1 October 2014

Fast friends: Round Britain in a Wayfarer

Phil Kirk and Jeremy Warren bonded over power bars and ready meals on their record-breaking trip round Britain in a 5m Wayfarer dinghy.

As with many of the best ideas, it was agreed in a bar. Phil Kirk had been dreaming of sailing round Britain in a dinghy since his late teens. Now, as he neared the big 4-0, the time was right.

He approached Jeremy Warren, a fellow member of Thornbury Sailing Club in Gloucestershire, after a couple of beers at the club’s annual dinner. It was Christmas 2011.

The two had decades of sailing and skippering experience between them – in dinghies and offshore. Jeremy has two Fastnet races under his belt, including the notorious storm-hit 1979 event, while Phil’s done five Fastnets as well as two Sydney-to-Hobarts. But taking a dinghy offshore for days at a time is a whole other level. Two and a half years of careful planning and preparation began immediately. Well, after one more beer, a little dessert and a good night’s sleep.

When it came to choosing the boat, a Wayfarer was the best option, for great seakeeping and performance in lighter winds. They bought and set to work on their future floating home: Hafren. Self-proclaimed nerds, Phil and Jeremy are both engineers, and they were going to get the kit right.

A tranquil sea as the pair leave Peel on the Isle of Man
A tranquil sea as the pair leave Peel on the Isle of Man

They removed a seat to make room for sleeping, replacing it with a slim carbon-fibre tube so there was no dangerous reduction in stiffness. They adapted the masts and sails typical of a Wayfarer to better cope with strong conditions. They took out most of the racing control lines to make things simpler. They got themselves fit, talked to experts, tested battery life on all gadgets, and did capsize recovery training in Winter on the River Severn.

They also recruited two routers, Ken Falcon and Rob Hudson, to help them round with forecasting and navigation advice. As Jeremy says: ‘It’s a huge safety net, because when you’re tired you just make poor decisions, so to have these two guys helping out, with a huge amount of sailing experience, was really good.

The record for sailing around Britain in a Wayfarer, held by Ludo Bennett-Jones, was 76 days. Phil and Jeremy were aiming for 60 days. But with a little help from their friends, plenty cups of tea, and unbelievably favourable winds, they made it round in 32.

A killer first leg

They set out from Weymouth on 31 May with the wind at their backs. After 1½ days’ sailing, they were approaching Land’s End – and some well-earned shore leave. Jeremy says: ‘We thought: “Right, haven’t we done well? We’ve done a good long leg and now we can go into Penzance.” So we talked to the routers and Ken said: “You’re never going to get as good a forecast as you’ve got now to head for Wales.” And we went for it. We just turned the corner and went across the big 100-mile gap, heading for Milford Haven.

‘The darkness comes and you pray for dawn. We never felt that we’d mastered the night.’
Jeremy Warren
Adventurer

‘It was a low point leaving Land’s End, as we were tired, it was our second night, there was a horrible cross sea, it was dark, and there was a lot of shipping. Also, someone’s building an amusement park at the tip of Land’s End, which makes seeing everything else difficult. There wasn’t a huge amount of wind, and we were so tired we could hardly stay awake.

‘Then Phil had the heroic idea of taking it in turns to take 10 minutes of sleep. So I had 10 minutes, he had 10 minutes, and those 10 minutes made the difference. After my third sleep I woke up and he’d managed to give me an hour and a half. And that low point turned into a high point as we arrived in Milford Haven nice and early in the morning.’

They’d done 250 miles in 67 hours. But the first-leg drama wasn’t over. Jeremy could practically smell the longed-for pub grub from the Griffin Inn in Dale as they turned into Milford Haven. Then the sun rose, the wind dropped, and they started drifting across the haven entrance with the tide. ‘We paddled like mad and then grabbed hold of one of the navigation buoys on the way into Milford Haven, which of course is a big deep-sea port for oil tankers. You’re not allowed to tie to a navigation mark, we all know that, but we were pretty desperate.’

The duo suspected they’d get a telling off from the harbourmaster or a pilot boat, and they were sure they were in trouble when Angle RNLI lifeboat sped towards them. ‘All of this mission to look like good sailors, and we’re going to be reported as a casualty or something daft!' Jeremy remembers. 'The guys in the lifeboat came alongside and asked if we were okay. We waved and shouted back to them, and they gave us the thumbs up and cleared off. We’d got away with it! They were actually out looking for a French guy sailing alone who’d hit the rocks 2 miles west of Milford Haven. His yacht was wrecked, but the lifeboat found him and he survived.’

Life onboard

Jeremy makes a cup of tea
Jeremy makes a cup of tea

The first leg turned out to be the longest. It was pretty plain sailing through the Irish Sea and past the Isle of Man. The pair took it in turns to sleep in the modified hull, using a coolbag for a pillow. Jeremy explains: ‘We’d cut out the thwart [a seat that spans a Wayfarer dinghy] for sleeping. If you can’t sleep for 72 hours you get to the point where no matter how tough you are, you just can’t function. Soldiers told us this.

‘We added spray covers to keep water off the person who’s lying asleep. When you’re out of the wind and you’re tired, you can sleep, but if you’ve got spray in your face it’s no good. So you lie on the floor and it’s fantastic. You put your head down on the coolbag and it expels the smell of whatever’s inside, usually something like chorizo, but nevertheless it’s very comfortable. And you’ve got to have absolute confidence in the other person. We got to demonstrate our skills to each other and that’s a great confidence builder. It means: “Maybe I can’t sleep in these conditions, but I don’t have to worry about him capsizing the boat.”’

Friendly dolphins joined them as they headed north through the Irish Sea. This was a highlight for Jeremy: ‘At that time of year, dolphins make enough phosphorescence so you can see them coming towards you like torpedoes just as it’s getting dark. Of course, you can see that from a yacht, but from a dinghy it’s like having your own dog - you can almost pat them as they go past.’

The pair prepared meals on a stove they made themselves based on the design of their Wayfaring hero Frank Dye (see panel below). Jeremy explains: ‘It’s basically an aluminium box with a gas burner underneath. It’s completely enclosed and gimballed side-to-side so that when the boat heels it stays level. It heated up one mess tin, so we could either heat enough water for two cups of tea or one ready meal at a time. We could have a cup of tea in 3 minutes flat no matter what the conditions were – in the dark, when you’re scared, when you’re miserable … that worked really well.

‘When you cook on aluminium it gets very hot in one spot, so you need to put your ready meal in – something like curry or chilli con carne – add some extra water and mix it around to redistribute the heat, then at the end add a handful of couscous to thicken it up. We ate very well indeed. Phil put on weight!’

What about something stronger than tea? ‘We very rarely had a beer. I think we had three beers on the way round, which we shared with one another, because it just wasn’t appropriate. Even a little bit of beer takes the edge off your sailing ability.'

Safety

Which brings us nicely on to the question of safety.

Phil at the helm at night
Phil at the helm at night

Jeremy begins: ‘The first, most important safety item is our level of experience and preparation. You could say the level of preparation was a bit over the top. Phil and I are both really nerdy, that was certainly part of it!’

They brought safety harnesses (and wore them when it was dark or there was a reef in the sail), personal locator beacon, flares, radar reflector, GPS chart plotter and a couple more gadgets. Being engineers, they had to make improvements to off-the-shelf gear. Jeremy says: ‘In a sailing dinghy you can hear even the tiniest fishing boat at least a mile away; sailing at night really awakens your senses. You can hear any boat coming, but really you want to be seen. We had a big, very powerful, white masthead light.

‘Our mate Roger Morton, who’s also an engineer, came up with a tube-like lamp with an all-round LED powered by three enormously powerful and scary lithium ion batteries. It worked so well we were mistaken by one lifeboat crew for a fishing boat!’

They also recommend keeping in touch with the Coastguard and registering a CG66 form.

Round Cape Wrath

After a tough 100-mile beat into the wind through the Scottish islands, Britain’s north-west tip brought our boys back down to earth. Jeremy says: ‘Cape Wrath was awe-inspiring, mainly because it came out of the mist. There was only 800m visibility, and we knew where it was because we had the GPS chartplotter, but when it comes out of the mist it’s actually above you – it’s right up in the air because it’s so big. And it makes you apprehensive because you realise that once you go around that corner you’ve got 40 miles to go before Scrabster, and this is the most exposed bit – all of that north Scottish coast. That makes you go quiet.’

At Rattray Head, on the coast of Aberdeenshire, they had their scariest moment. Jeremy was asleep and Phil was running downwind with two reefs in the mainsail and full genoa.

Phil says: ‘We made the decision to cross the Moray Firth in a north-west wind, force 5 or a little bit below, at 11pm. We were closing with the headland, and at about 1am the wind had started to increase, so we started surfing down some of the waves. And then the waves suddenly got quite a lot steeper. I suspect in hindsight it was probably the tide turning. So rather than just surfing down a few waves, we were actually surfing down every single wave. It was getting more intense, a bit more concentration was required, and I woke Jeremy because I needed another pair of hands.’

Jeremy recalls: ‘He kicked me to wake me up and he said: “Get the main off”, meaning: “Drop the main onto the deck and do it now.” His voice was half an octave higher than it normally is, and I woke up thinking: “Oh, I must be back in my nice little village next to my nice warm wife.” It takes 2 seconds for the horrible realisation that you’re out on a sailing dinghy offshore and it’s dark. The mainsail came down very quickly, but before it did we came off the top of one wave … ’

‘We needed to do something to slow the boat down,' Phil continues. 'We saw this deep trough open up in front of the boat, and we surfed quite wildly down that one and we worried we would broach, but once we got the mainsail down that calmed the whole thing down and we sailed like that until we got to daylight again. So that was a scary moment.’

'I'd always wanted to brag that Hafren owns the night,' Jeremy says, 'but that was never the case. The darkness comes and you just pray for dawn. We never felt that we'd mastered or conquered the night. Sailing a small dinghy in darkness, you're just feeling terribly vulnerable - and humbled.'

Heading for home

Apart from the beat up through the Scottish islands, the weather was remarkably kind. Hafren was making excellent time, and her crew and routers could make sensible decisions. Jeremy says: ‘We didn’t have any planned stops or timetable, so we weren’t under any pressure to get anywhere. If the wind dies and you’re feeling fine, you just stop, strip some clothes off, put your feet up, put your sunhat on and go to sleep, which is lovely. So we stopped on the way round about 10 times.

‘We had to be flexible. At Felixstowe we arrived just as the sun was going down, met the people from the local sailing club, gave them some burgees from Thornbury, provisioned up the boat quickly and then put up these two tiny tents we had, weighing 1kg each, in the car park of a pub right next to Felixstowe ferry, and had a lovely pub meal. At 4am, which was first light because of the solstice, our routers told us we had to go because at the next tide there wouldn’t be enough wind to take us across the Thames Estuary safely. So just as dawn was breaking we were talking to Harwich Port Control. We crossed the Thames Estuary and carried on towards Dover, where we stopped for a cup of tea because some of our friends turned up.

‘And blow me down but when we got to Dover the wind went round to the east! And we sailed up the Solent with the wind behind us doing 3 knots over the ground against a decent tide at Cowes. I’ve never done that in a yacht. We were incredibly jammy with the weather. That’s why this record will be pretty hard to beat!’

Phil adds: 'We felt the sense of achievement in the last 2-3 days, because we were so close to home. We stopped at Lymington at the end of the leg from Felixstowe and we only had about 40 miles to go. We could have carried on to the end; the tide was just right. But it wouldn't have been such an occasion, because no one would have been there! We didn't mind hanging on to share our arrival with everyone.'

Jeremy and Phil jump in the water at the end of their voyage
Jeremy and Phil jump in the water at the end of their voyage

So what's next? Phil's going to have his hands full for a while, as he and his wife are expecting their second child very soon. So maybe the next adventure will be all Jeremy's idea. 'It doesn't end here,' he confirms. 'This is just the beginning. This is such a brilliant adventure sport, we ought to bring it to everybody.'

One last word on safety

Experienced sailors Phil and Jeremy decided to wear buoyancy aids instead of lifejackets for their adventure. We at the RNLI are grateful for their support and in awe of their achievement, but we do advise anyone taking a boat offshore or through the night to wear a lifejacket.

RNLI Coastal Safety Manager Tony Wafer says: ‘When taking a boat, or any craft, offshore or through the night, a 150N lifejacket should be the minimum level of buoyancy you consider.

‘Weather conditions can change rapidly and safe havens are potentially hours away, so if you end up in the water you want a lifejacket that buys you the maximum amount of time, so you survive long enough for rescuers to find you.

‘A 50N buoyancy aid will not turn you face up and, no matter how strong a swimmer you are, cold water can sap your energy in minutes - leaving you at high risk of inhaling water and drowning.

‘A lifejacket will keep your head clear of the water, even if you’re tired, and it will give you a much better chance of survival. You may also find that modern lifejackets are much less restrictive than buoyancy aids.’

Support these record-breakers

Phil and Jeremy are using their adventure to raise money for the RNLI and the Pappa Fund - a charity that supports health and education programmes on the Indian island of Rameswaram.

Their JustGiving page is set up for the Pappa Fund, but donations are being split 50/50 between our two charities. If you've been inspired by their story, please consider a donation.