Nail Biting Experiences #1 Crossing the Bar

One of the key experiences of #sailing is the occasional adrenalin rush that adds spice to the cruising life and crossing bars is one of them. For us that was part of our #retirment dream.The Retirement Dream and How to Live Your Dream Perhaps it would be best to first explain what a bar is and the different types of bar i.e. other than the ones at which you drink, sing silly songs and make embarrassing exhibitions of yourself.

A bar is a situation where a sandbank has enough water over it in still conditions but when there are waves there is insufficient water in the troughs. The effect is that a boat can sail over the sandbank on the crest but be banged on the bottom in the trough. This is a truly nail biting experience while you wonder if the boat will break up before reaching the other side of the bar. Bars are usually formed at the mouths of river estuaries where the slowing current or littoral drift deposits the sand.


However, it is a bit more complicated than that, for in tidal waters the sandbank can dry out at low tide and be nothing but a shallower part of the passage at high tide. As it transitions from one state to the other it can go from breaking waves to steep waves to a large swell to a gentle swell. The nature of that transition can differ between an ebb tide and a flood tide, with some very nasty conditions indeed at certain times of a flood tide.

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So crossing the bar is a matter of picking the ‘safe’ window and judging how the wind and wave conditions narrow that window. Along the north coast of Spain most of the small fishing ports have bars across the entrances and due to the frequent heavy swells associated with the Bay of Biscay it can be days before a window opens at all. A famous bar is across the estuary at Salcombe on the south coast of England, but this one usually has an access window, however short. Of course, the length of the window also depends on your appetite for excitement. Have a look at  Crossing the Bar and Getting it Wrong  and you will know why we chose the boat that we did.Enterprise a Robust Boat

A variation on the bar is the rocky ledge that, although always having enough water for navigation at all times can produce an extreme white water experience at certain states of the tide, wind and waves. These are called ‘overfalls’ as water falls over the underwater obstruction in its rush to reach a lower level. A notable example of an overfall is the Swinge off the north coast of Alderney in the Channel Islands. Here you can get a vicarious thrill by standing on the cliffs and watching some foolhardy sailor go over it in all its fury. Then a couple of hours later sail over it yourself and not even know that it is there.

Tidal bars tend to not have channels through them (but not always) because after a temporary damming effect the water flows over the top with the ebb and flow of the tide. However, when they do, it is usually a winding, narrow passage between numerous sandbanks. Virtually all the seaward entrances to Friesian Islands (called ’Gats’) fall into this category. This is a very different experience that requires absolute faith in the navigation and a steady nerve for sometimes you are travelling in narrow passages with waves breaking on both sides of you. Because the channel winds, the view in front is also of breaking waves. I would never enter such a channel unless I knew that it was well buoyed for such channels silt up and change frequently. Often , once you have entered there is no turning back if the conditions are bad.


At Darsse Ort on the north coast of Germany there was a channel that we entered in bad conditions but it was well buoyed. Unknown to us there was a land dispute and maintenance had been stopped, the channel had silted up but the buoys had not been removed. We had to do a U turn and managed to fight our way out. Luckily it was in the Baltic without tides or we would never have managed it.
Non-tidal bars, usually with channels through them, can still be a challenge if winds, waves and pressure is not favourable.

Of course it is quite possible to avoid bars altogether by just cruising elsewhere.The Cruising Life




The Changing Nature of Sailing & Cruising

Last summer we arrived at what we thought would be a remote harbour only to find that it was ‘developed’ as a family resort with restaurants, play areas, bicycling paths and numerous excursions. The nearby village had been ‘Disneyfied’. Most boats had families with several children aboard, the dog, and the cat. They were at most two days from their home port, for “that is all that the children can take”, and they would stay on the same spot for two weeks. The boats were all broad beamed with high freeboard designed for maximum internal space and comfort. Not what I would consider a good sea boat. We were in a holiday trailer park on water.P1020129

This made me reflect on where #sail cruising had come from and where it is going. Thirty years ago the cruising world looked very different and consisted of two categories. One was the couple or lone sailor who sailed the oceans seeking to stay as far away from civilisation as possible. The other was the annual 2 or 3 week excursion, usually all male, macho bonding affair. Both groups prided themselves on a minimalist approach. For them the essence was living in harmony with the elements, reading them and respecting their power and your limitations. Technology was primitive and had not much changed for many years. That was where the challenge and romance of the sea lay.

So what happened? Well technological, social, and economic influences came in unnoticed like the tide and changed it. Like everything in life there are advantages and disadvantages to all things; when we embrace the advantages we often do not think about what we are losing. So step by step things slip away until we wake up one day to what has been lost.

Boats started to be mass produced, like cars, with different materials that required far less maintenance. This had the effect of making boat ownership possible for more people with less time needed for maintenance but this meant that boats became ‘cookie –cutter’ designs aimed at a market that was large enough to support the set up costs and if it was not there then it would be created by marketing. That changed the nature of sailing.

Sales Image

Companies know that major expenditures are heavily influenced by the female in the partnership. A boat purchase is more likely to be made if the woman thinks that she will be involved in its use and that will probably mean bringing the children along. That changed everything because you start down the route of a bigger, broader boat with a high freeboard; a boat that needs a crew of at least two, even with electric winches and bow thrusters. What has slipped away in the process is the ability to slip down to the dock on a summer evening and go for a solo sail enjoying the solitude.

So individuality decreased and the lack of maintenance greatly reduced the personal and intimate relationship between an owner and the boat. I have a mental picture of every square centimetre of our boat because I have worked on it, so in the toughest conditions I have absolute confidence in her. Size has other disadvantages for in smaller marinas there are limited spaces for larger boats and one has to book ahead (if they take bookings). So the random freedom that is, for me, so important for sail cruising has gone. I understand that for many, and that is now the majority, they prefer the certainty of pre-booking but the problem is the uncertainty of the weather for with the whole family aboard they are fair- weather sailors.


This vision of #sailing is fine for those that want to go there but it is not mine. There is another way.

My Way of Sail Cruising.

I started sailing cruising before GPS, when positions were determined by dead reckoning and a landfall was always exciting because you had to identify where you were. There was a great deal of satisfaction to finding that offshore bouy or arriving at the spot you intended to. A skipper was kept busy plotting positions, allowing for tides, currents and drift. Getting a celestial position was a whole different challenge and I was never very good at it. My memory of our first passage using GPS in fog was little short of miraculous, After a 6 hour passage the target lighthouse loomed out of the fog exactly where is should be. I can remember the thrill all these years later.
Gradually more and more technology has crept in until now one can set a route, set the proximity alarms and go to sleep until you arrive. Not a recommended practice but theoretically possible; there is about that much challenge in it. Even though one would hope that nobody would be that foolish, the temptation is there to a greater or lesser degree. I still keep paper charts and plot my position but nowhere nearly so often.
So where does all this lead? A cruising couple should be conscious of all the trade-offs and make decisions that suit them, not buy into the image sold by a boat salesman. We made certain decisions because we wanted a free ranging, stimulating experience on little travelled coasts with prudent risk taking. Furthermore, we did not want any superfluous complication and no surplus ‘stuff’. The boat itself had to be capable of standing up to the worst that the sea could throw at us while being capable of being sailed single-handed if one of us was sick; after all this was a #retirement plan. The results can be seen at Our Solution
So the key points were;- not too big, no superfluous electric (electric winches and bow thruster), rock proof hull (to allow for skipper errors),stability in heavy weather. As for navigation we opted for an autohelm driven by a GPS, A separate, independent chart plotter linked to an AIS transceiver so that we can see all transmitting traffic and beacons (and they can see us). Now-a-days any vessel big enough to do us damage is probably transmitting. We deliberately did not install radar because it is of marginal value, and did not link the autohelm to a windex because we still want to use our judgement in sailing and not ‘sail by wire’. In the cabin we went for diesel central heating because we think that it is essential to have a warm dry place to keep up the morale. On the other hand we did not install a shower (lots of complication for marginal results) and similarly with a pressurised hot water system. When we are back on land for the winter we rather miss the foot pump!
Our type of cruising is still there to be found but it is not in the high profile places that you may think. Rather it is in the skerries of #Norway and #Sweden, the archipelago of #Finland and along the dramatic northern coast of #Spain. Finding Those Places The rule is; if it is easy to get there by land, sea or air, stay away!


Yacht Docking Skills for Northern Europe

There are some fabulous cruising adventures to be found in Northern Europe and the Baltic but they all involve docking bow first without finger pontoons. When there is a pile on each side the space is referred to as a ‘box’ but sometimes there are no piles, in those cases there is usually a pick up stern buoy. Occasionally there is nothing at all. For sailors who are used to finger pontoons or alongside berthing the techniques can be daunting until they get the hang of it.

Having been south in French, UK and Spanish waters for a few years we rather forgot the techniques and had to relearn them when we returned north. Our ship Enterprise is a ¾ keeled, classic steel sloop, 11.4 m overall and 3.2 m wide that does not have bow thrusters and takes some skill to reverse in a straight line. We witnessed a few yachts (including us) get into difficulties so thought that it would be helpful to review our experiences.

Without Piles

Because of the rocky terrain driving piles is an expensive operation so for this reason the docks are often fixed rather than floating and a pick up buoy option is used. The technique is to head straight for the dock, passing close to the buoy and attaching a line as you pass. With a crew member on the bow calling out the distance, the helmsman pays out the stern line and brings the boat to a halt a few centimetres from the dock so that the person on the bow can jump onto the dock and secure the bow lines. The helmsman then reverses and tightens up the bow line. It all sounds simple but in fact there are a multitude of things that can go wrong and often do.

Box 12JPG

The first thing is in a smooth pick up of the buoy since the key is to maintain steerage way (which is critical if there is a cross wind or current). Threading a line through the ring is far too slow and with a two person crew it is the helmsman that has to do it. We quickly purchased a patented stainless steel hook for this purpose.

Box 11JPG

Then the helmsman maintains a good straight course to the dock while paying out the line and judging the speed to come to a stop at just the right point. Many local boats have a reel of webbing strap attached to the railing at the stern that will pay out automatically and is long enough for all eventualities. The benefits are evident when you have tried to do it by paying out a line coiled on the cockpit floor, perhaps with a knot in it to get adequate length, and then finally finding that it is about 2 metres too short! If this occurs in a cross wind the reaction will probably be heard all over the neighbourhood. The crew member on the bow usually does not know what is happening until the boat drifts sideways with the dock tantalisingly out of reach. There follows a dash to the stern to help the helmsman find a piece of rope to splice on. By the time this is done you will probably be parallel to the dock or in danger of crashing into a neighbouring boat so the crew person abandons assistance and rushes back to the bow to fend off. It makes an apparently simple manoeuvre exciting.

The next situation occurs by trying to maintain steerage way and not being able to stop in time resulting in a vee notch in the bow and a rapid rise in blood pressure. We have tried bow fenders bur because every dock height is different with fixed docks, they never seem to be in the right place. Our worst experience was with a shiny new aluminum dock that had an unprotected angle iron on the edge. The designer must have had a fiendish pleasure in slicing up bows.

Then there is the situation with nothing at all and dropping a kedge is no good because it will not grab. In many old fishing harbours there is so much old fishing tackle on the sea bed that there is a high risk of losing an anchor (after losing one we now use a trip line in these circumstances). So a substantial bow fender is essential and it takes quite a bit of fiddling around to get the boat in just the right position.

Box 10

Having got to the dock there are still a few challenges for with fixed docks the height of the bow above the dock can vary greatly. Although there are no tides the effect of wind and pressure can change water levels by 2 metres; we have seen docks 10 cm under water (in Århus, Denmark) to a metre above the bow. The later is not so much trouble as the former for although it is relatively easy to jump off (although without an opening in the pulpit that is not easy) it is not so easy to get back on. In the early days we would be searching for steps or an oil drum to use for the purpose. Now we have an anchor platform on the bow that incorporates a retractable, telescopic ladder and a removable top rail in the pulpit. This has made life much easier and cleared the anchor off the foredeck where it snagged mooring lines.

Box 14

Our most embarrassing situation was in a strong cross wind when there was a line of pick up buoys close together. We chose one and went for it but fumbled the pickup causing us to drift sideways. The adjacent buoy fouled the wind vane steering and we were trapped sideways until we could release it.

With experience behind us, an anchor platform with ladder, a pickup hook and plenty of stern line (although we have not yet gone for a reel) we manage to avoid the worst embarrassments, but we still have a little trepidation when we see a pickup buoy situation.

However, not as much trepidation as when we see a situation without a pickup buoy. In these situations the idea is to drop the kedge anchor at the place where the pickup buoy would normally be, hope that it grabs, and proceed to the dock. In Marstad, Sweden we thought that this was the situation when we saw boats lined up with stern lines out. So we dropped the kedge anchor only to find that the water was so deep that it did not hit the bottom! We then noticed people frantically waving to us and learned that we were not to use the kedge because there were permanent under-water anchors with lines to the dock. The procedure was to nose into the dock and tie off while another crew member caught the anchor line from the dock with the boat hook and walked it back to the stern where it was tightened up and secured. This is all very neat in calm conditions but not so good in a cross wind.

Finally there is the situation where there it no dock but just rocky outcrops. Here you drop the kedge anchor, launch the dinghy and take the bow line ashore where a piton is driven into a crack in the rock and the line tightened up. However, in the Norwegian fjords the water is often so deep that the kedge cannot be used or would not grab anyway. Then you must select a spot where the boat can be safely held by three shore lines at 60 degrees. Such a spot is usually a narrow inlet and if you have chosen well you will usually find that there are already pitons in the rocks.

Box 8

With Piles (Boxes)

This is a compromise where a line of piles is driven 1½ to 2 boat lengths from the dock, defining the slots or boxes in which one must dock. These piles vary greatly from railway rail covered with a plastic sleeve to substantial wooden posts.

Box 7

In ideal conditions, calm weather, correct width and length of box and the correct length of stern lines (all of which the local berth holders have) the docking is easy. We always go in bow first as we like the privacy in the cockpit but motor boats often seem to prefer going in stern first.

The procedure is as follows. Step 1 is to layout the looped stern lines forward to amidships. Put the fenders up on the deck so that they will not foul the piles as you go into the box. Have a crew member at the bow with lines ready. The next step is to enter the box slowly, dropping the looped stern lines over the piles as they are passed. Once passed, the fenders are dropped over and the stern lines paid out until the bow reaches the dock, without touching, and the bow crew can jump off. The stern lines are then tightened.

Box 1

For a cruising visitor it is never that easy for often the box is too wide and/or too long and of course you do not know the correct length of stern lines. On several occasions we have been directed into a box that is slightly too narrow, 3.0 m for our breadth of 3.2. Not enough to be obvious until you are stuck like a cork in a bottle and have scraped the topsides. Then it is a matter of pushing on the piles and backing out.

When the box is too long and too wide there are other problems. This time one looped stern line is laid out as far forward as possible and the other left close to the cockpit. With the fenders up, nose up to one pile and drop the stern line over. Then proceed forwards steering to the other side of the box in order to bring the other pile close enough to the stern of the boat for the line to be thrown around it.

Box 3

This may not be possible (either because it is too far or because you are a poor thrower). If you miss, get the line out of the water quickly before it fouls the prop, and reverse slowly, paying out the attached line (it needs to be long enough to allow for this eventuality). Then re-enter the box close to the unattached pile, dropping the second line over the pile as you pass. Then proceed to the dock, making sure that the long line that was attached first is kept snug so that it does not foul the prop, drop the fenders as they come clear of the piles and secure the bow.

Any sailor reading this can see that there is lots of scope for turning the docking into a real ‘dog’s breakfast’. The idea of having loops in the mooring lines instead of doubling back to the boat sounds like the ideal way to go, but in practice when a neighbouring boat comes in after you it is necessary to take their lines off before taking off your own. If their lines are tight and there is nobody aboard it can be a real nuisance.

Another complication is that piles often have hooks on them to prevent lines sinking to the water level and making it difficult for boats with high freeboard to retrieve their looped lines. Again this is a mixed blessing because with a line doubled back to the boat the angle is often such that the hook prevents the free running of the line which is necessary for tightening up. We have often been in these jamming situations with hooks and neighbours lines so as visitors we avoid using the hooks and double our lines back to the boat.

One other desirable step is to cross the stern mooring lines. In overly wide or long boxes this is not easily done without a lot of manoeuvring about once you are in the box. It does however give a much better angle on the lines in stormy conditions. If you have equipment and antennae around the transom (we have wind vane steering gear and antennae) you have to know where to thread the lines to avoid load on these bits and pieces and you don’t know that until you are in the final position.

Box 6

Now conditions are rarely ideal and probably the worst situation is an oversized box in a strong cross wind or current. Although the procedures are fundamentally the same there are a few variations and things can quickly go wrong if any of the steps are fumbled. Let us look at the procedure.

Come in hard to the windward side, secure the pile and drift across to the leeward pile.

Box 4

However if the wind is very strong the boat can swing during this is operation and in an extreme situation you end up parallel to the dock with the stern attached to the piles and out of reach of the dock!

Box 2

Extricating yourself from this position depends on friendly neighbours, or failing that, getting the dinghy out and taking a bow line to the dock. We usually tow our dinghy in the Baltic because there are not only many places to use it but we are also prepared for these sorts of situations (primarily occurring to neighbours nowadays).

To avoid the foregoing situation many boxes have permanent lines from the pile to the dock although they are usually quite slack.

Box 9

We try to pick a box with such lines so that when first coming in the person on the bow can hook that line with the boat hook and hold the bow to windward while the stern drifts over to the leeward pile but it needs a strong person. The boat can then be inched forwards while holding the windward permanent line with the boat hook. If there are boats on either side then it is easier to fend off from them.

Box 5

Our worst experience was when we were in a river at Kunglav, Sweden that we did not realise was used as part of a water management scheme. Just as we were leaving the box the flood gates upstream were opened resulting in a strong cross current. The result was that we were jammed at 45 degrees against the piles with the current holding us there. Only with a lot of muscle power did we escape. After that experience, when there is a strong cross wind and there are no permanent lines, we have a bow line doubled to the dock which keeps the bow from swinging as we back out. The only risk is that you must get it out of the water quickly when it is released or it will foul the prop.

On another occasion we were blown against the windward pile on exiting and did not notice that the pile hook had fouled a stanchion until it was ripped out.

All these hazards seem very daunting but it is not often that the worst circumstances all combine. The important thing is to think through what could happen and have a recovery plan. Then when something goes wrong, do not panic, keep calm and execute the recovery plan. A little practice in good conditions builds confidence, so don’t be put off and enjoy one of the greatest unspoiled cruising grounds in the world.