Circumnavigating Great Britain in an 18ft speedboat: Brixham to Milford Haven

In this series, we follow Ian Furby as he continues his story of circumnavigating Great Britain in an 18ft speedboat

Having made it from Yorkshire to Brixham in his 18ft Nordkapp with the help of a friend during the first stage of his UK circumnavigation, and then from Runswick Bay, Yorkshire, to Harwich, Essex, in just one day, Ian Fruby now goes it alone to the Scilly Isles and South Wales.

The route

Day 4: 13 June Brixham to Scilly Isles, 140nm

We’d made it from Yorkshire to Brixham in just three days but now my friend and crew mate Harty had to get back home, leaving me to push on alone. By 6.30am I was keen to get going so we said our goodbyes and I cast off.

I’d really been looking forward to this next leg exploring the Devon and Cornish coast with its famous turquoise waters. The Scillies were also an exciting proposition but being some distance out into the Atlantic Ocean and exposed to wind from any direction, it was a big ask of my small open boat.

Photo: Ian Furby

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But first I had to deal with another problem: oil, or rather the lack of it. I was fast running out of the special two-stroke oil my Evinrude outboard uses. At the current burn rate, I would run out entirely in Wales.

I wasn’t too worried, though, as I was heading for Plymouth to refuel and I was bound to be able to get some there. In the meantime, the sun was out, the sea was flat, the radio was on and the boat was purring along at 22 knots. Everything was good in the world.

In less than two hours I was pulling alongside the fuel dock at Queen Anne’s Battery, Plymouth. It being 8.30am on a Sunday there was no sign of life, so I hailed on Channel 80 as instructed before resorting to the phone.

The chap who picked up explained that the pump didn’t open until 9am but said he’d try to get in earlier if he could. I tidied the boat, washed her down, and lined up the jerrycans ready for filling. I also changed into shorts and a T-shirt as it was already getting hot.

The pump attendant arrived as promised and once I’d filled and paid up, I asked if I could moor the boat up temporarily while I nipped to a chandler and picked up some oil.

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“They don’t open until 10am on Sundays, mate,” he replied. Not wanting to wait and knowing I had enough for another 400nm or so, I thanked him and pushed on.

My next stop was Falmouth, where I was confident I could find some oil, so off I went.

The sea continued to flatten and at 25 knots, I was making good ground. Less than two hours later, I was pulling into Falmouth. I didn’t really need fuel but the fuel berth was empty so I asked the attendant if there was a chandler handy. There were two – excellent! He told me where to tie up and having paid £12 for a couple of hours berthing, I headed into town.

Bosun’s Locker had sold out of oil but the assistant suggested I try Robin Curnow’s in Penryn, just three miles away.

‘I’m sure they’ll have some,’ he said, hopefully. My spirits lifted. ‘The only trouble is they’re closed on Sundays.’ Aagh! I headed back to the quay, disheartened but not defeated.

Leaving Brixham, bound for Cornwall. Photo: Ian Furby

I was still good for a couple of hundred miles and if it came to it Harty said he’d buy some and Fedex it to one of my planned stops.

After a quick sort out, I was on my way again. I was still aiming to reach Padstow that night and if I included a dash to the Scilly Isles, it would add another 50nm onto an already big day.

Just under an hour after leaving Falmouth, I was passing Lizard Point, the most southerly point of the UK. Less than an hour after that, I was at Land’s End. I would have liked to have gone ashore and got the obligatory photo at the signpost but the steep cliffs make that very tricky and it was already 2.30pm.

It was decision time: the Scilly Isles or bust? I plotted the course of 22nm south-west. The sea was like glass. I turned to port and put the throttle down. Summer Buoys powered across the glassy surface at 25 knots but although the surface itself was smooth we were climbing up and down vast rollers 10ft high and 100ft apart, accelerating down the face before climbing the next one.

Halfway across, I started to feel queasy. I thought I must be exhausted – I’d only had three or four hours’ sleep the last three nights. I never get seasick (except after a heavy night in the pub followed by an early fishing trip in a lumpy sea) but I was at sea and I was feeling sick so I may have to concede I was seasick.

Stopping in Falmouth to fill up. Photo: Ian Furby

My pride now damaged, I turned up the music, pushed the throttle forward and laughed like a lunatic. Five minutes later, I felt ace, bloke status restored – in my head, at least.

Just over an hour after leaving Land’s End, I was fast approaching St Mary’s. Anyone remember The A Team and B.A. Baracus having to be drugged to get him on a plane?

If that had happened to me and I’d just regained consciousness, I’d have put good money on this being the Caribbean. The sea was as clear as gin and the islands were fringed with palm trees and pristine white beaches. If Sheddy ever throws me out, there’s a good chance you’ll find me in the Scillies.

Pulling into the harbour at Hugh Town, St Mary’s, I approached a chap on a blue RIB and asked if there was anywhere I could moor and whether he knew of anyone who might sell oil.

He said there was a small sheltered beach behind the jetty and gave me the number of the local outboard dealer that I called and left a message for. As it was a rising tide, I beached Summer Buoys and set both an aft and for’ard anchor. I reckoned I’d have two hours before I’d need to swim for her.

Wandering around bustling Falmouth on the hunt for two-stroke oil. Photo: Ian Furby

Scilly Isles to Padstow, 65nm

I’d just finished checking the anchors, when my phone rang. It was Dan, the outboard dealer returning my call.

“I’m looking for Evinrude XD100 oil. Do you have any?”

“Yep, I’ve got some.”

I couldn’t believe my luck. “How many do you have?” I asked.

“Three or four, maybe five,” he replied.

“That’s great news,” I said. “Can I take them all?”

“No problem,” he said. “Give me a call in the morning, I’m closed on Sundays.”

Ian’s attempt at a DIY autopilot may not meet with RYA approval! Photo: Ian Furby

Noooo! Even my best Yorkshire charm and some pathetic pleading didn’t work. He had his feet up, pint in hand and wasn’t shifting for some daft lad in a speedboat from the mainland. I can’t say I blamed him. I fancied a pint myself.

I walked through Hugh Town with its quaint stone cottages and sub-tropical gardens, half expecting to see to see a macaw fly past before I entered the Atlantic Inn, a lovely pub with a terrace overlooking the harbour. I sat at a table with an amazing view, ordered a beer and thought what a plonker I’d feel if running out of oil put paid to my trip.

An hour and a half after arriving, I was leaving again, even though I felt I hadn’t spent nearly enough time in the Scillies. I refuelled from the jerrycans and, with a massive sigh, reversed my transit back to the mainland. I’d just cleared St Mary’s when I had a thought. Why not stay for the night? I could go for a proper explore, find some digs or stay on the boat, and get the oil in the morning. It would add another 65nm to tomorrow’s planned 90nm route to Milford Haven but that was more than doable. Problem solved.

Tropical scenes looking across Hugh Town harbour, St Mary’s. Photo: Ian Furby

Just as I’d decided to stay, it occurred to me to see what the weather would be doing tomorrow. Guess what? All the boaty sites I checked said that if I left the next morning, I’d almost certainly perish. OK, I may be exaggerating a tad, but it would definitely be quite a fight.

I had no choice but to press on while the sea remained calm. The tide had turned and was now in full flood, helping to flatten the Atlantic rollers a little. The sea was like glass, the tide was with me and I was flying. If anyone had seen me, I must have looked like a crazy man, yelling “Yee-hah” as I flew across the sea in my tiny speedboat.

Reaching the mainland, I pushed on up the north coast of Cornwall, passing several ruined tin mines before being joined by a pod of dolphins. All the pre-trip worries about being on my own had disappeared. I was having a fantastic day.

Arriving safely in Padstow after a mishap with the fuel cap. Photo: Ian Furby

It was then that I noticed my schoolboy error. The fuel cap was off, dangling on its retaining chain over the back of the boat. “Furby, you cock!” How long had that been off? I’d refuelled in Scilly, more than 30nm away.

There were splashes of seawater all around the filler cap. Some of it must have entered the tank but I didn’t know how much. What I did know was that water in petrol is bad, bad, bad – and potentially very expensive. Never mind the oil issue; if I carried on like this, I might not have a working engine.

Time for a pep talk

There are two water separators on Summer Buoys’ fuel line but I didn’t know how much they could cope with. I had spares too but I was worried about changing them at sea and being thwarted by an air lock.

The engine was still running and sounded sweet enough. What should I do? I decided the worst thing I could do was run the tank low and allow any water swilling round the bottom to be sucked into the engine, so I filled the tank with my last jerrycan and hoped the water filters did their job for the 30nm to Padstow.

Making sure the cap was now securely fitted, I had a stern word with myself. “Furbs, you’re on your own. You really need to be on this. Stop rushing!”

On colder nights Ian slept under this tarp. Photo: Ian Furby

With one ear listening for any telltale change in the engine note, I finally reached Padstow at 8.30pm, having completed 220nm in a day. Pulling into an empty berth, I quizzed a chap on a neighbouring boat about whether it was free, as it looked like a private mooring. He hadn’t seen it being used but said the harbour master would know.

I got directions to the harbour master’s office and went to pay my dues. I was met by Alan, a larger-than-life character with a beaming smile. I explained where I’d moored up. “That’s John’s berth. He’s a grumpy old bugger but he ain’t had his boat in for months,” he replied in a broad Cornish accent. “If he comes down and kicks off, tell him that Al okayed it.”

I knew from my research that they didn’t sell fuel in the harbour but when I asked Al where to get a taxi from to fill up my jerrycans he said they offered a refuel service; if I dropped my cans at the office at 8am, someone would collect them, fill them and drop them back to me for a £2 surcharge. Genius!

Time was knocking on and I needed grub. Every restaurant was rammed so after trying a couple without any joy I settled for a couple of pints and a bag of crisps. I finished them quickly and bought a bottle of Shiraz to take back to the boat where I had some supplies. But first, I needed a shower. Boy, did I stink.

Summer Buoys beached for a quick snap off the cost of South Wales. Photo: Ian Furby

I hadn’t washed or changed clothes since leaving Harwich three days earlier. I headed to the shower block and had one of the best showers ever. Clean, and with a fresh change of clothes, I returned to the boat.

Flipping the driver’s seat back, I poured myself a plastic cup of wine and tucked into a cold tin of Heinz’s finest sausage and baked beans straight from the can, followed by a chocolate bar for dessert. The wine was very pleasant, though in retrospect a Pinot Noir would have suited it better.

By now it was well after 10pm so I rigged up the tarp over the bow cushions, crawled into my sleeping bag and drifted off, dreaming of dolphins, roller coasters and oil.

Day 5: 14 June Padstow to Lundy Island, 45nm

Although I slept well, I woke early. It was a glorious morning, so I tidied the boat, took the fuel cans to the office, then headed to a sandwich shop on the quay for a bacon butty and coffee. It was time to tackle the oil problem again.

The sea state had been much better since leaving Rye, and losing Harty had reduced the weight too so the oil burn rate had slowed significantly – but I still needed several gallons more. Today’s destination was Milford Haven, which had a couple of chandlers in the marina so I called ahead to see if they had any.

Windjammer Marine didn’t have any in stock but suggested I try the local Evinrude dealer, West Wales Marine, 5 miles away in Neyland.

St Govan’s chapel nestled into one of Pembrokeshire’s rocky coves. Photo: Ian Furby

Hallelujah – they had some. The engineer, Martin, asked how much I wanted as they stocked it in a 45-gallon drum and needed to decant it into smaller containers. “Could you possibly do eight?” I asked. He could. He even offered to bring it to Milford Haven for me after he finished work. The relief was incredible.

Feeling very pleased with myself, I collected my full jerrycans, topped up the boat’s tank and headed back out through the tidal gate and into the Camel Estuary, promising to return some day soon to see more of this quaint Cornish town.

I was looking forward to Day 5 of my adventure as I set course for Lundy island. My initial plan was to hug the coast, then take the 15nm crossing from Bideford to Lundy. Sadly, after the amazing start to the day, a heavy sea fret had come in and obscured the mainland. As visibility was better further out to sea, I decided to plot a direct course instead.

Two-and-a-half hours after leaving Padstow, I was approaching Lundy. With its steep, grassy, cliffs, it is a small but stunning part of the British Isles. I would have liked to go ashore for a quick look round and a pie and a pint at the Marisco Tavern, but there was nowhere safe to leave the boat and beaching wasn’t an option due to the island’s rocky coastline.

I broke out my sandwich and refuelled the boat, then took 15 minutes to kick back and admire the view. It was during this break that West Wales Marine called wanting payment for the oil. The woman on the line asked for £99, which seemed ridiculously cheap given that I normally pay £50–55 per gallon. Happy days; this one was just getting better and better. Paid up, fuelled up and full up, I sent a quick message to Harty to let him know the oil was sorted and cracked on.

Sleeping under the stars in Milford Haven. Photo: Ian Furby

Lundy to Milford Haven, 40nm

The sea fret was still with me, so again I straight-lined it across the Bristol Channel to Wales. As I approached the Pembrokeshire coast, the sea fret lifted, the clouds parted and the sun appeared. The closer I got, the more beautiful the scenery became.

In a similar vein to Cornwall, the coastline is littered with long sandy beaches and a chain of perfect crescent coves. Seabirds wheeled overhead and plunged into the sea around me, hunting for fish. At Elegug Stacks there were so many guillemots, I could barely see the cliffs for birds – the noise was deafening.

Milford Haven is one of the largest deep-water natural harbours in the world and the marina there has 24-hour access via a lock.

I radioed in, asking if they could squeeze me in for the night. After a short wait I was advised that they could and was hailed to the lock. I might have been 53 but I was as excited as a child. I’d never been through a lock before!

Having done only 90nm and with a later start that morning, not only had it been a relatively easy day, but for the second day running I was where I’d hoped to be. I was chuffed to bits but as I was due to meet my friend Dobbo in Oban, Scotland, just two days from now, I had a couple of big days ahead of me.

Lundy’s inhospitable coastline meant stopping for a quick pint wasn’t viable. Photo: Ian Furby

I found my berth, tied up, gave Martin a call to confirm a time and place for dropping off the oil and went to the marina office. That’s when the next bombshell dropped. I had planned to cross the Irish Sea to Rosslare tomorrow so I could shelter from the prevailing south-westerly winds on the journey north but the marina staff said that in recent weeks boats were being turned away from Ireland due to Covid restrictions at the time.

Stupidly, I’d not thought about this; now it seemed blindingly obvious.

My only other option was to carry on up the more exposed west coast of Wales or head straight to Northern Ireland, 200nm from Milford Haven and at the very limit of my boat’s fuel range.

I decided to ring one of the marinas in Ireland where I was planning to refuel. An old boy called Patrick answered. I explained my dilemma and in a strong Irish accent he replied: “If you don’t fecking tell me where you’ve come from, I won’t fecking ask!” That was good enough for me, I was Ireland bound.

Refuelled and back in my berth, Martin called to say he was five minutes away – perfect. Right on cue he pulled up in an old Land Rover Discovery. I was busy telling him what a lifesaver he was when he opened the tailgate of his truck and my heart sank.

More of Pembrokeshire’s coves. Photo: Ian Furby

I couldn’t believe what my eyes were telling me, instead of the eight one-gallon containers I was expecting to see, there were just two. I rewound the conversation in my head. I hadn’t mentioned litres because I’d always bought the stuff in gallon cans. I had been talking gallons; he had been talking litres. My fault, and I should have twigged when I heard the price. I thanked him and tried to give him some beer money but he wouldn’t accept it.

Back at the boat, I contacted Dobbo. In the pub, the evening before my departure, he’d agreed to join me but he’d had several shandies at the time and I wasn’t sure he’d come through. I told him it was looking like I could make Oban on Wednesday evening, explained the oil saga and sent him a photo of what we needed. Could he find some and bring it with him?

Ten minutes later, he’d booked his train and was on the case of finding the oil. Excellent, things were looking up; I had enough oil to reach Scotland, I had 48 hours to get there and I was fuelled up and ready for the first lock at 4.33am tomorrow.

Next month

Ian gets caught in a Force 7 in Dublin Bay before battling his way north to Bangor and Oban via a close encounter with some very large local wildlife!


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