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Running aground on Bramble Bank

By Richard Cowper on the Solent Published: Jun 09, 2004

"Whatever you do don't run aground on the Bramble bank," Admiral Jellicoe's great grandchild warned me before I set off for a week's intensive training on the Solent - the protected patch of sea between the English mainland and the Isle of Wight that boasts the most famous sail-race waters in the world.

A few days into my attempt to become a fully qualified Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Day Skipper I ordered my astonished crew to sail our 34foot Sadler yacht named Phoenix directly on to the bank itself, whereupon I dived overboard and stood on the bottom of the lethal patch of sand that has scuppered the victory hopes of so many racing yachts over the years. Located at the very heart of regatta territory, in full view of the legendary Royal Yacht Squadron, the Bramble bank lies close to the Squadron start line and directly between Southampton water on the mainland and Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

About one nautical mile square, it is a danger to shipping and many cruising yachts, whose crew may be distracted by the need to brew a cup of tea rather than consult a chart. It is an especially worrisome irritant to the hundreds of yachts which race during the Cowes regatta, normally held in the first week of August, but this year due to tricky tides held from August 7-14.

Says Peta Stuart-Hunt, the regatta's public relations officer: "Cowes is the oldest (1826) and the largest sailing regatta in the world, with around 8,000 amateur and professional sailors racing in over 900 boats and yachts. The Solent playground offers them one of the toughest sailing waters in Europe because of the variable winds, the dramatic shifts in the tides, and obstacles like the Bramble bank."

The bank is sometimes completely uncovered at low water Springs and once a year provides a rather soggy, sandy pitch for a much-talked-about and rather bibulous cricket match.

Most of the time however the great bank lies hidden just below the surface, ready to trap the foolish, unwary or the distracted. "Do you know what I would do if I won the lottery, I would have the Bramble bank dredged?", said one frustrated RYA yachtmaster candidate who failed his exam because he ran on to the bank two years ago.

The reader might well ask therefore why I (wishing successfully to complete my course qualifying me to charter a yacht anywhere in the world) would risk failure on an apparent whim. My justification for running aground in a sizeable yacht was to learn precisely how to extricate my craft from such a perilous position.

Thankfully my instructor John Thomas, an old sea salt and part-time Shropshire farmer, was a kindred spirit: "If it can be done, let's do it," was his attitude to any request and even to this one. Having clambered back on board I and the two other trainees (Angela Hurley: RYA Competent Crew and Gary Brockway: RYA Yachtmaster) stood on the shallow water side of the yacht to lean it over, while John gunned the engine flat out ahead, flinging the tiller violently from side to side to release the suction on the keel.

After a few minutes Phoenix slipped down into deeper water and to my great relief we eased free, sailing away from the buoys that mark the danger. Later John Goode, owner of Southern Sailing - the company I had signed up with to take my Day Skipper certificate - explained his philosophy: "At my sailing school we use slighly older, solid sea-going boats and are prepared to take them to the limit. Instructors elsewhere get a right rollicking if they run aground, but mine get one if they don't. It's about confidence building. Pushing out the envelope while under the eye of an experienced instructor enables you to learn good seamanship and safety, invaluable for the future when you will be on your own."

The next day after spending a night in port at Yarmouth, capital of the Isle of Wight in medieval times, I had a fresh occasion to test the limits of his philosophy. Setting off at 6am under a glorious blue sky, we sailed towards the Needles with our spinaker flying. Three giant chalk sea stacks surrounded by sea at the western end of the Isle of Wight, the Needles are one of the most romantic sights on the English coast and are deeply embedded in the consciousness of sailors, be they yachties or merchant or naval seamen.

"What chance of sailing right between the Needles, John?" I asked more in wonderment at my own daring than in any belief it might be possible. "We could try. But the waters between them are shallow; there is a wreck and a rock just under the surface, so I had better check," said my affable, wind-beaten instructor.

A quick looks at the tide tables was enough. "Out of the question in our yacht at Neaps, when the water is less deep," said John. "Sailing between the Needles is not stupid as long as it is done at the top of a Spring tide. It's all a question of sound sailing judgment. You wouldn't go through there when it was rough. Look at what's on the chart. Look at your tidal tables and then make a rational decision," says John Goode.

Almost every year someone risks the squeeze in the annual Round the Island race, but gets it wrong. The 50.2 nautical mile event circumnavigating the Isle of Wight (June 26 this year) is entered by over 1,800 boats and more than 10,000 sailors. Organised by the Island Sailing Club it is the largest boat race in Europe. It was won on four occasions by Ted Heath, the former British Conservative prime-minister, who was certainly never crazy enough to risk such a manoeuvre.

After a late morning practising man overboard drills in the very middle of a yacht race and in full view of the chilling Hurst castle, built in Napoleanic times, we headed back across the Solent towards the Beaulieu river. The heavenly piece of water, bordered by ancient forests full of wild life, is a rare property (it is owned by Lord Montagu).

With a force three wind behind us we completed the tricky entrance into the river on a run and two hours later fetched up at Buckler's Hard, where so many of Nelson's ships were built in the late 18th century. The return journey was a long and arduous series of tacks into the wind across the narrow channel - a perfect test of anyone's sailing ability.

Back across the Solent again and on to Cowes and up the river Medina, we planned our course using tide tables, a Breton plotter and all navigation techniques bar the satellite-driven Global Position System (GPS). For some reason sailing instructors and schools love to pretend GPS does not exist, even though it is by far the most useful navigational tool for any yachtsman, anywhere, at any time.

We waved royally to all at the Island Sailing Club and the Royal Yacht Squadron as we passed them on our way. No-one waved back. "The Royal Yacht squadron founded in 1815 is the most exclusive yacht club in the world," says one of Britain's top yachting writers who wishes to remain anonymous. Even today, based in its shoreside castle, it is the snobbiest place in the world. though no-one doubts it has played a central role in promoting the cause of racing in Britain. Sir Thomas Lipton - who challenged five times for the Americas cup and went boating with the king - was not even admitted as a member until just before he died."

After a night moored conveniently alongside the Folly Inn, two miles up the Medina, we headed back across the Solent once again. We then spent many hours trying to prove our critics wrong by attempting to sail up Ashlett creek, opposite the Esso terminal, at Neaps tides. We even constructed our own lead line to help us locate the deepest part of the tiny narrow channel which has so few reliable marks. But after running aground four or five times we finally admitted defeat.

It was a goodly distance from the delightful Jolly Sailor inn which gives a warm welcome to anyone successfully negotiating such tricky waters. At last we sailed gracefully under full sail up the river Hamble, home to the largest single congregation of yachts in the world - an estimated 3,000 vessels.

On the way to our mooring at Swanick we sailed past the Elephant yard, one of the oldest British boatbuilding yards still working. It constructed and launched the Elephant, Nelson's flagship at the Battle of the Nile. It was here that the great British admiral destroyed the French fleet by sailing into waters so shallow that no Frenchman believed an English man-of-war would dare risk such a venture - much the same philosophy employed by the Southern Sailing school today.

Southern Sailing School: 01489 575511, Fax: 01489 578828
Royal Yachting Association (RYA) 0845 3450400;
Books: Day Skipper. Pat Langley-Price and Philip Ouvry; £18.99; Adlard
Coles Nautical, London 1996
Day Skipper Exercises: Pat Langley-Price and Philip Ouvry; £15.99; Adlard Coles
Complete Day Skipper. Tom Cunliffe; Adlard Coles; £18.99
RYA Book of Navigation. Tim Bartlett; Adlard Coles, London 1996
RYA Book of Navigation Exercise. Alison Noice and James Stevens; Adlard Coles Nautical, London 1996
Symbols and Abbreviations Chart 5011 Admiralty Charts
RYA Practice Navigation Tables for Yachtsmen; Macmillan 1998
Chart: Isle of Wight Imray 1:52 500