleigh Estate and was the yard were Pilgrim was rebuilt. At the head of the creek were numerous lime kilns for making building mortar, paint and land dressing. The limestone and chalk for burning being brought in by coaster and barge. The pontoons of Sandquay, the navy’s officer training facility, are visible from our berth at the entrance to the creek.

Many of the south coast rivers and estuaries are beautiful but the Dart has a particular quality that is unique to the English coast, which is why we chose to base ourselves here.

11 Anchorstone

The house hidden in the trees is Greenway the home of Agatha Christie and now a National Trust treasure. The boathouse opposite the anchorage is the setting of one of her more gruesome murder mysteries. Many years ago, before the NT took over the estate, I moored here in my little 24 ft ¼ tonner ‘Throbber’. AC’s grandchildren were selling off the family silver and I fleetingly toyed with buying the boathouse!

Above Anchorstone larger boats like Snark are required to have a skipper with a pilotage exemption certificate. I finally obtained mine. This means we can cruise all the way up to Totnes and for some events pick up passengers from there.

12 Bow Creek

Half way to Totnes, just above Stoke Gabriel, is the entrance to Bow Creek. At the head of Bow Creek is the Maltsters Arms once the base of the notorious TV chef Keith Floyd. Though the food is still excellent the atmosphere lacks the idiosyncrasy Floyd provided.

There is a beautiful anchorage just south of Bow Creek where we sometimes stay for our retreats. The sounds of birds and sheep drift across the water in the evening as the sunset plays on the gentle ripples. (sound on)

North of here the river gets much narrower as it winds past the vineyards of the Sharpham Estate and up to Totnes.

13 Totnes

Once a busy port receiving timber from Scandinavia and other building materials from around the British coast and exporting farm products the quays at Totnes are now dominated by office and housing developments. The remaining boatyard is due to be developed soon leaving only a rump of the original maritime activity the town one supported. It is now famous for it’s alternative culture, independent shops, farmers market and some excellent restaurants.

For us it is a convenient place to board passengers for our yoga retreats on the river or for special events. We sometimes moor on Steamer Quay occasionally sharing the wall with the Kingswear Castle, a coal powered paddle steamer, the last of its kind in commercial use. More often we are at Long Meadow, a little downstream and easier to manoeuvre from.

14 Anstey’s Cove

A couple of miles north of Hope’s Nose, the headland at the north end of Tor Bay, lies Anstey’s Cove. A sheltered anchorage surrounded by high cliffs and slopes. We stayed here for a night on our way to Lyme Regis (see below). As dusk settled an RNLI inshore lifeboat started motoring about under the rocky edge of Long Quarry.

Then a Coast Guard helicopter came swooping around the cove flying right over Snark and hovered for a good ten minutes before landing on the headland. We were listening on Ch16 but no emergencies had been transmitted. The manoeuvres were repeated, various people were landed and lifted off and we soon realised it was a training event. It was fascinating to watch the skill of both the boatmen and airman working until it was fully dark.

Then as soon as they had arrived, they disappeared leaving the bay in peace.

It is then that we noticed a strange light on the hillside next to the landing place. Closer inspection through the bins identified rock climbers practicing some pretty challenging manoeuvres on the limestone cliffs. Never a dull moment in Ansty’s Cove!

The following morning we raised anchor early and headed off across Lyme Bay.

15 The Ex

Arriving at the entrance to the Ex estuary requires some careful planning. There is a bar with barely 1 m at low tide. The flood and ebb run through the narrow entrance off Exmouth at up to 5 knots and the passage is tortuous with two sharp 90 degree turns between moored boats. So, a challenge we couldn’t refuse!

The first time we came here we misjudged the turns and ended up lying on our emergency kedge between two fishing boats in 4 knots of ebb tide. We couldn’t get in or out with the tide running so waited for slack low water and managed to extricate ourselves with a little help from the harbourmaster’s launch. We then boldly headed off out down the channel and crossed the bar at low tide our leeboards scraping occasionally on the sandy bottom. Do check with the HM where the deep channel is, the sands constantly shift and don’t try this in a keel boat!

Our second visit was better timed, and we were ready for the sharp turns in the channel. We could more fully appreciate how beautiful the estuary is. As you enter the busy beaches of Exmouth on the north side contrast with the tranquil protected habitat of Dawlish Warren on the west. As is now common in most ports the main channel is bounded by endless leisure moorings and some commercial fishing and dredging boats. These thinned out as we motored most of the way up to Topsham. We have not yet ventured onto the Town Quay there, turning space is very restricted and we have had strong cross winds on both visits, making slow speed manoeuvring pretty tricky.

This year we settled on anchoring off Powderham Castle, next to the River Kenn outflow. The main line trains run right along the river front here, on Brunel’s old Atmospheric Railway track, giving a ‘he haw’ whistle as they passed us. Huge flocks of oystercatchers feed on the flats at low tide amongst numerous other sea and estuary birds. A beautiful golden evening gave way to a grey misty morning and an eventful sail back to Dartmouth.

16 Lyme Regis

The north shore of Lyme Bay is an inhospitable one for sailing craft. The eastern half of the coast is mostly cliffs and steep too beaches and the western half is dominated by Chesil Beach a long shingle bank on which many vessels have foundered. There are few safe havens and those there are crowded and not easy to access for a large craft. So, it’s not somewhere we normally go! However, if the wind is set from the north for a while it does have some interesting destinations. In the middle of this all and at the beginning of the fossil rich Jurassic Coast is Lyme Regis of ‘French Lieutenant’s’ fame and the huge ancient harbour wall or Cob. (also excellent fudge shops and fish cafes).

This year we decided we should do some long windward passages to improve our sailing skills and potential range. So off we went from Anstey’s Cove to Lyme straight into a 3-4 NE. Of course, it didn’t stay that way with the summer sea breeze influence and after a half day beating past the annoying mussel farms we had a splendid reach along the coast to anchor on the east side of Lyme Regis harbour. We had to go in to 2 m depth to get any relief from the residual send. So not a great anchorage after a strong wind from any southerly direction. There are walk ashore pontoons tucked behind the controversial rubble extension to the Cob but not for a boat our size.

Sadly this year we couldn’t go ashore to sample the culinary delights and had to make do with our own cooking. Not a serious problem!

We only stayed for just one night as the next day the wind was forecast to swing back to the NW and then W. So, in the early morning we weighed anchor and beat back along the coast to Exmouth. And yes, we have become much better at sailing Snark to windward!

17 Dolphins

We have posted about our travels with dolphins before, but any description of Lyme Bay should highlight how engaging these wonderful creatures are. On our way back from Poole we were accompanied by four separate pods. This is just a taster.

18 Portland Bill

The big challenge for south coast cruisers. The gateway to the west for the Solent fleet, to be approached with caution and if possible, given a wide berth. We rounded it once in each direction this year. Going east we had a wet and windy fetch across Lyme Bay, timed to reach the Bill a bit before slack tide when the race is at its least aggressive. The plan had been to stay south past the race and then turn north into Portland Harbour.

In the event we struggled to lay the windward course in the blustery conditions, so rather than tack out to sea we settled for option 2, to sail through the inside passage. This is close to the rocky headland and with an onshore wind and choppy seas we applied the cautionary principle and motor sailed through the trickiest bits. I am glad we did. As we rounded the Bill the visibility dropped to 100m and the wind swung round to N, so still on the nose as we turned for the harbour. Then the wind shifted to NW and the mother and father of all thunderstorms struck with 30 minutes of torrential rain and frequent and worryingly close lightning strikes.

Welcome to Portland! The picture is not ours, we were too busy sailing to take any!

19 Portland Harbour

Portland is an enormous manmade harbour enclosed on the west by Chesil beach and the east by a manmade harbour wall it fills the gap between the mainland and the isthmus of Portland. While it was built primarily for the Navy this is an important place for Snark. She follows the design of 19c Southampton built coastal barges which would have frequently carried Portland stone, a particularly fine white limestone, around the coast for the construction of the great Imperial buildings of Central London.

We stopped here on the way back as well and celebrated my birthday at anchor off the charmingly named ‘Small Mouth Spit’ in classic Covid 19 style with just the two of us on board!

Weymouth Bay was full of cruise ships this summer laid up due to Covid. The Queen Mary was the most famous, a bit of retro styling only partially conceals the fact she is just another floating hotel.

20 St Alban Head

St Albans Head is another one of those memorable headlands along the south coast. Innocuous enough on the chart until you look at the of the underwater depths and profile that lies south west of it. An ancient headland was eroded away leaving a shallow ridge over which the tide and waves tumble for some 5 miles out to sea. Add to this the presence of army firing ranges along the coast to the west and it becomes an interesting place to navigate around.

It's always debatable what inshore means in this context, in our case about ¼ mile off. Other boats were barely 5 boat lengths from the shore, a bit close in such an exposed area. Even the proscribed distance south of the overfalls we were still thrown around a bit in a strong westerly swell. On the way back we stayed inshore and had to contend with a strong header as we passed the headland.

We also know this place from the land. Just west of the headland is a hanging valley on the side of which is an active stone quarry, the only source of true Purbeck marble for over 900 years. It’s on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral, the columns in Salisbury Cathedral and also on the floor of a Jesuit Chapel we built in Bournemouth a few years ago.

21 Old Harry

A bit like Start Point for Dartmouth sailors, Old Harry or Handfast Point as it is official called, marks the end of the pottering area of Studland and Christchurch Bays and the real sailing to the west. Many Solent and Poole boats never get past this point and I can understand why. It is then a long haul to Weymouth and even further if you are doing the passage straight for Tor Bay or Dartmouth.

The chalk pillar is Old Harry and is the west end of a missing chalk downland, the Needles at the end of the Isle of Wight being the east end. This year we had planned to carry on to Cowes in the Solent but Covid and a persistent strong northerly made mooring at Trafalgar Landing undesirable and the alternatives were full or too expensive. So we postponed our return to the Solent for another time.

22 South Deep

Poole Harbour is split into two parts in my mind, the busy and over developed north dominated by Poole itself and the millionaire’s haunt of Sandbanks and the south which is much quieter and more natural. The navigable channel winds its way around the south of the various islands in the natural harbour between trees lined banks and meadows. At the very south is a deep water anchorage called South Deep. It is still a bit tight for a barge but as we can take the ground we can anchor well clear of the channel.

This year anchoring was in vogue and South Deep was pretty full of local yachts out for a weekend jolly. We thought we had found a clear space but as the tide turned and with a small shift in the wind we swung west but the yacht next to our stern stayed still. They were sitting on bilge keels maybe 1.2 m deep and we only draw 0.75 boards and rudder up. We were only meters away from them when we realised and managed to motor off and re position ourselves.

We could see the anxious face of the skipper of the yacht peering through their cabin windows though he never ventured on deck to check out what was happening.

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