The final mile[s]
It is always slightly unsettling leaving a boat some distance from home. Irrational, of course, because a yacht at a mooring five miles away is no more or less subject to the vagaries of Neptune's whims than one left hundreds of miles away; but there is still something rather comforting about knowing you can just 'pop down to the boat' if something does go wrong. 'Popping round' was certainly not the phrase I'd have used to describe my eventual return to Ardfern on the 16th September. The combination of overnight sleeper train from Euston then two lengthy bus journeys felt positively expeditionary - and rather fun therefore and in keeping with the overall tone of our protracted summer venture. Nevertheless it did mean arriving at Ardfern a little more jaded than I'd have liked before the start of a final passage back to Plymouth. I (Andy) was on my own this time - Rupert's work and other commitments precluded his participation and it felt rather strange to be preparing for a passage without his company and help.
We certainly need not have worried about leaving Atlantis at Ardfern. She had been very well looked after indeed and subjected to the odd minor improvement during her stay in Scotland. The biggest change is the installation of a traditional Baby Blake marine heads - the 'queen of maritime lavatorial elegance and functional style'. Suffice it to say, we are delighted with the result and the care and attention workshop manager Bob Speck (Workshop Manager) and his team have put into integrating this veritable 'throne' into the existing heads compartment. Interim sail repairs, not by Ardfern I stress, were less successful; as I discovered while re-stowing the main on the boom only to find that two complete luff sliders and any evidence of their previous existence had simply 'gone'! Subsequently discovering that the opening to the batten pockets had been sewn through as well was not overly helpful either. But 'frictions' are an inevitable part of returning a yacht to sea and, overall, I was delighted to be slipping by 7pm into a light north-westerly; perfect for the passage south and with a forecast for more of the same.
It all felt rather strange sailing alone without Rupert there to share the last leg of the voyage but he was onboard in spirit and, judging from the regular texts, avidly watching progress on AIS. So too was Fiona who was housebound in Cornwall waiting for decorators. For now, the voyage was to be in solitary. The tranquility of the early evening gave way to fresher breeze and by the time of bearing away round Kintyre, Atlantis and I were bowling along with two reefs in the main, a full working jib and averaging 8 knots. Carrying the tide south, Belfast came, and went; but so did the forecast of sustained north-westerlies. An ominously fast-moving depression was forecast to pass over the Irish Sea during Thursday giving strong to gale force southerlies for up to 24 hours. With two on board we would have stuck it out but opting for discretion being the better part of valour a judgment was required whether to lay course for either Dublin or Holyhead - both just within reach before the weather turned. Now, readers of our earlier blogs will remember that we'd found previously Holyhead somewhat dispiriting on our journey north but the decision was made easier when Fiona phoned to say that the decorators had finished early, alternative lodgings were available for Boatswain (aka Bosun - the dog, who's fondness for life at sea has never really lived up to his nautical moniker) and that she would be available to join me the following day for the second half of the voyage. Decision made! Holyhead it was. By 02:00 on Thursday we were alongside.
Waking later in the morning, I was glad that we'd found shelter. The wind howled and seas broke over the substantial harbour wall. Fiona, meanwhile, was already on the train. I met her at the station and it was very good to welcome her back on board. It was also a pleasant surprise to discover that the seemingly deserted large sloop 'Elinca' I'd tied up behind in the darkness of the previous night was in commission with none other than old friends James Boyce (ex skipper of OYT(S) ketch 'John Laing' - the yacht I'd taken to the Antarctic in 2001) and mate Clare in command in the final stage of their preparations for departure to the Antarctic too. They were also heading in the first instance for Falmouth for a departure party on the Saturday night to which we were generously and cordially invited.
Whilst the atmosphere on board had been made considerably sunnier by Fiona's arrival, the same could not be said for the weather. The met remained optimistic but as the time of the wind's forecast abatement slipped ever further into the evening, we worried that we might not have time left to complete the voyage to Plymouth let alone make James' and Clare's departure party. We wondered whether they would make it themselves!
It was midnight before some weight seemed to come out of the wind and we slipped into some seriously confused waves - not the optimum conditions for Fiona's return to sea: pitch black, big random swells and the ominous loom of North Stack lighthouse reminding us of the significant hazards lying in wait for those who chose to cut the corner. As the night went on, however, the wind eased as forecast and ever so slowly, backed towards the southwest. By early evening (Friday now) we were tacking in the St Georges Channel off Rosslare at the south-eastern corner of Ireland. Not long afterwards the wind backed further and we suffered a frustrating couple of hours going nowhere against a foul tide and unhelpful headwind - why do the most depressing stages of a passage always coincide with the 'small hours'?. We certainly were not going to make the Falmouth party on Saturday night.
Prospects for Plymouth improved with daylight and a distinct lift allowed us to lay course. As - we presumed - the beer flowed and Elinca's crew partied their way towards their impending departure, Atlantis was cloaked in a classic 'pea-souper', in no wind and about to enter the busy waters of the traffic separation scheme to the west of Lands End. Radar on, AIS alarm set, ears pricked and eyes peeled we crept through the silent targets we could see only as dots on the plotter screens. Respite came with Lands End abeam as the fog lifted as swiftly as it had arrived and we bore away for the Lizard.
At midday we rounded Rame Head from where, as a tiny figure on the distant hillside, Fiona had waved us farewell for the Arctic on the 15th May. It was great to have her onboard on this occasion. By 2pm we were home; alongside at the Mayflower Marina. Rupert texted from Belgium to welcome us back - he was with us too for the moment.
How can we sum up our trip and experiences? The truth is, we cannot; other than re-read our own blogs, logs and reminisce prompted by the large number of photos it will take some time to sort through properly. Atlantis is home, intact; having ensured that her crew remained similarly in one piece for an extended and extremely rewarding voyage. Next steps? Who knows, although the danger of seeking to quell one's wanderlust is that it merely fuels the appetite for more! This blog will resume; just, in the words of the timeless classic, "don't know where, don't know when".