Saturday 23rd October 2010 and Spirit was due to make her annual trip to Rhyl Yacht Club, about 20 miles down the coast, to be lifted out for the winter.
The cruising club were due to do a re-enactment of the battle of Trafalgar on the Saturday out in Conwy Bay so the launch was available to get us to our boat the night before (not usual in winter). John and I boarded about 8 pm and had something to eat and a few drinks and settled down for the night at about 11 pm. We were due to leave with the usual flotilla of about 7 or 8 yachts at about 8 am in the morning.
We woke at about 6 and had a leisurely breakfast and made sure the engine worked and waited for those more knowledgeable around us to loose their moorings and set off towards the estuary mouth.
The problem we always have is that both Conwy and Rhyl are very tidal ports so the idea is to get out of Conwy as early as possible before High Water and arrive at Rhyl as late as possible after High Water. In reality this means that on a spring tide we must leave at about 3.5 hours before HW and arrive no later than about three quarters of an hour after HW at Rhyl. This gives us just over four hours to do 22 nautical miles.
The tides run from the Orme to Liverpool on the flood and with a westerly wind and a good engine the prospect of getting there with a few minutes to spare is good………..but it is always nail biting stuff. Any chance of an easterly or engine problems and you have problems!!
We waited till the shallower draft boats had left their moorings and followed them out to the buoyed channel and slowly saw them disappear into the distance. Spirit has about an inch of barnacles on her bottom and an engine that won’t rev over 2250 rpm without overheating so we were struggling a bit. Boats behind us overtook and we were left on our own following the fleet.
The sea was quite rough in places (at least 6 – 8 feet swell) and we had a north westerly wind on our nose as we were trying to get out of the channel to the point where we can change direction and set a course for the Great Orme and thence to Rhyl.
It took us about 2 hours to reach the Great Orme and then disaster struck. The engine stopped abruptly. We tried to restart it again but no go. Unfortunately this couldn’t have been a worse place for this to happen. We were about half a mile off the cliffs and the North Westerly was blowing us towards them. (see diagram below)
The diagram shows us drifting towards the cliffs for about 5 minutes with no real control over where we were going. Whatever we tried we just got nearer the Orme! We had very little (or nill) forward momentum and with wheel hard over either way, we couldn’t go about.
Now, the more experienced of you will be saying “Can’t turn the boat round? How ridiculous!!”. However, sometimes common sense doesn’t appear when it is needed and we should have remembered that not a lot would happen with the genoa and the mizzen deployed because even if you release the mizzen on this boat, the ropes go through such a convoluted pulley arrangement that it doesn’t have a chance to become free easily. I was very worried at this point and thought it best to contact the Holyhead coastguard and inform them of our predicament. It was not a Mayday as we still had a few options but if things went really wrong I would not have much chance to notify them. I gave them our position and asked if they could get back to us in 5 minutes to see if we could sort ourselves out. We warned them that we might need assistance
By the time we had decided that we weren’t going to get the engine restarted easily we had drifted within 300 metres of the cliffs (scaled on the chart-plotter). Eventually common sense did come to us (or rather John) and we let out the mizzen manually to reduce effect, tightened the genoa and temporarily headed straight for the cliffs to give us enough forward momentum to give the rudder a chance to turn her to starboard and as you can see from the track, we were able to head away from the cliffs. We were not out of danger because the best we could do under genoa alone was to aim for Conwy itself which sooner or later would have dumped us on the Conwy Sands. We were approaching HW and by the time we reached the sands we may have been able to go over the top but sailing boats don’t do this normally at Conwy so I guess we may have had difficulties. Even if we had negotiated the sands, we would have been in real trouble in the twisty channel in what was now a force 4 without the engine and we needed some sort of help
Further discussions with the Coastguard resulted in the Conwy lifeboat being launched as a precaution while we tried to get the engine started. After about 15 minutes and about 5 tries at bleeding the engine we eventually got it started again and a rather green John emerged from the saloon victorious.
Above is a picture of the Conwy lifeboat keeping us company on the way back. They kindly kept with us in case the engine failed and placed a man on our pontoon to catch our ropes. We are very grateful to them indeed.
Amazingly I had only shown John how to bleed the engine the day before so that was very fortuitous.
What was even more fortuitous was the fact that we subsequently discovered that the boat that was a mile and a half ahead of us with a shallower draft had only just been able to get into Rhyl harbour before there wasn’t enough water. In fact he had not been able to get up against the quay wall. If we had not had our incident we would surely have surged (surfed) into Rhyl only to be unable to approach the quay and the cranes and would surely have got into severe difficulties on one of the mud banks.
We are staying in Conwy for another winter and maybe for ever!!!!