To a Different Ebb and Flow

This is an article I wrote for the DCA (Dinghy Cruising Association) of a trip Leila and I did on the Solway Estuary from Port Carlisle to Silloth. It describes the amazing tide and shifting sands of that Estuary and the dangers it can bring.

Sunday 15.8.10 Port Carlisle-Annan-Cardurnock Flats
I had done quite a few day sails and sleeping aboard on my boat in the Solway Estuary but I felt the time had come to go further than my normal route of following the flood and returning on the ebb, enjoyable as it was I had got to know the characteristics of the course and I wanted something new. I was ready for a longer sail to new sandbanks to a see different view and to experience an unfamiliar ebb and flow.

I was joined this time by my friend Leila who had come from Spain especially for this sail. She knew less about sailing than me and although she speaks English extremely well her nautical phraseology is a little to be desired. Nevertheless she was keen to give sailing a go and agreed to crew for me.

I prepared the boat on the outside while Leila tried to make some sense of the mess below decks. The Sunday was a good day, the wind was a Force 2-3, sunny, and we were eager to get started. As we prepared to let go of the mooring an open canoe came out from Port Carlisle’s harbour and used the flow to round its walls and glide towards us. We had an audience and, unusually, another vessel in our sailing ground. Leila was in the bows ready to let go of the mooring chain, she did after a few changes of nautical terminology and the genoa slowly took the slight breeze and we headed away from the harbour walls. We jibed slowly and came about missing the canoe easily. We waved to the two men in the canoe who had bandanas around their heads and looked as though they were heading for the Congo.

My sailing plan was to not to go with the incoming tide but to press on against it using the eddy, staying close to the shore as possible. This went well until we passed the harbour wall and entered the main channel, after that we did not make any forward progress for 2 hours! The tide was pushing us one way and try as she might Sadaf was using the wind to go the opposite direction, we made no progress up-tide, I used all my skill trying to impress Leila and our two Rambo canoeists but we were not going anywhere fast. So I decided to admit defeat and change tack I turned towards Scotland and ferry-glided in that direction.

As the hour passed we were still level with the harbour wall but we were heading to a new shore and new waters. The sea is never the same and in the Solway estuary it has its peculiarities. The River Eden is on the English side and the River Esk flows on the Scottish side both run into the Solway Firth, and as an imaginary, or real, Border the two rivers/seas are different; it is like nature has drawn a line down the middle of the estuary.

On the English side of this sea-border there are more turbulent waters, but as you get closer to this sea-Border the sea flattens out. There is an actual line where one side is choppy and the other side is calm. This was a new sighting for me and I approached it with trepidation, what was underneath the murky waters, sand banks? We sailed over the Border but nothing happened except a beautiful steady sail. Still we ferry glided, getting closer and closer to the opposite bank, on the OS map the area is called Torduff Point where there used to be a small jetty where smugglers used to unload their labours in ages gone by, now there is nothing, I had read about it and now I had seen it, we got close to the bank then we tacked and headed back to England ferry-gliding all the way.

We tacked a few times keeping on the smooth side of the Border and as the ebb started to run we noticed we were passing the harbour and heading towards Annan. The wind increased to Force 3-4 and the waters around Annan were choppy. I had sailed here once before so I knew where to anchor but it looked too rough this time and I knew there were sand banks just at the mouth and anyway s it was too early to anchor the ebb had just started, or so we thought. We tacked and headed over to England once more, no longer was there gentle waters it was amass with white tops, deep toughed waves all from strong S.E winds and Sadaf was heeled over with Leila’s tidying up all over the cabin floor.

For a while it was a bit chaotic, it happened so fast, the sea was a mess, the wind was gusting 5-6, we were heeled over and the genoa flogging and the main being taking in/out in rapid succession. Sometimes I had to let the sheets fly for Sadaf to right herself, my foot on the tiller pushing it hard to port trying to head her into the wind, in all this confusion I looked behind me and noticed two things, both beautiful. The first was a seal, it poked its head out of the chaotic sea and either in disbelief or amazement at seeing a boat in that chaos blinked its eyes then disappeared; the second was the flat water over the Border line, it had returned. I tried to tack but Sadaf would not get enough speed to complete the turn, the defunct railway viaduct was getting closer and we had to tack or else we would hit it.

I gybed successfully and came about towards the calmer water, we had passed the viaduct and I made another tack and headed for the shore, it was still rough on the English side and I was tired of the hard work of keeping the gunwales out of the water and the flogging of the genoa. Leila was working the genoa and her arms were aching the constant altering of the sheets to the shouting of ‘let them go’ we were both tired so I changed did a broad reach towards shore, we sped towards the Cardurnock Flats at alarming rate of knots. I knew this shore from my kayak days so I knew the seabed was sand but I did not want to hit it at this speed so I let out the sheet on the main and slackened the genoa; we coasted to a stop in shallow water. I looked behind me at the sea we had just escaped from and it was flat calm. Had we dreamed it, in moments the sea was gentle.

What a glorious place to anchor for the night with the setting sun over mountain of Criffel and the expanse of rippling sand like a carpet to the water’s edge. The whole area had feel of space, openness and light. We prepared the boat for sleeping and I set the grapnel anchor with the Bruce standing by in case it did not hold.

Monday 16.8.10 Cardurnock Flats –Skimberness-Redkirk Point-Drumbrugh
I was awake at 4am with the sound of the tide lapping against the hull as we floated I let out the warp. I was expecting a fast tide race so I wanted to be sure the grapnel was holding before I went back to sleep. It did hold and when we were at slack water and we began to turn on the ebb I let out the full 30ft, the grapnel held firm. I noticed lights in the water like fire jumping and I called out to Leila to come and have a look but flashing lights were not to tempt her from her warm bed so I collected some water in a bottle and brought it to her and shook it and the darkness of the cabin showed clearly the sparks of lights that I guess were from the phosphorous in the water. I had only read about this in books but seeing it for the first time made my night.

As dawn came the mist was lifting from the land about 1 mile away and the sun was a glorious ball of flame. I gingerly pulled in the warp and when the anchor came up we were sailing. Well, not exactly sailing as there was very little wind, we ghosted along due to the current and a slight puff of breeze. The water was flat calm and as the sun grew higher we could see 2 fishing boats in the distance and a sorry looking channel mast with a few birds on top. These waters had known life but now they were empty. Suddenly we saw movement it was a porpoise surfacing a magical moment in the dawn light.

As we came closer to Grune Point we saw what looked like buoys that we thought supported fishing nets also we saw in the distance more of these buoys and we wondered how we were to navigate our way around them, we panicked and tried to steer a course away but then we realised they were round balls of scum all in a straight line. On the Scottish side there are fishing nets and as we had no map and fishing trawlers in the distance we could be forgiven to think that nets were present here also.

As we were nearing Skimberness the wind dropped completely the tide was taking us towards Silloth. There was only 1 fishing boat out now and it was going up and down the channel from Silloth to Skimberness. We saw the boat approaching and hoped we could sail out of her way, but there was no wind and we would of been hit so I reluctantly started the electric motor and silently and slowly (as I only put it on 2nd gear) moved out of its way until we anchored a few meters off the shore at Skimberness.

We had a few hours sleep and then walked to Silloth to get some supplies and to relax a bit. I laid the grapnel with a short warp intending to be back long before the tide came in. It is a long walk to Silloth and after buying supplies and having some chips we slowly walked back. When we came to the long promenade along the sea front the tide was in. Between Silloth and Port Carlisle there is about 30 minutes difference in tide predictions, but the height of tide between the two is completely different.

Silloth might start the flood a few hours before. I did not take into account the mass of sand banks that the tide has to climb over before it reaches Port Carlisle. I started to run shouting to Leila to come also; she did not understand the urgency of the situation and continued to walk along the promenade. I have not run like that since my school days and I was completely exhausted by the time I reached Sadaf. She was not afloat but had 4 meters to go before the sea would have touched her keels. I had imagined she would be a float, the short warp lifted from the sea bed and Sadaf floating away, I cursed myself for my stupidity. I let out more scope, changed into my wet suit and prepared the sails. Leila was nowhere to be seen, as the sea touched her keels Leila appeared, she strolled up to the boat and came aboard without getting her feet went, how is that for timing?

The Cumbrian coast is generally a lee shore and it was blowing a Force 4, as the tide came in we floated and were pushed against the bank as I let out more scope. To sail we would have to wait for a lull in the wind and a good tack to get clear of the shore. It took a while but eventually we got away and headed west to get some depth, tacked and headed east back to the estuary we were on a broad reach and moving at quite a speed I was conscious of an accidental gybe so I changed course by coming about in a circle and not risking a gybe. When we approached the mouth of Moricambe Bay I decided to head in to the Bay and take a look at that area, but when we approached the mouth we heard scraping of the keels, we were too shallow I let loose the main and used the genoa to slowly get deeper water, even though we were about 1 mile off the coast it was still extremely shallow (Sadaf’s keels are 1.11ft). In deeper water we headed up the channel towards our nights mooring; as we passed the channel post I looked behind me and was surprised how far we had come in such a short time. As the channel narrowed towards Annan I still kept on coming about instead of gybing as the wind was still strong.

When we approached Bowness I noticed ahead of us a mass of jumping water off the starboard bow it had the effect of standing water moving over a sand bank, white tops and turbulence. I did not want to go near it so I gybed towards Annan, then I noticed that this jumping wall of water had moved and was now in the centre of the channel, then it moved again and was at the mouth of Annan’s estuary. Was I imaging things? Was it the same jumping water that had been on the English side and was I seeing it from a different angle? The sea had become more choppy, deeper troughs had formed and white tops where breaking. I gybed again as the confusion of the sea at Annan was not welcoming. I headed towards England once again, but there was no mistake the mass of jumping water had moved again and was coming over towards the English side once more, but it was moving up the channel, against the tide and wind also it was coming straight for us. I did not say anything to Leila but I was a little concerned.

The epicentre had definitely moved and was coming up tide. From this epicentre came waves that seemed to spiral outwards and we were being caught in them. We were on a beam reach and badly heeled over with the wind with the white tops nearing breaking into the cockpit I had to choose between too much heeling and steering towards this moving confusion of white water. The wind and tide was moving in an easterly direction but this white water and the waves were moving in a westerly direction. It was a race who would reach the English shore first.

As the waves were getting too deep for comfort the turbulence just vanished and dissipated onto the sands, we were left as we had the previous day wondering what happened to all that confusion, one moment it was chaos the next it was calm. We gybed and headed over to Scotland once more. I was shaken I knew we had been lucky and I was still unsure what it was, something so strong to move against wind and tide.

We made good progress down the channel, passed the harbour walls of Port Carlisle and then gybed over to Torduff Point with the intension of anchoring at Gretna which would also be a new sailing area for me. As we passed the Point we had to gybe many times as the channel narrowed quickly. I saw that the current was moving passed us indicating that the tide was on its way out. We had to hurry to reach our nights anchorage near to Gretna. Even though we were about 1 mile from the saltings I knew there were sand banks nearby and the main channel was only close to the Scottish shore.

The wind strengthened and the tide showed signs of ebbing, it was too late to reach Gretna safely and I changed tack headed for Red Kirk Point, we would anchor there. Turning into the wind was a shock it was force 4-5 and was slow progress tacking into it with such a small channel to guarantee deep water. On one such tack as we were heading away from the bank we heeled over quite sharply, nothing unusual with this Leila and I had gotten used to these occasions.

I let out the sheet and Leila kept the genoa as it was, then in a split second she heeled over more. The keel had got stuck in the sand and she had grounded with one keel in the air. The wind caught the mainsail and tugged it, I automatically let the sheets go but Leila not realising what was going on decided to do what she normally does and tug hard on the sheets , over we went as the gust caught the genoa. I saw Sadaf go over even more, in fact I thought she had reached the point of no return and would have tipped completely on her side.

I yelled leave go and I threw the sheets away from Leila. Sadaf balanced for a while on one keel and then righted herself. I gingerly took the sheets again and tried to get enough momentum to tack not knowing if another sandbank was just underneath us. We did tack and I anchored next to the Scottish shore.

We both were in shock I think, Leila went to lay down inside the cabin and I rested in the cockpit. If we had capsized we were quite far from shore but I guess we could have stood up. We rested for about half an hour. Next I realised that the shore was covered with water, the tide was still coming in and not ebbing. It took me a while to realise that what I thought was the ebb was either the River Esk or a tidal eddy carry flotsam down the channel. We must have made very fast progress from Annan and reached Turduff Point before the main body of the Solway Firth had reached this part of the estuary.

The low water was not due to the ebb but it was due to the beginning of the flood tide. If we had capsized the water would become deeper not shallower. All we had to do was to wait for deeper water and we could make it to Gretna after all. I called Leila who stoically agreed to carry on down the channel to Gretna.

We pulled the anchor up and set sail, but there was not enough room to tack away from the shore the wind brought the bows back and in the end we had to do a gybe. Once away we were back to gybing and on a broad reach, we moved fast, I tried to keep close to the shore as much as possible to find deeper water. When we got to Browhouses I noticed the remains of a jetty and a stake sticking out of one of the wave troughs just waiting to impale Sadaf.

It was taking us a long time and it was getting dark, we made the decision not attempt any further in the dark and anyway s the tide had turned and it was definitely ebbing now. We tacked and then followed a slow tack back up the channel heeling over most of the way with the wind. It was tiring every few minutes tacking to keep in the channel, missing the remains of jetty stakes and submerged stone slip ways, a small dinghy was moored in front of Browhouses we had to manoeuvre around that too, and the people came out to see such a rare occurrence of a sail boat in that area.

We were tired by the time we reached Turduff Point, the wind had died a little and Leila went for a lay down, I decided to carry on sailing and to reach the English shore with the last of the light. I am pleased I did so as it was a wonderful sail. For once Sadaf’s sails were well balanced with no heeling and finger touch control. As we got to Drumbrugh the tide had nearly gone and we could not reach the desired mooring so I took Sadaf down channel near to Port Carlisle there the tide had dried and we anchored at the channels edge. It was dark and I let out the grapnel with a shore warp intending to extend it in the morning.

Tuesday 17.8.10 Drumbrugh-Bowness-Port Carlisle
In the morning I heard the tide lap against the hull but I must of dozed off again and when I awoke the grapnel had been pulled out and we had drifted out to sea; again my fault for not leaving a longer warp, why do I do that? I hoisted the main and sailed back to the bank. There I dropped the Bruce anchor and tied weights (plastic milk cartons filled with gravel) to the warp not to let get it tangled around the keel and went to bed. I could not sleep due to the swell so I pulled up the anchor and went sailing.

It was a grey cloudy morning, drizzle and little wind, but it was peaceful and as dawn approached we headed up the channel passed Drumbrugh there I saw a wonderful sight of porpoises surfacing. I called Leila who came out and we tried to take photos, we saw them a few times, a couple feeding, but never a photos goon enough.

On the ebb we went to Bowness and anchored in the channel nearly missing a submerged tree trunk. We slept and went to fill up our water bottles in the village. With the afternoon tide the wind freshened and it was also pushing us onto shore I let out more scope but decided to sail as the tree truck was quite close by. The wind pushed us backwards onto the shore and I had to jump out of the boat and turn her into the wind then jump back in again and tack into the channel. We had a nice sail in the sunlight back to Port Carlisle and we moored her to the buoy. We intended to sail the next day too but as the tide lapped the hull we slept on, too tired to get up.

For months afterwards I kept thinking about the watery mass that moved up channel at the Bowness/Annan area. I remembered a conversation I had with a local farmer who grazed his sheep and cattle on the saltings. I had just begun kayaking on the Solway and we chatted about kayaking and the characteristics of that part of the sea: it’s forever shifting sands, destruction of an army, tide races, and a whirlpool! I had never heard of this before and I looked surprised. He called it a “black eye” that zigzagged its way up the incoming tide; it was strong and dangerous and advised me to “get out of the water as quick as possible if you see it”.

I did not see a “black eye” but I did notice an epicentre and from this centre came waves and a lot of confused water. It certainly did zigzag up channel against an incoming tide and against wind and it did look pretty dangerous. At Bowness/Annan the Irish Sea squeezes itself into a gap less than 2 miles across, and like water hitting a harbour wall it would rebound on itself and cause all sorts of watery (and human) confusion. It did frighten me but Leila did not seem to mind it in fact she often says our 3 days sailing were “very good and enjoyable” and so do I.

You can see a video of our trip here