Capsized in the Solent – John Simpson’s adventure pictured by his daughter Kyra
John Simpson has been writing again – this time about a near-catastrophe he experienced while sailing his Drascombe Lugger round the Isle of Wight. It went well to begin with – until fatigue, cold and a capsize nearly did for him
The dedication refers to the American sailor Webb Chiles, who sailed the Drascombe Lugger Chidiock Titchbome 25,000 miles – almost round the world – between 1978 and 1983, only to decide before the final leg that he didn’t need the fame – a little like Bernard Moitissier on the first non-stop single-handed race, perhaps!
In 1984 John was lucky enough to meet Webb in Antigua on board the 36ft sloop Resurgam, during the Jon’s Atlantic circuit with his Hurley 22, Miss Content.
Strikingly, John seems to have faced the same swamping problem that Chiles famously experienced. Thanks for the story John!
Dedication: to Chidiock Titchborne, who got much farther.
I left from the harbourmaster’s public pontoon, close to the Royal Lymington Yacht Club under all plain sail. It was midday, close to high water, one day after the top of springs. The weather was sunny and surprisingly mild for January. In less than ten minutes I’d almost capsized the ‘damned boat’ again in Oxey Lake, a creek that runs westward close to the Lymington river entrance – the northwesterly wind was far more boisterous in the gusts (F6+) than I’d realised when rigging the boat under the lee of the land.
This time, having learned a bitter lesson eight days before, I dropped the mainsail immediately.
I enjoyed the short passage home, weaving along inshore over the marshes on the big spring tide. The short cut through Hawker’s lake proved too narrow for short tacking under jib and mizzen, so I continued to the main Keyhaven entrance. A wounded Ibitsam and I – I’d capsized her, flooded the outboard and lost various items – sailed past the few forlorn yachts and fishing boats on their winter moorings, back to our mooring by the north wall. It was an ignominious end to my round the island trip…
I’d started, eight days earlier, from Keyhaven, at 10h30. A free Lymington tide table had been enough to enable some scant tidal planning, but having taught offshore sailing in the Solent area I had confidence in my educated guesswork. High water Lymington at 07h59 on a neap, I reasoned, ought to give me a fair tide right around the Isle of Wight anti-clockwise, using the same logic as the Round the Island yacht race, which is designed for the slowest boats.
So, off I went. The dreary grey winter weather didn’t inspire high spirits but this was England, after all. At least the southwesterly F4, occasionally 5, ought to make the trip possible in Ibitsam, my little 18ft Drascombe Lugger. Using the last of the ebb, the short beat out down the Needles channel, went reasonably quickly and brought the Needles lighthouse about 50 yards off the beam at 12h05.
After one ‘boat-climbing’ swell at the Bridge, which is known for its tidal overfalls), we bore away with eased sheets and were finally off! A fast reach down towards St Catherine’s Lighthouse followed. Just under two hours later, at 14h00, the 13 or so miles to St Catherine’s were past, and although the waves seemed quite big at times for the tiny boat, the bilge pump had not yet been employed in anger.
A diving cormorant, which I almost ran down by the bows, was my only companion.
St Catherine’s being the southern-most tip of the island, I bore away again, preferring to wear downwind on a broad reach towards Dunnose, rather than sail on a run. The tide was flooding well now and I could see from the fishing pots. The gusts of wind gave us some excellent surfing over the uneven sea bed east of St Catherine’s. A pleasant humming came from the centreboard case when we caught a good wave.
It seemed an appropriate time to stuff down some sandwiches and grab a brew from the thermos. Although I hadn’t felt the cold yet, energy levels needed to be kept high if I was to complete my circumnavigation.
Once into Sandown bay we came under the lee of the island and the sailing seemed quite tame in the smooth water. A ship passed by to starboard about half a mile off going SW, and I was reminded of the traffic still to come in the eastern Solent. The Princess Shoal buoy, also left to starboard, warned me to avoid the rocks off Bembridge Ledge, but I tend to worry less about hitting the bottom with a centreboard, so I stayed close inshore and by 17h00 spotted St Helen’s Fort ahead. Over half way in six and a half hours, was not bad going for a small boat!
Dusk fell, but I could still see the land. There seemed to be a fair number of ships at anchor in St Helen’s road, and their lights became more prominent as daylight faded. Half an hour later the beat to windward after Bembridge started early, as a flukey wind had bent around under the land.
Then suddenly I was rudely shaken by a near disaster: I almost capsized the boat while trying to light a cigarette. Fool!
I had to heave to and pump out, but at least it warmed me upand refocused my attention – I had lost a mile or so to leeward and 15-20 minutes’ progress, in order to feed a bad habit!
As Ibitsam got under way again I vowed to be more careful, as by now it was completely dark.
I pressed on, still annoyed with myself, close-hauled on the port tack, playing the mainsheet in the gusts. The centreboard lifted warning occasionally, warning that the Ryde Sands were below, but that did mean I was unlikely to meet a big ship…
Under the main I caught glimpses of the Portsmouth-Ryde hovercraft and the catamaran heading to the end of the Ryde pier, as well as the Portsmouth-Fishbourne car ferries – all of which underscored the need to maintain a good lookout.
The wind direction did not allow me to lay the end of the Ryde Pier, which meant I’d quickly be in the main channel soon. Big ships heading to and from Southampton also had to be watched out for and – unexpectedly – a small dredger crossed me heading to the island between Ryde Pier and Wootton Creek.
Soon I tacked to starboard, tucking back under the lee of the island towards Mother Bank (aptly named) seeking shallow water again. At least we’d cleared the threats posed by the hovercraft and catamaran ferries – although at least it’s quick if you do get hit.
Tacking to port again, the Wootton Creek car ferries were now behind me, although shortly after a big ship showing ‘constrained by draft’ navigation lights passed rapidly down our portside heading east – but by now we had survived the Solent dodgems and reached the relative safety of Ryde Middle bank.
While all this was happening the wind had piped up, perhaps funnelled by Old Castle Point off Cowes.
I counted the anchor lights of five ships to the NW of Ryde Middle, but we were doing well and I would be able to weather all but one on my current track.
However, they were allo wind-rode, which meant that the ebb hadn’t fully started yet, unfortunately, and my open boat was slowly filling up from spray while working to windward.
Wind against tide would speeding my progress over the ground, but it meant water coming aboard – but by dumping the mainsheet or pinching slightly Ibitsam and I were still footing well.
However, the cold wind was starting to bite though, and having to sail by feel in the dark, I was finding it harder to maintain concentration. I was immensely cheered after weathering four of the anchored ships in Cowes Road and spotting the beacon on the Brambles on the port bow.
I was now three quarters of the way round and it was about 19h00.
I was just debating whether to call it a day, bear away and put into Ashlett Creek farther north in Southampton water, when the boat started heeling further over, causing the water to pour in. Dumping the whole main and mizzen did nothing to stop it. In order to release the jib I had to go forward and to leeward – but my weight was needed to weather and so over she went…
This was not good news. I remember thinking ‘you may have crossed a few oceans and sailed boats all over the world, boy, but you can still drown or die of hypothermia in the bloody Solent’, where the water temperature is about 10°C in mid January!
Surprisingly, perhaps, the water didn’t seem too bad at first, and the dry suit my wife had given me for Christmas was earning its keep !
I swam round to the starboard side to free the jib sheet but stupidly, managed to turn the boat upside down with my weight.
I could see various items drifting away in the dark – my rucksack, (complete with my wife’s camera, a Leatherman, my wallet etc), but realised that swimming after them wouldn’t aid my survival.
Life jacket, dry suit and the torch round wrist – these were the important things.
Like a geriatric spiderman (I was 54 years young that year), I hauled myself up on the bottom of the boat using the wooden bilge keel, then managed to pull up the centreplate, which, naturally, had dropped in obesience to Murphy’s law.
Amazingly the boat righted herself easily without me even having to hang out on the metal plate.
At last I managed to free the reluctant jib sheet and slither, like a piece of soggy seaweed, over the stern deck into the boat. The boat itself resembled a heavily laden tanker, with her decks awash. I quickly dropped the mainsail – I remember the gaff bouncing off my shoulder – and brought the mizzen mast and sail aboard, which had dropped out of the boat while she was bottom-up.
The cockpit was rather a mess and bailing out was impossible as I’d lost the two buckets – in my haste to rig and catch the tide, I’d forgotten to lash some important bits to the boat. My rucksack, flares, spare lifejacket, floorboards, sandwiches and so on had all gone, but the oars, rowlocks and all the rig remained, plus the outboard.
In fact, the buckets wouldn’t actually have made much difference, as the centreboard case wasn’t high enough above the waterline and any water I bailed out would have poured in unless I was able to stuff the slot – this is a design fault that was fixed in later boats, but the fact remained that the boat was swamped and could not be emptied.
My neighbour, John Turner, a man who has sailed Drascombes for nearly thirty years, had warned me about this. The same happened to Webb Chiles between Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and he spent fourteen days adrift as a result…
The thirty minutes I had spent having fun in the water passed quite quickly, but drifting slowly for hours in cold water was another matter entirely.
I started experimenting with just the jib and tiller and found she would sail downwind very slowly – the outboard, having been soaked and still almost under water, was not an option, and I preferred sailing to using the oars. The shore looked to be about two miles away: we still had to cross the north channel shipping lane, but I thought I could end up somewhere around Hill Head.
I discovered that my cigarettes and lighter, stowed on top of my head under a hat, were still dry, so I lit up and decided that I would probably live after all. Things were looking up!
Two hours later, at approximately 21h30 I beached my half-sunk ‘whale’. The cold sea water was beginning to take its toll, and dry land, even a pebbly lee shore seemed good. I had made land without need of rescue.
Leaving the jib sheeted in to hold the boat aground with the bows square onto the beach (the tide was ebbing), I stowed the rudder and jumped victoriously onto terra firma, but by now I was extremely cold.
I headed down the beach to where I could see a light in one of the beachhouses and knocked on the door. After a long minute, a man appeared looking bewildered at my appearance.
Roger and his partner Sophia were kindness itself: a phone call to my wife Janet, who, fortunately was not expecting me back earlier, tea and sandwiches by the stove (bliss!) and I was soon recounting my foolish exploits.
By chance the owner of the neighbouring house spotted the boat without a crew and naturally called the coastguard.
Fortunately the situation was resolved rapidly as the coastguard officer called in at Roger’s house to find me thawing out by the fire, and was in time to call off the coastguard helicopter and lifeboats. The officer who filed the report on this incident, the coxswain of the Hamble RIB, gently rapped my knuckles for not reporting the damaged, abandoned boat on the beach immediately, and failing to put in a report about my passage to the coastguard. I could see the sense in this, after all it is what I teach my students – and of course I felt suitably chastened.
Roger’s neighbour was also kind enough to secure Ibitsam.
Janet arrived to pick me up saying that she hadn’t thought it a good day for sailing round the island anyway, and she wished she hadn’t lent me her camera. Sympathy seemed in very short supply.
The wind blew too hard to leave the beach the next day, but the following day was a warm SW F3. I cleaned the sand and water out of the boat, replaced one of the missing floorboards that some kind person had returned and rowed her away from Titchfield beach on the ebb at the top of the tide.
With great difficulty I managed to drop the centreboard jammed with stones from the beach. Then I raised the sails. The jib, torn slightly at the foot, was able to withstand such a gentle wind. Ibitsam, although in a sorry state, gamely accomplished the slow beat of five hours to Lymington, arriving at dusk as the tide turned against us. I had to wait another six days for a weather window before getting her home to Keyhaven, from where we had set out so light heartedly a week before.
Age does not seem to make me any wiser, but at least the drysuit had been properly christened…