Over the horizon: How I overcame the fear on my first offshore voyage

He took his time doing it but when John Brennan finally plucked up the courage to make his first offshore passage, the rewards made it all worthwhile…

I have been boating for over 40 years in everything from kayaks and speedboats to my current Redbay 1450, Dromquinna. In that time I must have covered over 25,000 nautical miles – roughly the equivalent of circumnavigating the world.

However, 90% of this has simply been cruising around my local waters of Ireland and Scotland with occasional holiday charters in Croatia and the Caribbean.

Despite all those miles and the perception that I am nominally an experienced boat owner, I had never lost sight of land. I suspect, like many people, I simply find it more reassuring to stay in sight of land even though it’s a false sense of security as most accidents happen close to home.

Since buying Dromquinna I have wanted to conquer that fear and pass the point where I am alone at sea, trusting in my own abilities to get us safely to our destination.

The buzz of adventure, the excitement of arriving in a new place with a different culture, and the sense of accomplishment that goes with it, is all part of the boating dream. I’d been dreaming of it for 40 years but now it was time to make it happen.

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All in the planning

The first step to any new adventure is planning. If you feel well prepared and know what to expect, much of the fear evaporates. Having researched various options for the best part of a year, we decided that France would be our destination, and the west coast of Brittany in particular.

It was far enough away from our base in Kenmare, Ireland to be a challenge but not so far that it would be excessively daunting. It held all the attractions of a different language, culture, coast, facilities and most importantly we had not toured the area before either by car or boat so it would all be new to us.

That fact that we didn’t know a word of French between us didn’t enter our heads, we were so focused on the crossing. The other key variable was weather but with all sorts of apps to advise us, it’s not the great unknown that it once was.

We looked at typical weather patterns for the time of year, as well as the local currents, tidal flows and the hazards en route, but the final call on timing would have to come down to the weather forecast immediately prior to departure.

Cork is the obvious departure point from Ireland to France so we planned to move the boat to the Royal Cork Yacht Club and wait for a weather window that would give slight wind and flat seas for a 48-hour period between Ireland and Brest. June was our target month so we brought the boat around from our home port of Dromquinna, Kenmare to Cork in mid-May.

For several weeks the lows kept rolling in from the Atlantic and it was not until 10 June that a possibility started to emerge in 10 days’ time. Eight days in and everything was still looking good. It was on.

Calm waters make for domestic bliss

We moved onto the boat the night before and prepared for what felt to us like an epic adventure of Shackleton proportions – our first time over the horizon. My wife was fully supportive of this brave new step and assured me she would enjoy the trip if it all went well. If it didn’t, well that would be totally my fault too!

Last-minute wobbles

We all had butterflies in our stomachs as we settled in for the night but that was only to be expected. The following morning, we made our final checks on the weather and engines. All looked good but just as we started to untie the lines at 7.30am, the world’s biggest cruise liner happened to come into Cork Harbour, casting a shadow over the entire scene.

My heart sank. It was the last thing either of us needed. It was enormous, we were tiny and we were about to head off over the horizon to an unknown world where we did not yet feel like we belonged.

Were we too small, were we too inexperienced, should we have a professional captain for the crossing? All these things sprung to mind as our blood cooled, the chat died and an eerie stillness settled over the boat, as we sat frozen, suspended in our thoughts contemplating the unknown.

Determined not to be spooked, we carried on with our pre-departure routines and before we knew it we were under way. With the engines purring away behind us and the reassuring seakeeping abilities of our Redbay’s hull beneath us, we gradually began to relax.

We never even noticed the moment Ireland finally dropped out of view behind us, and just five hours and 120nm later, the Isles of Scilly gradually emerged over the empty horizon in front of us.

We arrived in St Mary’s half an hour later. It was a superb crossing with nothing in sight for much of the time. Prior to departing, we had looked in awe at the mass of green, red and blue triangles on AIS Marine Traffic that gave the impression there were so many boats out there that there would barely be enough water left for us to float on, let alone pick our way through the traffic. In reality, we were rarely close enough to see any other craft and spent most of the time surrounded by nothing else but water.

It wasn’t just the threat of seagoing traffic that had spooked us; the Isles of Scilly have a menacing ring about them too – due to all the tales of shipwrecks, hidden rocks and unexpected storms – that makes boaters like us fearful of going anywhere near them, let alone entering and refuelling there.

I could see the headlines now: “Inexperienced boater sinks”; “Why too far is too far”; “Dromquinna on the Rocks”. In reality, everything is very well marked and charted so provided you know how to use your boat’s navigation systems, the screens will tell you everything you need to know.

Blue skies in Brittany

Bounteous Brittany

We stayed the night on one of the outer harbour moorings and departed at 6am the following morning bound for south of Brest. We hadn’t settled on which port to aim for as we had various different ones in mind, depending on the weather.

With a safe cruising range of 380nm from our fuel tanks and a distance of around 110nm to cover, we had options – another important factor when planning, as things sometimes change en route.

Again, the crossing went blissfully smoothly with only two ships in our path, one a British Navy monster hugging its territorial boundary as it headed to the Atlantic, and the other a French coastal patrol, neither of which engaged us in any way. I was almost disappointed!

Morgat proved the ideal base for exploring France’s Atlantic coast

On arriving, we stayed west-south west of Ushant and encountered the well-publicised Chenal du Four. As it was living up to its reputation for strong currents and lumpy seas, we decided to veer slightly further south and head for Morgat.

Morgat didn’t feature in many guides but Google Earth showed a good marina, stunning beach and nice size town. A French military helicopter chaperoned us at around 200ft for some time before giving us the thumbs-up and banking away with a parting blast of down draught from its rotor blades – fun for us but it wouldn’t have been so amusing if we’d been on a sailboat!

We never did find out what they were doing but Dromquinna is an unusual boat and we were doing around 25 knots in lumpy seas so either they thought we were up to no good or they were just enjoying the sight of us powering through the waves.

Morgat’s beautiful beach

From there we spent 30 days exploring the French Atlantic coast as far south as Piriac sur Mer. We had planned to go further south but we were having such a nice time where we were, there didn’t seem any point.

We spent up to five nights in some places and never once did we get tired of living on the boat or exploring the area. On the contrary, we didn’t want to turn for home and could happily have stayed for months.

There are so many beautiful anchorages and marinas in Brittany, it really is a boater’s delight. I won’t go into detail as there are already plenty of books and articles on the area and that is not the aim of this piece. The point of sharing my story is simply to encourage you to be brave, plan carefully and make the leap.

Lorient was one of several marinas they visited during their month long cruise

Homeward bound

Coming home is never as easy as going away. You still have to pick your moment for departing but the window for returning is usually less flexible due to existing work or home commitments. That is the conundrum of boating like this. How much longer can you stay or should you go now because the weather may not be as favourable in a week’s time?

That is always in the back of your mind but the good thing about France is its connectivity to the UK and Ireland. If all hell breaks loose on the weather front you can easily tie up in one of the many superb marinas, take a ferry or plane home and come back in a few weeks to collect your boat.

After returning to Morgat, we faced that exact conundrum. Having waited three days for the perfect weather window to arrive, we decided to make a dash for it knowing the last part of the crossing to St Mary’s would be bumpy but manageable.

Visiting boats are spoilt for choice when deciding where to berth in Brittany

That was exactly how it proved to be. The last 90 minutes were not fun but we managed it thanks to a good boat, reliable engines and the confidence that comes from having some proper sea miles under our belts.

After refuelling, we wanted to explore the island of Tresco but the waters between it and St Mary’s are notoriously tricky. As Irish luck would have it, another Redbay, which operates a taxi service between the islands, was crossing at the exact same time, so I raised him on the VHF and asked if I could follow him in.

Brothers in arms and all that. We were there in 10 minutes and the lee between the islands was like a millpond. Tresco is stunning. It really lives up to its reputation as the jewel in the crown of British waters. I’ve met people from Cork who go there for lunch by RIB and now I know why.

“Tresco is stunning. It really lives up to its reputation as the jewel in the crown of British waters”

It has spotless white beaches, turquoise waters, four wonderful restaurants, a fabulous pub, a grocery shop that would give Harrods Food Hall a serious run for its money, and bikes for exploring this carless island. Winding grass paths, roads from another century, world-class gardens, shops and villages straight off a Disney movie. Bliss, bliss, bliss.

We pulled ourselves away at 8am after two heavenly days. Rather than going back to Cork as had been planned, the weather was so good we adjusted mid-way across and headed straight for home, Dromquinna in Kenmare Bay. Eight hours later we tied up on our own dock.

We had done it. We had crossed the horizon, cruised new waters, made new friends and did it all on our own boat without any major issues. It was as seamless as we could possibly have hoped for and so much easier than we had feared.

Evening in Sainte Marine

Stop dreaming

Looking back on 40 years of boating staying in sight of land, I keep asking myself why I didn’t take the leap earlier. The first trip is always the hardest but once you’ve cleared that hurdle, your mind opens and the world becomes smaller. Where to next?

It turns out that the horizon is not the devil it’s sometimes perceived to be. It is to be respected, certainly, but with good planning you and your boat can push beyond it and achieve experiences with lasting memories that today you only dream of or read about in magazines like this one.

So stop dreaming, start planning and this time next year you’ll be the one writing about your own adventures rather than reading about other people’s.

Redbay 1450 specification

Fuel capacity: 2,300 litres
Range: 380nm
Cruising speed: 22-26 knots
Top speed: 36 knots
Safety kit: Garmin plotters x3, Garmin VHF fixed with AIS x2, Garmin handheld VHF with AIS x2, Garmin radar, satellite phone (not essential), 8-person liferaft, flares (parachute and smoke), lifejackets (inshore and offshore) x8, survival suits x4

First published in the May 2023 issue of MBY.

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