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…
The distant rain moved like a silver curtain across the sky. In the mist, land and sea were one. Plymouth was somewhere in the distance.
From my seat at the wheel, I could see the curtain shimmering. 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.
Ironically, as I was admiring the new skills I had acquired in steering the boat, a squall came crashing down on us. It was 27 knots of wind straight into the side. One minute the deck was level, and the next moment it was a little slanted. With a loud scream I grabbed the tiller and pulled it toward me. The boat began to tip 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 my tiller and pulled ropes. He also winched other ropes. Just as fast as it came, the squall vanished into thin air. The boat was calmer, but I was still a nervous wreck.
The moment I saw my rose-tinted glasses being swiped away and thrown overboard was the most terrifying thing that happened during the 114 day journey clockwise around Great Britain. My rose-tinted sunglasses were thrown overboard the moment they were swiped off. 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.
Already I was showing the signs of my experience: sunburnt fingers, dry lips and bruised bruising. We had only just entered Cornwall after 23 days of leaving the Thames and River Medway. 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 who had the sailing bug. It was in his bones. After 20 years of pootling around
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. Disillusioned, he sold his boat. Yet, he was still drawn to a circumnavigation of Great Britain.
Baptism by fire
The first thing he had to do was get a boat. Speedwell was a Twister of 28ft in length, 40 years old. He also needed a crew – that was me. It was a risky decision. 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. The idea of a summer trip sounded exciting. What could possibly happen?
The weather is one. It was a slow beginning out of the Medway into the Thames before we made our way to Ramsgate. With only two knots of breeze, we were shaking our heads and tearing our hair out. We even tried sailing backwards at one point. We were determined to keep sailing and not use fossil fuels except in an emergency.
I began to question whether I had underestimated the difficulty of this journey.
Ramsgate, the first marina that we visited, was where I had my first opportunity to tie up next to 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. It was clumsy and we were lucky to escape unscathed.
The next day, it was the same thing at Dover. The captain, who I now know is always correct, got angry when I failed to tie my clove hitch on the fenders. I began to spend more time memorising and practising knots.
After ten long days, I felt more confident. The rigours and pain of coastal cruising were a quick introduction. The cramped living quarters, lack of a refrigerator, questionable toilet setup, bruises and unseasonably cold weather were all part of my experience.
There is 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.
More than anything, I learned about being on water. Its mercurial character had me spellbound. The oil slick looks one minute, and the rambunctious choppy chops look the next. It can be blue, like the sky. Other times it looks like dirty dishwater. It could look flat and featureless, or it could have peaks and valleys.
Each day was unique. It wasn’t like being on land – not even in the mountains. On the water there was vast space with an occasional indistinct sliver in the distance. Distance and time were a blur out here. They buckled, and we were tricked. The light glinted off the water, teasing our eyes. I could see that loneliness can grip you if it is allowed to and there’s no relief from the thoughts that flood your mind.
The deep roll
I gained a greater respect for water and weather. On day 15, we were leaving Worbarrow Bay, on the Dorset coastline for Portland Harbour. This was my first experience with a choppy sea. The relative shelter of Worbarrow Bay was replaced by a 1m swell and white-crested seas. The heavy cloud washed out the colour of the sky.
We were blown by a Force 6 on both land and sea. A Twister, we learnt, doesn’t sail well when the wind is from behind.
The boat shook, rolled, bumped and crashed. Mark, with gritted molars, steered the boat while I grabbed a cleat. A safety line attached me to cockpit. The rain lashed. I tasted salt on my lips. But I was too caught up in the moment to be afraid or seasick. I was beguiled by wind and waves. We were at the mercy of the sea – it was not to be taken for granted.
We waited for the Force 6 wind in Portland Harbour, before moving across Lyme Bay and Brixham. My love/hate relationship was cemented that day. We spent 13 hours sailing in leaden skies with a 4m swell near Portland Bill. A tail wind made sailing impossible. There was no land to be seen and the captain felt seasick.
Our sanity was on a thin thread when the torrential downpour began.
Then came the dolphins. A pod of 20 dolphins was flirting and dancing in the vicinity of the boat. As the sky burned behind us, we sailed with our companions west. It was like they were sent to guide the last few miles of the journey into Brixham. The hardships of the past hours were forgotten. Dolphins brought back our smiles.
The days began to merge as we moved forward. Another day, another ocean. We gave up on the idea of keeping our voyage at one tank of fuel and began to rely more and more on the roar of the engine whenever there was no wind. We avoided a Norwegian ship that was practicing live-firing exercises. Then we sailed up the rugged Cornish coast to the Scilly Isles. We celebrated with the second ice cream we had on our trip.
The south coast is finally behind us 30 days after we set out. This was always the easy part, with all the usual ports and harbors. Next up, the Welsh Coast, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, and the West coast of Scotland. As I thought of it, I gasped. It suddenly seemed serious.
Our first night sail between the Isles of Scilly and Padstow was an eye opener. It was a blacker-than-black night, and the only thing visible was the ghostly froth from the waves crashing against the boat. The speed dial showed 6.5 knots. ‘Outstanding,’ said Mark. ‘The boat’s only designed to have a top speed of six.’
The situation became interesting as we neared Padstow at dawn, with just a few sleepless hours between us. It was hard to keep our nerve as the sea turned into a huge muddle. After that I felt like I’d earned my sailing stripes.
The wrath of the gods is not going to stop us
The west coast of Scotland was home to puffins and jellyfish, as well as dolphins. We also experienced relentless low pressure systems. While the South was sweltering in temperatures of 40 degrees, we were sailing with seven layers through the Inner Hebrides. We met a Scottish seaman in Plockton. ‘I’ve been sailing for 50 years,’ he drawled, shaking his head. ‘This is the worst summer I’ve ever experienced.’
With the weather as it was, it was doubtful that we would be able to make it around Cape Wrath. Many sailors had already succumbed and sailed the Caledonian Canal. But a circumnavigation without tackling Cape Wrath just didn’t seem right.
We were lucky to have a weather window in between two low-pressure systems. We left Kinlochbervie, and met a swell of 2 to 3m. It wasn’t lumpy but it felt quite serious as the land disappeared behind each crest of the wave.
The sea fog was still thick when we arrived at Cape Wrath, but I could still see the jagged rock, the lighthouse and huge waves crashing into the cliff. I should have been terrified and worried by the potential danger of the headland. Instead, my blood was pumping through my veins. I felt alive. I felt like I’d achieved something quite incredible.
Orkneys and the Pentland Firth were quickly followed by the summer weather and we zipped down the east coastline. By the time I returned to the Medway River, I was a seasoned seaman. I knew the lingo, and could tie a few knots. I felt more confident in rough seas and Force 6 winds. I’d tempered my frustrations with the wind and waves and appreciated the power of nature more. And I was more powerful 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.
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