After buying a Dufour Classic 35, Chris Humphries experiences a series of hardships when trying to sail his new boat home from Conwy to Plymouth
As a new boat owner, what should you check before your first sail on board your pride and joy?
Preparing our new boat for our first journey together wasn’t straightforward, writes Chris Humphries.
I only had three weekends to get her ready, which involved a long drive from Plymouth to Conwy each time.
Once we finally got under way the passage was far from plain sailing – we experienced bad conditions in the Irish Sea, near battery failure, electrical issues, and crew that became so seasick and confused that we had to stop at Milford Haven before waiting for a storm to pass.
We then had rudder-bearing issues crossing over to Land’s End, but eventually made it to Plymouth safely. All of this was at the beginning of March and it was very cold at night.
Buying a boat, as they say, is one of the most exciting days of ownership, and having recently experienced the other most exciting day (selling our last boat) we were ready to take the plunge from a series of labour-intensive classic yachts to the simplistic pleasures of low-maintenance plastic boat ownership.
The boat we had set our hearts on was a Dufour Classic 35 with twin aft cabins as well as a forward cabin with ensuite heads and shower.
Our choice was motivated by our family having grown to three children and needing more cabins and facilities to make our annual summer holiday down the west coast
of France more comfortable.
After a boisterous test sail in 25 knots, with some impressive speeds on the log, we settled on a deal and bought Knight Spirit in early February where she was moored in Conwy, North Wales.
The only slight downside was that we lived in Devon and I worked in Plymouth as a deputy head teacher, which meant time off wasn’t an option in term time.
I had already decided we should sail back as this was the cheapest option compared to professional crew delivery or road transport.
The survey had not revealed any big surprises and as the rigging was of an unknown date my insurers had stipulated that the standing rigging needed changing.
When I was obtaining quotes the marina informed me that any off-site riggers would be charged extra for working on site, which effectively meant that I could only consider their on-site rigger.
The result of this was that I paid a good bit more than the quote I had from my Plymouth-based riggers for the same work, and there was little I could do about it, which was extremely frustrating.
I had kept a 10in chartplotter from my previous yacht, as well as the yacht radar and bracket.
I then spent three weekends, with the help of my parents who are also keen sailors, installing this as well as remounting the masthead navigation lights and checking all the safety equipment, engine, systems and sails.
It was pretty gruelling working all week and then driving many hours to Conwy to then start a full weekend of boat work before driving back to see my family for a few hours before going to bed and repeating the routine all over again.
The fourth weekend was the start of an early Easter holiday in March and I hired a car to drive the crew, which consisted of my parents and Paul, who I had become good friends with after meeting on an RYA Yachtmaster Course and racing yachts over numerous seasons at our yacht club.
The first hurdle was a huge traffic jam on the motorway which made for a very late first night when we finally arrived at the boat.
We then spent another day getting the boat ready, which included putting a new anchor on, sorting out the chain and completing a host of final checks.
With new rigging and newly fitted navigational and safety equipment, I was satisfied that the boat was in pretty good condition.
New boat owner teething problems
We went out on the second day for a test sail to calibrate the sailing instruments and ensure that we could operate everything, as well as conducting reefing drills.
Problems arose when calibrating the electronic compasses – one was 180° out and nothing we tried seemed to fix it. After many hours of frustration Paul came up with the simple solution of mounting it facing 180° the other way, and it worked!
As we motored back to the marina in the evening we followed a small yacht that was low in the water.
The boat’s cabin portlights had been smashed after experiencing rough weather – it served as a salutary reminder about the challenges we were about to face on our journey.
The day dawned bright and calm. I had already decided that the remaining swell would make exiting the Menai Strait difficult so I chose to plot a course around the top of Anglesey instead, before heading south towards Land’s End.
We had decided on four-hour watches in pairs and, feeling exhausted, I retired as soon as we were motoring away from Conwy and everyone was settled.
As we neared midnight and the tip of Anglesey was receding behind us my father remarked that he wasn’t sure if the radar was working.
I was sure it was fully operational but the issue on examination was there was just nothing within a 20-mile radius of us – we were alone.
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The temperature dipped to single figures and there was no sprayhood, as this was being made for us in Plymouth.
The wind rose and the Irish Sea was living up to its reputation with short, steep seas making it very uncomfortable.
Our Dufour is very light with a displacement of only about 5 tonnes loaded and it made it a challenge to keep her on course.
As the seas became worse it took its toll on the crew and even off watch there was little respite as Knight Spirit’s shallow forefoot and flat sections resulted in mast-shaking slams from waves, allowing for little rest.
When I was off watch the next day I suddenly became aware that we were no longer heading south but north!
I went up on deck to find both crew really feeling the effects of the conditions with signs of disorientation.
At this stage we split the watches with the two remaining crew who felt OK.
Shortly after this the low-voltage alarm came on from the monitoring system I had installed, which showed we needed to charge the batteries using the engine.
The engine had been left in reverse to stop the prop from spinning but when we tried to engage neutral the gearbox was locked in gear!
I went below to examine the linkages but could find nothing visually wrong. The boat slowed enough at this stage and suddenly we could select neutral.
The engine started and began charging the quickly depleted main domestic battery, much to everyone’s relief.
We carried on past the Llyn peninsula but weather reports were warning that another low pressure system was approaching.
By the time we had crossed Cardigan Bay the sea state had increased and even Paul, who had been alright until now, suddenly emerged from the galley whilst cooking tea to heave over the side.
We lurched violently at this precise moment and I seriously thought he was going overboard! He pushed himself back and returned to the galley, emerging a few minutes later with two bowls of steaming sweet and sour chicken with noodles.
I was somewhat surprised that he could eat anything but he responded with the old adage: ‘Never sick on a full stomach,’ which, I have to say, has been a successful tactic for me ever since.
Given the conditions and impending next low we jointly decided to head into Milford Haven, which I had already passage planned as a potential stop over.
We arrived late evening and discovered the anchorage we selected had very hard sand, which our anchor refused to dig into, as well as numerous small buoys.
We eventually moved to find a better spot.
The next day we motored to the marina and were particularly struck by the contrast between the natural beauty of this wonderful harbour set against the stark oil refineries and large ships.
We spent the next two days holed up as another large weather system went through with torrential rain. We spotted a window to leave and, due to tides around Land’s End, the best departure time was 2200.
We motored through the relatively narrow entrance facing large waves out of Milford Haven.
At this point the steering started creaking loudly, but after a stomach-testing time below decks, checking the aft void, we couldn’t find anything wrong.
Once we were away from the steep waves things settled down and the noises were only occasional.
We reached Land’s End as planned and with the tide behind us we rounded and started heading east at last.
However, the wind was bitter and watches consisted of keeping as low a profile as possible out of the wind, lying on the cockpit seats and looking around regularly. Even with everything on it was so cold.
Around this time I became aware of a faint burning smell which was hard to trace and not evident near the engine bay either.
As the sun rose it became a beautiful spring day and gradually the coastline became more familiar passing the Lizard and eventually on to Plymouth.
As we entered Plymouth Sound it was a relief to be back.
Despite the conditions it had been an amazing experience – a lesson in crew support and seamanship.
My wife and I, along with our three children, went on to have a great second week of the Easter holidays, making the most of the unusually sunny weather.
The hardships of bringing our boat home had definitely been worthwhile.
New boat owner lessons learned
- Don’t sail when tired: Driving long distances and working through a long list of jobs put a lot of pressure on me and ultimately led to me being very tired at the start of the return trip. Although this didn’t cause any huge problems it would have been better for me to have been well-rested.
- Check compass location: We had fitted two electronic compasses – one for the autopilot and the other for the chartplotter and radar. We discovered that they were mounted too close together, which is why we couldn’t calibrate them correctly. Once I relocated one to another location it was fine.
- Know your battery health: The domestic battery appeared healthy as it was being charged by the shore power charger. In reality, it was badly sulphated and had little capacity which only became apparent when we started the voyage. Given more time we could have taken them to be checked or conducted a discharge test.
- Ensure wiring is sound: The burning smell we encountered was from the wires feeding 16 separate halogen spotlights in the headlinings. The wires were corroded and the extra resistance led to excessive heating and charring on the cables. Later we replaced all bulbs with LEDs and new cables, and the problem was solved.
- Gearbox quandary: At speeds above 5 knots the gears couldn’t be changed as the dog clutch was severely worn. We managed to find two solutions – either slow the boat down before engaging the gears or just carry on anyway as it didn’t matter if we started the engine in forwards or reverse. We latterly had the clutch replaced by a main dealer who, after charging us thousands of pounds, managed to reverse the drive – but that’s another story!
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