Voyage of the Hurley Queen

28-31 October 2016

Hurley Queen

All summer I'd been hoping to take out the Hurley Queen, a 9.5m motor-sailer I bought last year, for a trip, but one thing and another... My work had been unexpectedly busy all summer leaving little time for leisure pursuits. As a result work on readying the boat had also progressed slowly, and there was always more to do. So we were coming to the end of the sailing season, defined by the insurance company as being April to October and it looked like it would pass without a single voyage. Then I suddenly found with only a week of the season left that I had actually cleared my backlog of urgent jobs and that the boat was in an adequate state to sail. She is moored on the river Asland, a tributory to the Ribble that flows through Preston. As everywhere along this coast there is only access to the sea around high tide, and navigating the river by night is not recommended. Furthermore there are no sheltered anchorages or all-tide harbours within about 4 hours cruise, so any trip to sea has to be when the tide is in the middle of the day. Well, next weekend has a spring tide around lunchtime, and the weather forecast is for high pressure and low winds so, go for it.

A friend had suggested I should go visit Sarah and Matthew in Beaumaris, Anglesey, so, why not, it's about two days sail each way. I gave them a call, but they weren't in. Well, either way it's a good destination to go for. I set out on Friday's tide; as expected not much wind, so I was using the engine. It was not the most auspicious start as when I got to the river mouth there was (as I believe there often is) a nasty chop over the bar. Despite the weather having been calm for several days, waves were breaking over the bows. After half an hour of this I was feeling rather queasy, sweating heavily and wondering if the whole trip could be like that. Where was the fun in this? Another half hour and the waves moderated into a more bearable swell, and I'd still just managed to keep my breakfast. Set the autopilot to go south and had a lie down until I felt better, although rather drained. I go tthe feeling that a lot of the discomfort was due to the load on my neck muscles keeping my head up against the movement: once I rested my head I felt a lot better.

Then I came to Liverpool Bay, where there is a lot of commercial shipping traffic and I needed to pay attention. I turned on all my electronics, radar etc. to see where other ships were, and saw a great mass of stuff ahead of me, with the system popping off collision-course alarms constantly. I figured out how to adjust the system parameters from those left by the previous owner to behave a bit more rationally in this sort of condition. It turns out there was a new wind farm being built just the other side of the main shipping channel, but it was too new to be on my charts. I was intercepted by a big patrol boat who warned me off, and escorted me around the danger area.

Anchoring off Abergele in North Wales was not too bad. This is one of the areas known as "roads": relatively sheltered shallow waters where in the days of commercial sailing ships, ships would anchor to await tide, loads or whatever they waited for. Effectively a parking lot for tall ships. Unfortunately in absence of wind, the longshore current holds the boat parallel to the shore, while the waves come in perpendicular so hit me broadside on and made the boat roll uncomfortably. Raising the mizzen sail helped damp that out, at the expense of a bit more noise. Sleeping was fitful, but I woke at dawn feeling rested and carried on. I got to my destination in good time and anchored. Sarah and Matthew were still not at home but never mind. As it turned out I couldn't even go ashore there because there were no 'alongside' visitor's moorings. I did see some unused mooring buoys, but attaching to one of those single handed in the dark close to other boats did not appeal. There is also a pier, but access is restricted during the day, and again getting in there on an unknown mooring single handed at night didn't sound like fun. I do have a dinghy, although it is a bit leaky. It would be good for a five minute row from a mooring buoy to the shore, but it was a lot further from the anchorage, and it's hard to bale and row at the same time. It has an old outboard motor but I couldn't get that to start, it hadn't been used all year and servicing the dinghy was still on my to-do list. What's more its fuel tap was leaking and dripping petrol everywhere. I took it apart and found it had a cork seal that had shrunk. I wondered how to fix that, and after a while a memory dredged from the depths of antiquity surfaced, I don't know how I knew, maybe from playing with these old engines when I was a teenager, maybe I read it somewhere, but I remembered that cork seals dry out, and you have to boil them in water to restore them. So I did that, and it worked perfectly, but most of the fuel had either leaked away or evaporated, I hadn't brought a fresh supply (actually I'd emptied the can into Natalia's motor scooter) and the engine still wouldn't start.

So the next day I set off for home. That third day was truly uneventful, nice weather, still no wind and I anchored just off Prestatyn beach, the most easterly on the north Wales coast, with small waves just rocking the boat gently. The dinghy was still on its davits at the stern and was squeaking steadily. I tried several attempts to shut it up that helped a bit but not much. Lowered to the water it just kept bumping against the boat which was just as bad. The only effective solution short of hoisting it aboard I later found was to lash it to the transom at night so it couldn't swing. There was more squeaking coming from the stove. Repairing its gimbals (marine stoves are meant to tilt to stay level when the boat heels over) had been part of the summer work. Greasing the bearings and tightening loose screws helped, but it still moans. I either need a latch to lock the gimbal when not in use, and/or to improve the mounting so nothing stationary touches anything that moves, and to make sure the flexible pipe is secured well out of the way. We learn by testing, it was after all the main purpose of the trip to test the boat and its systems.

I had to get up at 4am in order to get back to the Ribble in time for high tide, so it was still dark when I set out. No problems, I was watching where there were big ships stationary, waiting for the tide. At about 6am, as I was passing a ship near the new wind farm site, the engine faltered. I saw the oil pressure had gone to zero, when I put it out of gear and to idle, it stopped. Checked: plenty of oil, no leaks. Initial diagnosis: a broken oil pump, that's pretty bad, means taking the engine out to fix it. What to do? I stood on deck and there was a slight breeze. Well, better get the sails up, it's all I've got. This was the first time I had put them up at sea, and it was still dark too, so there were a few snags and it took a while. There was just enough wind to move at less than walking pace, maybe 0.5 knots, and I was still learning how to handle her. There was barely steerage way, the boat wanted to just drift sideways with the southwest wind: it took all my efforts to get her pointed downwind, build up a lttle speed (speed is a misnomer!) then steer northwards a bit to avoid drifting east into the new wind farm site again. I still came within 100 yards of the outermost turbine pillar before I cleared it and it seemed like forever until it was astern.

Obviously I wasn't going to get to the Ribble in time for high tide, but I was making headway in the right direction, so worry about that later. The VHF weather forecast now started warning about an end to the fine weather and possible strong winds the next night. Well at least that meant I could look forward to some increasing winds during the day. And it duly did increase to a south wind sufficient to achieve a sedate walking pace, about 2.5 knots. So I sailed on and by mid afternoon had got to the Ribble estuary, then the wind died completely. I was becalmed in horizon to horizon glassy sea (OK, I could see the oil rig off Southport and could even occasionally hear their tannoy making anouncements) and drifting on the tide, going nowhere for the next two hours. Standing on the cabin roof I could get a phone signal so I called the boatyard. They couldn't help in this situation, so I got on the VHF radio and called the coastguard, who sent out a lifeboat. About halfway the lifeboat reported fog. At the same time the wind suddenly picked up, now from the north-west, and I was able to make headway towards them. As they approached I lowered my sails and stopped, and the fog enveloped me. I could see them electronically, I heard their engine come close and go past. We spent the next ten minutes or so hunting around in the darkening fog, calling on the VHF and trying to find each other. Then I lit a red emergency handheld flare (remembering as its exhaust started to scorch the hair of my hand that I was supposed to point it downwind - it had been too dark to read the instructions properly) and he saw it and came on in. He put two men aboard, took me in tow and we went into the estuary, out of the fog, and waited for the next (night time) high water so we could get up the river. We had several hours sitting out in the estuary, with nothing to do but tell tales to each other and moan about the lifeboat coxswain sometimes leaving us standing broadside-on the the waves, which made everything fall about in the cabin. Actually I had my mizzen sail up again for stability, so the lifeboat rolled worse than we did. Lifeboats don't have the luxury of sails. Talking about my single handed sailing and the ease with which Hurley Queen stayed on course untended, we found that the senior lifeboatman and I had both read the story of Joshua Slocum and his yacht Spray (in which he had had been the first man to sail around the world single handed in 1895-8) so we were telling the junior lifeboatman about his exploits. The Spray had been famous for being able to hold a course for days on end, long before the advent of self-steering gear.

So finally we went in, rendezvoused with the river lifeboat, a little, fast inflatable, and they tied me to a mooring buoy near the lifeboat station (I mean the boat, not me personally). By now I was so sleepy that when the river boat came alongside and my lifeboatman pointed at a couple of lights in the river and said "there's the ILB, behind you" I didn't know what he was talking about (he meant Inland Life Boat - those guys use a lot of alphabet soup.). I elected to remain aboard the boat as I could do nothing until daybreak, and the lifeboat station was on the other side of the river from my car. By now it was after 10pm and I was pretty tired so I cleared up, made a sandwich ( I hadn't eaten since breakfast except for a few pieces of the lifeboatmen's chocolate bar) and went to bed.

As soon as my head hit the pillow, my heart started fluttering. OK, not surprising that I might have palpitations after all the stress, tiredness and not eating, but it also snapped me wide awake, prevented me from sleeping. I know these things happen and usually if you ignore it it goes away. After about half an hour it was still happening, I checked my pulse and found that underneath the palpitations, my heart was racing: I had a tachycardia going on (later said to be about 140/minute). Not good, and it didn't look like going away on its own. So after much soul searching I got on the radio and called the river lifeboat back to take me off. Of course they were only 5 minutes away across the river, so it wasn't a big deal but it was still another launch for them. When they arrived they had called the ambulance service and been told there was a wait for ambulances who were very busy (aren't they always), so the coastguard had brought his search-and-rescue truck and raced me to Blackpool hospital in that, blue light flashing. The first thing the hospital receptionist said was “I'm sorry you've come to the wrong window”, we being at the entrance reserved for emergency services. She apologised when my companion identified himself as the coastguard; I guess they don't often get admissions from that emergency service, so hadn't recognised the uniform. They had warned the hospital to expect me, so the nurses were referring me as "the boat man". I think they imagined I'd been pulled out of a rowing boat somewhere out in middle of the the ocean, not a yachtie from a couple of miles off Southport.

In A&E they quickly confirmed that I indeed had an atrial fibrillation, which is something some people live with for years, although they do sometimes suddenly drop dead. If fixed within 48 hours it isn't a problem. So they did their stuff, sticking needles in me and sticking wires onto my hairy body (and again when they fell off until I was covered in stickers), doing ECG and blood pressure cuffs and blood tests, then gave me the drug that stops it as a 10 minute drip. It worked just fine, heartbeat back to normal. Then I was no longer an emergency case and hospital routine went back to its usual slow steady pace. Anyway the rules say they have to wait a while till the drug wears off to make sure the offending part of my heart restarts properly, which it did.

Once my heart stopped racing I felt sleepy again, and kept dozing off. But every time I did the vital-signs monitor started bleeping and woke me up again. I think it was responding to a drop in my 'sats ' (blood oxygen saturation). There was an awful lot of bleeping going on: before the medication the same thing had been bleeping constantly and flashing "tachycardia". Yes, I'd noticed, that's what I'm here for. The drug delivery pump bleeped every minute or so just saying "I'm still at it". All around the room other monitors and devices were bleeping continually. Whoever designs these medical electronics needs to learn a bit more about noise pollution, I'm sure no-one pays any attention to the bleeps in such an environment.

They told me that I should contact my GP and increase the dose of one of the medications I am taking for blood pressure control to prevent this happening again. So it was about 6am when I finally was disconnected and allowed to go home. Of course I was still on the wrong side of the Ribble, and my car was at the boatyard, so I had to get a taxi, first to the coastguard station to pick up the bags I had brought ashore, then around through Preston to the boatyard. Arriving there just as they opened I was able to meet with the boss (acting boss, the real one was on holiday) and start organising getting my boat towed back to the yard, then home for some food and sleep.

I woke at teatime to find they still hadn't found a boat to tow me in, but gave me the number of a guy who has a boat in a neighbouring yard who does towing, but was currently out. I eventually got hold of him and he agreed to do the job on the next tide, for a paltry sum, less than a garage would charge to tow a car in. I also got the yard to hire me one of their junior workers as a deckhand, and off we set. The 'tug' turned out to be a nice if elderly fishing boat with a big engine, the owner very experienced and his crewman an ancient fisherman who lives aboard his own boat, whom I had met before on the river.

The procedure is tricky because of the tide, current and depth. The water would only be deep enough for just long enough to make the trip there and back, and against the strong tidal current in both directions, which is why we needed a powerful boat rather than the yard's little tug. Arriving at the boatyard everyone wanted to hear the story, and told me I had been reported in the local paper. So two of us were standing on the boatyard's dock in lifejackets as the water rose when the boat turned up, and we sped out toward the sea. Found my boat where I had left it, mercifully still in place and undamaged. Hitched up as the tide was turning and churned back up the river. Watching the clock and the depth gauge, it was getting close. The real worry was if he could get his boat back to his yard in time, as it was further upriver than ours. Discussions ensued by radio and cellphone between the two boats and the yard as to the quickest way to detach and let the tug get on her way, so they were standing by as we dropped the tow, leaving me in a shallow-water mooring. Pausing only for me to hand over a bundle of cash, a bit more than he had asked, he disappeared up the river. As they left the old fisherman and I exchanged promises across the water that I would take him sailing next season, and he would teach me some fishing. Meanwhile the boatyard's little tug moved me to a deep-water mooring, otherwise within the next half hour I would be aground as the tide went out.

So ended the saga. All that remained was to unload my remaining belongings from the boat to my car, hook up the battery charger to the dock socket (I'd run half the batteries flat running without engine for nearly 24 hours), have a little discussion about possible approaches to the future engine repair (it being heavy and under an enclosed wheelhouse), and head for home and bed.

Well, I bought the boat with a view to having adventures, and it hasn't disappointed in that respect. While tired and sleep deprived, I do feel enervated as a result of this adventure, more 'alive' than I have felt for a while.