A circumnavigation of Britain concocted in the doldrums of 2020’s Covid-19 lockdowns finally gets under way…
After more than a year of planning, our Round Britain challenge is finally under way. Waved on by family and friends, our two Aquastar 38s make their way out of St Helier Harbour, Jersey, bound for Brighton and the start of a very big adventure.
I have known Neil Cotillard since he was a young lad, playing with dinghies at Bonne Nuit on Jersey’s North Coast. We’ve both grown up a bit since then (‘bit’ being the operative word) but the boyish enthusiasm for boats is a habit that neither of us can kick.
So when we were forced to stay at home during the Covid-19 lockdowns, Neil found other ways to get his boating fix. Boating around Britain had always been a dream of his so this was the perfect excuse to watch every YouTube video he could find on the subject.
This included Harry Dwyer’s 1,700 miles in a Tiny Speedboat series, John Boyle’s The Great Motor Boat Tour, Spirit of Cardiff’s circumnavigation speed record and others. He also contacted various people from the boating industry who had taken part in the legendary 2008 Round Britain Race.
Change of plan
By the end of 2020, he was determined to go boating around Britain himself and started planning the attempt in earnest. At the time Neil owned a Princess 33 Mk1 and co-owned a Tornado Super 7 RIB, which he planned to use for the challenge.
The RIB was sent off to be re-tubed and re-engined to ensure it was fit for the challenge ahead. Neil then contacted a number of other local boat owners, myself included, to see if any of us would be interested in joining him on his round Britain adventure.
Most of the other invitees already had RIBs or Botnia Targas but I owned a 1989 Dale Aquastar 38 called April Rose that I’d re-engined in 2017. It wouldn’t be as fast as the planing boats but with its robust semi-planing hull and secure seakeeping, I reckoned it was the ideal craft for this epic journey.
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Neil’s proposal was to leave Jersey in July 2022 to coincide with the school holidays so his wife and four children could follow us round as land crew. We agreed to meet on a monthly basis to plan the challenge in greater detail but by March 2021 most of the boats had dropped out for one reason or another.
Neil also had a change of heart about using the RIB. Few if any of the fuelling berths in the North of England and Scotland stock petrol so he’d have to arrange tanker visits or cart it in cans from local garages.
Accommodation was also proving problematic; he had planned to hire a large camper van for the shore crew to follow us in, help with fuelling and provide accommodation for the boat crew. However, due to the many lochs and inlets some of the shorter sea legs would have taken hours by road.
Determined not to be thwarted, Neil changed tack and started looking for an Aquastar 38 too. He’d always admired mine and the two cabins would enable him to stay on board the boat.
Once again lockdowns and travel restrictions hampered his attempts to find one but by June he had tracked down a suitable boat in Holland, struck a deal and become the proud owner of a 2006 Aquastar 38 called Joie De Vivre.
Moulded by Aquastar in Guernsey but fitted out by another local boatbuilder with a single Caterpillar C9 engine, she had been sold on to a Dutch owner, who had added a stern thruster and converted the dressing room into a twin bunk cabin.
Unable to travel to Holland to collect her, he arranged for a Dutch delivery team to take her to Cherbourg where we dropped him off in the RIB and accompanied him back to Jersey.
Neil spent the summer getting to know his new boat and drawing up a list of jobs to get sorted before next year’s big event. I used the time to have my hip replaced due to arthritis following an old rugby injury and get my head around yet another change of plan.
Having experienced a couple of five-hour runs in Joie de Vivre, Neil’s wife and children decided (not unreasonably) that 25 consecutive days of six to 10-hour journeys did not appeal to them.
And then there were two…
Final preparations for boating around Britain
A local boat owner, who took his Botnia Targa 37 round Britain in May/June 2016 shared a list of the 21 individual legs he’d undertaken along with detailed notes on each of them. We used this as a basis for our own plans but decided to try and do it in 26 days, largely because neither of us could afford to be away for any longer!
To give the challenge more purpose, we also set ourselves an additional challenge of raising at least £5,000 for Prostate Cancer UK. A close member of Neil’s family was undergoing treatment at the time and I myself had been diagnosed with low level prostate cancer in 2021.
So the challenge was now set, that just left the small matter of completing it…
We both agreed that we should each take a crew member along to help us. Neil managed to talk a friend of ours, Phil Graham, into joining him after a long evening at L’Auberge tavern. Meanwhile, I approached a former work colleague, Colin Le Galle, who has boated with me a number of times over the years, albeit on shorter trips to the Herm beer festival and Inter Island Rugby matches!
Colin was allocated the job of media manager and finding points of interest along the way that could be included in our vlogs. Phil was responsible for checking fuel availability (and cost!) at our stopover ports and identifying secondary ports that could be used in the event of an emergency or to extend our daily runs.
Neil was in charge of sponsorship, the charity, drones and liaising with our video production specialist, whom we had commissioned to produce a series of YouTube videos, and I was responsible for pilotage, including tides and detailed chart planning.
Before setting off we decided that it would be a good idea to sign up to an RYA Sea Survival course in early February. It was quite an eye opener learning what to expect when you pull the cord on your liferaft and the various techniques for staying together and getting into it. After a few attempts we managed to haul each other into the liferaft, even though it was quite a struggle getting Neil in!
Meanwhile, Joie De Vivre was also undergoing some last minute preparations at La Collette in Jersey, ranging from adding a stainless-steel keel band and beaching legs to a full suite of new electronics and most importantly of all a large beer fridge in the port stern locker.
The propeller was also sent away for balancing in an effort to solve a severe vibration at speed. This and repositioning the stern thruster higher up the transom seemed to do the trick. Lastly, the fuel tanks were emptied and cleaned to remove any residual muck and the engine was serviced and supplied with plenty of spare filters, impellers and fluids for the trip.
April Rose underwent a similar health check at the Marine & General Boatyard in Guernsey. The engines were only five years old and were still covered by Volvo’s extended warranty so whilst the engineers were very happy with their overall condition, they did identify a number of things that were replaced under warranty.
Whilst the boat was there, we also had the flybridge teak replaced and Zipwake interceptors installed to replace the original trim tabs.
By mid-April we could see a weather window starting to open with high pressure forming over Scotland. The race was now on to get both boats finished and ready for our proposed departure date from St Helier of 25 April.
I flew to Guernsey on 23 April to collect April Rose and set off into the teeth of a north- easterly, arriving back at La Collette Marina in St Helier in time for a frenetic couple of days of last minute preparations.
25 April – St Helier to Brighton (141nm)
Kit stowed and farewells completed, we fire up the engines and motor out of the marina into St Helier Harbour. A large group of family and friends waves us on our way from the end of the Albert Pier.
Colin and I are on the flybridge of April Rose, enjoying the spring sunshine. As we pass Corbière lighthouse and turn north towards the Alderney Race, we are joined by a large pod of dolphins.
The seas soon start to build and before long spray is coming right up onto the flybridge, forcing us to retreat to the safety of the wheelhouse, much to Neil’s delight and constant banter about the pros and cons of a flybridge!
We had planned to average 15 knots as this was the most economical speed for Neil’s single-engined 38, which burns around 60lph at this speed. We usually cruise at 20 knots and 100lph in April Rose but she is just as happy at 15 knots and 65lph.
The Aquastars’ semi-displacement hulls will push through anything at this speed but their blunt bows throw up a lot of spray. We manage to get through the Alderney Race and past Cap de la Hague at slack tide before picking up a fair current as we turn northeast and set course for Brighton.
The wind eases off as we cross the Channel and soon we are cruising along on a calm sea with a beer in hand and sandwiches for lunch.
By 18:30 we catch sight of the Rampion Wind Farm outside Brighton and slow down to get a closer look before motoring on into Brighton Marina, arriving at 20:00 just as the light is fading after nine hours out on the water.
My daughter, Morgan, is a student at Brighton University and is there to meet us on the pontoons. After checking in with the harbour-master we enjoy a meal at Pizza Express followed by a bottle of champagne on board Joie de Vivre.
Still in Sark?
It hasn’t been entirely problem free, however. April Rose’s AIS transmissions stopped as we passed Sark and according to the AIS tracker we are still there!
We also had some water ingress through the deck vents that has leaked onto Colin’s bunk and both the fixed VHF and the autopilot are having problems
Average speed: 15.6 knots
Approx fuel burn: 620 litres per boat
26 April – Brighton to Ramsgate (84nm)
It’s a crisp and sunny morning when Neil and I wake up. The facilities at Brighton Marina are excellent with heated floors and individual bathroom units with shower, sink and loo.
Our plan for today is to reach Dover or Ramsgate but stopping at Newhaven first where Phil has found some cheaper fuel. We leave Brighton at 10:00 for the short run east to Newhaven. On arrival, the harbourmaster doesn’t approve of Phil’s plan to fuel at the fishing club and tells us to use the main fuel pumps.
Despite Neil’s best efforts to negotiate on the diesel price they won’t budge so we only take on 200 litres each in the hopes of getting a better deal in Dover or Ramsgate. As we pass Beachy Head, Neil flies the drone and gets some dramatic footage of us passing the iconic white cliffs in relatively calm conditions.
It doesn’t last, as we head across Rye Bay to Dungeness Head the sea state increases and sheets of spray start engulfing us as we hit the short sharp waves. Thankfully a liberal dose of Rain-X on the windscreens before leaving proves far more effective than the windscreen wipers.
Neil has the course plotted on his Raymarine MFD. The route carries us close in to Dungeness Head where suddenly Neil slows right down and radios to say the depth has plummeted to less than a metre. The chart says otherwise and when we come alongside, we still have 20 metres below us, suggesting a problem with JDV’s transducer.
The sea conditions are bearable so we decide to pass Dover and push on to Ramsgate, taking a chunk out of Leg 3 and putting us slightly ahead of our 26 day plan. Neil gets permission from Dover Port Control to pass reasonably close to the breakwaters and as we reach South Foreland the wind eases, helping us through the Goodwin shallows.
We can see the water breaking over the sandbanks to starboard as we stick within the marked channel and enter Ramsgate at about 17:00. Neil was concerned about the sandbank at the harbour entrance but the harbourmaster advises that the centre of the channel has plenty of water.
We tie up on the visitor’s pontoon where a friendly local liveaboard directs us to the marina portacabin, where we are relieved of £18 for each boat, reflecting the quality of the facilities!
The yacht club is shut so we retire to The Crown to review the day’s progress followed by a cracking meal at the A La Turka restaurant. So far so good but we know the hard miles lie ahead of us as we make our way further north.
Average speed: 7.9 knots
Approx fuel burn: 400 litres per boat
First published in the March 2023 issue of MBY.
Next month: From Ramsgate to Wick via Sunderland, the Farne Islands and Peterhead.
To donate to their fundraising efforts for Prostate Cancer UK visit the Aquastars on Tour GoFundMe page.
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