Stories from the Slipway 7 – Lost in Fog

Wembury Bay & entrance to River Yealm

It was the summer of ’87 and we had enjoyed a leisurely sail down the West Coast in our bilge keel Moody 28 from Portsmouth. Calm winds and time frustrated our intention to sail to the Scilly Isles and now moored in the Helford River our plan was to sail for Fowey in the morning. In the morning in a light morning wind we motored out Eastward and sailed for Fowey. Fowey was not the nicest of harbours covered when we were there with a fine dusting of china clay, however the next day we planned, if the swell allowed, to take a lunch stop at tiny Polperro Harbour and our evening’s destination was to be the River Yealm.

Tuesday morning arrived in typical English fashion, rain. Clearing the harbour we turned east passing the semi-submerged Punch Cross Rock close to port. By 11:30 we were abeam Polperro and with a light swell decided the harbour was accessible and anchored in the outer harbour. It was idyllic and we wasted no time in rowing ashore to hunt out the best pasties. But we had to leave and having eaten our delicious pasties and had a doze on the foredeck, we set off for the Yealm hugging the coast under engine.

It was not until we drew abeam of the Rannies off West Looe that we were able to sail. The log at 14:20 reads - Engine off, sails hoisted, making 4 knots, course 070°C, barometer 1010. An hour later - ‘a lot more wind (no wind instrument), still from the NE, making 5 knots’. At 15:40 I sighted Tregantle Fort and we eased sail to clear Rame Head. An hour or so later the wind died and coastline began to disappear; sea fog.

We were on a safe heading but not clear of Rame Head and worried that we would be taken onto the Head by the easterly tidal stream we continued seaward. By now the wind had dropped completely and with only VHF, compass, depth and log I was becoming concerned. It was 18:30 and all thought of entering the Yealm was gone; our plan was to motor due North on the assumption that the Easterly drift would sweep us clear of Rame Head and I intended to ‘buoy-hop’ into Plymouth Marina.

We eased on with eyes glued in swirling fog. Nothing; then faintly an engine and dead ahead another yacht emerged passing diagonally across our bow, going east. Too far to shout or catch their attention (no foghorn!) so I increased speed to get to hailing distance. They were too fast and the best I could do was match their speed whilst we tried to read their name on the stern. Gradually out of the fog and close to our port side we spotted three yellow buoys. Passing the helm to Chrissy I dived below and scanned the chart; nothing. Nowhere could I find three grouped yellow buoys anywhere in the Plymouth area.

Unsure of our location I shouted to Chrissy not to lose sight of the yacht in front. I then spotted another buoy to starboard , the Red Draystone, and decided to head for it. My mate disagreed and by the time we had finished arguing the buoy had disappeared so we had little option but to follow the other yacht. Eventually, grabbing the VHF and feeling idiotic and slightly embarrassed I called, ‘Yacht in front in Plymouth Sound this is SEA FEVER, SEA FEVER behind you, over’. Eventually with Chrissy waving from the bow a wave was returned and soon we were in contact. Incidentally I have recently read John Passmore’s (Ex YM editor) book Old Man Sailing and he admits to doing exactly the same over the VHF. The yacht was called RAFIKI and they also were headed for the Yealm and with better instrumentation judged that we were about 1 mile SW of the Great & Little Mewstones which mark the SW edge of Wembury Bay. We followed and suddenly RAFIKI slowed and we saw dead ahead pounding surf and black rocks. We had found land, but where?

The echo sounder showed deep water and the two of us moved forward with care, then the depth began to drop off; I’d had enough, I turned seaward, RAFIKI following. We heaved to and Chrissy suggested we call the Coastguard (no Coastwatch in those days). I was reluctant to trouble them; after all it was our problem. I lost the argument, again, and at 20:30 we called. Brixham coastguard responded and asked us to wait ‘5’ whilst they took our bearing from their position on Yealm Head. O95°T they informed us and the chart indicated we would clear the Little Mewstone on this bearing. In consultation with RAFIKI we motored on this bearing until we could see – and hear - the shore at Yealm Head and turning into Wembury Bay searched for the red can marking the Yealm’s entrance.

Quite suddenly the sea fog began to vaporize as it met the hills of Wembury Bay and ahead of us to our immense relief the entrance to the Yealm appeared, still hazy, but enough to see to starboard the red entrance buoy. The Yealm entrance is tricky, with a double dog-leg and a sand bar which extends across all but five to ten metres South at Mouthstone Point. Lining up on the just-visible transit beacons we headed 089°T into the entrance. As we motored up the river the fog returned but now well into the river we had little difficulty finding one of the floating pontoons and moored. It was 21:10 and we radioed the Coastguard to report safe arrival and thank them for their assistance.

Thirty minutes later having rowed upstream we entered the very friendly Yealm Hotel (sadly long closed and now smart flats) and asked if we could pay for a shower or bath and get some food. No problem; with double G&T’s in hand we were shown a huge bathroom and sank ourselves into an enormous double tub - only 50p would you believe. Later in the bar with food and another stiff drink we thought about the way the fog had lifted at just the right moment. Oh, and those yellow buoys we spotted; we were told they were temporary, put there by the Navy for an exercise. Lesson learnt; don’t wait to call the Coastguard, nowadays the National Coastwatch, or Ch 16 if you are uncertain or having problems, just do it. That’s what they are there for.

Submitted on Thursday, 9th June