This selection of short passages can be completed by most yachts within summer daylight hours, yet each also represents an achievement that opens up interesting new sailing areas.
1. Salcombe to Helford or Falmouth
The West Country offers some of the UK’s best cruising grounds, with picturesque small fishing harbours and spectacular rias spaced only a few miles apart. It’s therefore tempting to hop directly between each one, even though in doing so you risk losing out on some great sailing.
The direct line from Salcombe to Falmouth is almost due west, taking you just over 10 miles offshore, outside the Eddystone Rocks to the south of Plymouth Breakwater. Therefore, on a clear day you won’t be out of sight of land, but this 50-mile passage offers a very different experience to coast hopping along the south Devon and Cornish ports. At the same time, in the event of unexpected inclement weather, the wind shifting such that it’s on the nose, or to avoid motoring for too long in a calm, there are also a number of options to peel off to the north to an alternative destination, including the all-weather ports of Plymouth and Fowey.
Near Salcombe the tidal streams run reasonably fast off the tall cliffs between Bolt Head and Bolt Tail, so your trip will be faster if you’re able to time it to give a favourable stream at this point, especially on spring tides. Streams are in general much weaker in the west of the area, where they are strongest off St Anthony’s Head, just to the west of the River Fal, and off the Manacles, to the south of the Helford River.
2. Newlyn to the Scilly islands
Although only 35 miles, this passage takes you out of the waters of the English Channel and into the ocean swells of the Atlantic Ocean. But don’t let this put you off – in settled weather it’s not an onerous sail and completing the trip will give you a great sense of satisfaction. Similarly, don’t be put off by the traffic separation scheme off Lands End as these are generally very quiet compared to the mid-Channel shipping lanes and many yachts cross them without seeing a ship.
Once at the Scilly Islands there’s a huge range of anchorages to choose from that collectively offer shelter in all wind directions. However, on arrival, most first-timers head for one of the visitors’ mooring buoys in the main settlement, Hugh Town on the island of St Mary’s. For a first time trip it’s also wise to choose settled weather and be prepared to head back to the mainland harbours that offer all-round shelter if an active low pressure system is forecast.
3. Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire
Dun Laoghaire is an excellent jumping off point for exploring the east coast of Ireland, as well as making a worthwhile destination in its own right. The town is well established as Dublin’s main sailing base, with good marinas and a wide choice of restaurants and watering holes ashore.
This 55-mile passage almost due west across the Irish Sea is in many ways easier than that across the English Channel. Although the distance is only marginally shorter, there’s less shipping to contend with and in general relatively weak tides. The only exception to the latter is close to Holyhead, where streams may reach 3.5 knots or more, so departure should be timed to ensure a favourable stream here.
4. East coast rivers to Ramsgate
In a way, this is not an open sea passage at all, as you will be constantly navigating around, or just outside, the extensive sand banks off the Thames estuary. However, even in good visibility, for much of the 35 miles between Harwich and North Foreland, for example, you will be well out of sight of land. In my book it therefore qualifies as a sea passage. En route you’re liable to see seals, the abandoned towers built as war time defences and maybe even dolphins.
Don’t be daunted by the sandbanks – there are plenty of well-marked channels between them, and it’s possible to take the longer route outside. However, I invariably opt for the shorter and more interesting routes between the banks. With modern navigation aids and adequate preparation this is quite straightforward. Even without a chart plotter or GPS, providing you have an up to date chart and tidal information, a hand-bearing compass can be used to check you are on the correct course to the next mark using a series of back bearings. A further advantage of the inshore routes is that you’re more likely to catch the favourable stream taking you south for the final five miles of the journey from North Foreland to Ramsgate.
5. Brighton to Fecamp
This is arguably one of the easiest Channel crossings as neither harbour has tidal restrictions on entry or exit, although you wouldn’t want to approach either in heavy weather with an onshore wind. This maximises your chances of being able to complete the 65-mile voyage as a long day sail, rather than an overnight passage.
It’s also sufficiently far west that you are clear of the densest shipping in the Dover Strait, although the direct line cuts a couple of miles into the western-most edge of the Dover traffic separation scheme, albeit crossing the traffic at right angles.
Once there, Fecamp is a bustling yet attractive town, with an excellent food market and a wide choice of cafes and restaurants, including a number on the excellent sandy beach that make a great place to watch the sun set over the sea.
6. Across Lyme Bay
This 50-mile stretch of water separates boats based in the UK’s central south coast from the cruising areas of south Devon and Cornwall.
It’s critical to time your passage to be absolutely certain of a favourable stream around Portland Bill. However, given that the tides can exceed 5-6 knots here, they effectively shorten the time taken to complete the distance. It’s also vital to avoid the confused and at times dangerous seas in the tidal race of Portland, especially in wind against tide conditions. This can be achieved by taking the inshore passage within a quarter to half a mile of the shore, or by going a minimum of 3 or 4 miles offshore. It’s worth noting that the inshore passage closes up in stronger winds, and that you need to head further south – maybe five miles or more – to avoid the worst of the turbulent water.
If heading west, there are a number of good all weather harbours to aim for, including Torquay, Brixham and Dartmouth. If conditions allow, you can continue west beyond Start Point, although it’s worth noting the tides are stronger between here and Bolt Tail than within Lyme Bay.
For more great UK sailing destinations, see: Seven special British boating pubs or 8 of the best UK estuaries for cruising.