Strong winds make it a far from easy sail back to Milford Haven for Jonty and Carol Pearce

Having cruised from Milford Haven to the Isles of Scilly in a series of day-sails with stops at Appledore, Padstow, and St Ives, we chose to end our holiday with a direct return journey from St Agnes to Dale.

When leaving at the start of the journey down we had been tired, so the stepped approach had made sense. Three weeks rest and recuperation in the Scillonian summer sun had recharged our batteries and Carol, though apprehensive about the night passage and the need for solo watches, agreed to my recommendation of a non-stop return, albeit after a little encouragement and reassurance.

As ever, the weather had some say in the decision. Our trip down had been dominated by a northwesterly wind which occasionally had got too strong for comfort; several nights were spent hiding from stormy conditions.

After reaching Green Bay on Bryher, the wind had boxed the compass between sunny days; I was relying on settled prevailing southwesterly breezes to waft us back. However, the forecast suggested that the wind was returning persistently to the north after Bank Holiday Monday – not convenient.

The Monday itself offered a westerly weather window, though veering to the northwest later. If we set off early and made as much westing as we could, the wind shifts should be manageable – unless it came from the north itself.

So it came to pass that we made Aurial shipshape, got up with the dawn, and motored out past Samson and Bryher in a flat calm.

Carol bemoaned missing the Tresco Bank Holiday Monday beach party, but understood the sense in our precipitate departure. We made steady progress due north; sometimes sailing, sometimes motorsailing.

The Cornish coast stayed below the horizon, and we were alone apart from occasional far off shipping. The AIS screen was blank and the VHF silent; I had diagnosed a faulty aerial and though friend Hutch had sourced one for me, it lay ahead in Milford Haven and we were forced to use our emergency antenna with its much-limited range.

It was interesting to see closer passing traffic pop up on the AIS screen once they were a mile and a half off – any further away and our antenna failed to pick them off. Pretty useless.

The westerly breeze was fitful, but gave me an opportunity to raise my mizzen staysail while Carol slept; it drew well and I even convinced myself that it was actually making us go faster, but then the wind dropped again and its bright splash of colour was supplanted by the thud of the engine again.

The autopilot handled our course impeccably whether under sail or motor; we progressed steadily northwards, musing gently when the best moment might be for our turn northeast towards Pembrokeshire.

Continues below…

When dusk fell we were sailing strongly under full sail, but in view of the forecast wind shift and a possible increase in strength I pulled in a few precautionary rolls of the genoa and tucked the first slab reef in the mainsail. As the light faded I dimmed the instruments to their lowest brightness and settled down comfortably to the joys of night sailing.

The waves glowed redly to port and greenly to starboard from our bow lights; phosphorescence glinted in our wake astern once I’d doused the stern light in favour of the masthead tricolour. All was well with the world, and I trimmed the sails to match our new northeasterly course. Carol came up to relieve me, and I rested my head on my pillow to the sound of the waves washing past Aurial’s hull.

I woke suddenly to Carol’s call, surfacing slightly befuddled from a deep sleep. The peace of the passage before I had turned in was gone; Aurial’s rhythm was jerky and the sails were flapping uncomfortably.

I sped up top to assess the change in conditions; true to forecast the wind had veered and risen, and the course change before taking to my bunk had been premature. We now faced a stronger north wind than anticipated, and needed to pinch up to maintain our course.

I pulled in a few more turns of the genoa, but decided not to venture up on the tossing deck to take in the mainsail’s second reef. Any idea of sleep had gone – our situation needed careful watching in case the wind went to the northwest.

With the dawn the wind eased though added a drizzle, and before long the spires of Milford Haven’s refineries appeared in the murk. With judicious course adjustments we countered the attempts of the east-flowing tidal stream determined to sweep us past the Haven towards Bristol; it was a relief to pass the familiar buoyage of our home port and follow the transits into the main channel.

We turned into the shelter of Castlebeach Bay and dropped our anchor in the shadow of Dale Fort.

All was calm and still at last; it was hard to reconcile the bright sun of the Scilly beaches with the cool damp murk of Milford Haven’s northerly drizzle.

Once all was stowed tidily we settled down to catch up on sleep, well pleased to be safely back home after our 115-mile passage, but sad that our break in the sun was over.