Will Stirling and Dave Balaam sail from Devon to Jersey in a 14ft Stirling and Son clinker-built dinghy


In early May Will Stirling and Dave Balaam set off across the Channel from Start Point in a 14ft Stirling and Son sailing dinghy – and arrived in St Helier, Jersey after 37.5 hours at sea.

The photos show Will and Dave arriving at St Helier (courtesy of the Jersey Evening post), the moment before leaving Start Point, and Will on the helm somewhere out at sea.

Here’s Will’s report:

Sailing across the English Channel in a clinker dinghy

The plan was to sail the 14ft traditionally built wooden dinghy across the English Channel to coincide with the Jersey Boat Show – and the aim was to highlight the seaworthy qualities of the dinghy’s design.

The dinghy was designed and built by Stirling and Son as an Edwardian day sailer. She is built of mahogany on oak, copper and bronze fastened with a gold leaf inlaid cove line and carved scroll-work. The balanced lug sail is of clipper canvas with three strand rope rove through bronze and ash blocks.

The secret of good planning lies in attention to detail; the Antarctic explorer Amundsen noted that, ‘Victory awaits he who has everything in order.’

The underlying principle was to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. The distance to be travelled, if we could follow a direct course, was 95 miles from Start Point in Devon to St Helier harbour on Jersey. We expected a crossing of between 30 and 48 hours depending on wind and tide conditions. Sailing speed could be up to 6 knots, rowing speed was 2.5 knots.

Following dinghy capsize and immersion trials in our dry suits, we were confident that we could deal with all foreseeable eventualities.

The principal passage planning concerns were the shipping lanes and the tides around the Channel Islands, and we chose a route that took us outside the traffic separation zone and avoided the worst tidal areas. We carried a hand-held VHF, GPS, EPIRB, Iridium telephone, radar reflector and and offshore flare pack including white collision flares. The Brixham, Guernsey and Jersey coastguards were informed.

Chris Tibbs, an offshore weather expert who lives just a mile from the Stirling and Son yard, telephoned on Wednesday morning to tell me that there was a weather window for the next 48 hours. We adjusted the passage plan to suit the weather window and decided to leave from the Start Point area at midnight that evening, the 2nd May 2012.

Everything had been organised down to the smallest detail: even the luminous compass was charged under a desk-top light.

We left home on time at 2130 for a small beach near Start Point. Sara [Stirling] was driving. An hour after we had left I remembered where the compass was – at home and still under the desk  lamp. We couldn’t consider the trip without the compass. What could we do as the tidal window had to be met?

I rang Rob Cattell whose phone number I was lucky enough to have on the mobile and who I thought lived on our route.

Two years previously Rob had built a dinghy on one of our dinghy building courses.

It felt like an odd phone conversation. At 2230 on a dark night, I found it difficult to explain that we were planning to sail across the channel and mumbled something about launching a dinghy from the beach.

What could a compass be needed for at this time of night and why would anybody be launching a small boat from a peninsula beach in the dark? Rob had two hand bearing compasses and as luck would have it his house was right on our route. I only had long johns to wear in the dry suit.

So here was Rob’s former tutor turning up late at night in his underwear to borrow a compass. Pretty strange; I dread to think what the curtain-twitching neighbours thought.

We set off into the night and country lanes to get lost. We couldn’t find the route to the beach. I was beginning to get wound up. We arrived back at the same junction for the third time minus one trailer mudguard and phoned Rob again. He kindly turned out and led us to Beesands, north east of Start Point.

There is a small concrete slipway leading down to the shingle beach. Whilst reversing onto the slipway I pulled the bumper off the car on a concrete post. I had borrowed the car. Finally, the recent stormy weather had washed the shingle beach away and there was a 3ft 6in drop off the end of the steep slipway onto large rocks embedded in the remaining shingle. As they say, ‘If you can’t take a joke don’t own a boat.’

In the dark we lowered the heavy dinghy over the ledge stern first and then lifted the bow down before skidding her on an old door that we had found across the beach to the water. Finally we were afloat. A local man appeared with a high power torch to see if we were outboard thieves.

First watch

Dave took the first watch while I set the boat in order.

The wind became stronger as we left the land, and we soon had a good deal of spray coming over the foredeck, which was unpleasant. However, it felt good to be going fast and making good progress.

We split the watches into two hour shifts. Before daylight I made the error of facing forward when kneeling in front of the bucket. With the dry suit open at the waist an enthusiastic wave top leapt over the foredeck and straight into my underpants; the extent of the error became apparent when I stood up and felt the cold rivulets of seawater run down and collect in the foot of the dry suit.

Start Point light winked at us on a reciprocal course astern until the sun rose.

The hour before dawn is often the most depressing time of day. None of Pushkin’s ‘golden ranks of serried clouds’ awaited the coming of the sun. A grey and damp dawn displaced the darkness with both of us feeling cold and tired. I cooked a can of beans on the MSR stove and a saucepan of tea for us both, which proved a a morale-booster.

As the day drew on it became warmer. The voyage had been planned so that we would cross the shipping lanes to the west of the Casquets Separation Zone in daylight. Crossing the shipping lanes was one of the principal concerns of the voyage, and I felt that we would be able to judge distances better in daylight.

In practice, we had no difficulty in crossing the shipping lanes. Although we saw up to twenty ships, traffic was not heavy. To the south of the shipping lanes the wind died away to give a flat calm sea through which we had to row.

After two hours of rowing a light breeze filled in from the north east and blew us steadily on towards Guernsey. By 1600 we were within ten miles and could see the island. We had come to the east of the direct course from Start Point to La Hanois lighthouse in order to gain some distance to windward in case the north easterly wind veered round towards the east.

The new course to clear La Hanois was due south. Due to a north west-going tide the dinghy had to be steered west of south, and with the wind having backed to NNE we were sailing dead downwind. As we sailed through areas of slight overfalls I was concerned that the dinghy might be turned by the current, which would cause a gybe and a possible capsize.

We sailed around La Hanois and set a south easterly course for La Corbiere Lighthouse on the south western tip of Jersey at a distance of twenty four miles. Night fell and the wind came from the east.

With the tide turning to the south east we were unable to make our course. Although visibility was now poor, we could make out some of Guernsey to port. We sailed south south east and as La Corbiere became due east of our position I began to worry that if the wind came back from the north east as expected we may find it hard to reach Jersey at all.

I tacked the dinghy and we sailed north north east for two hours. We then tacked again and were able to make the course to La Corbiere which we could now see at a distance of eight miles.

Having been awake for a day of work, a night of sailing and a day of sailing, we were both extremely tired during this second night, and I begun to hallucinate sounds. Focussing on the La Corbiere light was difficult hard: my head would nod forward, I would force myself awake and lift my head, and the light house would appear as just a strip of light lined up and down until I focussed on the dot of light. My head would then nod down as the cycle was repeated.

Neither of us slept very well in the dinghy. We lay on the windward bottom boards on a thermarest in our dry suits. I called it a couple of hours of pretending to sleep.

As we neared La Corbiere thick fog came down. We were within half a mile of Jersey before we could see it.

As the dawn broke through the night, the wind died and we found ourselves at the turn of the tide two cables from the light house and associated rocks. I tried to anchor but was unable to find the bottom with 23 metres of rope. We needed to attach ourselves if we were not to be washed back out to sea and lose several miles made good.

We rowed as fast as we could towards the lighthouse and having tried to anchor again and failed to find the bottom, grabbed hold of a fisherman’s buoy. Stupidly we grabbed it aft of midships and quickly had the buoy trapped between rudder and transom with the boat facing aft into the tide. The tide was now running fast and we didn’t want to let go of the buoy. We couldn’t unship the rudder. With a great effort Dave managed to push the buoy underneath the rudder while I warned him not to fall in on any account.  We moved the buoy up to the bow and the boat span around.

This was frightening as the boat lurched when she was broadside on to the tide, and we could have been awash in moments – but she sat very comfortably when moored by the bow.

Meanwhile the La Corbiere lighthouse was playing a merry tune on its fog horn a cable away from us – it was very loud and there were five hours of foul tide to go before we could go on. We both donned our Russian hats with their ear flaps pulled down, and hoped our ears wouldn’t start bleeding.

Notwithstanding the noise we both fell asleep for two hours after having eaten some more hot beans.

At 1100 we let go of the mooring thinking that the tidal flow had reduced enough to sail. As we moved away from the land the wind increased.

We had six miles to sail in a direct line to St Helier, but unfortunately the wind was coming straight from St Helier. We tacked out to sea against the end of an adverse tide. We made slow progress as the wind increased to a steady F4, which by now was almost too much for us both.

I rang the organiser at St Helier, Nigel Philpott, to say that we would beach the boat in St Brelade’s Bay, the first sandy beach that we could reach. Nigel thought that would be fine but that it would be better if we could reach St Helier for the media. We sailed on, tacking out to sea and then back towards the land. After an hour and a half the tide turned and we made much better progress over a choppier sea with wind against tide, and finally reached St Helier at 1330 on Friday.

We had spent thirty seven and a half hours at sea.

Having tied up the boat and enjoyed a dazed walk ashore we were taken to St Helier’s best hotel, the Pomme D’Or where we washed, ate and slept. A contrast of that kind certainly sharpens one’s appreciation of ones circumstances!

Stirling and Son undertake traditional yacht building and wooden boat repair, and are based at Tavistockin Devon. For information see: www.stirlingandson.co.uk.

Rowing in surf, with windows?

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Jersey skiff

The skiff in question – photo published with the permission of photographer Walter Bachteler. Thanks Walter!

A reader has been in touch to ask what this boat might be. Does anyone know? And why does it have windows to allow the rowers to see the level of the water?

See the photos in question at Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/65538230@N00/3405009991/in/set-72157616150345313/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/65538230@N00/3428080202/

PS It turns out this is a Jersey skiff used in lifeguard competitions, and that the ‘windows’ are holes intended to free the boat of water when it starts to fill in surf.  The point is clearly made by a series of astonishing photos from the 2008 Asbury Park Lifeguard Challenge – thanks to Jim Mason for indicating the way, and to everyone else for a splendid set of comments and links.


Jim later sent me some more links, which are too good to miss.

http://www.lifeguardart.com depicts the men and women of the South Jersey beach patrols using the version of the Jersey beach skiff that originated in Atlantic City and environs. It is round-bilged and fuller-bodied than the flat-bottomed Seabright skiffs used up on the northern beaches. It is also heavier by 50 lbs. and not self-bailing.

Also check out the http://www.lifeguardraces.com galleries at http://web.sendtoprint.net/proofbook/galleries.asp?CouponID=Lifeguard

Thanks Jim! Some of the Lifeguardart images in particular are superb.