Sailing The Dee,Year 1 – Adam Watts
I’m writing down these notes in the hope that the story of our first year of sailing from
the Dee Sailing Club proves potentially interesting for others treading the same path
PART 1 – Getting started
We had previously owned a Seamaster 19 cruiser with a dreaded swing-keel. This
was sailed from the immensely expensive Liverpool Marina over a period of about 5
years. Coping with that massively powerful and fast tide was always a battle. That
and the industrial panorama from the river eventually wore us down. When our
beautiful Honda 8 outboard was ‘nicked’ by the locals last October enough was
enough. We joined DSC, sold the boat via eBay and immediately went out and
bought the fabulously twin-keeled, Gunter-rigged Westerly 22 ‘Sea Lion’. She looks
like the perfect toy boat but I had read that these mid-60’s craft have sailed the
Atlantic and that was good enough for us. We proudly parked her on the trailer in the
Dee Sailing Club yard.
I spent ages on the computer trying to find out snippets of information so that we
could imagine what it would be like to sail from a mooring on the Dee. I also popped
down to the club on a few occasions to talk to Mark (the tractor man) and various
other knowledgeable members such as Greg Cooper and Don Mackinnon.
Where to start? The mooring had to be addressed. My first thought was to try to find
out if there was a spare mooring already out there on the river – no luck here
although I have since discovered that at least one could have been available. Never
mind. Don told me to contact Andy Morley down at the Heswall Boat Yard. An
affable, straight-talking and very capable chap he turned out to be. He knows the
river and the personalities and has skills in fabrication and welding which could be
useful to other members of the club if they need things made. He quoted me about
£800 to make up and sink a new top-of-the-range mooring … yikes!! I came here to
save costs!!! Anyway, being me, I managed to source the necessary chain and
shackles myself and Andy kindly agreed to supply me with a couple of used 50kg
Danforth Anchors, build the mooring and lay it – all for a very reasonable fee on the
basis I helped him launch it and sort it out on the mud. All in all I think the cost was
about £400 and it should last for 10 years or so. I will get Andy to lift it every 2-3
years to check the links, shackles and swivel for wear as I have seen that the links
gradually wear thinner due to the abrasion from the sand on the river bed.
Whilst the chain was arriving and all this was happening we were working on the boat
finding out how to rig it, checking out instruments and trying to work out how it would
all function in the water.
Here’s a tip for you people in the club regarding woodwork:
I have used the dreaded Yacht Varnish products for years on previous boats – every
time finding that within weeks of application, cracks had appeared and moisture was
getting underneath the varnish. Hate the stuff. So I had moved onto Ronseal 5 Year
Woodstain – which does do exactly what it says on the tin even in marine conditions
for about 3 years before re-application. Great, but the downside is that it only comes
in dark morbid colours like mahogany. So I got to thinking – if only someone made a
‘Clear’ Woodstain? I know that seems like a contradiction in terms but woodstain
sinks into the surface of wood and protects it far more efficiently than varnish
products. Anyway, after much internet searching … surprise surprise … Wicks DIY
do one for £30 for 5 litres. Magic.
I took my slatted teak cockpit sole boards and seating back to the original wood and
applied 3 coats of this marvellous stuff and can officially report that after season one
of reasonable sunshine, rain and whipping winds, muddy and sandy boots scraping
over them the woodwork still looks fab so I can recommend the stuff. If you want to
check for yourself have a look at Sea Lion’s seats when she is back in the yard.
Back to the mooring story; We took the mooring chains out on the tide in his boat and
dropped it over the side in the right place – you have to have room for the boat to
swing in a wide arc without going near to the other moorings. I had bought a massive
mooring buoy to keep the business end at the surface. The next low tide we went out
on the mud and with the kind help of bearded Ian (a river guru) we dragged the
anchors and chains into the right position and dug in the anchors with shovels. Job
They told me at the club that we should be fine floating the boat off the trailer by
towing it with the club tractor down the concrete spit and waiting for the tide.
Trepidation to the fore! Sure enough on the allotted day Mark towed her out on the
tractor and we sat on board like lemons until the tide lifted her. Incredibly
undramatically she rose gently as you like and we fired up the engine and set off for
our mooring buoy. After a couple of flailing attempts with the boat hook we hauled the
chain loop onto her kingpost and life was good. We radioed the rib and they came to
get us. If only everything went this well! At low tide Mark came out with his tractor
and took trusty trailer back up to the yard. Brill!
Gunter rigs take a bit of getting used to after the simplicity of a Bermudan. Things
initially got stuck and tangled with lots of effort being spent hauling on main halyards
(Gunters have 2) which simply did not want to move. Finally we got them sorted by
changing shackles and discovering some things were designed to slide and not be
fixed to one place – sometimes I can be amazingly thick.
We have a furling device on the jib which enables us to wind it onto the forestay by
pulling on a thin green rope from the cockpit. This is very useful indeed when coming
in to moor but beware … do not leave the jib like this and expect it not to come loose
and flap like a pigeon in the wind, because it does (Read on for a story). So we take
our jib off every time we are to leave the boat or go to sleep – no big deal really.
We have two engines on board – partly because I like engines and partly because I
don’t like being let down by them. One is a very little used modern Yamaha 2-stroke
and the other a British Seagull Silver Century which I have got to work and found out
how to service properly. If only we could feel secure leaving outboards on the stern of
our boats out there on the mud! Every time I go out for a sail, I have to go through the
same strenuous, panting struggle to lift the engine out of the cabin, along the cockpit
and over the back rails before precariously hanging myself and it over the stern
before tightening the screws. For this reason I more often than not just take out the
Seagull as it is lighter and far less bulky than the Yamaha. But if we are going out for
an overnighter or a longer cruise I put in the effort to install the Yamaha as it has 2
cylinders (less likely to stop completely … ha ha … more on this later) and a useful
reverse drive capability. I feel pangs of jealousy when I see people simply press their
starter and fire up their trusty inboard diesels.
A note about mooring buoys and bilge(twin) keelers. We found that every so often
our boat was lifting with the mooring chain stuck between the keels – a very nasty
situation as the boat is then held side-on to the tide with the full force of the tide
jamming the whole craft onto the mooring chain. This force is unbelievably great and
the chain digs gouges out of the paint and even the gel-coat. I pondered this problem
for some time and eventually realised that the mooring buoy was set too far away
from the end loop. If the boat settled with it’s keels either side of the chain, as the tide
rose, the mooring buoy would rise to the side of the boat quicker than the hull and
effectively jam the chain up between the keels for the whole of the next tide.
Horrible!! I know some others at the club have had this issue so maybe by moving
your buoy much closer to the front of the boat you can alleviate this nasty problem.
Since we moved ours I have not noticed the problem again … hope it is sorted.
PART 2 – Attempts afloat.
The tender situation …
We have a lovely little tender boat made from GRP which has high sides and built-in
seats. Excellent. Years ago I bought a Johnson Seahorse 3 HP outboard for £25 on
eBay. So I serviced this and we had a few trial runs on the water just poodling about
checking where things were on the water and getting an idea of how the cruisers
were moored etc. Seahorse was fine.
One day soon after launch, Dave (good chappie and fellow member) came to find me
up at the club to tell me that the jib was coming unfurled and flapping like a looney.
Luckily I had been out in the tender so I trailered it down to the beach again and
started the Johnson – well – after two pulls the starter rope broke. Marvellous. So I
trailered the boat again and set off for home 15 minutes away. Replaced the starter
rope and went back. By now the wind had picked up, everyone had gone home, dusk
was upon me and the river was choppy to say the least but that bloody foresail
needed to be taken in or else it would flog itself to death. So lifejacket on, one oar on
board, off I set into the bubbling surf. About 300 yards from the shore Johnson
decides to quit – won’t restart, no reason, just being a pig. I am now powerless,
alone, and drifting towards Chester on a very fast and increasingly wild river. What to
do? So I grabbed the oar and attempted my first ever scull – absolutely rubbish,
couldn’t make any progress other than where the river wanted me to go. Suddenly I
realised that by trailing the oar over the stern, I could sort of steer the boat towards
one of the other cruisers. Determined to drop everything and grab the nearest cruiser
with a view to lying on board until the low tide I readied myself for the all important
reach and hold manoeuvre. No, wait a minute, if I kept going I could reach Sea Lion
itself and hole up for the night inside a little cabin safe from the wind and the spray!
Joyously I managed to do just this and settled down for the night in my oilies and
wonderful new waders. I stomped in the next morning carrying the bloody Johnson
determined to sling it and buy something reliable like an old seagull – found and
bought one that day in Neston. It’s been amazingly reliable, smelly and noisy. I love
Our boat came with a venerable Avon rubber dinghy. Tried it a few times when my
Land Rover was knackered, as it fitted in my daughter’s Fiesta. Works just fine and
inflates quickly with an Aldi pump. Only thing I found out was that you have to pump
them up harder than you think because after being moored out there on the cool
water while we attempt little cruises, the dinghy was more often than not floppy in
appearance upon our return. I presume this being mainly due to the fact that the air
inside the tubes contracts when cooled. I have noticed this happening to others at
times. Out of choice we stick with the GRP tender.
I still get in a right to-do sometimes when picking up the mooring. Usually no problem
in boat-hooking the small rope which lies between the main buoy and the little one
with a built-on handle. Once I have it in hand, I have found that if I am not standing at
the bow end the boat always swings the wrong way and gets side-on to the tide – this
results in massive force being applied to the hand holding the mooring rope and I am
forced invariably to let go, loose the boat-hook altogether or both!! Soooo … I have
now attached two ropes which run from the Samson Post, outside the rails and
shrouds to the sides of the cockpit. As soon as I have the mooring rope in my hand I
clip it to the relevant one of these ropes and the boat can get bow-on to the tide by
drifting out a little and all is well. Another job done.
Now for a better sailing story. My wife Alex and I decided to go out for an over-nighter
along the North Wales coast with a view to trying out living on board and having an
attempt at fishing for our dinner. As it happens, we couldn’t have chosen a better
weekend. The weather was sunny with a gentle 3-4 knot SE breeze. We got on
board at high tide with provisions and set off initially motoring off the mooring as
those fast club cats were racing and the motor enables us to steer behind them as
they cross. Sails up we headed for middle deep and the Point of Ayr – noticed that
there’s not much depth if you don’t stick to the proven channel but we just made it
before touching on the sand (only one bleeped warning from the Depth Gauge at
under 1 foot clearance!). Once out of the shallows we tootled off and had cups of tea
from the stove, tried out the heads and generally became very comfortable. Sea Lion
is amazing at heaving to as she just sits there and wallows happily. Alex was biting at
the bit to start fishing so when we were some way out from Prestatyn, we hove to
and got out the gear. After about an hour and a half, we’d had only a few bites and a
tiddler so we decided to get going again as we had drifted a fair way backwards.
Progress was slow but the weather was idyllic so we were more than happy. After a
while we spotted an inshore Lifeboat rib coming in our direction from Rhyl so we
waved heartily and they waved back and came over to see us. I shouted out “Just out
for a fun ride are you?” To which they responded that they had been alerted to a
small sailing cruiser which had been seen by the Prestatyn Coastguard to be
apparently drifting under full sail for over an hour … Oh dear … They asked if we
were OK and I explained we had been fishing and I hadn’t turned on the VHF. They
laughed and said no problem at all but next time could we fish outside the main
We anchored for the evening some way out from Rhyl (not my favourite place but
quite pleasant when viewed a couple of miles offshore). I tried to calculate the depth
the tide would take us to whilst anchored but got confused and decided that we’d
probably be OK anyway. We cooked up a chicken curry from cans and boil-in-thebag
rice and sat through simply the most amazing evening and sunset. A few seals
popped up every now and then but they’re very camera shy. Safely ensconced in our
warm sleeping bags we watched the stars and settled down to sleep. Hardly slept a
wink as the sea was so calm that the boat set up a regular rocking pattern of 4
gentles followed by a big one – this bloody rhythm carried on the whole night and got
right into our heads! Never mind.
Next morning we started back early to ensure we caught the necessary tide times to
get us back to the moorings. As we set off, the wind had picked up a bit to about a 4
and we made pretty good progress back to the turn-in to the Dee. By now the wind
had shifted to a pretty strong Westerly and with Alex at the helm we were making 8.5
knots Speed-over Ground and Sea Lion was humming along like one of the DSC
Racing Cats (well almost). We were back just as the sandbanks were disappearing
so we tried to come in from directly across the river from the moorings – cue firstever
touchdown of one of our keels so we were forced to go back a way and come
across in line with the largest red fishing trawler. As we did so, we met the cruiser
fleet led by Greg heading out towards the Welsh side of the Dee. A fine sight they
made as well. We were tempted to about face and join them but decided to get back
safely and have time to sort everything out properly for once at the mooring. A good
trip!! Rare and very satisfying.
Just one more story before my hands seize up…..
Alex was away in Cyprus with her mum so I decided to go out for a night on the
mooring and catch the early tide the next morning for a days solo sailing. Got to the
boatyard in good time, loaded up the tender with gear including a battery to try out
the so far untried Raymarine Autotiller. Had a chat with a few of the chaps at the
clubhouse including Dave who said he was planning to do the same as me. I asked
him if he was going out to his boat soon but he said he’d leave it till later.
I fitted the Autotiller and it worked perfectly – fantastic – I would now be able to do
everything single-handed without loosing direction or way!
I was listening to a very scratchy Radio 5 broadcast of that evening’s England footie
game as darkness came down outside. At half-time I went up on deck to hear
someone shouting my name. Bellowing back I discovered that Dave was stuck
somewhere with a dud engine. I yelled at him to wait while I put the seagull back on
the tender and set off only to discover that I couldn’t hear him at all over the noise of
the engine. I guessed that he was over toward the spit but couldn’t see anything
there in the darkness. I switched off the engine and discovered that he was in fact in
the surf on the beach almost parallel with our mooring. He told me that his engine
had died just like my old Johnson a few hundred yards after launch and he had
drifted back to the muddy shore. Poor bloke. He hopped in my tender and we pulled
his inflatable full of gear to his boat which moors next to ours. He was pleased that I
had decided to be there that evening.
The next morning was an early high tide so I got up, fired up the Yamaha engine and
tried to call Dave on the VHF to give him my mobile number for later when he would
need a lift back to shore. No answer. So I left my mooring and started circling his
boat. After about 3 circles he eventually popped his head out of the cabin and I gave
him my number. I had listened to the VHF forecast from the Coastguards which
suggested a 4-5 SE rising to a 6 later. Next time I will hear it and think about it before
setting off solo!!
Off I set on a brisk broad reach and the Autotiller was working like a dream. By
midday I was already off Colwyn Bay but decided to have lunch and set off for home
before the wind came up too much. The sea was by now pretty choppy but we
bashed our way through it under reefed main as full sail was becoming too much to
handle on the beam. I put in another reef off Prestatyn as the Force 6 was now with
us. About now the Autotiller decided to call it a day and no matter what I did I couldn’t
reset it. Beep beep beep was all it did (a call to Raymarine informed me that this is
probably due to dodgy wiring from the battery which I will fix this winter). Never mind I
would just have to manage to do everything required with the sails whilst steering
with one leg slung over the tiller.
All was OK until I got about 10 miles off the mouth of the Dee. Due to the wind
direction – straight up the Dee towards the open water – I had been forced to sail
slightly off course (Sea Lion does not make great progress close-hauled) so I was
fairly close to those bloomin great electrickery fans when I tried to tack. The tack
went OK but was useless because I could only make progress against the heavy sea
in one direction … back towards Prestatyn. The sensible thing to do would be to start
the engine, bring down the sails and motor back into the river directly into the wind.
Yamaha started first pull as always so I kept it on low speed, tillered with my leg to
keep us facing into the strong wind and started to lower the main with the engine
note rising and falling as the propeller emerged from the sea at the top of each wave.
Then the engine stopped…. Arrrrrgggghhhh… scrambled to the stern to fire her up
and absolutely no go at all. Meanwhile I was drifting towards the bloody fan things
with a flailing powered-up mainsail. Now I get seasick and this terribly bouncy,
splashy sea was heading me that way rapidly together with the growing tension and
concern. I reckoned that the Yamaha had oiled up on low speed so it would be
pointless trying to get it re-started. All I could do was get that bloomin mainsail down
which I managed after a fairly long fight with the wind and getting bashed about by
the movement of the boat. I furled the foresail from the cockpit and went to the stern
to attempt to get the Yamaha off and back to the cabin with the plan in mind to
replace it with old-trusty the Seagull. We were by now drifting dangerously close to
the Windfarm. How I lifted and hung onto the engine once it was unscrewed in that
hugely choppy sea I’ll never know – it was a major feat of endurance and one I
wouldn’t ever want to repeat. I roared and bellowed to myself whilst lifting it from the
stern which was now dipping under the water surface on the downward lurches.
Although I was being flung all over the place and off balance 85% of the time, I finally
made it with the engine into the cabin. I was now completely exhausted and only just
made it up on deck and to the side before being violently sick. Nice story eh? After
this I went below again, got the Seagull and repeated my lurching bashing journey to
the stern, struggled to put it in place with water washing around my feet and hands
on each downwards lurch as I tightened the clamp screws. What a relief when darling
Seagull fired into life and I could take the tiller again and aim away from those awful
windmill things. GPS said 16.5 miles to mooring – SOG was 2-2.5 knots at best so
this was going to be a long trip back in pretty uncomfortable waters but I was in
heaven … my engine worked!
In the end, the choppy waters lessened as we got back into the river and we were
able to make 4.5 knots flat out which got us back in good time to gratefully moor up
and make it back to dry land. Incidentally, it became obvious that Seagull runs for
exactly 1 hour on each thankful of fuel (I think the tank holds about ½ gallon). Thirsty
but who cares if it starts and gets you home.
I later had a call from Dave who told me he had decided not to sail after all as he was
not feeling up to it – I think he knows what he’s doing. I have found out that a Force 6
is too strong for solo sailing as things invariably go wrong at sea and one person
can’t manage difficult tasks whilst keeping a sailing boat under control.
We’ve probably been out about 15 times in all this summer and we are gradually
getting better at things so maybe next year we will have less issues with gear and
more relaxing days on the boat in this, the most beautiful of sailing locations.
Just hoping that getting Sea Lion out and back on her trailer doesn’t provide fodder
for another dramatic story before this season ends ….!!
Happy sailing gang!