Ghost Ship

Walking past the marina lock yesterday, I did a double take. At first I thought ‘there’s an interesting trimaran’; then I noticed the name.

IMG_0498Now the real Teignmouth Electron is a pile of splinters on a beach in the Cayman Islands, where she’s been sinceĀ  her entry in the 1969 Sunday Times Golden Globe race ended in the mid-Atlantic suicide of her singlehanded skipper, Devon electronic engineer Donald Crowhurst.

Crowhurst’s is one of sailing’s most infamous (and sad) stories. The Golden Globe was a contest to be the first man to sail, alone, around the world without stopping, following Francis Chichester’s one-stop navigationĀ  in 1967 with our beloved Gipsy Moth IV. Teignmouth Electron was ill prepared, entered late, and uncompetitive. In desperation, Crowhurst began to falsify log entries- suggesting he had circumnavigated the Southern Ocean- whereas in reality he never left the Atlantic. Overcome by the guilt of the deception, he is thought to have suffered a mental breakdown, and, far from help, took his own life rather than return and have the deceit exposed. A drifting Teignmouth Electron was picked up mid-ocean by a freighter and, although initially expected to be returned to the UK, she ended up in the Carribean, enduring a brief period as a charter yacht before being abandoned on Cayman Brac.

So where does the vessel above come in? She is clearly intended to be a replica, as she has a windvane (for crossing oceans) on the back, as well as a float at the top of her mast, part of a home-designed ‘computer controlled self’righting system’ that Crowhurst begun to install (but did not finish) before the race:

IMG_0499 IMG_0500However, Teignmouth Electron seems a strange (and rather disturbing) boat for an enthusiast to re-create, and the boat in Penarth Marina isn’t very authentic anyway. For a start, she’s a sloop (one mast), whereas the real McCoy was a ketch, with two:

HE081008_HE02_03 features. Donald Crowhurst in October 1968, preparing to set off on his round the world expedition. Pictures Herald Express

Donald Crowhurst in October 1968, preparing to set off on his round the world expedition. (Herald Express)

So, what can the story be? I’ve asked around on YBW.com without any leads. My best guess is that the boat is a replica intended for use in the forthcoming, as-yet untitled biopic of Crowhurst, which is to star Colin Firth as the man himself. With so much media based around Cardiff Bay, this seems a reasonable assumption. So I’ll be looking forward to seeing the movie- Colin Firth is always good value, and I imagine he would do Crowhurst justice. Which, after 46 years, will be a Good Thing.

In praise of GRIBs

For the last three years I’ve been struggling with weather forecasts in the Bristol Channel. The difficulty is finding a forecast representative of conditions out in the channel, when the popular forecast sites, such as XCweather or the Met office, need a land-based location in order to supply a forecast. I’ve tried playing about with different locations- Penarth is sheltered in a westerly wind so, say, I’ll get a prediction for Cold Knap in Barry- but it’s a very imprecise art. You feel from experience that there’s going to be more wind in the channel than the land-based forecasts say, but how much? and will it be too much?

Well, the way to address that is to look at a model rather than a point forecast. There are a number of ways to do this. Of course you can look at isobar maps, published by the Met office amongst others. But these are small scale/large area models covering the UK and its continental shelf, and they don’t show any of the local effects you can expect to see in the Bristol Channel.

The next step is to look at a computer-generated weather model. Here we are hampered in the UK becase the Met office doesn’t make its own models readily available. What is available is the American GLobal Forecast System (GFS) model, best presented by passageweather.com. This model, however, is still very small scale, and although it sometimes shows increased wind in the channel, it’s difficult to really trust it.

So recently I’ve tried a paid-for service supplying a high-resolution computer model forecast in the form of a Gridded Binary (GRIB) file, from a company called PredictWind. The quality of the forecast data is a revelation.

Take a look at the high resolution Grib output from PredictWind below. Stronger winds are shown by the hotter colours and larger arrows; the coloured lines are wind strenth contours. Black lines are pressure isobars.

GribThis show very clearly the way in which the Bristol Channel funnels a westerly wind, and how light winds near land can suddenly be replaced by very strong breezes just a little way out on the water. Every Bristol Channel sailor knows this is what really happens here, but no other weather model I’ve seen is able to capture it so clearly. Looking up forecasts for a land-based location won’t really impart this sort of information.

When you can properly see the funneling effect, it’s going to make you think again about the timing of your passages, and increase your confidence in passages planned when the funneling is absent. PredictWind is expensive (very expensive- its monthly cost is not far off a full subscription to Sky). But most sailing mistakes are weather mistakes, and I think there’s a huge safety improvement to be made in departing port with a weather model of this standard under your belt. The Grib file includes three hourly updates for days ahead, and if you download one immediately before setting off, you should be sailing the Bristol Channel with a higher degree of confidence that the weather you expect for a day’s sail is the weather you are going to get.

That’s the plan anyway. We’ll see how it pans out over the course of the season!

Things I learnt from the Cervantes race

Well it’s Friday night, and I’ve recovered from the 36 or so sleepless hours that was the Cervantes Trophy race onboard Inseyandra, so I figured I’d put down some thoughts about the thrills and challenges of the experience.

1. Sailing offshore is no more difficult than coastal sailing. As I always say, the difficult parts of sailing are the first and last metres of it, not the bit in between, and the boat doesn’t behave any differently because it is out of sight of land. Unlike, say, a beat round Lavernock with Karisma, Inseyandra spent hour after hour on port tack crossing the channel, which allows the crew to settle into a rhythm and, well, just sail the boat. However:

2. Helming offshore is much more difficult than taking the helm inshore. I was surprised by how much more difficult it was to steer a course without visual references. This applied particularly at night, and particularly when going to windward. Helming off the wind I was able to pick up a groove which led to some decent boat speed, and I think this is easier to do when you’re sailing free to your waypoint. When you’re beating to it- ie trying to make best course to windward- the helmsman becomes a slave to a narrow VMG groove, and boat speed is a less important factor. My first stint of after dark helming was into a F6 wind and lashing rain on a night without marks, and keeping the VMG up was difficult and knowing what to do at first confusing. That was the most challenging bit of sailing yet, and somewhere I can find room for improvement.

3. I was tired but not exhausted, which I think is a pretty good result. I basically didn’t sleep from Friday morning to Monday evening. I was probably too interested in what was going on to sleep much underway anyhow (although the autohelm going haywire in the privacy of it’s locker, immediately behind my bunk, didn’t help). It was pretty easy to get onto the 4 on, 4 off watch pattern- overall the short snatches of rest and long periods of active concentration reminded me of days and nights spent picking coring and casing points in my days as an oil rig geologist.

4. I was not seasick and never felt as though I would be. Thankfully. Although they say the world divides into those who have and those who have not been seasick yet, I think that’s one thing I don’t have to worry about in this campaign unless the sea state is really up.

5. I am sailing with some brilliant people. The crew is really starting to gel and everyone gets on really well. Every person brings something positive to the experience and we have great teamwork. This will stand us in good stead in the campaign.

6. Inseyandra is the right choice of boat and Solent Sail are the right choice of people to do this with. The boat is strong, safe and reassuring. Martin and Gordon, the skippers, are racing the boat and not the fleet, so it’s corinthian, shout-free and friendly racing. We’re all there to sail offshore and enjoy it, to challenge ourselves in that way, not to be hanging off the rail and screaming about starboard. And that’s just how I wanted it. We might take the outboard motor off the tafftail for the next race though- that’ll really be the gloves coming off.

7. I can’t wait to get out there again. We have a previously-booked family holiday when Inseyandra will enter the myth of Malham race, so I can only wish the rest of the guys good luck for that one. But I’ll be back and raring to go for the De Guingand Bowl on 5th June, that’s for sure.

Sunday 12:04:20 pm

Inseyandra finished the Cervantes Trophy: taking 25 hours, 55 minutes and 40 seconds to sail 188 Nm from Cowes to Le Havre via St Alban’s Head. She’s sailing back by a more direct route of about half that distance later tonight.