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Sunshine, Tragedy and a Strange Vessel - Mayday 2018

Updated: 24-05-2018

Report from Simon Stannard aboard "Barbarossa" (Bavaria 38)

(Photos Simon Stannard, Steve Worner and Lis Jones):

"Barbarossa" Crew: David Blogg, Roger Francis, Ruth Jennings, Steve Worner. Skipper: Simon Stannard

The 4th May was a lovely Friday afternoon, sunny and calm.

All the crew had arrived early at Mayflower Marina in Plymouth. Steve had overseen an early handover that was virtually complete by the time skipper arrived. "Barbarossa" made a quick getaway near low water passing north of Drake's Island in to Plymouth Sound. The sails went up, more in hope than in expectation, and we drifted out of Plymouth Sound and around the Mew Stone with Ruth at the helm all the way into the Yealm.


"Barbarossa" was the first of the club's two yachts to reach the River Yealm, the other yacht, "Phoebe", departing after us. Space on the pontoon was limited but with the help of the harbour master we manage to arrange a mooring at the pontoon for both ourselves and "Phoebe". "Phoebe" was without an outboard motor so they would need to use our dinghy as a taxi service to get ashore. Having arranged a pontoon berth and offered transport ashore we reckoned that "Phoebe" owed us favour to two. "Barbarossa" was a nicely equipped yacht but the internal layout only had one saloon bunk in it. To avoid having to share cabins we wanted one of our crew to sleep in "Phoebe"'s spare saloon bunk. "Phoebe" agreed and Roger 'volunteered' to sleep on the other boat. Having got everyone ashore we had a nice evening stroll down the lane to 'The Ship' at Noss Mayo where a good meal was enjoyed.

During the meal we discussed where to go for the weekend and it was agreed that this year, finally, we would head east to Dartmouth returning via Salcombe. The skipper opted for a 08:00 departure in order to get through the tidal gate at Start Point. Roger was very concerned that "Barbarossa" didn't leave without him in the morning!

The walk back to the dinghy gave a us chance to view a wonderful display of stars on a clear moonless light with very little background light pollution. Retrieving the dinghy in the dark was not easy. The tide had risen and the only way to get the dinghy involved someone having to wet their feet (the painter being too short) and balancing on the slipway fence. David B bravely took on the task, getting the dinghy back to dry land. The journey back to pontoon afforded more opportunities to view the star speckled sky.

Saturday morning was fine, clear and cool. After a quick breakfast"Barbarossa" slipped off the pontoon just after 08:00. Weather was lacking in wind, so we motored sailed (well mostly motored really) out of the Yealm across Wembury Bay turning east into the English Channel. Half an hour or so later we thought one of the yachts exiting Wembury Bay astern of us could be "Phoebe". Having crossed Bigbury Bay and passed Bolt Tail we fancied that it might be windier further out and with with less of a tidal current. So we headed out and managed to picked up enough breeze to kill the motor and sail. The original course was abandoned in favour of sailing where there was wind with the idea of being able to put in one tack off Start Point so that we could pass south of the Skerries on a line to the River Dart. The decision on when to tack was much debated with the skipper choosing the moment only to discover that "Barbarossa" turned through a larger angle than allowed for. Never mind, we would just have to tack again.

Barbarossa off Start Point
"Barbarossa" off Start Point

During this time somehow another vessel appeared crossing our path. We were on starboard tack and they were on port but as they got closer we realised in was "Phoebe" - how had they caught up with us having left much later? Probably because we gone sailing with the wind rather than optimising the course around Start Point. By now we were behind schedule and the tide was running strongly against us. After a couple more tacks with little eastward progress the first mate (Steve) put the motor back on and drove her hard for 10 minutes or so until we were in Start Bay north of Skerries.

The wind was too light to sail so the engine stayed on until we moored up at Darthaven Marina on the Kingswear side of the Dart. Darthaven Marina is split in two by the Dartmouth Steam Railway with a level crossing and station dividing the pontoons from the marina's facilities. The railway was busy with Bank Holiday weekend traffic and give fine opportunities to view the rolling stock in use.

The level crossing in the marina
The level crossing in the marina

On Saturday evening we took a walk beside the railway line along the eastern bank of the Dart to the chain ferry, crossed the river to the aptly named Floating Bridge pub where another good meal was enjoyed. When we left the pub it was dark so we strolled along the waterfront of Dartmouth to the passenger ferry, passing on route the Dartmouth Railway Station that never was.

Sunday was another fine and sunny day but with very light winds, warmer than Saturday. "Phoebe" slipped first with "Barbarossa" following half an hour later, destination Salcombe. It was a glorious trip out of the Dart. We raised sail and found enough breeze for "Barbarossa" to slip gently through the water as we headed southwards out to sea. Ahead we could see "Phoebe" and gradually we were gaining on them, it became a point of honour to overhaul them. When we eventually passed the "Phoebe" we were given a series of excuses for their poor performance including ‘wearing beard' and not having a ‘clean bottom'; we were not sure whose bottom was being referred to!

Leaving Phoebe Astern
Leaving "Phoebe" Astern

Entering Salcombe was challenging, not because of crossing the bar, but due to two dinghy fleets both out racing. Somehow we got in but where to moor? The first option turned out to be a fairway buoy not a visitor mooring. The harbour master was helpful, but had only just come on duty. After a quick discussion he agreed "Barbarossa" could use a visitor's buoy which had just become vacant. After we had tied up to the buoy "Phoebe" arrived and we helped to secure her to the same buoy.

Monday morning was another fine and sunny day, three in row! - What a change from 2017 when we had been storm bound in Fowey and forced to return to Plymouth on the Monday in pouring rain and strong winds. "Barbarossa" slipped the buoy and departed Salcombe aiming for a lunch stop in Jennycliff Bay. Monday was much warmer than Sunday and with very little wind. We had raised the sails while still in Salcombe and as we rounded Bolt Head were briefly encouraged by a breeze that drove us along at 6 knots, but it didn't last and the wind died away once more. We motored the rest of the way. Anchoring in Jennycliff Bay took a couple attempts to get the hook to hold. We were close inshore with scary looking rocks breaking the surface off our stern. The skipper was worried about dragging the anchor and drifting on to the rocks behind "Barbarossa". Numerous bearing measurements were taken before he was satisfied that the anchor was holding fast. The last of the pasties were cooked and lunch consumed.

While we were eating a 'Mayday' message was received over the radio. The weather was calm with very light winds and the visibility excellent. We assumed the 'Mayday' was somewhere along the channel coast, but then we heard that it was off Mount Batten, less than 1NM from where we were anchored. It quickly became clear that the situation was very serious. The vessel making the 'Mayday' call had witnessed another vessel capsize and sink. The Coastguard wanted to know if anyone was in the water, but there was no sign of anyone. The sunken boat was close to Smeaton Pass and the Cattewater, consequently, there were numerous vessels in the area and they were immediately in attendance at the scene, so there was no point in us weighing anchor and offering assistance. The scene of the disaster quickly attracted the Lifeboat, the Police Launch, the Coastguard helicopter, divers etc.

We didn't know it at the time but the lost vessel was a 20 foot commercial shell fishing boat, the skipper drowned when his vessel sank. The cause of the disaster was being investigated by the MAIB at the time this report was written.

The Skjold -Class Missile Corvette off Drake's Island
The Skjold-Class Missile Corvette off Drake's Island

Following lunch we weighed anchor and made our way past the scene of the disaster. At the same time a Type 23 Frigate of the Royal Navy was making her way out of Devonport followed by a very stealthy looking vessel with occasional mist seen around its bows. Apart from knowing it was not British we had no idea what it was. It turned out to be a Norwegian Skjold-class missile corvette capable of 60 knots (110 km/h). The mist seen around bow was due to it being a surface-effect craft. Buoyancy being augmented when underway by a fan-blown skirted compartment between the two rigid catamaran-type hulls.

"Barbarossa" made her way back into Mayflower Marina where we refuelled her, de-stored, cleaned her and settled up on the kitty. The hot sunny weekend was over and after saying our goodbyes it was off into the bank holiday traffic for the journey home.